Wisps of steam rose up from the hot springs, billowing above the red volcanic rockscapes, vivid green succulents, and exotic tropical plants. Every muscle in my body had melted like wax and my skin felt as smooth as silk. My husband Dan and I had decided to take a break from our vacation and pamper ourselves at the Piedra de Agua in Baños, known as one of the premier thermal spas in Ecuador.
Tucked into the mountain terrain just outside of Cuenca, the swirling mists transform the spa’s rustic locale into an enchanted garden. Our full day of pampering included a hot, red mud bath, a blue mud bath with mineral properties rivaling the fountain of youth, steam treatments, alternating dips in hot and cold plunge pools, relaxing massage, and more. I snapped a few photos, including one of my husband peering from behind a mask of red mud. Afterwards, we snuggled at a table sipping a glass of red wine and sampling a tray of fresh fruit surrounding a chocolate fondue.
The spa was only a $5 taxi ride from our hotel in Cuenca, a sophisticated colonial city nestled in Ecuador’s rolling green highlands. In the city’s picturesque town square, Parque Calderon, we sat surrounded by lush green gardens and tropical palm trees, against a backdrop of colonial buildings and ancient churches. We watched as couples strolled hand-in-hand, friends met for a chat on park benches, and families with children posed for the photographer who offers photos with life-sized toy ponies, a mini race car, or a real live St. Bernard.
From this hub we explored further, admiring the striking blue domes of the New Cathedral, which made for some fantastic photos. We passed through vendors selling everything from wheelbarrows of fresh cherries to toys and balloons to ice cream. All the while, the heady scent of roses wafting through the air announced the presence of the flower market, long before we laid our eyes on the explosion of brightly colored blossoms. We couldn’t resist a little indulgence for our room, when two-dozen, long-stem roses cost about the same as a coffee.
Roses were not the only bargain in Cuenca. In search of lunch, we ducked into a hotel with a large inner-courtyard restaurant. Feasting on a fixed menu lunch including juice, roast pork, rice, red cabbage, and dessert, our bill was just $5 for both of us. I can’t ever remember having lunch for less, and this was a proper sit-down restaurant with tablecloths.
Considering the low cost, it was surprising that service was still top notch, and not just restaurant service. It seems that people in Ecuador are just naturally polite, friendly, and helpful. When checking into our hotel room, my credit card wouldn’t work. After a few attempts, the clerk said not to worry about it. He told me to go settle in and come back to pay tomorrow. Try that at your local Travelodge.
When I got home from our trip, I started uploading my pictures to stock photo sites. The sale of those photos has covered the cost of our luxurious spa day and many of the other costs of the trip so far, and I’m still uploading more that will continue to sell for years to come. One of these photos has already been licensed by a tourism site, twice, for $166.
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