EXPLORE THIS IN-DEPTH SLOW TRAVEL GUIDE TO ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING AND ADVENTUROUS CITIES IN ALL OF ECUADOR: BANOS. HERE YOU WILL FIND THE TOP SITES, PLACES TO EXPLORE AND INSIDER TIPS TO MAKE YOUR TRAVELS AMAZING.
Tucked into the forested hills of Ecuador is a town by the name of Baños de Agua Santa, or as most people call it, Banos (yes, as in bathrooms). This small town is touristy. That, we believe, needs to be said upfront. But even so, it is still a great spot to explore if you are looking for an awesome spot to base yourself for lots of outdoor adventure offerings.
We didn’t know what to expect from the town when we first arrived. We had arrived by a random bus that we'd picked up in Guayaquil, a large urban center in western Ecuador. We left that metropolis and headed out to the center of the country in hopes of seeing a bit more of “traditional” Ecuador. And while it is tough to say that Banos is a good representation of traditional Ecuador - there might be too many foreigner-owned backpacking hostels for that - it is still definitely worth seeking out (for the outdoor adventures alone).
The town is known as the "Gateway to the Amazon” thanks to it being the last town of substance before you find yourself deep in the rainforest. That right there should make you stop and consider adding it to your travel list. But wait, there’s more.
Banos is also a great spot to spend a couple of days (or weeks) thanks to its amazing location for outdoor adventures. From whitewater rafting to backpacking up a volcano, to ziplining across deep canyons. There is a lot to explore here. So yes, while it is touristy (and certainly not as off the beaten path), it also just a ton of fun.
So if you find yourself in Ecuador and are looking for an amazing basecamp for lots of adrenaline-inducing, outdoor adventures, then definitely add this small town to your list.
THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO BANOS
\\ Hike Up an Active Volcano
The town is located in a narrow valley, with the River Bascun flowing right through it and steep hillsides along the edges. One of those hillsides belongs to the Tungurahua volcano, an active stratovolcano located in the Cordillera Oriental (a chain of mountains). The volcano sits at 5,023 meters or 16,480 feet, and over 5,000 feet above its closest neighbor mountain (making it an “ultra” prominent peak). The name Tungurahua comes from the Quechua language, and translates to “Throat of Fire.”
The volcano, at least when we were in Banos, was shrouded in clouds 100% of the time. It was also inactive - which is often not the case. Since 1999 the volcano has erupted quite regularly, and sometimes you can see the ash clouds and magma from down in the valley (in October 1999, all 17,000+ residents of Banos were forced to evacuate the city for weeks because of the volcano).
It is relatively easy to start the hike up the volcano from town (reaching the top is a whole other thing). To make finding the trail really easy, we suggest downloading the app Maps.me. That app will help you see not only the trail to the top, but also a lot of other useful tools (like waterfalls, viewpoints, restaurants and water supplies).
Head out on the singletrack that first leads to the Cruz Blanco viewpoint. Then once you find that trail, just keep heading up and up and up. When we did the hike, we weren’t always on a “designated” trail - sometimes it felt more like a cow path (see left photo below). But the trick, at least from what we found, is to just find the easiest way up the mountain and not worry about being on the right trail. Eventually, you will get to a small white building with signs saying you are about to enter Sangay National Park - which is the home of the Tungurahua volcano. From there it is a clearer, more well-marked trail to the top of the mountain.
While we don't know if we were ever on the correct trail, once you get to the national park boundary it will be a lot easier going. When we did it we stopped there because it was starting to get late (the hike was still amazing, and definitely worth doing). You can also camp inside the park if you have the right gear.
\\ Go Whitewater Rafting
The first time we ever went rafting together was in Banos. We hadn’t originally planned to partake, but after talking to some fellow travelers who had done it previously, we were sold. And by the end of our Ecuador trip, rafting was definitely one of the highlights.
We went with a guiding service called Ivigatours, and they were amazing (they also offer ziplining, canyoning, and a whole lot of other adrenaline-inducing activities). It only cost us 30 USD per person and included transportation (about 1 hour from Banos), certified (and fun) guides, lunch, and photos afterward.
The river you head down, the Pastaza River, is beautiful and it makes you feel like you are way back in the untouched jungle exploring new lands. Plus, the guides make sure you both feel comfortable while going through the rapids (which go up to Level 3) and have a fun time (they make sure the boat flips at least once).
So if you are looking for an interesting and exciting way to experience the waterways of Ecuador, and check out the jungle from a unique vantage point, then we cannot highlight whitewater rafting enough.
\\ Hike Up to the Famous Swing
If you have seen any photos of Banos, then you have probably seen “the swing.” This Instagram-famous location is actually pretty sweet. But not just because of the IG-worthy photos you can walk away with. No, in truth, there is a lot more than just the one swing (there are actually a couple). It is also a great spot to get a peek of Tungurahua volcano, explore the forest, and watch the sunset. Plus, it only costs $1 USD to enter.
While you can get a ride to the top (go through one of the tourist agencies or just hire a taxi), you can also hike up from town. If the weather is nice, we definitely recommend doing that, because not only will you get to end at Casa de Arbol (the name of the spot), but you will also get to explore the surrounding forest, see more of the traditional Ecuadorian way of life, and learn about the agriculture that is splattered around the valley.
Just a couple of things to note: there are a lot of various paths that crisscross through the forest and along the hills, so as long as you have a map (again, Maps.me is great for this) it isn’t very difficult to find your way (or if you just follow the same idea as the hike to the volcano and just keep going up and up and up). But, it is uphill - the whole way up. So, if you aren’t feeling like slogging it up a hill, then you could get a ride up to Casa de Arbol and then walk back down to town afterwards (both would be worth it).
\\ Eat in the Central Market
There are a lot of restaurants in Banos, ranging from very touristy (and expensive), to very traditional (and cheap). We even found a Mexican restaurant that definitely satisfied our cravings for chips and salsa.
But one spot to definitely check out is the Central Market - Mercado Central - located in the middle of town. One thing we noticed about the markets in both Peru and Ecuador (and really loved) were the various food stalls that would be set up inside. The food was always very traditional, and always quite inexpensive. Plus, you are often eating with the locals - which is always a good idea.
Banos’ Mercado Central is located at the intersection of Ambato (one of the main streets in town) and Eloy Alfaro. Other things nearby to check out are the main grocery store (for adventure snacks), the handicraft market, and the Parque la Basilica, which is a nice urban park next to the main church (basilica) in town.
\\ Hike to Various Viewpoints
Like we have mentioned before, Banos sits in a relatively narrow mountain valley. So one great way to explore the area is by hiking to the various viewpoints that are dotted along the mountainsides. Two good ones are the Mirador La Virgen and Mirador Las Antenas.
The first viewpoint, Mirador La Virgen, is on the same side of the valley as Casa de Arbol, and easy to spot from town: it is just a gigantic white statue of the Virgin Mary. But what is cool about this viewpoint is you get to climb up some older stairs, with Victorian era-esque railings that have began to decay. The whole spot feels very “abandoned-porn.” Once at the top you have views of the valley below, including the Pastaza River. You also have the option to keep hiking along the hillside to other viewpoints. We highly recommend spending an afternoon getting a bit lost on the zigzagging trails, if only for the exercise and sunshine alone.
The other viewpoint (or mirador) is on the opposite side of the valley. Mirador Las Antenas is a bit higher up, meaning it is a slightly steeper/longer climb to the top. But that only means better views (and less people). This one is less popular and definitely more off the beaten path. If you are looking to spend a day exploring the mountains, then we recommend heading out to this viewpoint. From the top you not only have stunning views of the surrounding area, but you are also on a road that just keeps heading deeper into the mountains - and which eventually lands you into scenic farming compounds, fincas and off the beaten path lodging options (like this one). This would also be an amazing place to break out the mountain bikes and spend a full day riding around the mountain roads.
\\ Bike To the Waterfalls
Speaking of biking, one of the top things to do in Banos is explore the nearby waterfalls. And there is no better way to do that than by the seat of a bike.
You can find bike rental areas throughout Banos (we cannot remember how much we paid for the day, but it wasn’t expensive). Then you head out of town on road E30, otherwise known as Via a Banos - or more popularly known as “La Ruta de las Cascadas” (Banos is home to more than 60 waterfalls). This road is the most popular biking route in town because of the high number of waterfalls you see along the way. While cars drive on the road, it felt very safe to bike along (don’t worry, you won’t be the only ones doing it).
There are also a lot of places to stop off at, including various small amusement parks that often have either a zipline that crosses the river that rumbles below, or a small metal gondola that does the same thing. We are obviously not about tourist traps, but we did decide to spend a bit of money and take one of the small metal carts across to get a better look at one of the waterfalls (cataratas). The cart felt relatively safe, even with four grown adults (and two well-fed Dobermans).
The common end point of the biking route is at Paillon del Diablo, about 11 miles from Banos. This is a pretty well-known tourist spot that for once actually lived up to the hype. The waterfall is pretty impressive. But what is even cooler is the stairway that heads down to the base of the falls. There are also a couple of suspension bridges and restaurants up above. *one thing to remember is that the stairs down are sliiiiick (you are walking right next to a waterfall after all).
From Paillon del Diablo, you can keep biking farther down the road f you feel like exploring even more. Via a Banos will lead you through various small towns, some with a couple of restaurants and cafes, before eventually ending in the larger town of Puyo. We stopped at Paillon del Diablo, but if you are looking for more of a workout then the longer ride to Puyo might be a good option (the road does follow the river the whole way). If you are looking to stop at Paillon del Diablo, then it is quite easy to get a ride back to town in one of the many pickup trucks that wait at the entrance (it costs about $2 per person).
While the road is mostly downhill, it is important to consider your fitness. When we did it we were both in relatively good shape, and even so, definitely felt some of the short uphill climbs (Banos does sit at ~5,900 feet above sea level). Also, remember to pack plenty of water, maybe a couple of snacks, and of course, your camera.
\\ Hit the Hot Springs
Banos got its name from the various hot springs in the area, one of which (supposedly) the Virgin Mary appeared at (hence the large statue of her overlooking the town). The hot springs are said to have healing properties due to the various minerals they contain. We are big fans of hot springs, both natural and manmade, so we were excited to check them out.
Well… it wasn’t exactly what we expected. First off, the hot springs we went to (this one) were indoors and only consisted of small pools that were pretty crowded. They also made everyone, both women and men, wear hair nets so there would be less hair in the water (we think?). That all together made it feel a bit, what's the term we are looking for, gross? We will admit that it didn’t help that we went later in the afternoon and they had already started to drain the pools. Either way, we left feeling less relaxed and more in need of a shower. *while the hot springs were a bit of a let down (probably better earlier in the day) the waterfall behind it was absolutely STUNNING - and totally worth seeing on its own.
Banos might be a touristy town, but it is also full of some pretty darn fun adventures. While we scoff at tourist traps, there was something special about this little spot in the middle of Ecuador. We spent just over a week there and each day came with lots of exploring, good food, super nice people (locals and travelers alike), and great memories.
So if you are looking for a spot to explore that has plenty of adventure, then Banos is definitely worth seeking out.
A couple of other useful things to note:
Because it is more touristy than other places, be prepared to pay more for basic items like food and lodging
There are a good number of foreigners in town, meaning there are a lot of different restaurant options. Like we mentioned earlier, we found a good Mexican restaurant but we also got a delicious European style breakfast at a café near the main plaza.
There are a LOT of lodging options in and around town. We stayed at a backpacking hostel (this one here) and did enjoy all the cool people we met. But if you are looking for more upscale hotels, quiet Airbnb’s or even a stay in a finca (farm) you can definitely find it in Banos.
While we only did a couple of the adventures that are offered in town, there are a lot of other things to partake in. Including, kayaking, canyoning (canyoneering), paragliding, and even bungee jumping.
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xx stay adventurous,