From lush green mountains to dry and dusty desert

It was a very early start today as I had a 7am bus to catch to take me over the border and into Peru. I had bought my ticket the day before so that I didn’t run the risk of them being sold out. I needn’t have worried as there were plenty of available seats, which was lucky as I had ended up with seat no 1 which was right behind the driver and had no leg room, so I was able to move to a seat further back.

View from the bus
View from the bus
Waiting for the bus driver to have lunch in Macora
Waiting for the bus driver to have lunch in Macora

We spent the day travelling up and over some extremely high passes. The scenery was spectacular. After an hour and one pass, we stopped at the small town of Catamayo so that the driver and conductor could have breakfast. I decided to take the opportunity and have a much needed cup of coffee. Milk seemed to pose a bit of a problem but I was eventually presented with a cup of very pale milky liquid. Not much caffeine in that so Israel, a Spanish speaking English man who was travelling with his Dutch partner Effje, asked for more coffee. I was given a jar of dried up instant and just about managed to dig out enough granules to give the liquid a marginal bit of colour if not taste!

After that, it was onwards and upwards. At times we were on level with the mountain tops in the distance and the clouds were beneath us. The mountains were all very green. We stopped at various towns where locals got on and off but by the time we reached Macora, near the border, there were only 9 foreigners and one Spanish speaking (possibly Ecuadorian) couple left on the bus. Here, we stopped for the driver and conductor to have lunch. The bus station was small with some fairly undesirable bathrooms but needs must……

Interesting topiary in Macara
Interesting topiary in Macara

I had a wander around the town, which had an airport next to the main plaza, which must have been very convenient for whatever passengers alighted, as well as some ‘interesting’ and motivational murals on the side of the Catholic school. We were there for about 30 minutes and it was then a very short drive to the border and immigration. It took about an hour to process us all, with the Ecuadorians being turned away on the Peruvian side for incomplete/inadequate documentation. Otherwise, for the rest of us, it was all very straight forward and friendly. I wasn’t asked for my ticket out of Peru so booking my bus onwards into Bolivia was unnecessary, but you never know.

Once we were on the road again, the scenery changed dramatically within a short space of time. We went from lush green mountains to flat dry desert. Around Macora, there were a number of rice paddies and some sugar cane but into Peru, the terrain was very, very dry and dusty with dirt roads in the towns and villages and very poor housing. Tuk tuks were everywhere.

One of the Peruvian towns we passed through
One of the Peruvian towns we passed through

We reached Piura at about 4pm. We had not arrived at the anticipated bus terminal and the bus driver himself did not seem to know where to go and had had to ask for directions several times. As soon as we got off the bus, we were hassled by taxi drivers, which raised my stress levels immediately. All around us was bedlam. In addition, no one had Peruvian money as there had been nowhere to get any at the border. I tagged along with the English/Dutch couple (which I am sure they really appreciated) and Israel negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to a bank, then to my hotel and then to take them to the bus terminal for the bus to Chiclayo. I don’t know what I would have done without them (cried, I expect!)

This was all achieved and I arrived at my hotel, where I was made to feel very welcome. I had air con and a sort of outside window, and it was a nice room. I set off for the shopping centre down the road and the supermarket contained within, in anticipation of a cold beer. However, once out on the street, I felt more alive than I had done in Ecuador as the streets were buzzing. Traffic chaos reigned and it seemed to be each man/tuk tuk for himself! There were traffic lights at intersections, some of which even had pedestrian lights but it was still necessary to pay attention as there was a danger of being run over by a tuk tuk or motorbike. There was much tooting of horns!!

Water tanker 'damping' down the dust in Piura
Water tanker ‘damping’ down the dust in Piura

I ended up walking quite a long way towards the centre but it was a bit too far to reach and return to the hotel before dark so I got as far as I comfortably could and then returned to the supermarket, which was very large and had a good range of everything. What a difference to the Tia supermarkets in Ecuador! I made my purchases for the evening, noted the lovely range of wine (but decided I couldn’t possibly add a bottle of wine to my already overweight baggage) and returned to the hotel for a much needed shower, beer and food in my lovely air conditioned room.

On to the next adventures

Centre of Vilcabamba
Centre of Vilcabamba

My last day in Vilcabamba was as relaxed as the previous few days. It started with a yoga class, which, thankfully, was a lot easier than the previous one, breakfast and then a leisurely hour or so before walking into town to meet up with Angela and Carmen.

Cafe tables under the verandah in Vilcabamba
Cafe tables under the verandah in Vilcabamba

We had a wander around, looking at the many jewellery sellers, both hippie and Peruvian/Argentinian, who had their creations spread on cloths on the pavement, made a purchase or two and then it was off for lunch at the creperie cafe, where the other two had crepes and I had the most delicious spaghetti with pesto sauce (very Ecuadorian fare!) Afterwards, we caught a taxi back to the hosteria so that Angela would be in time for the Air Yoga class, which, when we went to watch, appeared to be like yoga on a trapeze! It looked fun but was apparently quite hard and certainly, in my current very stiff state, would be virtually impossible to attempt. (There are different yoga classes held each day at 4pm which tend to be more advanced than the free morning classes.)

Our final evening was spent over bowls of the excellent vegetable soup and, needless to say, a glass of wine or two or three (me and Carmen). We are all ready to move on now and looking forward to the next adventures, having been massaged and therapied to the max!

Street in Vilcabamba
Street in Vilcabamba
City Gate in Loja
City Gate in Loja

Wednesday dawned bright and early with the Australians in the room opposite ours making very loud conversation at 5.45am. They had been the same the previous day and we were not impressed. I went to say goodbye to Angela and Carmen as they were leaving early, Angela to Guayaquil and the Galapagos and Carmen back to Cuenca. I wasn’t in a rush and went off to the early morning yoga class, which wasn’t happening today! This was a bit disappointing as I was quite looking forward to it so I ate a lot of breakfast instead. Each morning, breakfast has comprised homemade granola, fruit salad, coffee, fresh juice and homemade bread/toast with homemade marmelade. One could get a little food obsessed here!

I packed up and then, as luck would have it, a group of girls were going into town and had ordered a taxi, so I was able to join them for a ride to the bus stop, from where I caught the bus into Loja. I was reluctant to go but had a very early bus to catch to Peru the next day so would have struggled to get to Loja in time otherwise.

The hotel was a little (very) disappointing after Izcayluma but then anything would have been, I think. The room was very small and had no outside window, something about which I am a little obsessed, and so was very claustrophic. However, it was only for one night and very cheap.

Santa Domingo in Loja
Santa Domingo in Loja
Columns in Loja representing the alliance between Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela
Columns in Loja representing the alliance between Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela

After checking in, I was off in search of lunch, a haircut and possibly some more glasses, as I had broken the arm off one pair and the lenses keep dropping out of the others. I was very pleasantly surprised with Loja as it is, in fact, a pretty town, with not many tourists as they tend to just pass through it. I had a menu de dia (or ‘almuerzo’ as it is often referred to, which just means ‘lunch’), went to the market and purchased avocados (dinner!) and then found a hairdressers, in which the hairdresser danced whilst she cut my hair. That left the glasses problem, which was solved when I was walking back from the City Gate (the only tourist attraction I visited) and chanced upon a glasses shop, where they tightened the frames so the lenses didn’t drop out, at no charge. The afternoon was complete with a cup of good coffee, which is surprisingly hard to find, and a people watching half hour in the main plaza. All in all, Loja was very successful.

Cathedral and central plaza in Loja
Cathedral and central plaza in Loja

I also had one ‘amusing’ incident, whilst at the City Gate. I was approached my an almost toothless man who had seen me taking photographs and attempted conversation, some of which I understood and some I didn’t. It appeared, after a little while, that he wanted my phone number and to meet later for conversation. Hmmm… I thought not!

Back in my claustrophobic room, I spent the evening researching Peru on the internet (sometimes it pays to have a little information ahead of time) and then had an early night.

Part of a Simon Bolivar mural in Loja
Part of a Simon Bolivar mural in Loja

Stress free!

The sign says it all!
The sign says it all!

For the last few days I feel as though I have been on a tranquil retreat from the world. Vilcabamba is known as the valley of longevity and for all the good energies that circulate from the mountains and I have certainly felt that.

The hosteria is located 2 or 3 kilometres out of town and has the most beautiful views across the valley to the mountains on the other side. Many people book for a couple of nights and end up staying longer, myself included. Ex pats and hippies alike are drawn to the town so there is an abundance of dreadlocks and baggy trousers on display! There are also many places for yoga, meditation, massage and alternative therapies and healing.

A country lane outside Vilcabamba
A country lane outside Vilcabamba
Late afternoon sun on the mountains
Late afternoon sun on the mountains
Cabins of the hosteria are in the bottom left hand corner
Cabins of the hosteria are in the bottom left hand corner
Central Plaza in Vilcabamba
Central Plaza in Vilcabamba

The days have passed very quickly. There is yoga in the morning for anyone that wants to go which I did on the first day. However, I was a bit too achy before I even started so it turned into an hour of agony. After a couple of days of rest and relaxation, though, I tried again and this time enjoyed it.

Breakfast is held in a restaurant overlooking the mountains and Carmen, Angela and I usually met for this and then went our separate ways during the day, meeting up again for dinner, although on one occasion we met in town for a crepe lunch.

In the meantime, I have done a little walking in the countryside, had a massage and relaxed in the hammock. It is such a hard life!

The food in the hosteria has been good, the wine is cheap and reasonable and the rooms are very comfortable. It is easy to see why people want to stay.

However, I now have to gear myself up to travelling on my own again and heading off to Peru, the first stage of which will be tomorrow. It is going to be very strange for a little while until I get into the rhythm of being on the road again.

From Inca ruins to Tibetan bowls

 

Market selling baskets and household goods
Market selling baskets and household goods

The last couple of days in Cuenca were quite relaxed and included one day of retail therapy and one of going to the Pumapungo museum and then having a last wander around the city. The museum houses collections relating to the various regional cultures of Ecuador and included several well preserved shrunken heads. The ruins of the ancient city of the Incas and Kanaris, the local tribe with whom the Incas collaborated, are located outside it.

On the way to the museum, I investigated streets I hadn’t been along previously and chanced upon a local market, where there were many basket stalls, as well as ones selling an assortment of household items. I sat for a while and watched as the many individual vendors, carrying their wares, passed through the plaza trying to sell their goods.

Rope and basket sellers in the market place
Rope and basket sellers in the market place

After visiting the museum, I had the best lunch I had had so far and was joined at my table by an Ecuadorian dentist, who was attending a course in Cuenca. He had seen me entering the restaurant and decided I was a good opportunity to practise his English, so followed me in!

That evening I joined Carmen for a concert of choral music at Teatro Sucre. The choir comprised various ex pats (not just American) and it was probably their first concert. They were in time with the music most of the time! Afterwards, we adjourned to a bar for a wine or two.

Terraces created by the Incas
Terraces created by the Incas

When I returned home, Pilar and her friend, Suli, were still up and, at Pilar’s insistence, we ended up drinking ready mixed pina colada, so it was quite late before actually got to bed. Suli visits once a month to give massages to Cuencans and Pilar makes the appointments and translates for the non Spanish speaking Americans. We had had one or two girls’ nights together as I was the only guest. Suli had also insisted on colouring both my and Pilar’s hair as well so it has been rather like living in a shared flat again. I was assured, when I said goodbye, that I now had two sisters in Ecuador!

Lawn mowing at the Inca ruins
Lawn mowing at the Inca ruins

Friday was departure day and I met Carmen downstairs at 7am to go to the bus station for an early bus to Loja, five hours away in the south. The journey took us through magnificent mountain scenery and up and over some extremely high passes. The bus was supposedly executive although didn’t quite conform to my idea of executive! However, it was comfortable enough and we arrived in Loja earlier than anticipated. Luckily, we connected immediately with a bus to Vilcabamba and the short drive (relatively speaking) meant we reached our destination at about 2pm.

The countryside is beautiful with lush green mountains all around. We checked into the Hosteria Izcayluma, and relaxed. The place has an area dedicated for yoga and at 4pm there was a session with Tibetan bowls that we decided to attend. The experience was well worth it as we lay on the floor and listened to the vibrations from the sound of the bowls being played and the birds in the trees in the background. It was most restful and I could have lain there much longer. Unfortunately, the man playing the bowls could only speak Spanish so I missed a lot of the informative chat about it afterwards.

The day finished with dinner in the restaurant with Angela, who had already been here for a couple of days, and Carmen, followed by a very early night, as I was quite tired after my late night/early morning.

Inca ruins, toquilla hats and hiking

Chicken and guinea pig cooked on sticks
Chicken and guinea pig cooked on sticks

Compared with last week, the last few days have been action packed! On Sunday, Angela, Carmen and I caught the quite decrepit local bus to Gualaceo where, according to our tourist information, handcraft and hat markets are located. The journey took about an hour and it was quite grey and wet when we arrived. We found a fruit and vegetable market but there was no sign of any handicrafts.

We were directed to another bus, which supposedly went to another market and which took us up the hill out of town and along an unsealed road. It all looked highly improbable. However we eventually arrived at the ‘new’ market, which was also fruit and vegetables. Obviously our information was quite wrong!

Vendors at Gualaceo bus station
Vendors at Gualaceo bus station

After having something to eat (me) and drink (the other two), we decided to catch a bus to the next small town of Chordeleg, which is only a few kilometres away and home to silver and gold merchants as well as handicrafts (supposedly). The sun had emerged by the time we arrived and Chordeleg itself is a delightful town perched on a hillside amongst very attractive scenery. The sun surely makes a difference!

It was also thronging with people and it transpired that a parade was about to take place. This included a beauty queen, various horsemen and beautifully dressed ladies. However, whether it was just an Easter Parade or something else, we never found out.

Inca ruins at Ingapirca
Inca ruins at Ingapirca

We had a very slow wander around the town, where we discovered an extremely small market, which primarily contained shoe stalls, and had a look in many of the small jewellery shops. We were accompanied the whole way round by the sound of very loud rock music emanating from the large speakers in the plaza. After making one or two purchases, we caught the bus back to Cuenca after a most enjoyable day.

On Monday, Carmen wasn’t feeling well, so Angela and I went alone to Ingapirca, the site of some Inca ruins. This required a two hour bus trip in each direction through some beautiful mountainous scenery. However, it gradually dawned on me that the bus was climbing and climbing. For some reason, it hadn’t registered in my brain that the Incas built on mountain tops and Ingapirca was likely to be at a high altitude. Panic set in! I took ibuprofen drank what water I had and bought more as soon as we arrived.

Temple of the sun at Ingapirca
Temple of the sun at Ingapirca

We walked around the ruins, which were in a beautiful location. The tour was, unfortunately, in Spanish so we gave up with the guide and strolled around on our own. A couple of hours later, we caught the bus back to Cuenca and I had suffered from altitude not at all. It turned out to be good practice for tomorrow.

On arrival in Cuenca, we walked across the road to the Homero Ortega Hat museum and shop where we were given a tour through the museum (thankfully in English, this time) and shown how the hats are made. This company has been making Panama or, more correctly, toquilla straw, hats for many years and they are still all made by hand.

Woven toquilla straw (Panama) hats waiting to be finished
Woven toquilla straw (Panama) hats waiting to be finished

Angela was intent on buying one so we spent a long time trying them on. The prices ranged from $30 to $2,000 according to how finely woven they were. We eventually decided on one each but my debit card wouldn’t work, which was probably just as well, as there is no way I would have been able to carry it safely in my backpack!

Wedding dress and flowers made from toquilla straw
Wedding dress and flowers made from toquilla straw

We were quite exhausted by all this activity and hadn’t had lunch, so our final stop for the day was at Fabiano’s for an excellent pizza. (Home from home for the Italian Angela!)

Tuesday was hiking day. We all three met in our usual place in a corner of Plaza de Calderon and made our way to the bus terminal where information about buses to Cajas National Park seemed a little elusive.

We eventually found a Guayaquil bus that stopped at Las Cajas but we had to wait and see if there were enough seats as we didn’t have tickets. (Ticket requirements seem to be random and at the discretion of the driver!) Luckily, we were able to get on and it took about an hour to get to the Park. I had loaded up with water and ibuprofen, ever conscious of the altitude, which I knew was going to be nearly 4,000m.

Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park

It was unbelievably cold when we were dropped off and, of the three of us, I was the least prepared for this. However, I did have the most suitable footwear! We decided to follow Ruta 1, which was supposed to be a 2 hour walk. The scenery was magnificent with the clouds hovering over the mountain tops. We made quite slow progress along the track as it was extremely muddy and slippery and Carmen, particularly, had problems as her shoes had no grip. The track was clearly marked to start with and there were meant to be red markings on rocks and signs as we progressed. However, it didn’t take us long to lose the path and we ended up wandering, admiring the view, and wondering whether we should continue or turn back. We returned! We were walking for about 3 hours and, fortunately, I had no effects from the altitude. Maybe ibuprofen is the answer or maybe I have acclimatised.

By the lake in Cajas National Park
By the lake in Cajas National Park

We were lucky in that we arrived back just as a bus was due. It drove straight past! This is typical of the buses as I have noticed on many occasions that the buses haven’t stopped for people at the road side. There seems no rhyme nor reason as to why this should be. It appears to be totally at the whim of the driver. This left us in a predicament as the location was extremely remote, it was now about 4.30pm and there was no knowing when the next bus would be. (It was one of the very few occasions when I hadn’t checked the timetables prior to setting off.) The Park office had already closed, which was interesting in itself as we had signed in but there was no way of signing out so if we had got lost completely, no one would have known. This certainly wouldn’t have happened in safety conscious N.Z.!

There was no alternative but to hitchhike. We decided that with three of us and a can of pepper spray (Carmen), we were fairly safe! Luckily, a tyre delivery man stopped for us and we all squashed in the back seat of his ute whilst he hurtled around the hairpin bends (usually on the wrong side of the road) until we arrived back in Cuenca. He was actually a very nice man and dropped us off in the centre of town.

We were all starving, as well as tired, so it was off to dinner immediately, after which we inspected Carmen’s apartment and then went our separate ways ‘home’.