Baños de Agua Sante, or baths of holy water in Spanish, is a town in central Ecuador known for the healing properties of its surrounding hot springs. So powerful are the curative properties of the springs that the town is named after them.
Known locally as Baños it is set in the foothills of Tungurahua volcano with an altitude of 1800m making it cooler than the coastal cities such as Guayaquil and much more relaxed than the nations capital Quito. It is also the largest big town before reaching the amazon to the east making it a starting point for people going that direction. Add to this the fact that the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared at one of its numerous waterfalls and you have one popular tourist destination.
Walk around Baños any weekend and you will see a mix of lazy looking people there from the big city to unwind, adventurers gearing up experience the amazon and devout Catholics hoping to put themselves in a better position in the afterlife by visiting the waterfall where the Virgin Mary appeared.
Around this eclectic mix of visitors enterprising locals have set up businesses to cater for their needs. Quality restaurants serving both local and international cuisine sit in the street alongside numerous shops selling statues of the Virgin Mary, while adventure tour companies entice you with photos of rugged smiling people having the time of their lives.
For all its tourism Baños retains the charm of a rural town. Often covered in grey clouds due to its altitude the town is dominated by the cathedral in the town square. Aptly named Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water it is possible to sit and admire this Neo Gothic cathedral and at the same time experience the temperamental weather the region has to offer.
It is also the capital of adventure sports in Ecuador with canoeing, kayaking, zip lining and bridge jumping among the most popular. I had been told by a fellow traveller that I should try bridge jumping or Puenting in Spanish when I got to Baños, so I pencilled it in as a maybe because I wasn’t really sure what it involved.
After a few days in Baños I hadn’t heard much about the aforementioned bridge jumping and it had almost slipped my mind completely as I rented a mountain bike to take in the scenery and waterfalls to the south of the town. As I pedalled my way south into the dark green countryside I saw a man standing on a bridge as I approached. He looked like he was just standing there with some equipment. Maybe he’s waiting for a lift somewhere I thought to myself as I got closer. When I got near enough to see more detail it dawned on me that he was providing the bridge jumping service. He had a bungee rope attached the railings of the bridge and the harnesses and safety gear lay on the ground beside him.
“Puente,” he said as he saw me approach.
“Ah…How much,” I asked totally unprepared to jump off a bridge that day.
“Three jumps for twenty dollars,” he replied.
Seems quite the bargain I thought to myself, the value for money suppressing whatever reservations I had about a stranger on a bridge in Ecuador offering to tie me to one end of a rope and supervise as I jumped off the bridge.
I have to admit to feeling nervous as he tightened the harness and made sure the rope was free of any obstacles. This wasn’t exactly the professional operation you would like to have behind you when you were about to jump off a bridge and I briefly scanned newspaper headings in my head to see if any bridge jumpers had been killed in the last few days. This came up a blank so before I knew it I was standing on a small platform staring into the distance.
“Just look ahead and not down,” was the advice.
Too late for that I thought as I had already glanced down to the river below. It looked to be a good sixty metres but I wasn’t sure.
I stood on the platform and looked straight ahead. Having already paid the twenty dollars I felt there was nothing for it now but to jump. There was a silence followed by a whoosh as I went into free fall and the air sped past my face. The combination of sensory overload, fear and adrenaline made for one hell of a rush.
This jump was a bit different from normal bungee jumping. Aside from the jumps being sold on random bridges like coffee from a van, I didn’t spring vertically back up like you do on a bungee. Instead I swung back and forth under the bridge in a pendulum motion until almost stationary.
My second and third jumps were much more relaxed affairs. For one I wasn’t surprised to be doing it. The first jump had me on a peaceful bike ride one minute, the next I was standing on the side of a bridge ready to jump. I also knew what I was doing next time so didn’t need any instruction, all the guy had to do was harness me in and let me go. As well as that I knew how the jump would go, a short free fall then swinging back and forth under the bridge. I was even able to take in the views of the surrounding river banks and water below on my following jumps. The one thing that was missing from my next jumps was the buzz I got from the first. Being prepared and knowing what’s coming took the rush out of the other jumps but they were hugely enjoyable nonetheless.
The three jumps took less than twenty minutes and by the time I had finished, more people had lined up to jump.
Back on my bike fuelled by energy and adrenaline I headed further south uphill to a place called Casa del Arbol or house of trees in English. Here there is magnificent view of the canopy below where it is possible to have a drink in the café or take a series of ziplines down through forest.
It was possible to do the five ziplines for the bargain price of fifteen dollars. At this price I couldn’t resist, first doing the ziplines and then returning for a well-deserved beer.