An indulgent Ute Junker soaks up the easy way to gain an Andean natural high.
Everyone in Quito is an adventurer. Ask anyone what they're doing tomorrow and they will be about to climb a volcano, or hike through a national park, or go riding in the Andes. The towering, snow-topped mountains that surround the city seem to fill everyone with a desire to get out and get active. Everyone except me, that is. Whenever I look at those mountains, I just think of giant ice-cream sundaes.
So when the idea of a day trip to Papallacta is floated, I'm not particularly interested. Part of the Cayambe-Coca National Park, which covers 405,000 hectares, Papallacta is, apparently, terrific hiking country, with walks that take you through moorland and forest, past tranquil lakes and rivers rampaging through narrow channels. It's also, apparently, great for birdwatching, with the chance to see larger animals such as deer and tapirs. Sounds lovely, but I'm feeling way too lazy.
Then someone mentions the hot springs and, suddenly, I'm interested. Hot pools of water warmed naturally by neighbouring volcanoes? That sounds like my kind of alpine adventure.
Papallacta is less than two hours' drive from Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, making it an ideal day trip - or so I think. As we drive up to Papallacta, perched 3300 metres above sea level, where condors circle high peaks and mountainsides plummet away to spectacular views, I'm beginning to think a longer stay might have been a good idea.
When we arrive and find cute cabins available to rent, I wish I had booked an overnight stay. The cabins have fireplaces to warm you up on chilly mountain nights, and are surrounded by trees laden with purple, white and orange blossoms, which draw pretty hummingbirds that flit happily between them. Outside the front doors are shallow thermal pools, tempting you out for a midnight dip.
As a day visitor, however, I still have a choice of places in which to soak. The budget option is the public pools, on the banks of the Papallacta River. There are 12 pools - nine hot, three cold - which are occupied by several families and a few groups of young friends.
Because I'm in the mood for some pampering, I head straight for the more expensive spa. It has five hot pools and one cold pool, many of which use water jets and bubbles to increase the stimulation.
There is also an extensive array of spa treatments, with everything from massages to body treatments using Andean mud. The facility is considered one of the best in the country. Fourteen therapists work here and on one famous day they got through an amazing 199 treatments.
I book myself in for a massage in two hours, then head off to explore the pools.
In the middle of the week, they're practically deserted. One couple lies unmoving on deckchairs beside one of the pools (they don't stir a limb the whole time I'm there).
The only other bathers are two women chatting in a pool from which the steam is rising.
I choose a different pool and poke a toe in. It feels hot enough to boil an egg in. I've been told the pools are temperature controlled but this feels hot. Holding my breath, I slip in. For just a moment, I want to jump back out again - then, as my body adjusts, I relax into the warmth.
Thermal water is reputed to have all kinds of health benefits, from relaxing muscle tissue and alleviating respiratory problems to improving intestinal function and stimulating the healing process. It certainly feels wonderful. I breathe in the fresh mountain air and gaze up to where the wooded hills slope up to a clear blue sky, watching the occasional bird wheeling lazily around a mountain peak. Is that an Andean condor, perhaps? I sink into the soothing warm water and relax utterly.
Every so often I try a different pool, occasionally plunging into the cold pool to shock my body into wakefulness. Despite the cold plunges, the surroundings are so tranquil I'm almost falling asleep.
At one point, I wander over to where I left my towel and my watch to check the time.
My massage is starting in five minutes! Where did those two hours go?
After my massage I go exploring, and discover the steam rooms, each just big enough for two people.
Each one is decked out like a little grotto, with the hot water tumbling like a miniature waterfall. The eucalyptus branches placed in each grotto fill it with fragrant steam. I settle myself in for a long stay.
By the end of my Papallacta experience, I'm totally relaxed but also filled with energy. I wish I were staying another day. I suddenly feel one with those adventurers in Quito. Call it a mountain high.
Ute Junker travelled to Papallacta courtesy of Natural Focus Safaris.
Getting there: LAN Airlines flies from Sydney to Quito via Santiago, Chile.
Travelling there: Natural Focus Safaris can organise a day trip from Quito to Papallacta, including return private transfers from Quito, lunch and entrance fee to the private pools and the public pools, from $218 a person, twin share. An overnight stay at Papallacta, including return private transfers from Quito, one night accommodation, meals and entrance fee to the private pools (one day only) and the public pools, starts at $632 a person, twin share. Natural Focus Safaris, 1300 363 302, naturalfocussafaris.com.au.
Don't quit until you see Quito
The old town: No other South American city has an old town like this: 25 blocks of grand colonial buildings, painted in delicate pastel shades and decorated with wrought-iron balconies, opening into grand palm-lined squares. Perfect for strolling.
Iglesia La Compania: It's said to be the most beautiful church in South America, taking 160 years to complete and reported to be decorated with seven tonnes of gold. Even the most jaded visitor will be astounded by this Jesuit church, where every single surface is covered in intricate carvings, including leaves and vines. The nearby Iglesia San Agustin is also worth visiting, its delicate pastel interiors offering a strong contrast. An unusual statue of a black Christ is also on display.
Fundacion Guayasamin: He is Ecuador's most famous artist, but few people outside the country have heard of Oswaldo Guayasamin. This museum contains not just Guayasamin's bold canvases — powerful protests against the violent politics of South America — but also the artist's impressive collection of pre-Colombian art. The striking architecture alone is worth a visit.