Just an hour’s flight away from the capital and located on the peninsula of Santa Elena, Montañita “little hill”grew slowly in popularity, first among intrepid surfers back in the day before it became a stop off on the hippie trail through South America during the 1960s.
Here, the locals live a proper Caribbean existence, spending their time surfing on the gentle swell, lazing on the sands that stretch for kilometres and eating the local delicacy, ceviche, a rich seafood dish soaked in vinegar.
Beach life in Montañita
We took a boat trip out into the sea where we donned a snorkel and mask before plunging into the bright blue waters for a look at the teeming sea life below.
Staying in a cheap wooden cabaña on the beach and eating and drinking until the dawn could easily have eaten up the rest of our days in Ecuador so it was with some reluctance that we decided to head back to Quito for our next excursion.
We took another bus ride but this time we headed south, to where the town of Baños de Agua Santa lies at the edges of the Amazon.
Known simply as Baños, this mountain town is considered the “Gateway to the Amazon” as it is the last big urban area before the mountains give way to the teeming jungles of the Amazon River basin.
The first sight we noticed arriving off the Quito bus late at night was of a gleaming white cross seemingly suspended in the night air high above the town.
A symbol of the strong Catholicism that dominates the region, the cross is erected on a surrounding cliff top to commemorate the belief that the Virgin Mary appeared at a nearby a waterfall.
Swinging out over the hills of Baños
The name Baños de Agua Santa (Spanish for Baths of Holy Water) is named for the hot springs dotted around the town, which locals believe have healing properties due to their various minerals.
Balanced precariously at 1,820 metres on the northern foothills of the Tungurahua volcano, Banos frequently witnesses powerful ash explosions and lava flows and although it was quite when we were there the evacuation symbols on all the roads and paths painted a picture of a town that lives in quiet expectation.
In October 1999, all 17,000 residents were forced to evacuate the city for weeks and the area remains closely monitored by the Geophysics Institute at E.P.N.
Meeting some of the locals in Baños
We took a trek up into the mountains on one bright morning to visit one lonely outpost where a sole sentinel keeps careful watch over the volcano glowering menacingly in the distance. Everywhere we went we were aware of the volcano on the nearby horizon and it was a constant reminder that the people here live with the awareness that at any time their lives could dramatically change.
Of course with all this volcano activity come the benefits of some exquisite beauty and there are no fewer than six waterfalls including the Virgen de Agua Santa, Inés María, Agoyán, El Manto de la Novia, Pailón del Diablo and Machay that splash down spectacularly out of the mountains.
There are also the numerous hot natural springs dotted about town that are almost a local institution where whole families congregate after the sun goes down to share a bath, have fun and exchange the gossip of the day as they relax in the steaming waters.
With its epic geography, Baños is also one of the most popular adventure sports hang-outs in Ecuador and the locals have transformed the hills, mountain tops and valleys into one big adult playground.
Getting ready to zipwire down a canyon in Baños
We threw ourselves down zip wires that stretched off over the valleys, bungee-jumped off bridges and plunged down white water rapids while clinging onto rubber rafts. And the best way to get around? On four-wheeled buggies that we could zip around on before plunging off road and along jungle paths.
One of our last stops was at a waterfall where we ate lunch perched high over the jungle while listening to the screeching sounds of monkeys in the distance.
As we sipped our cold beers we reflected that we would have to return to Ecuador as we could not afford to miss the Galapagos Islands but as the country’s popularity rises I’m pretty sure that the next taxi driver I get to bring me to the airport will have heard all about Ecuador.