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When someone in Ecuador mentions the word “Baños,” most people immediately think of the adventure capital of this Andean country whose formal name is Baños de Agua Santa. However, when you’re in or near the city of Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest, they’re actually referring to a small community outside the city. It’s a lovely little town about 30 minutes from downtown (take the #11, 12, or 27 bus for 25 cents or a taxi for $3-4). This town houses several thermal pools where services range from the cheap and basic to the more expensive spa packages, which are still cheaper than a lot of places.
Recently I discovered an unadvertised promotion at one of the newer providers, Piedra de Agua. Normally this business has two thermal packages, in addition to full-service spa treatments. For admission to the large contrast pool (three separate pools of varying temperatures), the Japanese pool (the hot pool here is much warmer than the large one), and the oval pool which is much cooler than the others, you can expect to pay $10 USD per person ($5 for children). If you want a little more of the VIP life, then for $30 per person you also get access to mud therapy pools, box steam baths, and a subterranean contrast pool. Here’s the part that isn’t advertised: If you arrive before 9 AM (they open at 6), you can get the VIP package as a 2-for-1 deal! Totally worth the early morning awakening.
After you arrive and pay the fee, you’re given a towel and escorted to the members’ locker room (if you’re doing the VIP service). Once you’ve changed into your swimwear, most people start the cycle with time in the Turkish bath (steam room). After this, or if you skip it like we did, you shower and head for the mud treatments. Most people start out with the “blue” mud. You cover all your exposed skin with it, let it dry, rinse off in the small pool and then have a shower in the “volcano” shower (it’s inside of a small replica of a volcano). This mud exfoliates your skin, and it’s pretty amazing how good it feels once you’ve rinsed off. Next up is the red mud treatment. Repeat the same steps as above, and then you’re ready for the next phase.
After you’ve done the mud therapy, you proceed to the box steam bath, a structure that you sit inside of while your head remains outside of the box. Usually this is a 15-minute process followed by a cold shower to close your pores. The room is quiet and soft music is pumped in. From here you head into the subterranean contrast pool where candlelit stairs guide you to a thermal pool where the water is about 40 degrees Celsius. You alternate time in here with a contrast pool of water at about 15 degrees. You’re supposed to try to stay in the cold water for about 2 minutes, but I’m not sure I made it past 45 seconds.
After your time bouncing back and forth between these pools, you can either return to the mud therapies, or spend time in the other contrast pools above ground. For a little extra you can add on other spa services like massage, exfoliative treatments, and so on.
They have a fairly decent menu if you get hungry during your stay. We found the sandwiches to be the most cost-effective. Salads are quite small and expensive and left us feeling hungry. The juices are quite excellent as are the smoothies. I can’t recommend the cheesecake, though, and that isn’t something I often say.
If you’re on a tighter budget, there is another thermal springs (you’ll pass it on your way to Piedra de Agua) that only charges $2.50 for adults (Turkish bath is $1 extra). The pools are a little cooler than Piedra’s (the hottest is usually around 30-35 degrees), and they don’t offer many of the services of the fancier places, but it’s still a lovely place to soak your cares away as well as to get to know many of the locals who frequent it.
So if you’re headed to enjoy the splendid colonial town of Cuenca, make sure to take the short trip up to Baños. You’ll really be glad you did.