March 15th, 2015.
Ecuador has one of the greatest volcanic densities in the world with thirty active volcanoes giving rise to continuous seismic activity. Of these, there are ten volcanoes that are highly active and this includes Tungurahua, five miles outside of Banos de Agua Santa, the town I was planning to visit. The last major eruption of Tungurahua was in 1999 and since then it has slowly been leaking molten lava, rock and ash from its fiery crater, aptly named “The Throat of Fire” by the indigenous Quichua people.
In the few days before I left Quito, there were reports that the volcanic activity of Tungurahua had increased. When I said I was going to Banos, I received warnings, such as: “don’t you know the Tungurahua Volcano is erupting” followed by further suggestions of danger not based on facts. “Yes, I did know and yes, I was going”. The Ecuadorian Institute of Physics that monitors these changes reported it was considered safe and the roads would remain open. During the major eruption that occurred in 1999, Banos was completely evacuated and all roads to the town were closed allowing no one through.
The drive from Quito where I had been staying took nearly four hours. Due to heavy traffic on the main road, my driver who lived in Banos and knew the route well, chose a winding road through the mountains. The vistas were becoming more green and beautiful the closer we got to the town. Soon enough I could see the green slopes of the volcano, rising 16,500 feet above Banos, crowned by a collar of snow with fire and smoke coming out of the crater. Rounding a bend, there was volcanic rock and ash lying on the road and I was re-assured it was safe and the volcanic spillage had “rained down” a few days earlier.
Banos, located in Central Ecuador is a center for Ecotourism with a pleasant year round climate. It is a paradise nestled in a valley, surrounded by mountains, dense tropical vegetation, picturesque waterfalls, fast moving rivers and natural hot springs heated from the base of the Volcano. The mountains have several peaks that attract climbers with winding trails through dense vegetation for hiking. These are the Andes and Banos is the gateway to the Amazon Forests and several National Parks. With a constant influx of visitors, there is a choice of accommodations, mostly in the inexpensive to moderate range and includes hostels, Bed and Breakfasts, Ecuadorian tourist hotels and some more upscale hotels with their own spas.
The name “Banos” means “Baths” and refers to the number of thermal waters and springs in the area that are heated at the base of the volcano and said to have absorbed minerals with healing and restorative powers. There are several spas in and around Banos, that have grown up around the “waters”, offering many types of treatments, such as massage, detoxing, facials, mud baths, manicures and pedicures, all reasonably priced – and some better than others !! Many of these treatments use organic products with ingredients sourced from the Amazon forests around Banos, as well as the ash that is thrown off by the volcano.
The center of Banos is small, only a few blocks in either direction and it is easy to walk anywhere and not get lost.
It has a surprising number of international restaurants, including Swiss, Italian, French, Mexican, Brazilian and American, as well as many bars and a brewery run by an American ex-Pat. Talking to some of the restaurant owners, I found they had all been visitors to this town who came under its magical spell. Finding a niche in the restaurant business, they opened a restaurant and never went “home”. At the other end of the hospitality scale is the covered market in the center of town with a “food court” where one can have a nutritious two course meal for three to four dollars, and excellent juice bars blending delicious fresh juices on the spot from the selection of tropical fruits.
Over the years, Banos has grown into a center for extreme sports attracting groups of backpackers, some activities so extreme they are guaranteed to send the adrenaline into overdrive and if not careful into overkill. The town has many tour operators and small companies where one can find guides who will introduce and oversee all activities that are offered, especially the extreme sports that require a trained guide and lessons in safety. Canyonning, one of these activities, is very challenging and involves rappeling over and down wet and slippery rocks alongside the waterfalls, wearing a harness and wet suit for protection. The “crunch” comes near the end, where you lean back and jump, swinging from the rope until the guide slowly releases your harness to the ground – not for the fainthearted; kyacking and white water rafting through the fiercely bubbling waters of the Postaza and Palate Rivers, mountain biking, including down hill which is also very thrilling, swing jumping – similar to bungee jumping but without the bounce as the rope is anchored in one spot only, horse riding, hiking, cycling and bathing in the many pools and waterfalls. There are also Dune Buggies, although there are no sand dunes, but they can be used to drive over the rough mountain terrain, sliding and bumping along for excitement. It is a playground for young, energetic people who love this outdoor exciting athleticism that comes with a low price tag. I like to believe there are high standards of safety as I did not hear bad stories of people being seriously hurt.
In the center of town, I met Jacinto Guevara, a guitar maker. He has a “hole in the wall” store with a well used carpenter’s bench and the room was filled with guitars and the tools needed to make and repair guitars by hand. He is the third generation of guitar makers in his family who have lived and worked in Banos. Everything is made by hand, the old fashioned way. He did mention some of the celebrities he has worked with, (not that I would know them) and also that he receives packages from all over with guitars requiring repairs that need his expertise.
The most beautiful building in Banos is the Basilica of the Virgin of Holy Water, a Gothic style Church with two tall spires, to be found in the Central Plaza. The original Church was built in 1553 by the conquering Spanish Conquistadores with the purpose of converting the indigenous people to Catholicism. Since the early days the Church was threatened by earthquakes and has been razed to the ground by the Tungurahua Volcano. The present Church is fairly new and was built between 1904 and 1944 on the site of the original Church. Inside, the walls are illustrated with several murals depicting miracles that are said to have been performed by the Virgin and for this reason Banos is referred to as a “mystical town”. I was also told that when the town is threatened by the rumbling volcano, many people rush into the Basilica for safety and so far no one who sought its refuge has been injured. On the Sunday morning I made sure to attend the Service and as anticipated it was a “full house”. Unlike the other Services that I attended in Ecuador, there was no choir. A sole musician with multiple talents was responsible for leading the hymns and accompanied them with different musical instruments.
Inside, the highly ornamented and carved alter dominated the Church, It was painted bright tangerine and generously embellished with gold leaf. Joining the Basilica were The Cloisters, with a series of beautiful symmetric arches, in the Spanish European style where the overflow crowd from the Basilica were able to participate in the Service while enjoying a view of the gardens.
I stayed in an Ecuadorian Hotel, on the periphery of the “party zone”, a two story building, built around a courtyard with beautiful flowers. Each floor had loggias with hammocks for resting. There was no TV in the rooms. Simple, comfortable and tranquil.
A few days in Banos can be very worthwhile either to relax and recover from too much touring while enjoying the various treatments, or to enjoy the beautiful outdoors getting fit and taking advantage of the benefits of the extreme sports. For those spending a little more time in Ecuador, it is the gateway to the Amazon and some National Parks deserving of a few days layover. Although there are many Foreign tourists, it remains a very Ecuadorian experience, unspoiled by the visiting foreigners.