Living in the shadow of one of South America’s most active volcanoes, the residents of Baños de Agua Santa in Ecuador are a captive audience to Tungurahua’s occasional fiery outbursts.
But locals believe that the Virgin Mary watches over the city and protects its people from the eruptions. A Quechua legend also maintains that “Mama Tungurahua” herself has an interest in preserving the town, as Baños is her love child.
In either case, the eruptions have bestowed on town one of its most famous attractions: steaming natural hot springs. These, along with a plethora of outdoor activities, have made the sleepy town a popular tourist destination. Here are some activities you shouldn’t miss:
Swing over the edge of the world.
If you’re looking for breathtaking views with just a hint of danger, the Swing at the End of the World may be your speed. Sailing out over the mountainside, with only a simple seat belt to hold you in place, you will have an unobstructed view of the volcano. If you’re lucky—or unlucky—you may even witness an eruption in the distance. In the park of Casa del Arbol, or Tree House, there are three swings and a zip line. Slightly below the park is another swing, so take your pick, get your legs pumping, and enjoy the view.
Bathe in hot springs.
The thermal springs that give the town its name are one of its premiere attractions. Some of the most popular baths are in the middle of downtown Baños, next to a picturesque waterfall where the Virgin allegedly once appeared. The pools, which are popular with locals as well as visitors, come in a range of temperatures, from scalding to icy. In addition to the older pools, a new complex of baths geared toward tourists was inaugurated in 2017, and will have 28 pools once complete.
For many travelers, the main draw to Baños is the prospect of outdoor adventure in the mountains and forest canopies. There are plenty of options on this front. Hurtle down steep tracks on a mountain bike; strap into a harness and zip across a cable over river crossings and between treetops; get soaked rafting or rappel down a waterfall on a canyoning adventure; climb routes of volcanic rock; or bungee jump from a bridge. At the end of the day, unwind and ease your sore muscles in the hot springs or in one of the town’s spas.
Hike to Devil’s Cauldron.
Follow the Rio Pastaza to the Pailon del Diablo, or Devil’s Cauldron, a powerful waterfall set amid a verdant jungle landscape. Cycling enthusiasts can follow the 10-mile Ruta de las Cascades from Baños to the village of Rio Verde. Whether you arrive by car or bicycle, the hike to the waterfall is relatively short and easy. Once there, you can literally soak in the vista from a swinging suspension bridge.
Visit the Virgin’s Basilica.
Make a pilgrimage to Baños’s neo-Gothic basilica, appropriately fashioned from volcanic rock. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, or Virgin of Holy Water, who is believed to watch over the village. Over the years, townspeople have sometimes taken refuge in the church from the eruptions of Mama Tungurahua. In October each year, a festival is held there in honor of the Virgin.
Abby Sewell is a freelance journalist based in Beirut covering politics, travel, and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @sewella.