Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Ecuador by Bug: Cuenca to Vilcabamba

Fred & Sigred had been to Vilcabamba several times since moving to Ecuador (See Planet Irony: Vilcabamba, and for more pictures click here) but this would be their first trip in the Bug.

It had taken Fred some time to feel quite confident that the VW was up to snuff to make a real cross country trip.  They'd gone to the Cajas a few times and to the Yunguilla Valley but the last trip to the mechanics where the maestro tweeked the Bug's transmission finally gave Fred the confidence he needed in the car.

As the Bug would provide a level of mobility and freedom not available with public transportation, they were excited about the prospect of a real look-see adventure!

Their initial goal was to get to Loja, which turned out to be about a four hour trip.  They stopped once high in the Andes to stretch their legs and let Princess have a bit of a run and a pee.  As is usual for Princess, when she gets further than about 50 miles from Cuenca, she growled menacingly at the air and was very anxious if the pack didn't stay in tight formation.

As always, the scenery through the mountains goes from lush to high sierra desert and then the closer you get to Loja the foliage gets denser and greener and the weather warms up.

Fred remembered a hotel from their first trip to Loja (more than 5 years ago now) that would have secure parking for the VW and that he felt would take Princess (which they did).  They signed into the Podocarpus for $60 for the night, figured out the Wifi in their room, had a bit of a rest and then went out into the streets to see what they could see.

Although Loja is smaller than Cuenca the streets seemed more crowded and there appeared to be more hustle and bustle.  They wandered up and down several streets keeping an eye out for some place to eat dinner.  They dropped in to a Levi's store and astonishingly they had a jean shirt in Fred's size, which of course he bought, as such a thing couldn't be found in Cuenca.  Weary, they sat in one of the downtown squares and watched people go by and admired the scenery.  In the end, they ate at the restaurant recommended by their Hotel.  It filled them up but as Fred said, "The burger was like a bad vegetarian burger but with a hint of meat."

Fred and Princess walked Sigred back to the Hotel as she wanted a shower and some quiet computer time and then they headed out for a bit more wandering before settling into their room for the night.  The shower for Sigred was disappointing in that there was no hot water (not the first time she's encountered that detail in travelling around Ecuador).  She washed her hair and basically had a sponge bath.

Fred and Princess did the park circuit hitting two small parks and walked along the river a bit before coming back to the Hotel.  Fred reported Princess was very nervous what with all the people and everything being new.

Final note re Loja:  the city garbage trucks roam the streets playing a song much like the ice cream man does in North America - presumably as notice they're in the neighbourhood and one should bring out their garbage.

Princess did not sleep well, on guard most of the night to any peep or rumble from the hallway.  Nevertheless everyone pretty much woke up at 5 AM.  At 5:30 Fred took Princess for a walk while Sigred ipaded and at 7:30 they all went for their free Ecuadorian Hotel breakfast of buns, jam, fruit and scrambled eggs.  Thus, they were well on their way out of Loja by 9 o'clock.

The mountains got greener and the weather got warmer and before they knew it they were entering Vilcabama. They had noticed a Hostel called the Ramses several visits ago and knew that there was secure parking there, so decided to try it out.  The grounds are absolutely stunning with fanciful rock formations, oranges and orchids growing in the grounds, a coolish swimming pool right outside their door and potted plants arranged in stone work pots to create Ecuadorian bonsai.  The smallish room was $40 a night, including WiFi near the office, TV in the room and the ubiquitous breakfast the next morning.

After setting up their room they all set out to explore downtown Vilcabamba and eventually have lunch. They immediately found a place that served cappuccino and gratefully sat inside a cool building arming their restless night heads with caffeine.  Later on, they talked with a few Gringo locals, bought a picnic basket and had tortilla soup and a veggie sandwich at the Jardin Escondido Hostal.  Then it was back to their room, past time for Fred and Princess' nap.

The afternoon was spent reading, ipading and of course Princess was taken for a walk.  For dinner they hopped into the VW and headed up to Izhcaluma.  Although German food is Izhcaluma's specialty, Fred had curried chicken stroganoff and Sigred had one of her favourites, breaded fried trout.  A couple from California were seated at the table next to them and the two couples traded stories on their adventures in Ecuador.

Riding back to their hostal, Fred pointed out fireworks off in the distance and once at the Ramses they sat in the warm dark for a while and admired the stars.

Sigred Writes in her Diary: Day 3
It's hot... hot hot.... face sweating hot... it's great!  After the cold weather in Cuenca this is just the treat we need.  We got up at about 7 o'clock and ipaded while Fred took Princess for her walk.  Ramses served Ecuadorian breakfast at 8:00 and we went for about an hours walk afterwards all uphill, sitting and resting in the shade every twenty minutes or so.  
It's truly beautiful here (!) and the people watching is first class: hippies, old grandmother's on two crutches inching across the road but still quite willing to grant us a huge, semi-toothless smile of greeting, cowboys, farmers, young men building houses everywhere, exotic young women in flamboyant clothes, a dwarf decked out in every colour of the rainbow that prompted me to comment under my breath: "Well, I guess it's either Vilcabamba or a circus?"  
After our walk, we hopped in the VW and drove up into the mountains, got ourselves turned around and then eventually we found a little one lane dirt road that finally took us along side a creek deep into woods and in the end to Podocarpus Park.  On the way out, we stopped near the creek and I took my shoes off and Princess and I waded in the creek for a while until my ankles began to hurt from the cold of the water.  
We had lunch at a tiny hippy cafe:  focacia bread with homemade pesto,  tomatoes and cheese, bubbly water for me and of course a  Pilsener for Fred and then back to Ramses for Fred and Princesses naps.  We're really having a lovely time and decided to spent an extra day here in Vilcabama and then trek back to Cuenca on Saturday in two hour increments.  Had dinner at the Secret Garden; Fred had curried shrimp and I had a vegetarian taco thing that I really enjoyed.  Sat outside after dinner and people watched for an hour and then back to the Ramses where we sat outside some more just enjoying the ambiance.
The next day was more of the same: a long walk, an hour and half drive into the hills, ipading, reading, good food, meeting strangers and becoming acquaintances, walks with Princess and generally having a relaxed but active day.  The day after was the long drive home to Cuenca done in two hour intervals with stretching walks and bites to eat along the way.

"All in all", Sigred told Fred, "for me, this has been one of my favourite holidays!"

Fred agreed.



Vilcabamba is a village in the southern region of Ecuador, in the Loja province, about 45 km (28 mi) from the city of Loja. The etymology of the “Vilcabamba” apparently derives from the Quichua “huilco pamba.” Huilco denotes the sacred trees, Anadenanthera colubrina, that inhabit the region and pamba is a word meaning “a plain.” (cognate with pampa) The area has been referred to as the "Playground of the Inca" which refers to its historic use as a retreat for Incan royalty. The valley is overlooked by a mountain called Mandango, the Sleeping Inca, whose presence is said to protect the area from earthquakes and other natural disasters.