On Monday morning I finally did the inconceivable, lugging my tired body to the bus station and leaving the beach behind me. It was just a few hours to the massive industrial town of Guayaquil, where the bus station serves as the transportation hub for all of Southern Ecuador. It’s adjacent to the airport and resembles an airport terminal combined with a massive mall. At the food court I eschewed the massive line at KFC and grabbed an Ecuadorian meal for the onward journey to Cuenca.
As the road wound and curved back towards the Andes, I awoke as my ears popped to find that the temperature was dropping precipitously. Visibility dropped to about 50 feet: I had returned to living amongst the clouds. Like a jetliner making its way out of a foggy airport, we eventually ascended above the cloud cover to be greeted by striking views of sun kissed mountaintops blanketed by a plush layer of clouds.
As night fell the bus rolled into Cuenca, the most modern city in Ecuador’s South. Cuenca rivals Quito for architectural splendor and colonial charm, yet lacks the capital’s traffic and sprawling urban expanse. With a low cost of living, easy access to Western amenities, and a relatively tranquil lifestyle, Cuenca has become a hotspot for American retirees. The streets are lined with cafes, ice cream parlors, and nice restaurants, each frequented by grey-haired patrons speaking in distinctly American English.
On Tuesday I led myself around the city by foot, meandering down one-way cobblestone streets and relaxing in the city’s parks. The most beautiful buildings in town are definitely the churches, some as much as 400 years old.
On Wednesday I took a day trip to Cajas National Park with John, an Australian backpacker on an exodus through South America to Antarctica. Just 45 minutes from Cuenca, the park sits at 2800 meters in elevation and the clouds hover right above, obscuring most of the views. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were gripped by an icy wind and observed as the clouds moved swiftly overhead.
The park's main visitor center and hiker’s refuge is perched on the bank of a beautiful laguna. The area is riddled with hiking trails around the area and beyond, so John and I picked one with a nice ascent to the top and set off. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into.
The “path” around the main laguna is nothing more than a few sporadic planks raised above a ridiculously muddy swamp. Aided by the recent rains and lack of sunshine, the mud squished under out feet with every step.
After almost an hour of slogging through, we came to the turn off point for our chosen trail, which turned out to be literally straight up the mountainside. We set off and at first made good time, doing more rock climbing and bouldering than hiking up the rocky slope. At first the ascent didn’t look like it would be that bad, as we could see the top whenever the clouds briefly cleared. But that possible ending point turned out to be a false summit; again and again I found myself saying “I think the top is just over the next cliff.” After the third false summit we began to lose hope.
Finally we came to a decision point. Now pretty high up, we were completely exposed on the rock face, with a thin trail heading straight up into the clouds ahead of us and nothing but a challenging descent behind us. If Quilotoa’s winds were a strong gale and Cotopaxi’s were a tropical storm, then Cajas felt like a full fledged hurricane hitting us at 4,000 meters. John had officially lost all feeling in his hands and the higher we got, the worse the wind and cold bit into our light jackets. After crouching behind a rock for protection to assess our situation, we decided to head back behind us instead of moving forward into the unknown grey abyss. Nevertheless, when the clouds sporadically broke the view from the top was stunning.
For another hour on the way down we were faced with a gut-wrenching steep slope and slide through the mud more than a few times on the way down, completely covering our backsides and backpacks in mud. By the time we reached the bottom and trekked back in the mud towards the refuge, we were in desperate need of a hot coffee to return feeling to our hands. Things turned around after that, as we warmed up, caught a bus back to Cuenca, and even took an afternoon yoga class at the hostel that evening to ease the pains away.
On Thursday morning I called a hostel in the town of Vilcabamba to confirm they received the reservation I submitted the night before. When the receptionist informed me it hadn’t gone through, I wasn’t very hopeful: Hosteria Izhcayluma is incredibly popular and I had heard about it as far back as Medellin. At first I was informed there wasn’t any availability until the following Monday, but after asking me to hold on for a minute while she dealt with a customer, she came back on to tell me someone had just unexpectedly left and one bed was open for the next three nights. It was an amazing stroke of luck and I totally bewildered the other guests with a massive fist pump as I hung up the phone.
A tiny little outpost of town that once served as a retreat destination for Incan royalty, Vilcabamba was dubbed “The Valley of Longevity” in the 1980’s due to many of its inhabitants claiming to be over 100 years old. Although those claims were later debunked by researchers, most of the hostels and tiny shops in town have capitalized on the marketing opportunity, dubbing themselves with names like “Shop of Eternal Youth”, even though they still sell Doritos, beer, and Coca-Cola. In fact, the entire surrounding area has the same calming vibe of Bali lifestyle, complete with beautiful scenery, happy locals, and plenty of meditation, yoga, and sacred healing classes.
The only park in town is adorned with a beautiful cathedral, but just two blocks away from the center, the streets are completely deserted.
The city attracts a counter culture crowd, with long-term residents that are expats of all ages. Walking around the streets, English is just as prevalent as Spanish. It definitely seems like a great place to settle down if you’re retired and want to re-kindle the hippie vibe of Woodstock.
The road from Cuenca to the nearest major town of Loja was devastatingly scary; from the front row of the bus the view appeared as though every turn would surely be the one to send us over a cliff. As we wound through the mountains shrouded by fog, a light rain pattered the windshield, slicking the roads just enough to make each passing of a truck a potentially hazardous situation.
Along the way I befriended a German couple bound for the same hostel and we teamed up to catch a quick connecting bus to Vilcabamba and then a taxi to Hosteria Izhcayluma. Set in the hillside a few miles outside of town, Izhcayluma is an oasis for the haggard traveler. With resort-like amenities at a backpacker’s budget, it’s easy to understand why the place is almost always sold out. In the rest of Ecuador, $8.50 will probably get you a cramped bed in a rundown hostel with cold water showers. At Izhcayluma, it includes a veranda restaurant, access to a pool, a bar with billiards and ping-pong, and free yoga classes every morning. It was by far the best value I have ever received for accommodation. Immediately upon arrival the fresh air, hospitality of the staff, and spread out walking trails around the compound refreshed my spirit.
On Friday I dragged myself out of bed just after sunrise to make my way over to the hostel’s yoga shala, an open air studio overlooking The Sleeping Inca, a sacred mountain whose presence supposedly protects the valley from natural disasters. Our instructor Patricia awoke our minds and bodies, easing away the pains of the bus ride and preparing me for the day ahead.
After a relaxing breakfast I set off on the Izhcayluma loop, one of the best and most challenging hikes in the surrounding area. The hostel’s proprietors have gone above and beyond when it comes to hiking, creating their own network of trails accompanied with maps, detailed written instructions, and well-marked paths.
The trail crossed the main road and turned South, ascending the mountain range that lies behind the town. Although the way was steep and strenuous, the impressive view more than made up for it and provided a great excuse to rest and catch my breath every few minutes. After steadily gaining elevation for over an hour, I re-connected with the main road and was treated to a gorgeous view of the now tiny city far below.
Yet the mountain range right behind me still beckoned, a constant reminder that there was still more work to be done. The trail crossed the road and started getting steeper, winding its way back and forth up the mountainside. the higher I got the stronger the wind became and the narrower the path got, until finally I found myself on the mountain’s ridgeline.
From here the view went from a wide swath of the valley to a fully fledged 360 degree panorama, as I could now even see the next town farther off to the South.
After taking in the view for a few minutes I set off downhill, destroying my knees and quads on the steep and rocky descent. Upon reaching the bottom of the mountain the trail continued onwards through a dry riverbed and I worked my way back, leaping from rock to rock.
On Sunday night I'll be departing for Peru, crossing the border into my 8th country so far this year. In retrospect, Ecuador is definitely one of my favorite destinations of all time. It's got jungle, mountains, beaches, and more outdoor activities than a month allowed time for. However, one of the most unexpected pleasure in Ecuador is the opportunity to watch downright horrible movies in Spanish on the busses. The five worst:
- The Chaperone: Triple H from the WWE plays an ex-con attempting to win back his daughter's good graces by chaperoning her class field trip. Hilarity ensues. Honestly one of the worst movies I've ever seen.
- Let's Be Cops: The guy from New Girl and one of the Wayans brothers pretend to be cops. It's as bad as it sounds.
- The Call: Halle Berry (Halle Berry!) fields a 911 call for almost 2 hours. Exceptionally creepy.
- Rush Hour 3: The first two were better.
- Robocop: A policeman almost dies, but then becomes a robot vigilante. Lots of things explode.