Before Europeans ever arrived in Ecuador, native peoples visited the area around modern day Baños to bathe in the mountain springs. They believed that the local volcano and pagan goddess, Mama Tungurahua, provided both hot and cold springs found near the base of a waterfall at the foot of the volcano.

The Founding of Baños de Agua Santa

Archeological evidence suggests that while many ancient people visited the area of the fresh mountain springs, no single group made it a place of permanent residence. It wasn’t until the Spanish arrived in the mid-1500’s that Dominican priests built what would become the city of Baños de Agua Santa.

The Dominicans took the folkloric and pagan beliefs of the Mamá Tungurahua and slowly credited her good deeds to the Virgin Mary. The process of melding a pagan goddess with a Catholic saint began. Over the centuries, the Virgin Mary has been credited with multiple miracles while Mama Tungurahua has sown fear and dread from repeated volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

The Volcano Tungurahua as seen from the streets of Baños.


Eventually, in the early 1900’s, the Catholic church broke ground on the local Basilica. Today, the interior of this beautiful church holds a collection of paintings that tell multiple stories of the Virgin Mary curing people of sickness, saving them from death-defying falls into mountain canyons, and protecting them from the dangers of the Volcano Tungurahua.

The Basilica del Agua Santa, Baños, Ecuador
The front of the Basilica de Agua Santa, Baños, Ecuador.
The Virgin of the Holy Water, Baños, Ecuador
One of many murals inside the Basilica that tells part of the story of the miracles of the Virgin Mary.

Today, pagan and Catholic Ecuadorians come to Baños de Agua Santa on pilgrimage. They bathe in the waters at the base of the Cabellera de la Virgin (Tresses of the Virgin), a small but beautiful waterfall. They light candles in the Santuario de la Virgen de Agua Santa. They pray in the Basílica de la Virgen del Rosario de Agua Santa. Additionally, every October a festival is held in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Visitors sitting at the base of La Cabellera de la Virgin (the Virgin's Tresses) in Baños, Ecuador.
Baños from the steps leading up to the waterfall, Caballera de la Virgin.

Experiencing Local Culture

The concept of pilgrimage is an act that few American and European tourists experience. Most come to Baños de Agua Santa to hike trails to gorgeous waterfalls, to visit the death-defying Swing at the End of the World, or to take part in adventure sports like canyoning and ziplining.

Most of these tourists stay at local hotels with fancy spas included. The few that do venture out to the public pools at the base of the waterfall find them crowded, the water dirty (rather than colored by minerals), and the facilities dated. Just check out the Trip Advisor reviews.

The public pools don’t fit the stereotype of a European or American spa experience. But if you visit with an open mind, you may find your own unique experience waiting for you. And please remember, the people bathing next to you are likely on a pilgrimage, not just a visit to the pool.


This post was originally published on September 2, 2014. It has since been edited and republished.