The volcanic springs at Baños de Agua Santa are not what I imagined.

Because I enjoy surprises and I’m too lazy, apparently, to Google, I had in mind something along the lines of Iceland’s exotic, naturally occurring geothermal ponds. In fact, Baños is more like public pools filled with hot pee.

This is in no way a criticism of the Baños experience. On the contrary, the hot pee pools are very soothing. At night, under a full moon, with Andean peaks black against the stars and faint waterfall ribbons cascading from the mists, they’re magical.

That is, if you can satisfy management’s baffling entry procedure. Which is not posted anywhere, and which no one explains in advance to newbies. Not even this guy. Complete guide, my ass.

Chantal and I arrived at Termas de la Virgen on a Monday evening with our constant globetrotting companions, Chris and Filiep, who were visiting us for the first time in Ecuador. Together, we had already toured Quito and spent an alarming amount of money at the Otavalo market. We were in Baños to fulfill a bucket list item for Chris (zipline through the canopy) and another for Chantal (Swing at the End of the World). But first, we would baste ourselves in pee.

Termas de la Virgen seems to be the largest thermal bath in Baños de Agua Santa. It’s certainly not hard to miss on a walking tour of the city, especially if you find yourself palming the sainted waters of Cascada Cabellera de la Virgen into your mouth. (Those would be the same sainted waters that receive dog butts and poopy baby bums for frequent bathing. I wish I’d known that a few minutes earlier.)


You will locate a boletería inside the front entrance. It is expertly isolated from any clue that might inform you what to do after you’ve purchased your boleto. So, you ask. In Spanish, naturally.

“Where do we go now?”

“Down the hall and through the door.”

“Are there places where we can change into our swimsuits?”

“Down the hall and through the door.”

“Are there lockers?”

“Down the hall and through the door.”

We went down the hall and through the door. A middle-aged woman on the other side of the door, who sat next to a large square drum filled with tickets, pointed to a slot at the top of the drum and asked us to deposit our tickets into it. This was her job.

“Do you have shower caps?” she asked us.


“You must wear a shower cap. You can buy or rent shower caps at the cafeteria. Through the door and down the hall.”

Right. We pushed through the door and were instantly assaulted. There were people everywhere: in swimsuits and shower caps; in underwear and towels; suits and ties and Sunday dresses; a few semi-naked. I’m pretty sure that young couple was having hasty sex in a change room. The change rooms were not segregated by gender, nor were the showers. Entire families ate sandwiches in the stalls. Food wrappers and empty soda cans bobbed on ankle deep water. Machine gun Spanish and Latin pop music ricocheted off the blandly painted cinder block walls. We froze in a tight, not-so-secure-feeling bundle, clutching our pearls and taking it all in with stupefied, what-the-fuck expressions on our faces. It was pandemonium.

We must have stood there longer than even we realized. A young woman approached and spoke to us in a British accent.

“It’s a little intimidating, isn’t it?”

“A bit,” one of us replied. I don’t know who said it. I was still frozen in place with my mouth open.

“See those yellow and blue plastic bins at the end of the hall?” she pointed. “Collect one for your clothes and valuables. Take it to a change room and change. Bring the bin to the locker room, here, to deposit your things in a locker. You have to pay the woman for your key. Keep the key with you at all times. Have a shower and enter the baths over there. Do you have shower caps?”


“You must wear a shower cap. You can buy or rent shower caps at the cafeteria. Have fun.”

She literally congratulated herself for being so helpful (“It’s a good thing you met me”) and wandered off with her boyfriend, who spent the entire time staring at his phone.

The cafeteria did indeed offer shower caps. We had our choice of new and used. I selected a very saucy used shower cap, because what the hell. I still have it.

The change room area was utter mayhem. I snagged a stall from Hasty Sex Couple as they exited, she adjusting her bikini top and he with an obvious trunk boner. The stall was just large enough for me and Chantal and our plastic bin. The plastic bin took some maneuvering.

We did not have to pay any woman for a locker key. There was some older gentleman seated in the locker room and dressed like a fireman. The way he sat there, we assumed he was the locker custodian. For all any of us knew, he could have been an actual fireman. He didn’t ask for money. We thanked him anyway. I don’t know why.

Our Moment of Zen

The pools themselves were nothing special: concrete depressions filled with choppy water, chattering adults, and squealing children. There were perhaps eight or nine of these depressions, and a water slide. Each depression boasted its own sign, to advertise pool depth. None indicated which were geothermal and which were chlorine, so we did the classic toe-dip thermometer thing and quickly deduced that pool population increased with temperature. Except for one of the heated depressions, where a solitary couple was grinding away in the water and everyone else was studiously avoiding them. That’s the pool I entered first. Because I’m a prick.

They hurriedly packed away their naughty bits and departed. We had the place to ourselves. For about five minutes, when some of our fellow guests realized the free pornography had come to its less-than-explosive conclusion.

It was a beautifully cool evening and we didn’t mind the company. There was music, though I don’t recall what kind or whether it suited our mood. There were children splashing. One woman in her twenties decided this was the ideal moment to swim laps, butterfly stroke. It hardly mattered. We were in pinch-me mode. How often does one luxuriate in a hot pool directly beneath an active volcano?

I’ll tell you how often: not very.

The thing about Ecuador is its extreme informality. If you’re looking for your National Geographic-style Instagram selfie, you’ll have to pay for it. The rest is available for a couple bucks, and it comes with discarded sandwich wrappers, horny teenagers, and a healthy serving of guesswork. None of that should concern you.

In the end, you’ll have your moment of Zen.

And then someone will ask if you remembered to bring towels.