Ecuador // The central sierra //

The thermal baths

Usually top of the agenda for any visitor to Baños is taking a plunge in one of the town’s six thermal baths, four of which are in the centre and two on the outskirts. They’re all a little institutional-looking, fashioned into rectangular concrete, open-air pools with no-frills changing facilities, but wallowing in yellow-brown waters heated by Tungurahua makes for an irresistible treat. The best time for a soak is an hour or so before sunrise – few gringos manage to drag themselves out of bed at this time, and you’ll be sharing the waters with local Ecuadorian families. It’s all very friendly and atmospheric, especially in the thin dawn drizzle.

The most appealing set of thermal baths is the Piscinas de la Virgen at the eastern extreme of Avenida Martínez, sitting at the foot of a waterfall that tumbles down a rocky cliff; at night it’s floodlit to spectacular effect. There are three daytime pools, plus a couple of separate pools downstairs only open at night, all of which are touted as being good for stomach and liver ailments; the biggest pool is closed at night. About half a block north, the Piscinas Modernas consist of a large serpentine-shaped pool filled with cold mineral water and a smaller, warmer one (26°C). A couple of blocks southwest on Rafael Vieira, the Piscina Santa Clara, also known as the Piscina del Cangrejo (Sat–Sun 8am–5pm; $1.50), is more of a classic swimming pool for doing lengths, and is filled with 23°C mineral water. You can also swim lengths to loud music in the three-lane pool next door at Complejo Turístico Eduardo or wallow in their sauna and spa complex. About 2km east of town (a 30min walk, or take any bus to Puyo) off the right-hand side of the road, the Complejo Santa Ana  has a big cold pool, and a couple of smaller, warmer ones – they’re a bit shabby but in a nice enough spot, set back from the road with a backdrop of green hills. In the opposite direction, 1.5km west of the centre, the popular Piscinas El Salado offers five small pools at various temperatures, each heavily mineralized and reputedly highly curative, plus an ice-cold river for a cool dip. Unfortunately, the baths lie in a danger zone right in the crook of a ravine leading up to the volcano – a gorgeous spot, but, if the volcano is looking active, one of the last places you want to be. Because of its precarious location, by law no public money can be allocated for its improvement, of which it is in increasing need; a few of its most secluded pools have been washed away and cannot now be restored. Local buses leave for El Salado every fifteen minutes (6am–5pm) from Vicente Rocafuerte and Eloy Alfaro, behind the market; alternatively, get there on foot in about 25 minutes (turn left up a prominently signed fork off the road to Ambato).

In addition to the baths, a sub-industry of spa treatments and massage therapies has sprung up in town. Many of the smarter hotels have their own spas, featuring any or all of the saunas, steam rooms (turcos), steam boxes (baños de cajón), whirlpools (hidromasaje), therapeutic and relaxing massages, facials, aromatherapy, medicinal mud baths, and a range of other alternative treatments, which non-residents are generally welcome to use for a fee; see the accommodation. El Refugio (daily 6.30am–8pm; $6 for the basics; whttp://www.spaecuador.info), 1km east of town in the Barrio San Vicente, is a dedicated spa complex offering most of the above treatments and more. Back in town, you can also get massages (from around $25 per hour) at Stay in Touch Therapeutic Massage, at Martínez and Alfaro, or Chakra, nearby on the corner of Martínez and Alfaro, which specializes in Thai and Swedish massage.