The Journal  

14 January 2006


Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


Baños, Ecuador

January 5-6

We rode out of Quito before first light, stealing down the wrong way on a deserted one-way street as a short-cut back to the Pan-American. As we headed south, the road leaving the Ecuadorian capital was already busy with buses and trucks in the pre-dawn hour and we bounced across rough roads because I couldn't see the pot holes and broken pavement in the dim orange haze of street lights.

The road departing Quito climbs quickly from the city's plateau, the Pan-American following a high Andean ridge line that passes within sight of some of the country's highest mountain peaks. The last clock/thermometer we passed on the edge of town read 40 degrees, but we were freezing at 11,500 feet by the time the sun peeked over the Andes . Two hours out of Quito we had reached the traffic circle where the road splits off to Baños, a little town in Ecuador 's central highlands known for its hot springs .

We had been on good roads throughout South America , but as we left the Pan-American, the highway turned to pot-holed pavement, interrupted at times by sections of dirt where the black top had been washed away. The hills that lined the road were denuded of trees or vegetation. As we rounded one corner our path was obscured by a cloud of dust. As we got closer we could see that a piece of the ridge had given away in a landslide that completely blocked our lane with a pile of rock and debris. I proceeded with caution. The twenty-mile side trip to Baños took an hour.

The first sign that you're nearing the hot springs is the sight of the Tungurahua Volcano. The town of Baños is nestled against the volcano's base, with the geothermal activity of the mountain providing the heat that warms nearby springs as they bubble to the earth's surface. With our early start we were in town by 9 a.m., finding a hotel with courtyard parking on the town's main plaza.


The Volcano Tungurahua towers over the town. It is still active and threatened to erupt in 1999, causing an evacuation of the people of Baños.


Small villages lined the hills leading to the town.

Along with the springs, Baños' attraction is adventure sports, its streets filled with businesses renting ATVs and mountain bikes, or advertising excursions to volcanoes or the nearby Amazon jungle. The town's native population is outnumbered by crowds of bathing suit wearing or backpack-clad gringo tourists.

The Virgin of the Holy Waters is Baños' patron saint and the cathedral off the plaza honors her, its sanctuary filled with paintings of miracles attributed to the Virgin. The main hot springs located within the city limits are called Piscina de La Virgen, and we headed there at sunset. The complex is made up of a series of concrete pools that set against a steep cliff adorned with a cascading waterfall. By the time we got there the tourist crowds had left for the night and the pools were packed with locals. Signs advertised the water temperature at over 100 degrees and our fellow bathers were steaming in the cold night air as they exited the waters that we were about to enter.


The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Agua Santa was open to the public.


Inside the basilica were paintings depicting various miracles, including people being saved from bridges collapsing and car accidents.


Other paintings depicted the passion of Christ.


The cascadas or waterfalls near the hot baths.

The springs have a park-on-a-Sunday-afternoon atmosphere, with families and couples bathing together and friends chatting over cold drinks, up to their necks in the opaque waters. Beside each warm pool was a smaller one filled with cold water from the waterfall. We followed the lead of other bathers, interrupting our steamy soakings with breath-stealing plunges in the freezing pools. The party-like atmosphere was still in full-swing as we took the shivering walk back to our hotel.


The Piscina de La Virgen drew a crowd of all ages after dark.


All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus