Waterfalls and Whimsy in Banos

The town of Banos, a nexus point between the Andes and the Amazon, is steeped in mysticism and mythology.

The active volcano Tungurahua towers over the town; its last major eruption in 2006 a reminder of “Mama Tungurahua’s” power. Balancing that destructive power is the benevolence of Nuestra Senora del Rosario (Our Lady of Holy Waters), who many inhabitants believe protects the town.

And somewhere between heaven and earth lie the goblins, the gnomes, the elves – mythical creatures who are believed to be the first ecologists – creatures whose role is to protect the earth. Their images are everywhere.

Banos de Agua Santa is named for the mineral thermal springs in the area that rise from the bottom of earth’s layer to surface at temperatures ranging from cool to near-scalding. The thermal baths (or banos) have long been regarded as possessing healing properties.

There are a number of baths to choose from, varying in price and amenities. The most popular thermal bath, named Termas de la Virgen, is right in town by the waterfall of the same name. The Virgin Mary is reputed to have visited this waterfall and the faithful will visit the baths to be healed and take water away in jugs.

The downside of that thermal bath is that it is extremely crowded and the facilities are not that clean. On the advice of a local, we chose to visit El Salado, situated 2 km. out of town in a gorge beside a stream.

El Salado consists of six pools, ranging from cool to hot (with the option of plunging oneself in the icy stream below). Entry fee was $2 (the senior rate) and another 50 cents to buy a mandatory shower cap. Once inside, we were handed plastic bins for our belongings, which were then stored securely in another room.

We were directed to the showers and then instructed to follow the ideal pattern (first warm, then coolish, then warmer, then hot.) Everything from the change rooms to showers to pool area was very clean. The hotter pools were rather murky in colour due to the mineral content, but the water bubbled away reassuringly.

We were only able to stay in the hot pool for a few minutes at a time, as it became uncomfortable quickly, but a few older gents basically parked themselves there for the entire time, hanging onto the railings and gossiping.

I was apprehended by an older indigenous lady who grabbed my arm and spoke to me in a dialect I could absolutely not understand. This caused a lot of merriment among our fellow bathers, who kept translating and laughing. The camaraderie of the hot springs.

We had taken a taxi up the 2-km. uphill road to the hot springs and decided to walk back down to town. It was a beautiful early evening, with views like this along the way.

Sometimes you come across things for which there are no explanation – adding to our long list of what Stephen refers to as “the imponderables.” Why is this gate here? There is nothing behind it – no garden, no pasture, no foundation hinting at a former home – just this gate.

We reached the bottom of the road, crossed over the bridge and up the other side.

Along the way, we passed a couple of horses who were untethered and grazing. One of them decided it was time to go home, so he ambled ahead of us. When we came to the fork in the road, we went right and he went left. If you look closely, you can see him just past the blue house. On our side of the road, watching over the town are two bronze figures of backpackers.

Banos has gone from being a quiet place of natural beauty and healing to a heavily touristed backpacker mecca, who come for the extreme sports. The town is not obviously beautiful; if not for the surrounding area, it would not be on the traveller’s map.

There are two little parks in town; both of them are currently torn up and under construction. One does get the impression that Banos is transforming into a more gringo-friendly version of its modest self.

For example, this small square is situated right around the corner from our Airbnb. On our first day here, we noticed work being done; plastic wrap being removed from new benches and a statue of hummingbirds installed in the fountain.

Last night as we headed out for dinner, we passed by a small crowd with dignitaries and cameras. Later we learned the new fountain had been unveiled, with the hummingbirds signifying the importance of nature to the town.

The main streets are all business – filled with travel agencies, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Hostels seem to be on every corner. This mural typifies the main clientele who come to Banos – here for the extreme sports and the lively backpacker scene. Hammocks! Ping-pong!

Most of Banos’ street art is far less cartoon-ish.

Little corner stores cater to the locals – offering up soft drinks, candy and homemade snacks.

While this mega-store, the extravagantly-named “Wonderful Ecuador Agency” caters to the tourists. Every manner of outdoor activity is available here – rafting, canyoning, climbing, paragliding, mountain-biking, zip-lining and half-day and full-day tours.

We opted for the more sedate Ruta de las Cascadas (Route of the Waterfalls) tour. Although “sedate” is a relative term, as our mode of transport was an open-air chiva and our accompanying music as we rocked down the road was at full-volume.

These chivas are so much fun and even more so when filled with excited Ecuadorians and their curious children.

These two kids were sitting right behind us and soon the whispering and giggling began. Their mother instructed them to say hello to us and ask us where we were from. With that out of the way, the younger brother (in the orange shirt) began showing off his English, “One, two, three, four five.”

I asked him how old he was (five), told him we had a grandson who was almost four and then our conversational topics dried up.

Our tour involved stopping to admire a number of waterfalls, but naturally there were commercial enterprises involved as well. First stop was the Rio Blanca Mega Adventure Park, which offered ziplining and options to walk across a glass suspension bridge or a wooden ladder bridge.

Back on the road and a few minutes later, we stopped to admire this waterfall. The trusty tarabita was there to take us across for a better look.

If you ever have the chance to hop on a tarabita, I suggest you do, if for no other reason than to be in the company of fellow passengers who will be screaming, laughing and taking selfies.

The view across the Rio Verde.

A closer look at the waterfall.

Next stop was a tour and tasting of a candy factory. We were handed out guava jellies and a small but potent taste of a guava liquor. The main attraction was the production of “melcocha” – an Ecuadorian speciality that is made from sugar cane and flavourings.

We watched this young man sling a huge wrap of candy over a wooden holder, which he twisted and turned until it took a proper shape and consistency.

Once he wrestled the candy down to about one-third of that size, he began to tear off small pieces to his partner, who then wrapped them and put them to one side. Occasionally, he would pass along a piece to his little helper, who was watching with great interest.

The best was saved for the last. The magnificent Pailon del Diablo is a waterfall. It is 80 metres high and intersects two rivers – Pastaza River and the Rio Verde River. There are two routes to get to the falls – the original one which is over 2 km. long and the newer one, which was built to meet the ever-increasing volume of tourists.

We were led to the newer path – about a kilometre and a half in total to trek in and out.

The beginning of the path:

In case visitors don’t have enough sense to stay off the fences and keep to the path, this sign serves as a reminder.

After a steep climb down several sets of stairs, we reached two suspension bridges which led us to the final climb down.

At this point, the sign becomes quite unequivocal. No coming back from a misstep here.

And voila – the Pailon del Diablo in all of its thunderous, perilous glory. We walked down as far as we could go, getting a bit wet in the process, and marvelling at its power.

We had been asked by our driver to be back at the chiva by 4:00; an uphill climb that would reasonably take about 15-20 minutes.

We dutifully turned back at 3:40 and were quite amused to see our driver repeatedly calling down to our fellow passengers, who, as a group, simply ignored him. Eventually, they all returned to the top and eventually, we began our trip back home.

Being on time is not a virtue in Latin America. We are always either early or right on the nose, sitting at bus terminals 15 minutes early, as had been suggested. Where we had been sweaty and stressed, we watch people saunter up at the exact time the bus is supposed to be leaving and casually buy their tickets.

Sadly, our weather in Banos was not cooperative, and we missed out on the Casa de Arbol – a giant swing on a mountaintop that is one of Banos’ top attractions. The 25-minute ride up the mountain, and the magnificent views (on a clear day) are all part of the deal, but it is the vertigo-inducing swing that separates the girls from the women. You are strapped into a harness and then pushed, twirled and bounced about – high above the valley.

I’m pretending that I would have considered going on this swing (Stephen was a hard no), but drat – the rain. I will never know, but in the meantime, here’s a photo to consider.

We’ve got a seven and a half-hour bus ride tomorrow to Cuenca – a beautiful colonial city we are very excited to explore.

See you again in a few days.

18 thoughts on “Waterfalls and Whimsy in Banos

  1. What memories, we went to the springs in town, where people were going in with their clothes on. Oscar did the zip line, after he was told a terrifying story that I won’t repeat. We did something similar to the tarabita , they must have improved it, we just rode over in a big yellow bucket. Thanks for the memories.


  2. Really Ginny, you would have gone on that swing?
    Thanks for including us as always in your travels!


  3. I love the “imponderables”…waterfalls are my “thing” and thinking it of Gins on the swing tops it all off. Thank you for taking me along ….LOVED this blog


  4. Another fascinating commentary and tour of a unique destination. That trail/lookout at Pailon del Diablo is situated to ensure you would get soaked. The new fountain with the Hummingbird in the city center looks like it would be appropriate in Mindo Cloud Forest as well.


    1. I would have liked to go on the longer trail at Pailon del Diablo ( 2.5 km. and closer to the falls), but such is the case of going with a tour – you stay at some places longer than you would like and miss out on others. Yes, I think the colibri are everyone’s favourite around here.


  5. The Pailin del Diablo looks like it was worth the trouble to get there; but, like Stephen, I would be a hard no for Casa de Arbol – thank heaven for rain is all I can say!


    1. You know, I think that swing is actually a lot easier than it looks, but we do have a real excuse for not trying it. We ran into a woman of 70 who was telling us that she did a whitewater rafting tour in Banos, but found it harder this time because her body doesn’t want to move as quickly as it used to! It made me feel a little embarrassed about my reluctance to sit on a swing.


  6. I feel like I was with you on the tour. Even got very jumpy just thinking about the heights. What a beautiful country but I don’t think I would have gotten far with my fear of heights and suspension bridges. Continue to enjoy your marvellous tour.


    1. Fear of heights might be an issue here. We just took an 8-hour bus ride from Banos to Cuenca today – peered right over the guardrails (when there were guardrails) straight down 100s of feet below all of this, plus deep fog at times and having to navigate landslides, so it was an adventure.


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