Ecuador. A tiny blip on the South America continent, yet it holds more than the blob on the map suggests. My two favourite towns in Ecuador were opposites, but are equally worth the visit.
Baños de Agua Santa (in English: Baths of Healthy Water) in central Ecuador is famous for … well can you guess? That’s right, the thermal springs located around town, whose waters are reputedly medicinal.
It’s overly touristy, but it’s manageable in off season. And the tourism industry has created a hive of activities, shops and eateries in town.
Each day I was conflicted with which shops to visit, where to dine, and which activity to pursue that day. You could choose from:
- Bathing in hot springs
- Cycling through mountainous landscape
- Getting thrown about while white-water rafting
- Having a massage
- Swinging from a bridge
- Going for a hike
- Abseiling down waterfalls
- … and plenty more!
The main thermal springs are located beneath a waterfall lit purple at night. But they are terribly overcrowded; you have little room to move, let alone relax. So while its situation could have been healing, it was hard to tell when you were put off with a man’s smelly armpit in your face.
Hiking is beautiful as well. There are plenty of walks – and cycling routes – you can take from the centre of town itself. Unfortunately, the temperamental equatorial climate fogged the landscape, with dense mists always concealing the volcano that supposedly towered behind the town.
With all those hectic activities – hiking, canyoning, white water rafting, cycling, and more – you deserve the pampering.
You’ve got a wealth of services to choose from in the centre of town too, but they all do the same thing: leave you to undress and then knead your body, as a CD of soothing pop songs played with the Andean wind flute plays in the background.
The best activity I attempted in Baños was also the one that initially terrified me; canyoning. This involved rappelling down a number of waterfalls.
The first, only 15 metres, was actually the most difficult. It was you against the water, which pushed against your legs in attempt to dislodge you. At the bottom, you simply let go of the rope – your life support – and plunged backwards into the waters.
The final waterfall was terrifying. From above, I couldn’t see its trajectory, only the water gushing over the edge into an abyss. Further away, the ground below looked a long, LONG, way down (the waterfall was, in fact 45m, high). Once I was strapped into the ropes and the safety harness, the instructor told me to get on my knees and start descending.
After two metres of descent, the rock gave way and I found myself hanging freely in the air. The back cavern of the waterfall was too far away for my legs to reach, so for the rest of the descent I just hung midair in the middle of a thunderous waterfall.
Above me, I could see the water cascading over the edge; up this close each individual drop seemed magnified as it headed down my way. Below, it crashed into the rocks. But the descent itself was peaceful, slow, giving me enough time to take everything in. I won’t be able to view waterfalls the same way after that.
If Baños provided the thrill, Otavalo was all about retail therapy.
Otavalo is a small town in the north, between Quito and the Ecuador-Colombia border. I went on a Thursday, but on Saturdays the town is apparently chockas with market stalls of all types: animals, food, handicrafts, and so on.
On a Thursday, there are enough stalls to entertain without completely overwhelming the shopper. The artisan marketplace was filled with colourful cloths, vibrant canvases, patchwork clothing, Panama hats and chunky multicoloured beaded jewellery.
I had to remind myself of the lack of space in my backpack to resist such temptations, but even here the salespeople were mindful: many stalls sold large tote bags for the inevitable Otavalo-market spillover.
After Otavalo, I headed to the border without regretting the brevity of my stay in this country. As fun as it was, I felt compelled to move onwards to Colombia, a land for me full of mystery, a land still to be popularised by the masses.
Ecuador was simply a stop along the way to my final South American destination…
Be inspired with more destinations in South America
South America is full of fun, inspiring and adventurous locations. Here are just a few of my favourite:
- Canyoning a waterfall is fun. But if you just like waterfalls, you MUST visit Iguazu Falls
- Nothing beats Machu Picchu for mystifying and beautiful ruins
- Check out the most hypnotising natural beauty at Laguna 69 in Peru
- Challenge yourself with the hike into and out of the world’s 2nd deepest canyon
- Relax on the shores of Colombia’s touch of the Caribbean