Baños: The Adventurer’s Paradise

Anyone who knows a smattering of Spanish knows the word “baños”. Whether from high school classes, or from ordering too many tropical beverages at a resort in Cozumel, the word has likely made an appearance in your vernacular if Spanish was ever a necessity. The word, of course, signifies “bathrooms” or “restrooms”, but the direct Spanish meaning is actually just “baths”.

As such Baños, Ecuador, is a candidate for confusing translations. When you read the title of this post, you may have thought to yourself: “what are these paradisal bathrooms and why are they only reserved for adventurers? Are they some sort of new Japanese defecation concoction designed specifically for thrill seekers?”

If this is what brought you here, you might be disappointed to find out that I won’t be talking about futuristic toilets.

Instead, I’ll be discussing Baños, a city about three hours south of Quito, which is named for its therapeutic thermal baths. Though the famous baths are a revelation in relaxation, the city features so much more to see and do. Indeed, unlike the English translation, Baños is not, in fact, shitty.

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I roll into Baños by bus late at night and make my way to the Great Backpackers Hostel in Barrio Las Piñas. The place is bustling with activity. People are eating, drinking, playing cards or pool, lounging in bean bag chairs and hammocks. As a Chilean named Carlos checks me in, I notice the variety of adventure sports and activities offered on the wall behind the front desk.

Carlos asks me how long I’m planning to stay. I tell him three nights.

“I think you’ll be here for longer”

The young Chileno was right. A week later I finally staggered back to the bus station, sun weary, but with a buzzing sense of inner peace.  My days in Baños were filled with rip-roaring adventure, lively night life, and people I will never forget. It was hard to leave.

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Nestled in a valley on the foothills of the Tungurahua volcano, Baños features a charming city center with tons of places to explore, all framed by the surrounding mountains and hills.

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The city is awash with colorful graffiti seen on virtually every street. Here Gollum seems to be keeping his eyes out for the One Ring.
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“For my disease there is no cure. That which is vandalism for you is culture for me.”

There are also heaps of shops that sell taffy, a mainstay of Baños. Outside workers are seen pulling, stretching, wrangling and weaving the cane sugar candy into form.

My first adventure sport of choice was whitewater rafting. I had never tried it before, and the price was right ($20, it can be five times as much back in the states). The morning of I get picked up at the hostel and, after an hourlong bus trip, we arrive at our entry point along the rio negro.

We get a brief lesson on paddling technique and staying in concert with other paddlers. In my raft is an American from Montana named Jeff. I tell him in almost a year of travel I had never met a Montanan on the road (in the hostel I also met a girl from Tennessee solo traveling, perhaps an even more surprising encounter). The rest of our raft is filled with three Chilean girls on spring break.

Our Chilean-American vessel takes to the waters and barrels down the winding river for close to two hours. 

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Our group.
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Jeff taking a rest during a calmer portion. The natural beauty was spectacular with sweeping views of the forest-laden rolling hills alongside the river.
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With the Chilenas.

It was a bumpy and exciting ride. Intermittently we would have periods of smooth sailing when the river would just carry us along and we could admire the stunning scenery.

Our boat capsized twice during particularly rough waters. But this was definitely the most fun part.

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This isn’t our group (the guide in our boat didn’t have a camera), but we went through the same rough patches that resulted in us tumbling out of the boat.
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After braving the class III rapids, we were excited to have gotten through with all our limbs intact.

Upon returning to the hostel, other folks are relaxing with a beer or rum, reeling from the day’s activities. Baños boasts a full slate of adventure sports and people are often eager to discuss their respective experiences. Itching for the next adrenaline rush, I booked my next venture, canyoning, per the recommendation of several people. 

The next day I am rappelling down a series of waterfalls, nothing separating me from plummeting to my death except for a rope leveraged on a rock. The guide helps lodge my hook into a secure position, so all I have to worry about it keeping my footing as I slowly scale my way down the cascading waterway.

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We were challenged to several daunting vertical descents, some as high as 12 meters.

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Though for some of the falls we could just slip and slide our way down.

As we progress through the falls, I start to become more comfortable being perpendicular to the ground. I can feel my legs stabilizing easier under me. The feeling of water crashing down on my feet becomes familiar. I become accustomed to the slippery rock shelf hidden behind the falls, smooth like a whetstone. As the guide had been doing the whole time, I start to jump down the falls instead of taking one step at a time.

Leaping out away from the waterfall is thrilling. You feel like you’re bound to crash down to the ground below, but the rope always reels you back in. This makes descents faster and much more fun. My Swiss friend behind me also gives it a go, leaping out further than I had and scaling down even faster. We try to one-up each other the rest of the way.

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All done! The falls and thick jungle were ethereal to explore. A great morning.

Most if not all of my ventures over a week in Baños were borne in the hostel; Great Backpackers provides an idyllic setting for meeting people and planning excursions. Free breakfast, free dinner Monday through Wednesday, movie nights, board games, and awful WiFi all factor into the communal vibes.

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The Great Backpackers Hostel. Out front, Pequeño the pup keeps watch. He is the friendliest of the three hostel dogs and loves giving handshakes in exchange for belly rubs.
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Cats also come and go as they please.

I meet Josh, a Texan who just graduated and is volunteering his way through South America. He was volunteering at the hostel alongside his friend Nigel, a brilliant Aussie polyglot bursting at the seams with knowledge of futurology, among other things. When not discussing, for example, the possible mining of the asteroid belt with the Aussie, I would hang with a guy from New Jersey, Vivek, a decorated jiu-jitsu fighter with a warm personality that contrasts his fierce fighting methods. 

I was shocked to meet Nina, a British girl, whom at just 18 years is traveling solo.  It blew my mind that she was out on her own in South America.  But she is wise beyond her years (attending Oxford in the fall) and totally prepared for the road ahead. Another Brit, Jenny, was also traveling solo. She gave me the most candid and raw opinion of Brexit and the state of her country while laying in the hammocks late one night.

I met Venezuelans escaping their country’s devastating economy, a German couple who were robbed of everything in Brazil yet are still traveling, but perhaps most fascinating were the conversations I had with two people from Basque Country. I had never met someone from BC, the autonomous region of Spain with a language unlike any other on the earth. Thankfully they spoke Spanish as well; talking to them was special. They encouraged me to come visit some day and we exchanged contact information.

All this is to say that Baños seems to attract a spectrum of people from all corners of the world. Young, old, intellectuals, adventurists, and everything in between. 

At its core it is a city for adrenaline junkies. But there are plenty of ways to enjoy the lush natural beauty in a less “you-probably-won’t-die-but-who-knows” manner. My other days in Baños were filled with hiking, biking, trips to the hot baths, and a visit to the fabled swing at the edge of the world.

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Josh overlooking Baños after a hike. The nearby volcano has been unusually active recently, causing geophysicists to heighten their surveying and monitoring of it. Situated in a valley, Baños is like a bowl of cereal with a piping hot pot of coffee nearby waiting to be poured over it. Crazy to think that one eruption could drown the whole city in lava.
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Nina, Josh, Daniel (an Aussie), and I found an abandoned house on our hike and hung out there while watching the sun disappear behind the mountains.
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The swing at the edge of the world proved to be worth the hype. In addition to the swings there is a ton of space where families can enjoy relaxing, playing, trying out the zipline, or eating at the onsite restaurant.
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I did a double take when I saw this girl with her puppy. It looks like a teddy bear.
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Wooooooooooo
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The swings themselves are the main draw, of course.
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Here’s yours truly having a go. Shame it was such a foggy day. Some of my friends have this same picture on a clear day with amazing views of the volcano and mountains.
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Jenny and others enjoying beer and empanadas after we were done swinging.
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Speaking of food, Baños has a ton of low cost places to eat with yummy cuisine. Here Vivek and I are enjoying chicken, beans, rice, salad, soup and juice for just $2.50.

The hostel’s cast of characters takes to the town nearly every night for drinks and dancing. Baños has a thriving strip in the downtown core with herds of partygoers floating in and out of bars or mingling in the streets. We frequent El Leprechaun, hands down the best bar I’ve been to in Latin America. It is a large venue with two floors, a dozen rooms, three dance areas, and a fire pit out back for relaxing. We spent late nights there enjoying each others’ company and trying our hand at salsa (I failed miserably despite my Argentinian partner’s patience)

Rarely do I just plug a place or a city without trying to establish some sort of useful narrative for you to take away, dear reader. This time I’ll make an exception.

Whenever you plan your trip to The Galapagos, or the Ecuadorian Amazon, consider a few days in Baños. Nature, adventure, nightlife, and amazing people, what more could you want (aside from some high-tech poopers)?

Just be careful, a few days in Baños can easily turn into a week, take it from me!

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