Vilcabamba, Ecuador – 20th to 21st December 2012
So in an effort to catch up with this, we’re going country on you! Yep, Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil will be done as one(!!) post each (although the Christmas update has helped reduce the size of the task for Ecuador and Sarah had written Vilcabamba, ready for when we got to that part of the blog) but bearing in mind how much I can write, this tactic might not actually save any time.
Sarah: I’m sitting in our hostel overlooking the stunning area that surrounds the town of Vilcabamba. The town is famed for being home to lots of exceptionally old people. There is supposedly something in the water as well as the region’s produce leading to a low fat, high fiber diet. There are billboards of old people in town in the main square- although none of them look that happy…hmm (lack of chocolate I think).
This place is the perfect antidote to the roller-coaster of the 3 bus journeys it took to get here from Peru. The first bus was late, 2.5 hrs to our first change which we missed and were shoved on another bus where the conductor said we didn’t have a valid ticket but luckily he couldn’t be bothered to fight it out. At the Ecuador border crossing we went for a little supermarket sweep challenge to see how many stamps we could get in our passports in 5 minutes, 2 from the Peruvian side, before running back to the bus, going over the bridge and then some more on the Ecuadorian side, with the bus conductor shouting at us to hurry up the whole time. We were the only gringos on the bus so were holding everyone up- for some reason everyone else on the bus seemed to have dual nationality as no-one else went through passport control. The final bus journey started with just 3 of us, on the 1.5hr bus journey from Loja to Vilcabamaba, and ended up being a full house as we picked up people on the side of the road. We made it to the hostel in good time and had to wait for reception to open, but it was just so nice to be at our lovely hostel taking in the view of the lush green tropical looking valley.
The next stressful bit was money, we had enough cash for a day, but the only cash machine we found didn’t seem to recognise our cards and the hostel didn’t accept cards which is common. Slightly worried, we did manage to find another cash machine but we were told it often runs out of cash as it’s not filled up that often- thankfully we were able to get enough cash to get us to our next destination in a few days time, phew!
At our hostel 2km up the hill from Vilcabamba we stayed in a dorm which meant we got to meet some lovely people, Katie who had stories about the craziest people, Robyn who told us where to stay in Quito and Banos (our next stops), Jeremy who was more of a film and TV fan than us and on the last night a brother and sister who were here to take the Sacred medicine made from the San Pedro cactus under the guidance of a Shaman, much like the lady in this blog:
We weren’t really into hallucinogenics or the fasting required before it so instead we enjoyed the full body massages and I got my second manicure of the trip. The hostel was brilliant for relaxing and it’s advertised all over south america.
There are lots of different trails to walk in the area so we wandered along the dirt roads and tiny muddy paths up the valley for a great view over Vilcabamba.
We also wandered into town and found the town unlike any other that we’ve been to. It was like a gringo retirment village. Life was centred on the main square where juice bars, craft stores and cafes line the circumference. American English is heard more than Spanish and conversations are mostly about new age beliefs or properties in the area. We had our food, got talking to a couple of friendly gringos in a juice bar one of whom believed water could stop a nuclear bomb, so we quickly retreated up the hill to the comforts of our hammocks and new dorm friends.
It was a shame to have to leave so soon after arriving but Christmas was fast on our heels and we wanted to keep moving up through Ecuador in order to give ourselves enough time in Colombia, which everyone we’d spoken to had raved about!
Cuenca, Ecuador – 22nd December 2012
Chris: Next stop, Cuenca. Apparently a very beautiful little city, but we were really only stopping off to break up the journey from Vilcabamba to Baños. One of our roomies from Vilca, Jeremy, was also making the journey and he had noticed in our guide book that Tiesto’s the second best restaurant in the whole of South America (According to tripadvisor) was in Cuenca!! So after arriving at the bus station and being refused by several taxis a lift to the centre (apparently the traffic would be too bad!!) we walked the 15 minutes (meeting a politician on the way) and checked into our hostel. We wasted no time in getting them to ring Tiesto’s and make a reservation for us. We then wandered around the town centre for a short while before making our way to the restaurant. We were treated to some great food. Upon arrival we were given bread with about 8 different options of things to eat with it. We then shared a big plate of mixed meats (with cheese) which came with five different accompaniments and was delicious and we followed that up with a chocolate dessert. After that we walked along the main street and went for a couple of drinks in a couple of other bars before heading back to bed. Sarah and I had an early start the next day, continuing our journey to Baños.
Baños, Ecuador – 23rd to 27th December 2012
See the live, Christmas update blog from before for details.
The brief version though is that Baños was ACE!
Quito, Ecuador – 28th December 2012 to 1st January 2013!
Upon arrival we checked in and then headed straight out for a wander to see what we could find in the Oldtown part of Quito, Ecuador’s capital (and the highest altitude de facto capital city in the world – Bolivia need to make up their minds!) We saw a well decorated church and the cathedral which had a plaza out front that had an interesting photography exhibit of Ecuadoreans too. We ate at a rooftop restaurant which afforded us a great view of the city and the moon rising when it was dark. Unfortunately it got rather chilly up there too, so we headed home.
You (apparently) can’t come to Ecuador and not go to Otavalo market on a Saturday and so that is what we did. For this we signed up to the travel agent that was attached to our hostel. We were collected early and taken first to the animal market. This was an experience. We had not previously encountered any form of animal market before on our trip and so the bags of guinea pigs and chickens were a surprise. The cages of chicks were cute and I found the use of the cattle prod on a rather gaunt cow rather sad. There was a lot of hustle bustle and smell and luckily we managed to leave without buying any animals.
Next stop was the craft market which was huge. The stalls took up many streets of the town centre and again there was a lot of hustle-bustle but thankfully less smell! This market was not really my thing. The stalls were selling goods similar to those that we had seen continuously throughout Bolivia and Peru and many of the stalls sold the same thing, so the market could have been condensed to about a dozen or less stalls and taken up less space. Sarah however was enjoying buying a few goods and seemed to like the market more than I did. We then experienced one of the downsides of taking organised tours to places – one of the ladies got lost and was about 45 minutes late coming back to the van. All the while everyone else was patiently waiting in or around the van in the sweltering heat wondering where she was and become increasingly anxious to be moving on. Next stop was a small town nearby that has dedicated itself to leather! Coats, boots, bags, shoes, purses, belts, trousers, you name it, they made it (out of leather). I don’t quite understand how quite so many shops selling leather goods in such a small town sustain themselves in the long term because no one from our van bought anything. I can only surmise that a lot of van loads of tourists must pass through in a year and not all must be as stingy (or without need of leather products) as ours. Final stop was the Peguche waterfall, which was lovely. A very tiring day but we saw a lot and ticked off another “must see”.
One of the highlights of Quito was a day trip that we took to the Equator (or Ciudad Mitad del Mundo as they called it). We took a couple of buses to get there (it felt good to use public transport and it was cheap!) The first thing to visit was the Mitad del Mundo complex that they have built. We enjoyed a spot of star gazing in their planetarium and then admired the giant monument that they had built to celebrate where the Equator lie and took the obligatory straddling the line photo’s. Sadly, whoever worked out where the line should be got it wrong and according to GPS measurements it lies 240 metres to the North. So we went to try to find the Intiñan museum up the road where the Equator really is. Thankfully a local helped us to find it and we were not disappointed. This site was much more hands on with activities like balancing an egg on a pin, water going down plugholes in differing ways, walking along the Equator and others to try. We had a lot of fun here. I was a natural at egg balancing, but not so good at walking in a straight line. The guided tour that is compulsory was entertaining and not too long and the demonstrations provided a bit more of a scientific feel to the place – right up our street! If you ever go to the Equator, be sure to visit this place!
A restaurant in Quito that simply must get a mention is Chandani Tandoori. As the name suggests it is indeed an Indian restaurant, but this was a South American Indian restaurant with a difference – it was actually good! The staff were friendly, the food was the most Brit style curry that we have had on the whole trip and it was super cheap. It was so good that we went twice, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day – yep it was open on both and gets bonus points for that in my opinion. Anyone travelling for a long period who is in need of a good curry would do well to make a stop here and savour the flavour of yummy curry!
Another of our days in Quito was spent by first taking a ride in the Teleférico up to the top of the nearby mountain range to get a view of the stretching city that is Quito. While it was impressive to see the city, the view was broken up into two parts by a large mountainous/hilly outcropping that appeared to have a communications station on it (lots of satellite dishes) and was private property and off limits. This did spoil the whole experience for us because you couldn’t see the whole city unbroken, so we went down and to the Cathedral. Here you are able to wander around and explore one of the main towers behind the clock faces and then the tower at the other end of the Cathedral. Exploring these was fun – small, windy Cathedral staircases always are and there were views of the city from the top that were good. We were even able to make out our hostel!
While we were in Quito it was New Year’s Eve, so we made some friends in the hostel and enjoyed a few celebratory drinks. It was the done thing to wear wigs and for the boys to dress as girls (and the locals that we saw drank a lot of Tequila!) but I decided not to (mainly because the wig stand near our hostel refused to lower the price at all and I wasn’t in the mood to pay full price). Sarah had her wig from Bolivia, so dusted it off. After a bit of partying at the hostel and eating in an Italian place opposite (amazing Calzone) we headed into the centre of town to see what entertainment we could find. Sadly some of the bars had a weird policy of not allowing you to enter if there were no free tables (everyone must have a table) but eventually we managed to get into a place and sit at the bar. We had a good dance and at midnight headed out to see what would happen because that was the time that the locals would burn the papier mache models that they had been busy making throughout December (the bar we were in had a very good Chucky from Childs Play – classic!) and sure enough there were soon a couple of bonfires raging. Local tradition dictates that people jump through the flames. We weren’t convinced that this was the safest activity for people who had been drinking Tequila all afternoon, but none the less took our turn and burnt off all the bad spirits (or so I imagine). Then we all headed back inside and danced away until about 1am when the bar shut. WHAT??!! So, we wandered around for a while and found a mixture of closed or empty, lame looking bars and so headed home. The evening was enjoyable thanks to the good company that we found, but it felt rather curtailed which was to the benefit of our wallets and our heads, but not to our partying spirit. We imagined all the friends that we knew who were heading to Montañita having a lot more fun at some beach party and were happy for them, but we failed to find the party in Quito.
On New Year’s Day most places were closed (though thankfully not Chandani Tandoori) and so we had a quiet day on the whole, probably watching a film somewhere.
That was Euador. On the 2nd Jan we took a flight to Bogota to start enjoying Colombia. Overall we had enjoyed Ecuador, but both felt that two weeks was not long enough and that we had missed out a little by not seeing the Ecuadorean coastline. Still, you have to leave something to do during your next visit…
Wishing you all well,