If you ever dreamed of spending every day at the spa, Cuenca has got you covered….in mud! Baños de Cuenca is a suburb of the city located in the green hills south of downtown, filled with mineral baths. There are basic concrete tubs filled with natural spring water for just an entrance fee of just a couple dollars, and there are elegant hotel-spa complexes where you can get pineapple juice or a martini served poolside.
Where to go in Baños de Cuenca
The most basic option is Aguapantos – which feels more like a public swimming pool than a resort, but is a cheap place to take a dip. Mid-range is Hosteria Duran’s nicely appointed swimming pool, surrounded by gardens and a spa. The two nicest arguably are Piedra de Agua and Novagua. Piedra de Agua has two types of mud, indoor rustic contrast pools, and three outside wading pools. Novagua is newer, more modern, and has a much deeper swimming pool that you can swim (rather than wade) in. However, Piedra de Agua has steam boxes, two types of mud, and a more cozy, relaxing ambiance.
The spa life
My pick? A one-year membership to the most famous Piedra de Agua – an oasis of red rocks, mud baths, and lounge chairs. Cost? $550 for the year (about $45 per month). This is a bargain considering a day pass to the complete spa circuit costs $30. There is also a day pass to just the pool and sauna for $10 (but you can’t go in the mud baths), and a 2 for 1 deal on Mondays and Wednesdays for the spa circuit.
Expats living in Cuenca know that sometimes our beloved city can be cold and rainy. Being a member of Piedra de Agua means that any day of the year I can hop on a bus for 30 minutes and arrive to my own hot, muddy paradise. On weekends and weekday nights, the spa is quite popular with Ecuadorean couples and families. On weekday mornings and afternoons, however, almost no one goes. Sometimes it is my own personal retreat, with 4 different jacuzzis completely empty, and lots of room to relax.
What it’s like
You start by opening up your pores in the steam rooms, where eucalyptus leaves scent the air, and when there’s no one around I do a little bikram yoga.
Next is my favorite – the mud baths. Here are steaming pools where you slather on red, clay-textured mud, then a gray exfoliating mud. The mud is mineral-rich, making your skin as soft as a baby llama’s butt! There are also mirrors so you can make sure you don’t miss a spot, and admire how much the mud makes you look indigenous.
Next stop is the steam box. Steam boxes to the uninitiated looks like a dangerous proposition. There is a wooden box with a hole in the top, where your head sticks out like a whack-a-mole. The inside of the box heats up with steam while your head stays nice and cool outside. This allows you to steam your body at a much higher temperature than in a standard sauna. The bad thing about being a gringo here is that the boxes were built for much shorter people, and I have to slouch to fit inside the box.
After 10-15 minutes steaming like a lobster, you pass into the “contrast pools.” These are two small pools inside what appears to be a red-rock cave. You alternate between the very hot pool and the freezing cold pool, and relax to candlelight and new age music (except for the bursts of laughter occasionally caused by the Peruvian flute band version of Strawberry Fields). Lastly, you can relax on the terrace, read a book, or wade in the larger shallow pools.
Feeling like a splurge? Piedra de agua also has a full menu with drinks and food, and a la carte spa services like massages and facials.
Back to reality
When I am feeling like a cheapskate (which is most days), I skip ordering food at the spa and I simply stop at the mom and pop shop across the street. Here the lady will squeeze a huge glass of fresh grapefruit juice for a dollar right out of her garage, as long as I don’t mind sharing the table with her kid playing Legos. The bitter citrus taste jolts me back to reality before I head back to the cold in Cuenca.
Have you been? How did you like it? Let us know in comments!