“This is Baños, where there is no such thing as late and early is a strange concept.” My friend Daniel walked outside, tapping a cigarette against his pack. On the street, town workers wound their way up and down the lane, sweeping debris and collecting garbage. The Sunday sun sank behind the mountains, leaving the Clock Tower Plaza in a purple-gray haze. It was twilight and inside a local bar, La Cascada Brewpub had a full line-up of expats and burgers. While Daniel greeted a couple walking into the plaza park, my husband Neil attacked a steak sandwich with a serrated knife and bartender Christian refilled our drinks. In Baños, life is laidback and easy. Food is eclectic with residents—both local and transient—milling about with friendly smiles. Of the ten people at the bar, six of us had plans to rendezvous for a poker game. With an open invitation, Daniel included us and (just like that) Neil and I became a part of the Baños community, Ecuador’s premier hot spring town.
Before settling in Baños, Neil and I had traveled for six weeks. We’d swam with sharks in the Galapagos, shopped in Otavalo, hiked to Laguna San Pablo, and road-tripped down the Ecuadorian coast called the Ruta del Sol. We need a rest, a place to write and recuperate. After booking 7 nights at La Casa Verde Hotel, the only ecolodge in town, we found ourselves staying 2 more nights and then moving into an apartment.
Why Live in Baños?
Three and a half hours south of Quito, Baños de Santa Agua or Baños there sits in a tiny mountain basin and is considered the “Gateway to the Amazon”. The Pastaza River rushes along its northern border and several hot spring pools offer therapeutic waters for sore muscles. Manicured trees stand at attention along main thoroughfares and waterfalls cascade from high peaks to town’s edge. Walkable and safe, Baños is a small town with an international flare.
Up and down each block, restaurants and cafes playfully fuse world cuisines. On the south end of town, you can indulge in cheesy Swiss-style fondue while just off the main plaza Indian basmati rice melds with Italian risotto. Fresh fruit batidos (or shakes) highlight an afternoon in the park while corner bakeries called panaderias bake up sweet baguettes and flaky croissants.
Life in Baños is simple and affordable. Everything from rent and water to groceries and craft beer is available in town. You can relax on Monday in the hot springs, rent a dune buggy out to the Ruta de Cascadas on Tuesday, and hike up Tunguhuara Volcano on Wednesday. At night you can sleep in a modern apartment or crash in a cheap hostel. By morning, roosters crow at the edge of town and street vendors prepare food beside the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Agua Santa. Many stores are a 5-minute walk away and buses run every 15 minutes to Cuenca, Guayaquil, and Quito.
Finding an Apartment in Baños
You’re not a resident until you’ve found your residence. In Baños, apartment pricing begins at US$70 per month for a simple flat with one bedroom, kitchen, bath and not much else. At the far end of the spectrum, fully-furnished apartments with utilities, cable, couches, cookery, linens, and wardrobe can cost up to US$450. As the owners of La Casa Verde Hotel suggested, know your budget and barter firmly. Nothing is truly set in stone in Baños and a smile goes a long way.
Internet advertising is still a novelty here. So apartment hunters should walk around town, read flyers in windows, and ask their waiter about new apartments on the market. A small town, Baños is tight and honest. When you ask for a referral, many locals will disclose who they trust and decline to comment on people they don’t. In Ligua, a 15-minute drive outside of town, we visited a stunning 4-bedroom house with modern fixtures, fireplace, and prime real estate on the Pastaza River. The landlady Carmen was cordial and the asking price was US$300, a steal. On the downside, its location was too far from town. Having no cell phone or car, we reluctantly declined.
In town, we visited a house with multiple apartments inside a gated property. There was a sundeck and pool with a large yard, but the owners would not budge below US$450. For two writers, the budget was exorbitant and above the average cost of a Baños apartment. So again we declined.
Then, we visited Mayra’s Spanish School. The building had several apartments ranging from a simple studio to a palatial flat with panoramic views of the mountains. All apartments had a nice kitchen, clean bath, and simply appointed bedrooms with writing desk and mirrored wardrobes. Located at Oriente and Tapia, the building is a convenient location for restaurants, shopping, and Sunday strolls through the park. Cable and utilities included, the monthly lease was US$360. Patience paying off, we accepted and moved in the next day.
Though finding an apartment via word of mouth may seem strange, it’s actually exciting, almost like a treasure hunt. Through different barrios, you’ll meet locals and expats that will soon be your neighbors. You’ll visit parts of town that you had no idea existed, and in the end, a simple flyer in a window transforms into a comfortable home at a reasonable price.
Cost of Living in Baños
Once moved in, we saw our spending trends deflate. We had a home, and I wanted to cook, lounge, and TV-watch for days. On supermarket runs, a whole chicken, herbs, soap, and coffee cost US$12. A liter of beer at the superbodega is 98¢ and at a restaurant US$2. Eating like the locals, we dined at home on simple rice and eggs with steamed veggies. Vegetarian friendly, the meal cost US$1 each which let us save our cash for weekend meals at our favorite restaurants. Saturday night dinner for two with beer at the Dulce Carbon Steakhouse was US$9.
In Ecuador, home delivery is common for water, gas, and specialty foods like bakery breads and fruit. Twenty-liter jugs of water cost US$1.80 and gas tanks for cooking and hot water are $2.50. Announcing themselves with megaphones attached to the roof, large trucks sell wheat rolls for 10¢ while wild papaya collected from the jungle is 50¢. Named after the volcanic springs that bubble all over town, Baños is primarily a place to relax and rejuvenate. The most popular pools, Las Piscinas de La Virgen cost US$1 for all-day access to the mineral-rich baths. For a true splurge with unrivaled mountain vistas, Luna Runtun Hotel is a 5-minute taxi ride away, offering a US$30 day-spa and five pools with differing temperatures all perched on a lush promontory.
Work, Volunteer, and Possibly Live for Free
Several long-term expatriates own businesses. They run spa centers, hotels, the brewery, and apartment complexes. They are involved with import/export and help their Ecuadorian spouses run restaurants. But like us, many expats here are teachers. For an hour lesson, educators can expect a US$3 payrate. Several schools will hire English teachers. When you come into town, inquire about openings.
By our first weekend in Baños, Neil and I had 3 job offers: 2 for teaching and one for light web design. In a small town, word travels fast. On our trips through the square and during meals, we conversed with staff and strangers. We passed out business cards and shook hands. Within seven days, we were the “American writers” in town. People knew of us and wanted to meet. We were officially on the market. By our second day in the apartment, Neil and I had revised a new agreement with the landlady.
Now, Neil teaches English to Mayra and her children. I help with internet correspondences including email, PayPal, and online booking sites for her apartments. On Monday through Friday, we work for 3 hours. In exchange, we receive our two-bedroom apartment for free. Gratis! So, with specialized skills and friendly negotiations, it’s possible to live in Baños for free.
On a tree-lined avenue, the local literacy center called La Biblioteca or BIB hosts English teachers willing to commit for a month. For free accommodations, volunteers spend about 3 hours on weekday afternoons with local children. “Work shifts” entail reading to kids and playing games, an extremely rewarding experience.
Additionally, La Casa Verde Hotel takes volunteers. In exchange for a private en suite room, volunteers greet guests upon arrival, provide tours of the grounds, and answer questions about Baños. For outgoing, social people, the work is relaxed and easy, encompassing a few hours each day. Owners Rebecca and Doug Greenshields are an Aussie-Kiwi couple with a four-year-old son and one more baby expected in March 2012. They run the #1 Trip Advisor hotel in town. So, they screen candidates carefully. All applicants should be Spanish and English speakers and have a healthy knowledge of the world. Our friend Sally volunteered there for 6 weeks and loved it. The hotel sits on the Pastaza River and is home to a garden, three species of hummingbirds, and the best breakfast in town.
So far, no two days have been the same for us. Even with our work and writing routines, Neil and I wander the streets and find new places to explore. When we settled into Baños, the festival season began. Marching bands paraded through the streets, celebrating their neighborhoods. Fireworks burst in the night sky and people danced past midnight, sharing local spirits. This weekend, we walked out of our apartment to find the street closed and a huge block party beginning. A stage had been built and giant speakers lined the curb! Our landlady rolled her eyes, saying that the party would last until 3am. Ready for the celebration, we couldn’t have been happier.
Tonight, we joined a poker game with five other expats from Minnesota, Oklahoma, Chicago, and Alabama. It was a quiet night with American football stream from the computer and a few re-raises. Our host Aaron passed around homemade guacamole whilst his wife offered hand-cut French fries. Ten minutes before, I was a stranger to them. Now, we were sharing rum-and-cokes. For a second, my mind hiccupped and I had a “we’re not in New York anymore” moment. Reality check: I’m an expat in Baños. Next to me, Daniel watched the game. His chips gone, he sat and enjoyed the camaraderie. Neil glanced at his hand and raised. The guys eyed him suspiciously, measuring Neil’s intentions, estimating his cards. I’d won three hands in a row and sat now with Queen-high—my head still tackling the idea of Baños. Ah, why not. I pushed in my chips. “All in.”
About the author: Melissa Ruttanai is a freelance travel writer and SEO copywriter from New York. With a master degree in education and a tenured teaching job, she quit to travel the world with her husband, Neil Friedman. With their MacBook and Canon 60D, they are on a 2-year hunt for the world’s best cuisine, landscapes, and music festivals. By bus, tuk-tuk and long-tail boat, she hopes her adventures will inspire others to take a chance, think beyond the mainstream, and travel. Read about her current adventures at www.worldwinder.com , Facebook, and Twitter.
Melissa is a senior writer at Weekend Notes as well as a contributor to DINK Life, Trazzler, International Living Magazine, On Holiday Magazine, Cheap O Airlines Blog, and City Walks iPhone Apps.