Lesbian Travel Guide to Banos Ecuador

MEG CALE

Baños, Ecuador  – or  Baños de Agua Santa – was one of our favorite places on our wedding trip to Ecuador. We spent our actual wedding at My Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel but the first six days of our adventures were spent backpacking in Banos. We would go back again in a heartbeat. This lesbian travel guide to Banos Ecuador has travel tips anyone can benefit from, not just LGBT travelers or queer women in particular.

The town is situated in a valley at the base of a volcano. While the volcano is active it’s nothing to worry about because it’s far enough away to be safe. You can see some smoke coming from the top of the volcano on a clear day.

One thing to be aware of is the time of year you are planning on traveling to Banos. We were in Ecuador in September so it was the off season for travelers. There were gorgeous clouds and a bit of rain each day but it didn’t stop us from doing everything we wanted to do while we were there. But it could impact your packing list.

Banos is in a unique location nestled in a valley between volcanoes and mountains, with nearby rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs. The town is known for its thermal baths – which we skipped – we’ll get into that later- and because it’s the adventure sports capital of Ecuador.

We spent 5 and a half days in Banos, which was plenty of time to explore and the ideal length of stay on a shorter trip. Here’s our lesbian travel guide to Banos Ecuador.

“We visit a lot of different places, but Banos is special. There is no doubt in my mind that we’ll be back.”

LINDSAY CALE

Getting to Banos Ecuador

Most people will fly into Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport. It’s actually about 40 minutes outside of Quito. We flew with a budget airline and had a flight delay that caused us to miss our connection in Miami. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it did put us landing at 5AM. There are two ways to get to Banos, by cab for about $110 USD or by buying bus tickets for about $1 USD. We decided to go for the more expensive cab option because we were traveling with all our wedding gear in an absurdly large (and completely unnecessary) suitcase. We were concerned about leaving our baggage under the bus and having it stolen on the way. Once we landed at 5 AM and realized we would have had to spend several hours standing around at the bus station it made it very clear we’d be taking a cab.

Lindsay is gender nonconforming. In some countries, people think she’s a guy and we’re able to pass as a straight couple. In other countries, they’re “yes ma’am ing” us. We didn’t really know what to expect in Ecuador and were not sure what the  safety issues would be for us as a queer couple. We didn’t want to risk having something homophobic happen and ruining the start of our wedding trip so we opted to take the more expensive and more private route. We have the means to make these choices but recognize not everyone is in our situation. Make the choice that’s best for you.

When we landed, it was a matter of deciding between taking a cab to Quito and waiting until a more reasonable hour or heading straight to Banos. We had the option to take a cab to Quito for $30 USD, sleep at the hostel we booked for $35 USD to get a few hours, and then take another cab back the direction we came at 8 or 9 in the morning to head to Banos. OR we could just say eff it and take a cab to Banos from the airport. We decided to take the three-hour cab ride at 5AM for $110 and not mess around with the drive to Quito.

Best choice we could have made. Once we arrived in Banos we checked into our hostel and slept until noon before heading out to explore on our first day.

Where to Stay in Banos

LGBT Travellers have a variety of options for accommodations in Banos. Accommodations are affordable and available for every style and budget. LGBT couples seeking romantic accommodations have private room hostels, haciendas, small locally owned inns, and major multi-star hotels to chose from.

We do not stay in dorm hostels when we are traveling together because of the potentially uncomfortable situations (or danger) Lindsay can face when people aren’t sure of her gender.

Some morning #cloudporn for you.

A video posted by Meg Cale (@megcale) on

Best Backpacker Budget Hostels in Banos

Santa Cruz Backpackers Hostal

While Santa Cruz Backpackers Hostal is not the cheapest hostel in Banos it is one of the most conveniently located. It’s right downtown in the thick of everything. You’ll save money on taxi services staying here and you’ll get all the free wifi you can use.

Hostal Cañalimeña

Cañalimeña features a fully equipped common kitchen to prepare your own meals, a terrace with panoramic views and a common room with free computers in downtown Baños. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the hostel and rooms with private bathrooms. It’s everything you need in a hostel for a reasonable price of $14 USD per night.

 

Best Mid-Range Hotels in Banos  

 

Hostal Monte Carmelo

We opted to stay at Hostal Monte Carmelo in a private room. Honestly, the price, accommodations, and service couldn’t have been more perfect. For $20 USD a night we had a double bed, private bathroom, and free breakfast each morning. The room was simple but perfect for our needs. The shower was hot and there was free wifi. Each morning, the owner Mario made us breakfast. We had our choice of eggs, two croissants, fresh fruit, fresh squeezed juice, and coffee. It was the best free breakfast I’ve ever had in my travels. Mario went as far as to provide rides for us twice, once for free and once at a nominal fee. The hostel was a bit further from the city center, about a 10-minute walk, but the distance meant we were far enough away from the bars to have a very quiet night’s sleep.

Best Luxury Hotels in Banos

Luna Runtun Adventure Spa

Luna Runtun is a gorgeous luxury hotel set high above the city of Banos  with a billion dollar view. The hotel itself has two different restaurants and a private hot spring spa that had some of the best views of Banos. Even if you don’t stay at the resort you can come have dinner or for $20 use the spas for the day.

Samari Spa Resort

Samari Spa is much closer to the city and offers all the trappings of a luxury stay. Samari boasts beautiful and romantic junior suites complete with King Sized beds, personal fireplaces, and jacuzzis.

Best AirBnBs in Banos Ecuador

Ayamtai Jea Guest House I

For a budget friendly stay try renting a room in this cozy, rustic home. The quiet house has a beautiful fireplace and is located just 5-minutes from downtown. Perks include unlimited free coffee and tea, free use of laundry facilities and local knowledge-  the home is owned by local Ecuadorian family who originated from the Amazon jungle. Save $35 on your first Airbnb stay.

Mountain retreat

For a private house  enjoy this two bedroom- two bathroom house on the banks of the Pastaza. It’s visually stunning and is surrounded by gorgeous mountains. The temperature is mild, the people are warm and friendly, and the neighborhood is very safe. Just one mile outside of town guests can Fall asleep to the sound of the rushing river, and wake up to spectacular views. Save $35 on your first Airbnb stay.

Things To Do in Banos

Pailón del Diablo

Or Devil’s Cauldron in English is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. For the $1.50 entry fee, it’s an unbeatable adventure in Banos and a MUST see. Fair warning, you will get wet while hiking down towards the waterfall. There are some stunning bridges, staircases, and vistas to view the waterfall from. Definitely worth the time. I’d recommend going before 10AM when the tour buses start to arrive.

A video posted by Meg Cale (@megcale) on

See a Bunch of Waterfalls

The ‘Ruta de las Cascadas’ is exactly what it sounds like, a route with a bunch of waterfalls. There are so many giant waterfalls in Banos that they’re literally everywhere. The route is easily accessible by all sorts of means take a bus tour, rent a bicycle, or hire a cabbie for the day. We went on the waterfalls tour offered by many of the tour companies and were a bit disappointed because we took very short stops at numerous waterfalls sometimes not even getting off the bus. If we could go back and do it again we’d rent bicycles and ride them along the road side to the Pailon del Diablo so we’d have more time to explore on our own.

Head Out for a Guided Trek in the Amazon

We bought a one day tour package from a tour operator that took us through a fish farm, on a canoe ride and on a short trek up to a giant rope swing and hammocks. The view was incredible and definitely worth the $10 per person we paid for the adventure. Lindsay tried the rope swing, which was really just a piece of wood tied to a rope hanging from a tree about 400 feet off the ground. I said – “OH FUCK NAH – I’m not doing that.” but happily took GoPro footage of her while she tried it. This was Lindsay’s favorite activity in Banos and definitely worth the price.

Relax in the Thermal Hot Springs

The thermal hot springs are the namesake of Banos. For $3.50 USD you will get to soak in the warm waters to your heart’s content. The water comes from the nearby active volcanoes and varies in temperature. Visitors are required to wear a swim cap and they have gendered locker room areas. Which is why we skipped the baths. We never really know what to expect in areas where Lindsay has to use the bathroom or change in a gendered space. In some places, people assume she’s a man and can get very confused when she gets down to a swimsuit and realize that she has breasts. It got pretty awkward on one hike when some children were very confused by Lindsay’s short hair and bikini top. We tried to create a teachable moment with the kids but they had very little English and we had very little Spanish. Lindsay is very shy by nature and loathes being the center of attention [opposites attract?] she also has pretty intense anxiety around using gendered spaces because of the looks and nasty comments she’s gotten over the years. There was so little information available for LGBT travelers in Ecuador let alone Banos that when we were planning this trip that we didn’t have a solid idea of what was to be expected. We opted for better safe than sorry, but depending on how you present your experience could be 100% fine.  

Swing Sky High at the Casa Del Arbol

Casa Del Arbol is sometimes called “The Swing at the End of the World”. The photos are pretty iconic at this point but the truth is there are multiple swings in Banos. I’d recommend taking a taxi up the hills to the swings because it’s about half the price of the tour and you’ll get way more time and won’t have to wait in a huge line. Try to head up on a clear day. I loved the foggy effect of the photos we took, but Lindsay really wanted to get clear views of the swing. For $2 USD you’ll get entrance into one portion that has four different swings. There are other swings and various places throughout Banos. Give em all a try and get the perfect Instagram shot.

Try to Stay Afloat While White Water Rafting

The local Pastaza River has rapids which range from class 2-5 depending on the season and water levels. Rafting in Banos is a strenuous activity for the physically fit because of the level of rapids. Rio Pastaza is fast and bumpy but not dangerous. Most tour companies have extra staff on hand who act as both medics and photographers for the participants. A full day tour will cost about $25 USD per person and comes with all the supplies you’ll need and lunch. Make sure to book rafting tours a day or two in advance because they leave bright and early in the morning.  

Spend a Day Waterfall Canyoning

Canyoning was by far my favorite activity we did while we were in Banos. Depending on what time of year you visit Banos, canyoning is varying in intensity. Canyoning involves activities like rappelling down waterfalls, cliff jumping, swimming, and walking through rapids. Tour providers suit you up with a wetsuit, shoes, helmet, and harness to wear for the day. Ask for a helmet with a GoPro mount attached, trust me. It’s worth it. These tours can cost about $30 for a half day and $60 for a full day, but they’re worth every penny.

Bridge Swinging… at Your Own Risk

Bridge Swinging is kinda like Bungee Jumping except you fall forwards and flip/swing under the bridge. Bridge swinging is one of the many adventure sport activities that tourists visit Baños specifically to experience. There aren’t many places in the world where you can just stroll up to a roadside stand on a 350-foot bridge, hand a guy a twenty and jump over the side. Okay okay – they have “safety equipment” but this activity is definitely not for me. Maybe it’s for you – and that’s cool. Don’t die. Please. If you’d like your demise documented for your loyal followers you can pay an extra $5 USD and have photos taken while you swiftly fall to your death pleasure.

Visit the Basilica

In the center of Banos, there is a giant church called, Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa which means Our Lady of the Holy Water. The inside is decorated with giant murals depicting the history of the area. The church’s facade is made from local volcanic stone and some of the murals inside depict the volcanic eruptions that have occurred in the region. The Basilica is located in an area of heavy foot traffic and is easily accessible while wandering around the city.

Try Extreme Ziplining

Lindsay loves this kind of thing – me – well, I have an aversion to activities that induce dying. I did it through, I screamed the whole way, but I did it. There are several areas for zip lining all around Banos. When you arrive in town stop at one of the local tourism offices and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. You can choose between entire tours of just zip lines at about $20 per person for two hours or you can tack on one zip line ride to another tour you’re interested in joining. We choose the later option and paid $10 USD per person. Our ride was round trip with a zip line one direction and a cable car on the way back while overlooking giant waterfalls. Afraid of heights or not, it was a pretty cool experience. This is one of those travel activities that you NEED a GoPro for, we were lucky to get some photos mid ride of my terror. You can thank Lindsay for that.

Take a Leisurely Hike

Baños is set in a valley surrounded by gorgeous hills and volcanoes. There are tons of beautiful hiking trails for all skill levels surrounding Banos. The most popular hikes are Bellavista or El Virgen.  

Sample Local Sugar Cane Taffy

Walking through Baños, there are candy stores everywhere, you can’t miss seeing someone standing in the doorway of a shop, pulling and folding taffy.  One of those treats is Banos’ favorite sugar cane taffy, Melcocha. It’s made by pulling the taffy through a hook hanging on the door frame of the shop.

Cultural Tours of the Indigenous Communities

Visiting indigenous communities has never been more accessible. There are very few experiences as worthwhile as bridging connections with people who are different than you. The trouble is ensuring those experiences are authentic and fair for all parties. One big thing I’ve learned while traveling is that the phrase “off the beaten path” generally means a heavily marketed, well worn path constructed by colonizing and capitalistic forces.

In nearly every country around the world, indigenous communities have been displaced and lied to by colonizing outsiders. Hotels now line the shores of Galapagos where fishing villages used to be and indigenous communities are limited in their land and resources. That being said, many indigenous communities around the world depend on tourism for financial resources to pay for basic necessities like education and access to healthcare.

All of this is a note of caution for those who are interested in visiting indigenous communities. One of the ways you can lessen your impact is by working with a touring company that has a proven track record like written responsible tourism policy and references. You may consider also hiring a guide who is able to translate the experience. You may want to consider reading up about the communities you are visiting in advance. Should you choose to visit the communities.

Shop for Handicrafts and Locally Made Goods

Trinket shopping is both fun and helps the economy. Cough – or at least that’s what I tell Lindsay as we set off for the 100th shop we’ve visited. Every country we visit I bring back one or two things for friends and family back home. I have questioned the validity of their claims that everything is handmade and created locally, but that’s what they say.  In Banos, you can find all kinds of goods. Lindsay bought a pair of high top sneakers and I bought some table runners for our wedding brunch. A couple tips, prices are marked up, definitely try to haggle with shop owners. You’ll have more luck with this in high season, we were there during the rainy season and shop owners didn’t budge as much on prices. The trick to haggling is spending a really long time looking at something and being prepared to walk away if the price is too high.

Get a Massage or Pedicure or Facial or ALL Three

I never met a spa I didn’t like. Honestly – If I could spa treatment my way around the world – I’d do it in a heartbeat [ hey spa owners, I’m looking at you 😉 ] One of my favorite parts about flash-packing trips is getting a great spa service. I don’t indulge as much when I’m traveling long term, but on those short trip – boy do I indulge. Banos is just as much a spa town as it is an adventure sports town. A spa day was the perfect compromise for us because I’m not as adventure sport-inclined as Lindsay. There are different levels of spas in Banos, there are the high-end spas in luxury hotels, like Luna Run Tun but there are also budget spas on nearly every street corner with very affordable services. It’s basically the difference between going to a local nail salon and going to a full day spa in most western countries. Many of the smaller spas do not have websites or TripAdvisor reviews, so it makes it difficult to compare but expect to pay around $25-$30 USD for an hour long massage service.  We ended up doing a couple’s massage and a facial treatment at two different street side spas and didn’t run into any issues being an LGBT couple.

Try Ecuador’s World Famous Coffee and Hot Chocolate

One of Ecuador’s most famous exports is Ecuadorian Pacari Chocolate. Coffee and Cocoa beans are grown on the coasts and near the Amazon jungle. That’s about as fresh as you can get. The chocolate is local, organic, and when you buy it you’re helping the economy sustain locally produced goods. It’s also absurdly delicious. Normally I’d prefer coffee over just about everything but in Baños there was some stiff competition.

  • Honey Coffee & Tea

Honey is so Instagrammable that I nearly squealed when I saw it. Judge me – It’s fine. I accept the absurdity but it is THAT cute. It’s the stuff of a long term travel blogger’s dream – strong WIFI, great coffee, desserts and light food all in one place. They have all the fancy variations of brewing like hand pours, siphons, french press and the more traditional espresso machine. At $1.50 for a cup of coffee, it’s not the cheapest place to have breakfast in Banos, but it might be one of the cutest places. Check out the reviews on TripAdvisor.

  • Arome Chocolate & Coffee

Arome Chocolate is an adorable little cafe and an excellent choice for chocolate in Baños.  This cafe is pretty much a chocolate lover’s’ heaven. You’ll find high-end bars of international brands like Pacari chocolate, toasted cacao beans, and incredible tiramisu. Their specialty is hot chocolate. You can have their house selection or you can create a custom cup made from your choice of chocolate bars in the store. Lindsay was in love with it, I liked it, but it was a bit sweet for my taste. Whatever your taste Ecuadorian hot chocolate is definitely something to try. There are five Arome locations around Baños but our favorite was one block over from Parque Palomino Flores. You can check out Arome Chocolate and Coffee’s reviews, find maps, and their menu on TripAdvisor.

Is Banos Ecuador LGBT Friendly?

Ecuador is a mostly Catholic, socially conservative country, and in general terms, the nation is considerably homophobic and transphobic. They’ve taken many strides in recent years in terms of policy, but socially Ecuador lacks in LGBT acceptance. Public displays of affection are rare and many local LGBT people choose to remain discreet in their interactions. That being said, Ecuador does have nondiscrimination policies in place that are inclusive of sexual orientation but not gender identity. Be mindful that policy does not mean locals will be accepting. Lindsay and I visited Ecuador for our wedding and never once felt in danger or discriminated against while we were traveling. We do not engage in regular public displays of affection and we avoid alcohol while traveling. For more safety tips check out my article on LGBT travel safety

In terms of sexual activities, dating and hooking up – We could not find a single LGBT bar in Banos. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It just means they are not well advertised to tourists. That could be for safety reasons. If you are looking to hire a sex worker, keep in mind that sex work is legal in Ecuador, most mid-sized cities including Banos will have a brothel. They may or may not be welcoming of queer women in these establishments. The best way to find a brothel is to ask a cab driver, although be cautious when doing this. Condoms are widely available at pharmacies and convenience stores but the morning after pill is not. It is wise to bring your preferred barriers and contraceptives with you while you are traveling.

Resources:

http://www.fedaeps.org/ LGBT nonprofit community center

http://www.galapagosgay.com/ LGBT Tour Operator- Caters to predominately gay men.

http://ecuadorgaytours.blogspot.com/ LGBT Tour Operator- Caters to predominately gay men.  

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