Ecuadorian town of Papallacta, water is everything. Trout farms supply local
restaurants with the steamed fish that headlines almost every menu, and water
pumped from the town provides the nearby capital of Quito with around 60% of
its drinking supply.
But it is the
natural hot springs on the slopes above town that have brought Papallacta its
fame, turning Ecuador's highest town – 3,300m above sea level – into one of the
country’s most appealing travel destinations.
to Papallacta's springs lies deep in the earth. Ecuador is said to have the
world's highest concentration of volcanoes – around 30 on the mainland alone –
and the water that pours from the ground at Papallacta is thermally heated by
the subterranean activity of the 5,758m-high Volcan Antisana, Ecuador's
through Papallacta and almost every guesthouse and hotel advertises in-house
hot springs – a feature that is a far cry from the town’s origin as a
potato-growing centre (Papallacta translates as “potato town”). But at the end
of Papallacta’s only road is the public Termas de Papallacta
pools, the height of the town, in all ways.
extensive series of pools sits in a forest at the foot of a line of Andean
mountains. Trees reach out over the water, and bromeliads cling to their
branches, drawing in steam. The pools are of varying temperature and depth – from
knee-high to neck-high. Water pours from the ground between a bath-like 30C and
a scalding 70C, and in the pools it ranges from 36C to 40C, a difference that
is more than noticeable as you move between the pools.
minerals in the springs are said to have natural health-giving qualities,
assisting against the likes of rheumatism, allergies and swelling. In Ecuador,
however, it has never been tradition to supplement this with other spa-like treatments,
so bathers simply lounge about, circulating from cooler to warmer patches, or
simply letting the water move around them as they lay back, staring into the
canopy and the mountain slopes.
Stay at the
adjoining Hotel Termas de Papallacta where
the same water is diverted into pools for the use of hotel guests, and you can
simply stroll from room to pool, pool to room. The hotel has the feel and
design of an Alpine lodge, and rooms are large, if simple. The hotel also has
an attached spa with more private pools and treatments – such as a body wrap using
Andean mud – for guests who cannot resist topping up on the springs' curative
10km east from Papallacta and you enter the Amazon Basin's cloud forest, which
covers the slopes and the valley in green growth. In the dusky darkness beneath
the canopy, another of Ecuador's natural treasures – hummingbirds – zip about
in a show of colour and speed.
famed for its biodiversity. Though covering an area little more than 1% the
size of North America, it has about 8,000 more species of plants. It is also
home to around 16,000 bird species, double the number in all Europe.
draw more attention on the Ecuadorian mainland than hummingbirds. Of the
world's 340 species of hummingbird, more than 130 are found in this country,
and Guango Lodge,
11km east of Papallacta, is one of its finest bird-watching sites.
On the 80-hectare
property, 126 species of bird have been recorded, from mountain toucans to the
richly coloured hooded mountain tanager. But it is the dozens of hummingbird
species – sword-billed, mountain velvetbreasts and tourmaline sunangels – that
are the lodge's star feature.
experience is almost dizzying, as the birds flit about like Tinker Bells of the
forest. With their wings beating up to 80 times a minute and their hearts
beating hundreds of times a minute, they fly up, down, forwards and even upside
down and backwards. At times it is as though they are playing games, hovering
in the distance, then beside your ear for a moment, then gone again,
evaporating like the water that nourishes this cloud forest and the town at its
edge. They are flashes of iridescence, their wings beating so fast they are
virtually invisible, their beaks as thin as needles.
offers accommodation for birdwatchers, or you can wander its paths as a day
visitor. Invariably, the cloud forest will seem well named, as tendrils of mist
drift through the canopy. Hummingbird feeders hang from the trees, which are
naturally strung with orchids (Ecuador has more than 4,000 species of the
flower) and the air seems almost to vibrate with the staccato movements of the
To reach Papallacta
from Quito, 70km to the west, travel across the country's highest major road,
crossing the divide of the Andes at 4,200m above sea level. From here, the road
descends into Papallacta, where mist clings to the mountains, merging with the
steam that rises from the hot springs.
time to travel in the region is the June-to-September dry season.