Continuing east from Salasaca and Pelileo, the Ambato–Puyo road threads its way down the narrow Río Pastaza gorge before arriving at the small resort town of Baños, 44km southeast of Ambato. A good 1000m lower than most sierra towns, at 1820m above sea level, Baños enjoys a warm, subtropical climate and a spectacular location, nestled among soaring green hills streaked with waterfalls. With the thermal baths that give the town its name, a great choice of good-value hotels and restaurants and excellent opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling, horseriding and rafting, it’s easy to see why both nationals and foreigners make Baños one of the most visited destinations in the country – despite the unpredictable condition of the Tungurahua volcano towering above the town to the south. Tungurahua’s unpredictability is something of a draw in itself, with tourists flocking to high vantage points on cloudless nights to watch it spit lava and igneous rocks into the sky like fireworks. A chiva (wooden bus) leaves town for the Bellavista observation point every night at 9pm, returning around 11pm; tickets cost $3 from Córdova Tours at the corner of Maldonado and Espejo. Tungurahua can also be viewed from several other points, including near the village of Patate.
East of Baños, the road to Puyo, in the Oriente, offers one of Ecuador’s most scenic approaches to the Amazon basin, taking you past a string of diaphanous waterfalls along the way. Some hang right over the road, while others are approached along short trails, including the thundering Pailón del Diablo close to the village of Río Verde, about 20km down the road. Another road links Baños to Riobamba, skirting the slopes of Tungurahua and providing access to Parque Nacional Sangay via Penipe and Candelaria; the road is subject to frequent landslides outside Baños. The best months to visit Baños are between September and April; from May to August it can be cloudy and rainy.
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; wwww.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.
In October 1999, Volcán Tungurahua – the 5023-metre volcano whose smoking cone lies just 8km south of Baños – resumed activity after almost eighty years of dormancy. Baños and neighbouring villages were forcibly evacuated and roads were sealed off, leaving some 20,000 people homeless. By January 2000, no big eruption had materialized and 5000 locals (anxious that rogue soldiers were looting their homes) fought their way through military blockades, armed with shovels and rocks. The authorities subsequently agreed to reopen the town, which quickly recovered as a popular resort and, as far as tourism was concerned, it was as if nothing had happened.
Tungurahua (meaning “throat of fire” in Quichua) did not go back to sleep but continued regularly to belch gas and lava. Then, in August 2006, activity increased dramatically with a violent, explosive eruption that wiped out three hamlets on the volcano’s western slopes (Chilibu, Choglontuz and Palitagua), accompanied by a ten-kilometre-high ash cloud. Most residents had been evacuated prior to the explosion, but some refused to leave and seven people were killed.
At the time of writing, volcanic activity continues on a low to medium level. It’s business as usual in Baños, which was unaffected by the 2006 explosion – but be aware the risk is ongoing. Most hotels have evacuation instructions stuck on the walls, and large yellow arrows and dotted lines on the streets point the way to a designated safety zone on the eastern side of town, in the Santa Ana area. Before you decide to visit Baños, you should get news on Tungurahua’s state from the daily reports in all the national newspapers, from the SAE in Quito, from the Instituto Geofísico’s (Spanish) website wwww.igepn.edu.ec or from your embassy.