Banos Ecuador: Religious Shrine, Hot Springs and Natural Beauty

Banos, Ecuador: religion and revelry mix in this small spa town. Long revered as a major religious destination, the town is also a healing center with hot springs and mineral baths.

It is perched on a ledge at the base of the Tungurahua volcano.  And Tungurahua is no longer dormant. Mama Tungurahua, as she is often called by locals, became active in 1999 and her rumbling, belching presence is being felt and observed far and wide.

Perhaps the threat of imminent danger from the Banos volcano accounts for these polar opposite activities. One can worship and pray for protection from the volcano’s wrath and then party all night in celebration of the volcano’s calm. Or the less-desirable situation--praying for salvation after the volcano has erupted.

The approach to the town is usually bucolic. Water tumbles from the Cascada Cabellera de le Virgen, or Virgin’s Hair Waterfall. Creeks spill into other creeks and the hot water bubbles up from the volcano. Add the mists that rise from the springs and the profusion of bright flowers everywhere and you have a very charming, mystical spot indeed.

But the last time we visited Baños, we didn’t focus on the incredible beauty. We were more interested in avoiding any contact with lava that might still be hidden from view under the smoldering ash that made a path nearby. There was considerable devastation left in the lava’s wake.

Add the possibility of danger from the volcano and the evidence that is visible from the volcano’s recent eruptions and the town is irresistible to thrill and pleasure seekers alike.

The Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Agua Santa or the Church of Our Lady of the Holy Water is a very important pilgrimage for Ecuadorians.

It’s in the center of Banos. The interior is covered with paintings that record instances in which the Virgin has saved supplicants and performed miracles.

She has rescued people from volcanic eruptions, car accidents and falls. There’s an interesting pile of canes and crutches in the church attesting to the miracles that have taken place.

The hot springs are believed to have healing powers. They contain minerals that turn the water brown so don’t presume that the water is dirty.

The favorite hot springs and bath house is the Piscinas de la Virgen at the foot of the Virgin’s Hair Waterfall. They are also the hottest springs. You can cool off in cold pools or bathe in the waterfalls.

El Salado Hot Springs has hot and cold pools and is near the Bascun Creek canyon about 1.5 kilometers from town. It’s a 40-minute walk from Banos or take a cab or bus.

Area activities include hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rafting, kayaking and touring. Banos has many hotels and plenty of restaurants.

There is plenty of nightlife, great shopping with sidewalk tiendas that sell good crafts, baskets, toffee and tagua art and carvings.

Both times we were in Banos we met this man. He has a small stall among lots of other outdoor stalls. The first time we met him he told us a long story about how he was from Mexico and had studied with a shaman.

We bought lots of his tagua necklaces, all carved to represent different Mayan, Incan and Aztec gods and entities.  He wove a tale of magic for us, explaining in detail the characteristics of the many different gods depicted on his work.

When we were looking for him on our second visit, locals told us that he’s not from Mexico at all but is Ecuadorian and lives in Banos. That’s just a story he likes to tell to make himself stand out from the rest. When we tracked him down, we bought more of his necklaces anyway because he is such a colorful character. And we love his work.

The Galeria de Arte Huillacuna features the work of many fine artists who display their sculpture, paintings and pottery.

Tungurahua volcano continues to spew occasionally and let her presence be known hotly and dramatically. A visit to Banos will entertain you on many levels -- physically, mentally, spiritually, artistically, hedonistically and with the volcano’s shenanigans -- emotionally.

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