After several weeks in South America, I decided it was time to stop muddling through with my mixture of English and Italian and get some proper Spanish lessons. We chose Baños (full name: Baños de Agua Santa) as the spot, because it is surrounded by mountains, hot springs, and there are tons of outdoor activities to do in the area, which would keep Nick busy while I was in class, and also give us something to do in the afternoons. So, after two days of dealing with our broken camera in Quito, we hopped on a 3-hour bus and headed south. I had arranged to stay with the director of the Baños Spanish Center, where I would be taking four hours of classes every morning. We were greeted by the friendly, bubbly Liz Barrionuevo, and were given a huge room with our own bathroom in her lovely house, which is directly behind the school. She made us a delicious breakfast every morning and also cooked us either lunch or dinner every day. I really enjoyed living in a house and eating home-cooked meals, not to mention conversing in Spanish with Liz and her family at the dinner table. Staying in one place for nine days was also relaxing (no buses for nine days!). Liz was extremely helpful, hospitable, a wonderful cook, and even gave us a salsa lesson. I spent my mornings in my one-on-one Spanish class with my teacher Emma, and in the afternoons Nick and I went hiking, rock climbing, or biking in the area.
Baños is known for its thermal baths, which are fed by very hot water that is warmed by the nearby Tungurahua volcano. This volcano, which towers above the town but can only been seen on cloudless days, is active, and its last violent eruption was in 1999, when the town was evacuated for months. Liz told us about the economic and sociological effect this had on the town: some residents lost their lives trying to break past military barriers to get back into their homes, many residents never returned back when the town was re-opened, utilities and services were scarce for months, and the town's economy took a huge hit since it is almost entirely based on tourism. However, in the past few years the tourism economy has bounced back, and it's a very popular destination for lovers of the outdoors. Hiking, climbing, biking, river rafting, and 'puenting' (jumping off a bridge and swinging, attached by a rope) opportunities abound.
For those less inclined to adventure sports, there are five or six hot springs and countless waterfalls to be seen. Oh, and there is no shortage of sugar fixes for the sweet tooth: melcoches, a taffy-like candy that will pull out your molars, is made on the street and sold in candy-bar sized portions. It tastes better and is way more dentist-friendly when eaten fresh, but in my opinion the stuff is probably popular more for the fun of watching it being made than for its taste.
I highly recommend Baños to anyone who loves the outdoors and striking mountain backdrops. The highlights for us were rock climbing alongside the Río Pastaza, biking along the waterfall route and experiencing the Pailón del Diablo waterfall up close and personal, enojoying the views of the valley from hikes and the Café de Cielo, and taking a dip in the 118°F hot baths. And best of all, now I can (sort of) speak Spanish and people actually understand what I'm saying!
View the photo gallery for Baños (and please excuse the quality of the photos, since most of them were taken with an iPhone)