When it comes to pampering yourself, there’s nothing quite like a spa. Hot baths, a few massages, fresh air and good food…for me, it’s one of the best ways to relax. So when I had the chance to chill for a few days in Baños, Ecuador, I jumped at the opportunity.
Baños lies tucked in Ecuador’s southern Andes, about three-and-a-half hours from Quito. The drive through the Andes to Baños is spectacular, as is the town’s location. From almost every angle in town you see a backdrop of green mountains ringed in clouds.
Small rivers high in the mountains gush down the slopes in absurdly dramatic waterfalls. The air is fresh and clean. You can practically feel your body relaxing.
The town is a popular destination for Ecuadoreans and foreigners alike, and there’s plenty to do here. Hiking, horseback-riding, canyoning and kayaking, and driving around town in souped-up four-wheel carts are all popular. Boutiques offer massages, facials, and nail care. You can even take a night-time volcano tour of nearby Tungurahua, which erupted in 1999. (Volcanic activity has died down since then, but it’s still active enough to keep the volcano-tour operators in business.)
Baños’ hot springs are its original claim to fame. The waters, heated by Tungurahua, are rich in minerals. There are two public baths in Baños (the price is $2 to $3 per visit, depending on the time), which are open about 18 hours a day. I went to the one in downtown Baños, a five-minute walk from my hotel. It has three pools, all open-air: two thermal pools and a cold pool.
The warm thermal pool is the largest and busiest. By mid-morning the sides of this pool are lined with bathers (come before 7 a.m. if you want it to yourself). The waters are about the temperature of a warm bath, though the minerals give the water a rusty, muddy color that can be off-putting.
The hot thermal pool is only for the brave of heart. The day I was there, only an elderly Japanese gentleman and I could stand the heat. The cold pool also stays fairly empty, for the opposite reason—its spring-fed waters feel absolutely frigid. (I only managed to swim two laps of the cold pool before climbing out, my fingers and toes numb.)
If you want a deluxe experience, there’s Luna Runtun Adventure Spa. Located a few miles outside Baños, the 300-acre Luna Runtun offers luxury spa services and adventure expeditions (for a fee, it will even send a driver to pick you up in Quito or Guayaquil).
For my first visit, though, I wanted the hustle and bustle of central Baños—and its low prices. Baños abounds in simple, comfortable little hotels where a double room with private bath costs about $20 a night (though you can find more expensive places to stay if you want). Restaurants are also inexpensive and good. I ate at a French restaurant one night for about $20, including wine, tax and tip. The next day I had a delicious, filling lunch at a popular Ecuadorean restaurant for a mere $3.
At these prices, a stay in Baños is one of the best spa bargains around. Add in all the other activities and there’s far more to do than you can manage in one trip. In fact, I’m already dreaming of my next visit…