Baños is the undisputed outdoor adventure capital of Ecuador.
Whitewater rafting. Ziplining. Canyoning. Mountaineering. Mountain biking. Oh, and a swing at the end of the world. You want it? Baños has it.
Adrenaline on tap.
In February, my good friend Brad and I spent two days in Baños with the goal of keeping our heart rates up, our palms sweaty, and our knees weak like Mom’s spaghetti.
Those will be the only Eminem lyrics referenced in this article. Promise.
We drove in late at night, checking into the first hotel we found. Why didn’t we opt for a hostel, you ask? Well, after my last trip to Peru, and after two nights of staying in a dorm room with loudly copulating people right across the hall from a nightclub that popped off until 4 am, I realized that I’m not seventeen anymore. We needed our rest, as we planned to pack a lot into two days.
What follows are the three activities I think you absolutely can’t miss when in Baños.
Waking up early (by our standards), we disregarded TLC’s advice and headed for one of Baños’ main attractions: the Ruta de las Cascadas, or Trail of the Waterfalls. We rented bikes for $7 apiece at one of Baños’ many adventure outfitters, and were given helmets and rain jackets and a crude map, and sent on our way.
Brad and I rode through the city for a kilometer or two, gradually angling towards the Trail of the Waterfalls. Our bikes were most likely last serviced during World War II, and we quickly found that rain, flip-flops and a lack of clipless pedals go together about as well as Donald Trump and Angela Merkel.
Soon, we saw a sign for our first quarry: Cascada de Ulba. We paid the trailhead attendant a dollar apiece, ditched our bikes, and hiked a half-mile or so along a riverbank to the base of the thundering waterfall. Due to heavy rains the night before, Cascada de Ulba was in peak form, and we spent a half hour walking over slippery, moss-covered rocks and logs soaking in its majesty.
Back on our bikes, we stopped to gawk at several other waterfalls along the way, including Cascada de Agoyan and Manto de la Novia, both of which were located across a large canyon that the Pastaza River had carved out.
Soon, the clouds, which heretofore had only been sprinkling, opened up, and a torrential downpour began. Needless to say, mudflaps would’ve been a good choice, as the murky road produced some impressive skid marks on my shorts. Well, actually the shorts I’d borrowed from Brad. Sorry, Brad.
Finally, we reached the last stop on our fifteen-kilometer ride, the waterfall which every guidebook said was the star of the show: Pailón del Diablo.
We’d heard rumors of Pailón del Diablo’s impressive flow, but being the waterfall snobs from Oregon that we are, we didn’t expect anything we hadn’t seen before.
We were wrong.
Pailón del Diablo is no ordinary waterfall. 50 or so meters of Niagara-like flow condensed into a narrow channel, thundering into a boiling pool, complete with treacherous steps that take you down into the cauldron itself? Yes please.
We paid a nominal entrance fee and hiked a kilometer or so to the entrance to the falls. First, we climbed narrow, steep, stone steps that literally clung to the side of a cliff, steps that took us down into the Devil’s Cauldron itself. After getting sufficiently soaked by the spray of the thundering waterfall mere meters from us, we climbed up Grieta al Cielo, a narrow crack in the rock behind the cascada that requires you to crawl on all fours at times and perform some basic rock climbing moves at others, but affords you a vista of the backside of Pailón del Diablo, so close you could reach out and touch it (although I definitely wouldn’t recommend this unless you have a good life insurance policy, with Jon Davidson listed as the primary beneficiary).
Finally, after grabbing a cheap beer at the waterfall’s cafe and gift shop, we walked across a rickety suspension bridge to take in the whole dramatic chasm from a different vantage point.
Plan on spending a couple hours at this waterfall, enjoying it from its many awe-inspiring angles.
One can take the Ruta all the way to Puyo, some sixty kilometers from Baños, viewing more waterfalls along the way. But, soaked and tired, we opted to call it a day. Back at the entrance to Pailón del Diablo, we and our bikes caught a cheap bus back to town.
THE SWING AT THE END OF THE WORLD
2,600 meters above sea level, high above the valley in which Baños lies, there’s a swing.
It hangs from a treehouse at the edge of a cliff. You’ve probably seen it on Instagram. It’s called the Swing at the End of the World.
You can hike, bike or drive up to Casa del Arbol, where this swing resides. We drove, because America.
Upon arrival, Brad, myself, and our new friend Nat took some practice swings on a nearby, lower set of swings, and navigated a crude zipline, all the while waiting in line for The Swing.
Finally, our turn came, as did the rain. We strapped in using a single chain, because safety and stuff. A guy standing nearby had designated himself as the de facto swing pusher, so he gave us a shove and we were off, soaring above the steep slope below, taking in sweeping views of…dreary grey clouds. We’re told that on a clear day, this swing affords unmatchable views of Tungurahua Volcano. Today was not that day.
Full disclosure: this swing is nowhere near as scary as pictures might make it look. You don’t swing out over a cliff, but rather a very steep, grassy slope, although a fall would still mean a serious injury. Still, The Swing is definitely worth the trip, if for the gravity-defying photos alone.
ZIPLINING OVER A WATERFALL
Ziplining companies exist in droves in Baños. You can zipline through towering forest canopies or across gaping canyons. While chasing waterfalls the day before, we’d spotted a zipline at Cascada de Agoyan, right off the main highway, that took you directly over the Ecuadorian Andes’ tallest waterfall. We didn’t have any cash on us, so we vowed to return the following day, dollars in hand.
For only $15 apiece, Brad and I strapped on helmets and harnesses, climbed a tower, and were shoved off, soaring above the canyon below. We opted for the Superman pose, face down with arms outstretched, looking down at eagles and condors flying below us. At the other side of the canyon, we passed directly over Cascada de Agoyan’s 61-meter, two-forked plunge, and ended up on a rocky hillside. We hiked up a few hundred meters, then did the whole thing again in reverse.
What The Swing lacked in adrenaline, The Line more than made up for.
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Beyond the attractions I’ve described here, Baños is replete with scores of other worthwhile activities, like whitewater rafting, kayaking, canyoning, rappelling, mountain climbing, bungee jumping, soaking in mineral baths, and more.
Yes, its name means bathroom in Spanish, and yes, there’s a town called Guano nearby. But that’s the only crappy thing about this mountain town.
If adventure in Ecuador is what you seek, Baños is where you should seek it.