Banos doesn’t have the charm of the Spanish colonial architecture that you find in much larger Quito and Cuenca, but it does have charm and it knows it. Oh, I don’t mean that in the way that the town gives the impression of being snobbish or of being too enamored with itself. Clearly, it knows that it has a lot to offer and that travelers enjoy coming to sample its charms. The town and its people make a great effort to present itself as very welcoming and with a simple appeal for its guests.
Banos sits at 1800 meters (about 6,000 feet above sea level). As such, it has a very pleasant climate. We’ve had days with highs in the mid to upper 70’s, warm, blue skies and white puffy clouds. From within the town, every direction you look you see towering mountains. And I do mean towering, to over 5,000 meters. And they are really close. If you walk 5 blocks directly south from the main square you will encounter a walking path that starts to climb very steeply up the face of the mountains on that side of town. Pretty much the same on the north side as well. The highest peak on the south side of town also happens to be a somewhat active volcano, Tungurahua, which had a significant eruption in 2006.
Banos is only about 15,000 people but visitors from all around Ecuador as well as from other parts of the world visit to sample its many charms. Especially on the weekends it’s a popular destination for couples as well as families looking for what Banos promotes in its travel literature: Adventure, Relaxation and Fun. To compare it to something closer to home, I would say it’s like Ecuador’s version of Santa Barbara, naturally much downscale and not on the Ocean, or maybe like Ojai but bigger.
First and foremost, Banos has natural hot mineral baths. There are several “public” bathhouses where you can go to sit and soak. In some, you can choose between the hot and really hot pools. They have changing rooms, clothes storage, towel rental and everyone must shower prior to going into the pools. To go along with this there are numerous spas in town that may offer swimming pools, saunas, Turkish baths, Jacuzzi, massage, facials, herbals treatments and all other sorts of pampering. We went to one such place that had a huge pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, Turkish bath and a steam treatment, which is that box you sit in with only your head sticking out. You can control the amount of steam and every 10 minutes they take you out and douse you with cold water. Very refreshing.
When you get tired of relaxing, you can hike many nearby mountain trails or explore the avenue of waterfalls (La Ruta de las Cascadas). This is a road that heads out of Banos to the East following the Rio Pastaza canyon towards the town of Pujo. There are a series of very beautiful waterfalls along this route. Some of them have open cages that run on cables across the canyon and suspend you above the waterfall giving you a very dramatic viewpoint. Others you can hike to and get the full effect of the spray in your face. There are a variety of ways you can explore these waterfalls. You can take a Chiva, which is like an open air bus that drives you along the route and stops at several of them. You can rent mountain bikes, motorcycles, a jeep or a “go cart” to explore them on your own.
There are lots of other activities like horseback riding, bridge jumping (kind of like bungee jumping), canyoning (zip line across a canyon), multi-day trips into the Amazon jungle and mountain climbing. There are lots of adventure tour offices in town to fix you up with whatever activity you have in mind.
Also, the town has a really good selection of restaurant choices given its size. There’s naturally a good selection of resorts, hotels, guesthouses and hostels. And all around town, there are “sugarcane stalls”. Banos is famous for its melcocha, a chewy taffy that’s softened and blended by swinging it onto wooden pegs, usually mounted in the doorways of shops. Pieces of chewable cana de azucar (sugarcane) and sugarcane juice are sold in the stalls.
We really enjoyed our visit and Banos ranks high in our minds as a destination for a much longer stay.