At about 60km from Quito, the road reaches PAPALLACTA (3120m), a quiet highland town, where water is the greatest resource. A hydroelectric plant here provides power to the region, while the pure waters from the páramo and nearby lakes are piped by gravity to Quito. Above all it's famous for its hot springs, highly ferrous pools reputed to relieve numerous ailments from kidney trouble to ganglions, and Quiteños pack themselves into its steaming pools each weekend. The town itself isn't of much interest, a string of buildings huddling the Baeza road, but lying in a green valley at 3200m, the surrounding scenery is stunning.
The best spring is Las Termas de Papallacta, a one-kilometre, twenty-minute uphill slog from town in the crook of a steep valley. Buses running between Lago Agrio and Tena via Baeza should drop you off at La Y de Papallacta (ask the driver), the junction at the head of the village, from where you walk up the signposted track. There are two bathing complexes here run by the same company – which also owns on-site restaurants and accommodation – and both are beautifully designed, well managed and are widely regarded as the best hot springs in Ecuador. On the left (daily 6am–9pm; $6) the nine thermal pools, ranging in temperature between 36°C and 42°C, and four cold pools have been built in gentle terracotta curves and natural rock, while the heart-stoppingly cold Río Papallacta itself offers a serious cool-off. Don't miss the three secluded little pools up the hill to the left of the restaurant: the top one is over 40°C and is perfect for supine gazing at the mountain ridges. On the other side of the road, the spa is more exclusive, with four large pools shaped for specific purposes, such as a "flying saucer" sculpted with bed-like hollows, and each with water jets or bubble massagers (9am–6pm; $15). It also features the "Thermal Club" (9am–9pm), where you can get a range of individually priced treatments including massages, aromatherapy, hydromassage, facials, waxes, mud or clay body wraps, and sit in a Finnish sauna or a cavernous steam room.
At the lower end of the town proper, downhill from the main road, the large municipal Coturpa baths (Mon– Fri 7am–5pm, Sat & Sun 6am–6pm; $2) get particularly crowded at weekends, and have four hot pools and one cold one, including a proper swimming pool, and a sauna. Following the lead of its grander neighbour, it now also offers accommodation and private pools for its guests.