Banos has a reputation as a tourist town, but don’t let that put you off. This little town straddling the eastern flanks of the Andes sees plenty of backpackers, but that hasn’t ruined it one bit.
Between the tourist agencies and gringo-esque coffee shops lining the colonial center’s streets, there’s a die-hard Andean zest. Some mornings there’s a small local produce market near the main plaza, and at lunchtime the smell of spit-roasting guinea pig wafts on the breeze.
There’s plenty of foreign backpackers to be sure, but the town is also wildly popular with Ecuadorian families. Most of the Ecuadorian tourists are here for one reason: the hydrothermal springs that litter the area. A handful of the most popular are right in the center of town. For people that don’t get excited over hot water (like myself) there’s plenty more to Banos. Even with a tacky freebie map from the tourism office, you should easily be able to find half a dozen decent day hikes through the surrounding hills, starting at your hostel’s doorstep. Apparently most of the hikes are fairly safe for a tourist town, but if you don’t like walking then don’t despair. Those tourism agencies that perch on every street corner offer a plethora of horse rides, white water rafting adventures, mountain biking, weird cheesy bus tours and the ubiquitous zip line. Nothing is particularly expensive, and it’s easy to shop around and shave quite a bit off the price. My pick was a rather unusual oddity – some kind of awkward spawn of cross-breeding between a go-kart and dune buggie.
Driving a go-kart down a highway may not sound like the best idea, but at a few bucks an hour, it made for an easy way to see Banos’ second most famous attraction: the waterfalls. The valley-side highway leading out of Banos is lined with scores of silver cascades snaking their way down the steep cliffs. Most can be seen from the highway (just stop each time you see a zip line tower), but some require short walks to reach.
Many of the tourists bound for the falls seemed to opt for mountain bikes, even though the ride isn’t the best. The highway is frequented by freight trucks, and the trip takes riders through a number of dank, dark tunnels.
If you need to take a breather between escapades into the surrounding countryside, the town itself has plenty to keep you occupied. First, head to the Basilica and its unusual museum of curiosities. The latter is difficult to describe, but I’ll try. Imagine after decades of compulsive hoarding, your eccentric, religious grandparents try stuffing everything they own in some church cloisters. That’s the museum in a nutshell. They have everything from pickled snakes to coin collections, dusty military uniforms to one of the worst taxidermy exhibitions you will ever see. If you need to get the taste of dead animal out of your mouth, trying some of the local toffee. It’s traditionally made street-side with a theatrical process involving swinging a sugary mass like a lasso. The treat is madly popular with Ecuadorian weekend trippers for good reason: it’s so sweet you can feel your teeth squirming to pop out of your gums. Just be sure to only eat it when it’s hard; once unwrapped, the gooey stuff is about as easy to handle as The Incredible Blob.