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A Giant Swing. Jungle Screaming. Ice Plunges. You’ll Love It.


Just a three-and-a-half hour drive from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, the town of Baños de Agua Santa snuggles into a deep valley surrounded by the mountains skirting the Tungurahua volcano. With an elevation of close to 6,000 feet and a population of around 15,000 residents, Baños has a bit of a ski town feel: The city slows down during the day while travelers are out doing activities, and picks up again in the evening when they come back for dinner. It’s a magnet for unshaven backpacker types taking a break from hiking the route around Ecuador’s volcanoes and craters. They often begin their Baños extension with a week of rest, which then becomes a month’s sojourn, but soon they buy a bike and adopt a street dog and, well, maybe that’s why all the foreigners in the cafes of Baños seem to know everyone else’s name. Baños is a comfortable home for a getaway artist.

But I arrived after dark and the town looked, frankly, depressing. A line of boarded-up clapboard shops selling tacky T-shirts lined the road in, and the central plazas were occupied only by the occasional dog. When I checked into my inn, the air in my room felt damp, and the mattress hard. I had heard through a long, winding grapevine that Baños was an outdoor lover’s paradise, but as I tossed and turned that first night I wondered if I had come all this way for nothing.

Then, the next morning, I opened the curtains on my modest room. A long, white waterfall was pouring down the mountain in front of my window, a stone’s throw away, roaring to the bottom and creating the same soothing sound that people select on their sound machines. Near the base of the waterfall, a steaming pool was already occupied by morning bathers. And surrounding them was the multi-shaded green of forest, from which an occasional bird call would emit. The damp air now felt vibrant and healthy. Maybe I’d stick around after all. Maybe even for an extra day or two.

The town is famous for its heart-pounding thrills — zip line rides and paraglide flights and bungee jumps — but also for its therapeutic post-adventure options in the form of muscle-soothing thermal baths, saunas and indigenous herbal teas. So on my first morning, after a delightful hot chocolate of Ecuadorean cacao at Aromi Cafe y Chocolate, I made my way to one of the tour agencies in town, GeoTours, and signed up for a smattering of activities, not sure exactly what was in store for me.

It turns out, just about everything was in store. First, my guide, Oscar, directed me to board an open-air gondola that crept over a deep valley with the rushing Pastaza River below. Next, after a roadside stop for chulpi, Ecuadorean toasted corn, and homemade guava sweets, I ran across a giant wooden hanging bridge in a forest, gawking at the richness of the trees climbing high above me. Next, I descended rock steps to the misty bottom of a tremendous waterfall, the 262-foot-tall Pailón del Diablo, which means devil’s caldron. Looking down at the churning blue circle of water, it was clear why.

Then, as if we hadn’t done enough, we hiked up the side of Tungurahua, until we reached La Casa del Árbol — the “Treehouse” — a strange wonderland that’s popular with the Instagram set thanks, in particular, to the “Swing at the End of the World,” a giant swing hanging from the treehouse that sends daring visitors seemingly out over the side of the cliff. As the sun set, feeling emboldened by the fresh air of Baños, I hopped on the swing myself, and was pushed out over the edge of the mountain until, after plenty of screaming, the swing-pusher finally heeded my pleas to stop.

By the end of the day, with Oscar leading the way, I had done more activities in eight hours than I do on some entire vacations. Sure, it had seemed a bit rat-a-tat, one activity after another, but I also felt thrilled, and wanted more.

Believe it or not, for many travelers to Baños, this is a rather typical day. Which is why the other popular way to spend time in Baños is a spa day.

At the El Refugio spa, I started my visit with a beguiling but enjoyable experience: a meditative walk along a forest path that included designated stops where I was instructed to scream out any pent-up anger, and cry out any welled-up tears. Screaming into the jungle seemed unpleasant and jarring to me at first, but I wanted to be a good sport. After I started, though, a primal kind of joy welled up inside me, as I discharged my frustrations. Maybe the folks at El Refugio knew what they were doing after all.

Next came a massage, leaving me fully relaxed and Zen. When the attendant asked if I was interested in an “intestinal cleansing,” I mumbled “sure,” dreamily allowing her to escort me to a room where I found out, rather abruptly, that the “cleansing” was, in fact, an indigenous herbal tea enema. The spa attendant told me it was second in popularity only to the mud bath, so I soon found myself being instructed to remove my clothes and slather hot mud all over my body, and to then dance — yes, dance — until the mud dried. To presumably encourage my dancing, I was left alone in a mirrored room to watch a 1990s Zumba video and prance about until I was dry, after which I was hosed down.

Finishing out the day was a visit to the traditional baño de cajon, or sauna box, where I sat on a towel in a little wooden cubicle, my bare feet resting on eucalyptus leaves. The same spa attendant arrived, smiling, with green tea, but then slid a wooden shelf toward my neck, as if to behead me, trapping my body inside the box as she turned up the steam blasting at my thighs. She adjusted the straw on the tea so I could sip it with no hands, like a nurse might for someone in a full-body cast. Stay the course, I told myself, only to discover that the sauna box was followed by a cycle of ice-water plunges, culminating in the attendant firing a hose of icy water full-blast at my shivering body.

Was it the weirdest and most uncomfortable spa visit I have ever experienced? Yes. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Had I been a little braver, I would have gone bungee-jumping, or run the rapids on a white-water rafting trip. Maybe I would be describing how the forest looks below when you’re hang-gliding, or what it’s like to rappel down the cliffside of a waterfall.

But that’s the good thing about Baños: There’s always a reason to stay just one more day.

If You Go

Baños is easy to get to and affordable for most travelers. A private taxi from Quito to Baños runs from about $80 to $150 (Ecuador uses the United States dollar as its currency), and that rate is highly negotiable. A public bus is just $5.

In Baños, many of the top sights cost just $1 or $2, like the big swing at La Casa del Arbol or the Pailón del Diablo waterfall. Tours and adventure outings vary in cost; at GeoTours, most half-day tours run between $30 and $60, depending on the activity and group size, and custom tours can be arranged with advance notice.

For lodging, you can decide between relatively basic lodgings in the town of Baños, which is great for being able to walk to dinner. Or you can take the plunge and go for a more all-inclusive luxury experience. Hostal & Spa Casa Real ($50 for a double room with breakfast) and Hostal La Posada del Arte ($80 for a double room with breakfast) are both great, friendly options in town. Luna Volcán ($270 for a double room with breakfast and dinner) is the showstopper luxury option on the side of the volcano, featuring marvelous gardens and an infinity pool with views over the valley.

Don’t leave Baños without having a hot chocolate of organic Ecuadorean cacao beans. You can get that and more at the adorable Aromi Cafe y Chocolate (breakfast for two, $12). Fornon-Latin options and great brunches, try Honey Coffee & Tea (lunch for two, $15), a great spot for people-watching on the plaza. For a dinner of steak and fondue, the perfect antidote to a hard day’s adventuring, try Swiss Bistro (dinner for two, $50). And if you want to see where the locals go, head to Dulce Carbon, where the smoke from the barbecue will draw you in from blocks away (dinner for two, $25).

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