For most people visiting Ecuador, their favourite place is a toss-up between Montañita or Baños. For us, Baños had so much more to do and see. A town built up primarily by tourism (historically domestic but now also international), the main draw of Baños is its natural hot springs, which provide waters for a number of local bathhouses. It has a certain quaintness to it, but also a safe, light-hearted vibe that comes only with a tourist town. It’s not quite neon lights and Irish bars, but you can tell that most families there live off the gringo dollar.
It’s important to know that the Baños that we and the vast majority of other tourists are talking about is Baños de Agua Santa, which is 4 hours south of Quito. Having originally planned to go straight from Peru to Guayaquil, the only reason we went to Cuenca in the first place is because we got confused by a different Baños which is just south of there, but luckily we realised before it was too late – and what a pleasant detour Cuenca was!
What to do in Baños, Ecuador
Well, there’s loads to do and see! The town is situated in a valley, surrounded by natural wonders and fantastic viewpoints. Let’s get stuck in!
Casa de Arbol ‘Baños swing’
One of the most iconic things to do is to visit the famous swing at Casa de Arbol (or treehouse). You can get a cheap bus from Calle Pastaza and Vicente Rocafuerte, but the bus times are sporadic, and it means that you turn up and get in line with 30+ other tourists. Having missed the bus by 3 minutes, we decided not to wait another hour and a half and instead get a taxi with another couple we were spending the day with. It cost us $10, which we were at first shocked at, until we saw how far we had to drive up to get to the treehouse.
For us, it worked out perfectly, as when we got there the queue was only 4-5 people long on each treehouse swing (there are 2 swings on the treehouse and then two other free-standing swings). Yes, it is a bit cringey that you essentially only go there for a photo opportunity, but everyone is there for the same thing, so let go and get the best shot you can!
If you ask, the people working there will push your swing, but beware that they get you really high, and often spinning! The swing has a small rope either side to keep you in but no real harness. Other than a small restaurant, there isn’t much else up there, so we started the 45 minute walk down to another iconic viewpoint at the famous Hotel Luna Runtun.
Luna Runtun infinity pool over Baños
This is actually a premium hotel, nestled in the mountain high above Baños, but you can eat delicious crepes in their café with amazing views or buy day entry to the pools for $20, which is where people take all their classic infinity pool shots. Hotel Luna Runtun has recently been renamed to Luna Volcán as of 2020 in case you get confused. To get back to the city, the hotel staff are more than happy to call you a $6 taxi.
Cycling the Route of the Waterfalls (Ruta de las Cascadas) near Baños
Our best day in Baños by far was the one we spent cycling to the many waterfalls in the neighbouring valleys. We rented bikes for $5 each from one of the offices on Calle Luis A. Martinez, then with their map in hand, we headed out of the town. The vast majority of our 4 hour ride was downhill, and almost all on main roads.
There are some tunnels that you aren’t allowed through because they’re too small, but in those cases there are clearly marked sideroads that take you through tiny settlements back to the main road. Our favourites were the first two waterfalls at Ulba, which are slightly off-road but clearly signaged from the main road to the dirt track which veers off to the right, and the final waterfalls we went to, called Pailón del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron). These are the only ones we had to leave the main road for, as all the others we could see along our path (often across the valley).
If you want to zipline or talabita over any of them, we recommend choosing the second one that you see over the valley, at Cascada San Jorge, as the route of the zipline makes it look like you’re going to go right into the falls!
Eventually, you’ll come to Rio Verde, which is a pretty built up town compared to the others you’ll pass. Cross over the bridge of the green river, and ask one of the restaurants if you can park your bike on their rail (this should be free, but it’s just a courtesy to either buy something from them then or promise to come back for lunch). Then, past the big white church it’s a 10 metre walk to the beginning of the walk down to the falls.
Note, we only went down to the steps of the waterfalls, which take you the closest to the waterfalls. There is also another entrance which takes you to a rope bridge over the waterfalls which unfortunately we never found the entrance to.
The route to the falls is fairly long, but mostly downhill on the way in. we recommend that you buy a suggestive-looking fried banana or fruit pot from one of the stalls at the entrance as you’ll need your energy after that cycling! There is a small $1.50 fee midway on this walk, but it also includes a go on the other rope bridge that crosses over the river on your return which is well worth doing for a full view of the waterfall. But for now, follow the stairs up to the right until you reach the piece de resistance. Make sure your kagool is on, because you will not survive this waterfall dry.
There are 3 levels of stairs with viewing points, each getting progressively wetter. What’s really cool is that if you’re nimble enough to crawl (yes, crawl) up the rocky passageway to the right, you can actually go behind the waterfall. This is only for people who are fit and flexible though, it really is a tight squeeze in places and requires a little climbing on slippery rock.
When you’re done with the falls, you have three choices; keep cycling on to the next town, Puyo, from where it’s a fair hike to see the next set of waterfalls, cycle back to Baños (mostly uphill) or get a truck back to Baños. These trucks strap your bikes to the back and leave when full. They cost us $2 each and had 8 people squished in the back. How the bikes didn’t fall off, we’ll never know. Bear in mind that in the highlands of Ecuador it’s almost always raining by 3pm, no matter how nice the rest of the day’s weather has been, so this is normally the option you’re going to want to take.
Relaxing in Baños
After this, you’re going to feel like you need a good massage. Being a spa town, there is a plethora of massage parlours. Make sure you shop around; our hostel offered $15 for 25 minutes, but next door we found $10 for 30 minutes.
After that, perhaps you’d be partial to a good old soak. As we said before, Baños is famed for its hot springs, and has plenty of baths to choose from. We went to the one closest to our hostel, Virgen de Agua Santa. There is a far swankier looking one of the same name right next to it, but sadly this wasn’t open so we had to settle for more of a concrete bath vibe.
By far the best time to go to these baths is in the early evening, when its cool enough to feel the benefit; but unfortunately all the locals and their mothers have clocked this too. Come sunset, the place is absolutely teeming with semi-naked, sweaty people, so much so that you’re constantly apologising to people for stepping on their toes in the murky water. Despite this, it was still a really fun experience, and we came out feeling super refreshed. If you don’t have a swimming cap (I mean, who brings a swimming cap travelling?!), you can rent one for 50c or buy for $1 from the kiosk near the entrance. Sexy!
There are 3 main pools; the first to go in is the pool of around 38 degrees on the top right. You’ll know it because it’s jam-packed full of people at all times. To the far left of the top floor is the cold pool, which is about 8 degrees and is meant for cooling off after the first pool.
Then, only for the big boys, is the baking 45 degree pool downstairs. This is not to be taken lightly. One foot in this water will having you wincing at the burn. The trick, if you do eventually get in, is not to move, because then a layer forms around your body that is bearable (the same way that GoPro survived being dropped in lava in that viral video from 2017). One shift in your body and you’re back to hellfire. Andy got his whole body in for a few minutes but Lozzy barely managed a single foot.
Getting to and from Baños
The most obvious place to go from is Quito, from which terminal Quitumbe has buses leaving a few times an hour. However, if you’re coming from the south of Ecuador you can also get a direct bus from Cuenca. We weren’t able to find any buses that would go directly from Guayaquil, but that may change as tourism continues to grow.
Where to stay in Baños
Baños isn’t always the cheapest town in which to stay, thanks to its popularity with both international and local tourists. We stayed a little out of the centre (but still a very short walk away) at Hostal Chimenea. While the dorms were average, it was too cold to ever use the pool and the lack of common space to relax and chat with new people was very frustrating, the breakfast room and views from the glass top floor made up for it. What a breakfast they offer! You do have to pay, but we quickly realised that at $3 it’s one of the cheapest breakfasts our end of town (and we can’t recommend the fruit and granola bowl enough!).
Where to eat in Baños
Probably the cheapest place to eat in the town is one of the small shops built into the back of the bus terminal. Here you’ll find basic but delish dishes of chicken, pork and beef with rice and lentils or red beans. Across the road from there is Andy’s fave, chinese food. A basic chicken egg fried rice there was only $2, can’t really complain!
Our hostel friends took us to a very good Italian called La Bella Italia. The food here was pretty decent and we loved the European feel of the place.
But the best restaurant for us was called Casa Hood. They served an impressive variety of food, including ‘gluten options’, for which we’re sure they meant ‘gluten-free’. The chicken fajitas were pretty amazing, and although service was very slow due to being busy, the atmosphere was great. You’ll even find some vegan things on the menu that don’t sound too lacking in pizazz.
Recommended stay to enjoy Baños, Ecuador: 3 days
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