Near the city of Salinas, Ecuador, there is a sign that indicates a short detour to the “Baños de San Vicente”, a place known for its thermal pools and its supposed miraculous mud. Little is known about the history of this place, the only hot spring located on the coast of Ecuador.
I wanted to address a bit of its almost unknown history in this article, after reading some wrong data on the Internet.
The first known mention of the place was made in 1877 by the famous German Teodoro Wolf, who made important contributions to the geological knowledge of Ecuador. The interesting thing about Wolf's writings is that he refers to the place as "San Vicente hot springs and volcano."
Well, yes, it seems that at that time there was a small mud volcano in the place, from whose crater huge bubbles sprouted in the middle of the brackish mud. From time to time it seems that it behaved like some kind of geyser, spitting a huge column of mineral water into the air. This little volcano measured approximately 12 meters in diameter at its base and Wolf made a very interesting illustration of the place where the mud accumulation with its crater at the top can be seen.
I will quote an excerpt from Wolf's writing:
The nearby hot springs are in intimate connection with the mud volcano, and in the background they are the effect of the same phenomenon, only that instead of a little clay mud they release a large quantity of clean water. The release of gases in the sources is as considerable, or even more energetic, than in the little volcano; The smell of petroleum and hydrogen sulfide is also perceived here ... The crystalline water of the springs is highly loaded with salts, much more than sea water ... Such a wealth of salts in the water indicates the existence of a large deposit of these substances in the deep. A curious fact is that hundreds of very small fish live in the hot, salty water (40 ° C.) of the springs, and the slope of the hot cone of the volcano is thickly clothed with a singular sedge plant, which I did not observe in another place in that region ... The exhaled gases are the products of distillation of plant or animal remains, which under the earth undergo a slow chemical combustion or carbonization. The exhalation of the gases is generally accompanied by the spillage of liquid hydrocarbons (naphtha and oil). From time to time the development of gases increases so much that explosions and violent eruptions occur, which throw water, mud and stones into the air, up to a height of 30 meters, and cause a loud noise, similar to thunder. Such periods of extraordinary excitement are rare; However, they have been verified more than once in the little volcano of Sta. Elena, according to the inhabitants of San Vicente, who had heard the subterranean thunder at a distance of more than 2 leagues.
It seems that at some point the volcano was reduced to rubble. Surely a product of the subsequent tourist exploitation of the place. But Wolf's writing makes it clear that this interesting muddy hotbed was known in the area and gives us an idea of what it was like in its wild state, before human hands intervened.
A later mention, also from the 19th century, appears in the book of the German naturalist Joseph Kolberg.
In a deep and wide hollow, a few miles east of the arid peninsula, there is a small eminence two meters high, in the shape of a strongly truncated cone, whose diameter is 5 meters high; it is the so-called air or mud volcano… The cone consists of clay and hardened mud, and its edge can be stepped on without danger; not so its small base or plateau; you cannot venture over the semi-soft mass that covers it without exposing yourself to the greatest danger; this is shown by some deer skeletons seen appearing there.
Kolberg adorns his account with a description of the tiny fish that live in the salty water of these bubbling hot springs.
From what little is known, these hot springs were sporadically visited by nearby residents of the San Vicente commune and the bitumens and salts that were released were exploited on a smaller scale for various purposes.
Then, around 1910, we came across a couple of very interesting photographs (little known until now). In one of them you can see part of the creek and two peasants near one of the brackish water springs, apparently drinking water from a container. Behind, to the right, a sort of untidy blanket that surely served as a refuge from the inclement mid-day sun, to maximize the enjoyment of the hot springs. In another of them you can see the little volcano! ... maybe a little lower than that originally described by Wolf (it seems to have been covered on one of its flanks by a winter avalanche) but with deer plants on its slope, just as described in the 19th century. The photographs are part of the National Photography Fund. I have taken the trouble to color it, but the original can be found here: http://fotografiapatrimonial.gob.ec/web/es/galeria/element/2856
Already at the end of the 20s the fleeting Railroad to the Coast began to be built near the place and the Guayaquil businessman Telésforo Villacrés, supplier of wood for sleepers, came across the site and became interested in the hot springs. He set up his camp there and later built pools on the site - apart from installing a plasterwork. According to the book \ ”Communes and Communities with Albarrada Systems \” by Silvia Álvarez, the first families to settle in the current Baños de San Vicente were the Orrala, Dominguez, Morey and Reyes.
Already in the 1980s, the Guayaquil chronicler Rodolfo Perez Pimentel gave us an interesting description of the little volcano. He also comments on the presence of another volcano, supposedly located in the current town of Progreso.
Likewise, and with the same origin, the presence of two small but very active volcanoes that incessantly spew mud and sulfur vapor is explained. One mouth is in the current spa of San Vicente and the other in the vicinity of the old Caserío de San José de Aén, also known as \ ”El Progreso \”. A few years ago other mouths emerged in Manglaralto; but they were soon plugged by the neighbors, with large chunks of salt.
The San Vicente volcano was known since the colony as a health center. In the republic, and at the express request of Dr. José Mascote, the Municipality of Guayaquil built in its vicinity a small wooden house to accommodate the sick and especially those who suffered from skin ailments. Soon after, numerous leprosy, elephantiasis and syphilis patients were mistaken for rheumatic and diabetic people with incurable sores. There are also cancerous ones and those that suffer from fungi.
Currently the place has lost its original natural charm, the overdose of concrete and tourism, apart from a couple of harsh winters, have taken away much of the character of a natural phenomenon, a unique and untamed place. Maybe I would have preferred it to be preserved like those Icelandic geysers (New Zealanders, North Americans, Chileans?) That can be seen from several meters away, respecting the thousands of years that nature took to build them, contemplating the natural beauty of our planet.