After Galápagos, we had five more weeks left to explore Ecuador. We decided to give Guayaquil a miss and only used it as a stopover point on our way from San Cristobal to Loja, staying one night at DC Suites near the airport (find our TripAdvisor review here).
The Loja airport is 34 kilometres from town, in the neighbouring valley of Catamayo. It services both Loja and Vilcabamba. As we stepped out of the airport, we were greeted by about 20 taxi drivers shouting at us to offer their services. We quickly figured out that the yellow taxis go to Loja (USD20), while the white and green pick-up trucks go to Vilcabamba (USD35). While it is possible to take a taxi to the Terminal Terrestre in Catamayo (USD2) and a bus from there to Loja with Catamayo Express (with buses every 30 minutes), we decided to take a taxi all the way.
Loja felt a lot less touristy than other places we had visited. People here just go about their business. We stayed at Hostal Los Lirios for three nights (find our TripAdvisor review here). Loja has many gorgeous buildings from colonial times, most noteworthy at Calle Lourdes and the area around Plaza San Sebastián. We also checked out the City Gate which had an interesting numismatic exhibition and nice views across the town. Another day, we walked… and walked… and walked… all along the river, through Parque Jipiro (which was full of schoolchildren on an excursion) and on along Rio Zamora to the Parque Zoológico. The park holds rescued animals, including many juvenile giant tortoises, various monkeys, even penguins, ocelots and tapirs. It was very sad to see so many animals being victims of illegal trafficking. They should be enjoying their natural habitat… The park also has an orchideario, but most plants were not blooming at the time we visited.
That same afternoon, as we arrived back at our hostel, we saw a BMW motorbike parked in the garage. Upon closer inspection, the owner (Mark) seemed to be travelling around the world. Paul connected with him online, and he was happy to catch up that evening for a meal and a beer… it happened to be his birthday. As we walked into the first restaurant and asked whether we could have a beer, the waiter mentioned something about la ley seca. Not understanding what he meant, we headed to another place… only to be told (again) that we couldn’t get any alcohol due to la ley seca. Turns out, 48 hours before and 24 hours after Election Day, it is not allowed to sell or consume alcohol in Ecuador. It was Friday night, and on Sunday were presidential and parliamentary elections. So, we ended up celebrating Mark’s birthday with coca-cola, juice, coffee and tea. Quite ironic, given he loves to have a beer. We had a great evening nevertheless, chatting about our respective trips and why we do what we do. Mark is fulfilling a teenage dream while at the same time raising money for the Teenage Cancer Trust.
After Loja, we took a shared Cooperativo 5 de Mayo taxi (located at Calle Jose Manuel Aguirre near Calle Mercadillo and costing us USD1.75 per person) to Vilcabamba. It was fun travelling by shared taxi this time (rather than by bus). We only waited about 15 minutes until we had a full car and off we went. I chatted for most of the journey to the guy next to me (Roberto) who lived in San Pedro de Vilcabamba and travelled with his young son (Roberto Junior). Three quarters through the journey, Roberto swapped with his father (guess what… his name was Roberto Senior) who took his grandson all the way home while Roberto jumped into his car, starting his shift as a taxi driver.
We had decided to head to Vilcabamba as it was only a bit over an hour away from Loja, and as with Loja, it was close to Parque Nacional Podocarpus. We had heard of it by following some US blogs and knew the village was inundated by retired gringos (hence the initial reluctance to visit). However, the country-side is gorgeous and definitely worth a visit. We had found a lovely place outside the village, Rumi Wilco Eco Lodge, where we rented a river cabin for two nights. We were the only ones there, surrounded by nature. The cabin was fully self-catered, had everything we needed (even a juice maker) and had a lovely porch with a hammock where we lazed when we were not out exploring (find our TripAdvisor review here). We were even adopted by a friendly cat.
The second day, we wanted to hike to El Palto waterfall. Alicia, the Argentinian owner of the Eco Lodge explained the hike to us… It sounded doable (2 1/2 hours one way… no big deal, right?) but turned out to be super difficult. A taxi took us up to a bridge. From there, we took the path towards Parque Nacional Podocarpus, a very steep trail with high walls on either side, trampled muddy by mules used to transport people and goods up into the mountains. The path went further and further uphill. After almost an hour climbing up the mountain path, trying to stay out of the mud and dodging the poo left behind by the mules, we reached the first of four (!!!) gates we were meant to pass. According to the map we got from Alicia, we were not even half-way there. But I was exhausted already, and the sun was burning down on us without mercy (there is hardly any shade further up as the vegetation thins out). I don’t like giving up (particularly as we knew ahead of us was a group with an 80 something former mountain guide) but there was no way I would have made it. We still had to make our way back down that steep, muddy path (and potentially back the 5km to Vilcabamba if we didn’t manage to hitch a ride down).
Fortunately, we didn’t have to walk too far after we reached the gravel road. In a way it was lucky we turned around as only two hours later, all heavens opened and a massive thunderstorm brought some much-needed cooler conditions.
The road to Cuenca was a long one… first a bus ride back to Loja (75 minutes) followed by another five-hour bus ride. By the time we knocked on our host family’s door, it was 1700h. Thankfully I only started my Spanish class two days later, so at least we had a full day to get our bearings around town.
We immediately liked Cuenca. It felt more sophisticated and wealthy, yet managed to retain its typical Ecuadorian character with many colonial buildings, beautiful parks and squares, countless churches and colourful markets. Later we figured out why… Cuenca (similar to Vilcabamba) is home to thousands of ex-pats, mostly retired people from the US, but also from Canada and Europe. While it may be expensive for many to retire back home, a small apartment in Cuenca costs less than a quarter you would have to pay in Sydney… no kidding… and for that price, you wouldn’t get some hole in the suburbs… no, we are talking about the city centre location, renovated with wooden floors etc. Now, these ex-pats don’t just want to sit around at home. No. They invest… in small businesses, in the art scene etc.
After having had two weeks of one on one Spanish classes in Quito, I decided to do another week with the same school in Cuenca. Due to Carnival, I had three days one week and another two days the next, with a four-day break in between. Carnival in Ecuador was an interesting experience: Even though it’s winter, it’s custom to totally drench each other (to wash off the bad spirits) and to spray each other with foam. Days and weeks before Carnival you see street vendors selling Cariocas (spray bottles in various sizes) with espuma (foam). And the kids fill tiny balloons with water which they throw at random passers-by. We only just dodged one, while someone with a water pistol managed to spray us out of a passing car one day. On the Carnival Sunday, our host family took us to their weekend house just outside Cuenca but fortunately, they spared us and Dianne, an American family friend who spends two to three months each winter in Cuenca, from the drench procedure. It was fun watching them though… Thankfully, they all had a change of clothes to slip into after the mess. Nevertheless one of our host’s grandchild got sick only a few days later.
What else did we do in Cuenca and can recommend? Given it rained every afternoon and I was at school in the morning, there were some limitations, unfortunately. Nevertheless…
- We climbed the wooden bell tower of the oldest church in Cuenca (La Iglesia de Los Todos Santos) with gorgeous views across the city and an interesting history (it was a place of worship even before the Spaniards and Catholicism arrived).
- We visited both the new and old cathedral, conveniently located opposite each other at Parque Calderon.
- We roamed around the Ruinas de Pumapungo, a pre-Incan archaeological sight in the middle of the city (where we stumbled upon a Belgian guy selling waffles and ended up chatting to him about our minimalist lives and about raising children in Ecuador).
- We checked out the Museu de las Culturas Aborigines, an interesting private collection of pre-Incan and Incan artefacts, carefully displayed in chronological order from ~3000 BC all the way to the 15th century.
- We tested a number of restaurants (Cuenca’s restaurant scene is awesome): Sofy and Bumba down by the river near Calle Benigno Malo (to have some non-Ecuadorean food for a change), Café Moliendo (to taste some traditional Colombian fare), Café Nucallacta (for a yummy breakfast burrito) and Raymipampa next to the new cathedral for a traditional Ecuadorean lunch.
On Carnival Tuesday, we took a bus (Cooperativa de Transporte Occidental from Terminal Terrestre) up to Parque Nacional Cajas, hiked around the Laguna Tareadora (90 minutes including stops) and from the Information Centre along the Sendero Garcia Moreno down towards the park entrance. Half-way down the trail, it started raining… initially just a light drizzle but over time, it got more and heavier. We were miles away from anywhere, and the water, following gravity, just ran down the trail, making it muddy very quickly. By the time we reached Restaurante Guevara which serves a nice trout lunch, we were totally soaked (even GORE-TEX® couldn’t stop the water getting slowly through to our next layer).
Thankfully, the restaurant has a fireplace which was on. We ended up hovering around it, chatting to a Cuencan family who happened to celebrate Carnival with a big lunch. They even invited us to some Cañelazo (an alcoholic drink made from cane sugar) to help warm us up. Very sweet indeed.