The Fascinating Folklore Behind Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador

Tungurahua volcano | Carlne06 / Flickr
Tungurahua volcano | Carlne06 / Flickr
Photo of Harry Stewart
6 November 2017

Nestled in the foothills of an ominous volcano lies the picturesque Baños de Agua Santa, a tourist resort that is becoming increasingly popular for its lush terrain and bubbling hot mineral springs. From Quechua legends to Catholic beliefs, let’s take a look at the sundry history of Ecuador’s most beautiful town.

Towering over Baños is a menacing volcano dubbed Mama Tungurahua who the indigenous Quechua have long believed to be akin to a debaucherous woman. Promiscuous and pretty, she captures the hearts of both men and women alike with her spellbinding allure. However, legend states that, like many beautiful women, Mama Tungurahua has a bit of a temper. When she doesn’t get what she wants, she becomes furiously enraged and spews hot ash and lava high into the air in a spectacular and terrifying display. The last time this wanton woman had a major temper tantrum was back in October 1999 when a major eruption caused the entire town to evacuate.

Paílón del Diablo Baños, Ecuador | © Simon Matzinger/Flickr

Mama Tungurahua has long played an integral role in the region’s folklore, both revered and feared by the local indigenous population. According to Quechua lore, Baños is Mama’s love child, her precious darling who she vigorously protects. Part of this legacy is the mineral water she heats up and sends flowing down to the valley below. Blessed with a number of medicinal properties, these lukewarm to boiling hot natural springs are a highlight of the region.

Public Baths, Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador | © Angie Drake / Flickr

Of course, when the Spanish arrived they incorporated their own beliefs to explain the abundance of pristine natural springs. According to eyewitness accounts, the Virgin Mary made several apparitions in the region, most notably around the 260-foot (80m) Cascada del Virgin (Waterfall of the Virgin). Referred to locally as Nuestra Señora de Agua Santa (Our Lady of Holy Water), the newly arrived Catholics credit the Virgin for the water’s healing power.

So profound was this belief that the town was officially declared Baños de Agua Santa (Baths of Holy Water) and a shrine was erected in her honor at the Cascada del Virgin.

Baños de Agua Santa | © Grigory Ignatev/Shutterstock

Furthermore, the Basílica Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Agua Santa occupies a prime position over the town’s central plaza. This Neo-Gothic cathedral is a popular pilgrim site and Baños’ most significant house of worship. Inside, a number of intricately designed religious artworks depict some of the many miracles she is said to have performed.

Whether it be the doing of Mama Tungurahua or the Nuestra Señora de Agua Santa, there is no doubt Baños is a blessed town. Dramatic mountainous terrain combined with an amplitude of cascading waterfalls and mineral springs continue to inspire visitors to this day.

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