Baños is a little town in Ecuador with a population of just 20,000 people. It’s surrounded by mountains and still at a pretty high elevation – 5971 feet (1820 meters) – just 2040 feet (680 meters) lower than Cuenca. Best of all, it’s known for fun outdoor activities – a perfect spot for this nature girl. So naturally I wanted to check it out for my birthday this October and take advantage of everything it has to offer.
We left at 9pm and took a MileHighDuo-style, overnight, seven hour bus ride from Cuenca to Ambato, followed by a 45 minute bus ride from Ambato to Baños. The buses were quicker than we expected, and we found ourselves in this small, quiet town at 5am before anyone or anything was awake. We timidly rang the bell at our hostel and sure enough a few minutes later a friendly (albeit sleepy) Ecuadorian man came outside to let us in. As he opened the door to our private room Elliott asked if we should register, but he told us to sleep first and then we’d talk later. Totally trusting, totally Ecuadorian style!
After sleeping in that morning and getting familiar with both our hostel and the town, we decided to try a hike. First there was Bella Vista, a lookout point which, true to its name, had a gorgeous view. It seemed like an easy enough hike on the map but the steep climb at high elevation on a very warm sunny afternoon was really getting me breathing hard! We took a lot of breaks but I was determined. Once there we took in the fabulous views of this cute little town and the mountains surrounding it. We could pick out the town square and our hostel, and we could hear a marching band playing.
After some photos I was planning to hike across the mountain to El Virgin, a huge statue of the Virgin Mary, when Elliott reminded me there was a swing higher up the mountain. We looked at the map and determined we were half way there already – why not? Besides, after the Cuenca death swing, anything else would be a piece of cake. So what had started out as a 2-3 hour venture grew into an adventure twice that long, full of fun things to see and do. There was a winding road, a trail that crossed it back and forth, constant climbing, lots of mud and little in the way of signage. We had to ask a lot of locals to keep us heading in the right direction, and several times I thought of turning around. But we pressed on and eventually we made it to La Casa del Arbol. We happily paid the $1 entrance fee to check out what they had to offer. There were two swings, an outdoor snack bar, bathrooms and a cable zip-line swing.
We tried and loved it all. The sun had come out again and the clouds that had been shrouding the peak of the Turungahua Volcano were clearing for us. We played a couple times each on the cable zip-line swing, ate some empanadas and corn, tried an awesome local drink called colada morada (it’s like a spiced fruit smoothie colored with blueberries so it’s a dark purple color), and finally made it over to the swings, which were hanging from a treehouse. I guess because we’ve heard so much about the “Baños swing,” we were expecting these swings to be scarier and more treacherous than our own Cuenca Swing of Death, but they were totally tame in comparison. Fun for sure, but no real seatbelt of harnessing needed.
We’d have stayed longer but we knew we had a lot more hiking to do and a limited amount of daylight during which to do it. We met a couple on our way down and passed a lot of the muddy, downhill time chatting away with them. It started to rain before we parted ways, and our hopes that it would soon let up were quickly diminished. After another hour went by and we still hadn’t arrived at El Virgen, I started to suspect we wouldn’t make it “home” by dark. Elliott was thrilled that despite his fun-making earlier that day, our flashlights were with us.
By the time we got to El Virgen it was not only raining but halfway dark as the sun had set. Still, we were happy to have made it, and we took a super quick photo before assessing the best way down. Did I mention we had climbed a LOT? Well there was still lots of steep downhill and the rain was making the trail much more treacherous. I was more than ecstatic when we looked over the Virgen statue’s platform and noticed there were steps. A lot of steps, going down, down, down. We weren’t sure how far they’d take us but we knew they were our saving grace. They were really tall steps, often uneven, and our legs and knees were aching, but at least with the flashlights and the steps, we were pretty sure we could stay injury free.
Several hundred steps later, we made it back to town. I thought I might count them at one point, but that didn’t last long. We did agree there are more steps there than on our climb to Turi in Cuenca, which has 435. This had been a great day of hiking, but man, were we glad to be back! It was one of those times when a hot shower feels like the best thing in the world!