When most travellers think of far-flung places in South America, they think of Brazil, Argentina, and Peru’s Machu Picchu — all fantastic destinations brimming with wildlife and nightlife, scenery fit enough for your desktop background and cultures steeped in history that most of us have only heard about, fleetingly, by flicking through an old issue of National Geographic while waiting at the doctor’s clinic.
We know that the continent is mysterious, and we dream of making our way there one day to discover it for ourselves. But what we don’t hear about enough is the other side of the coin: places where the street art rivals New York City; where quaint cafes are as innovative and top-notch as any you’ll find in Melbourne; and where the thermal springs, waterfalls, and imposing mountain ranges encapsulate the exact kind of nature you were looking for when you booked that flight to Ecuador.
A cheap four-hour bus ride from the country’s capital, Quito, will take you to Baños — the bohemian heart of Ecuador and arguably, South America as a whole. In nine months of backpacking the continent’s most rural regions, from Patagonia to the wild badlands of Bolivia’s Tupiza, there was no place as crafty in its hippy endeavours as Baños. Each morning, I walked down and admired philosophical street art where murals ranged from a baby holding the entire world in their hands, to arms descending from a waterfall into the earth, planting leafy life into the soil, through to colourful abstractions out the front of Hostal Santa Cruz, and an earthly-inspired skeletal disposition of ideas coming to mind and being let loose from a faucet onto the world, literally.
The street artists painted deep symbolism onto the walls leading up to the local market, where I bought a freshly-crushed cane juice in the mornings, before making my way to the thermal springs, which are heated by the active Tungurahua volcano. Termas de la Virgen is the most popular thermal spring, and the most eye-catching as you walk around town; it has a huge waterfall splitting the vegetation right above it. An hour soaking in the minerals with serene surroundings is enough to make you feel mentally and physically relaxed and rejuvenated. Do this each morning, and you’ll reach that Zen-like state we keep striving for every time we step foot outside the office and make a dash for the airport.
I had work to do on my book before I arrived in New York City, so I played into the stereotype and went searching for a coffee, and that’s when I stumbled upon the French-inspired café, Arte Café & Te (which TripAdvisor rates as the number one café in Baños at the time of writing). I sat down beside the iconic owl artwork (you’ll know what I mean when you see it), and ordered a chocolate and banana crepe with a strong coffee. It might not have been cuy (roasted guinea pig), or the mouth-watering langostinos (seafood practically bathed in garlic butter), but it was a welcome, if not guilty treat, which helped get the creative juices flowing as I looked out at the overcast sky puffing about the mountains. I reached into my backpack to find my charger (a writer’s worst nightmare is being halfway through a chapter to receive the ominous ‘Low Battery’ warning; even worse on a laptop as battered as mine where it dies 15 seconds later). I pulled out a postcard I bought earlier as I frantically hit the Save button. “That’s what I’ll do tomorrow,” I thought to myself. “The Devil’s Cauldron.”
The Devil’s Cauldron, known locally as Pailon del Diablo, is a spectacular waterfall that you can hike right up beside as you ascend a Lord of The Rings-styled mountain which, aside from a healthy workout, provides pathways and suspended wooden bridges that hang above the forests below. I’m a nature-enthusiast, but the friends I was backpacking with fell on the spectrum between indifferent and where can we buy beers. I was worried they wouldn’t like it, but let me tell you this: they were blown away. Trekking the paths and stopping to gawk at the incredible rush of water firing down below, with exotic birds flying overhead and the consistent, cooling breeze of water slowly soaking our arms and legs, it felt like we’d stepped onto the movie set of Indiana Jones.
The name need not evoke fear, because it was one of the most inspiring places to run down my camera’s battery that I’d been to on my entire trip. After a week of taking in Baños — from the waterfalls to the mountains, thermal springs and, oddly enough, an author reading at an indie bookstore which was full of books written by underground writers — I was sad to leave for Galapagos. Yes, you read that right.
Because Baños was that rare thing in travel nowadays, where every destination seems to be turned inside-out by Instagrammers and whatever’s ‘trending’ for the year.
In other words, Baños was an unexpected gem in travel’s sometimes-thorny crown. Everyone I met on the road was heading to Peru and Argentina and then leaving. I wondered if they knew something I didn’t. If this was all a big mistake. If I should have stayed longer somewhere else.
But when I came to Baños, I couldn’t believe that a place like this could be overlooked by so many. It was like nothing I’d seen before: an artistic hub surrounded by gushing waterfalls and imposing mountains, with an interesting mix of locals and lifestyle-driven expats. After you’ve been on the road for a while, it takes more and more to be impressed, surprised, and inspired, and just when I thought I’d seen it all, there it was. Baños. A place which reminded me about the magic of travel, and to those reading this, a place I hope you get to see one day for yourselves.
Explore Baños on a small group adventure with Intrepid. Browse our trips here.
Feature image by Lilia Akhtanenko.