We are travelling through South America for a few month starting in Santiago, Chile heading south to Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel and then wandering north through Argentina via Patagonia, onto Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and return home via Easter Island. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone, they are part of one journey. Ecuador is cool, damp and green, a pleasant change from the hot and dry Peruvian coast. The change in climate here has given us new energy and we are looking forward to our time here.
We were happy to cross the border into Ecuador and leave the deserts of Peru behind us at the sleepy town of La Tina. Ecuadorians take their immigration seriously so we have been told to carry our passports on us at all times and we have already been subjected to a couple of random checks along the road where we fill in the visitor’s book at the military check points.
Loja: The traveling is green and clean as we go through the valleys and over the hills. Loja is a small cool hill town voted the cleanest in Ecuador last year. All the markets are closed and the vendors and older people are congregated in the town square demonstrating over pensions. The riot police complete with shields and batons are present, but are hardly needed and there is no water cannon or tear gas. The most dangerous thing in town are the school children celebrating Carnival and throwing water bombs (bomba aqua) at our bus so we drive through the town with windows closed.
Buses: Apart from children throwing water bombs in Loja, off-road driving and overcrowding in Bolivia, lots of food vendors at bus stations and some very loud Latin music almost everywhere, passengers have been very friendly and polite. In many rural areas, a male passenger boarding a bus will doff his hat and say good morning to the entire bus and often shake hands with the first few passengers. In other places pastors and salesmen would quietly board the bus, wait until it was well underway, and then stand up behind the driver and make a presentation to the entire bus and sometimes hand out trial packs. Business complete they would tip the driver, alight, cross the road and return to town to start over again.
Vilcabamba: We take a bus an hour south through the Andes to Vilcabamba a small village set in a picturesque valley. In 1973 National Geographic magazine completed a study on the oldest living population and it turned up here. A quote from one resident at 135 years said “I wish I was 15 years younger”. It seems the weather with an average of 20 degrees, the water and soil minerals, a balanced diet, and lifestyle along with genes and lack of stress all add to longevity. However a more recent study suggested poor numeracy skills and lack of birth records were the biggest contributor to their longevity.
Ever since the original article Westerners have been turning up with many staying. It is now quite the alternative lifestyle destination with an abundance of retreats, health resorts, eco-tourism, organic food, and alternative spiritual, medical and healing centres. We stay and rejuvenate for a few days at the Madre Tierra Hostel (mother earth) where we have massages, facials, mud baths and organic food.
We meet an older Canadian couple with a hat business in Quebec who are visiting Ecuador on a hat buying expedition. It seems Cuenca a few hours up the road is the Panama hat making centre of the world. It also seems the hat business is good with an extra fine Panama hat purchased locally for US$300-400 retailing for $2,000 in Quebec – it seems a lot for a hat but we guess that it lasts longer than sun block.
Cuenca: Rejuvenated we head back to Loja, the demonstrations are over so we visit the markets that have reopened. We ride the bus to Cuenca for six hours through valleys, passes and mountains, green, fertile, with a patchwork of fields. Hill towns, speeding bus drivers, colourful natives in local dress, men in short black pants and women in long black skirts, embroidered jackets and top hats, bags of corn, bundles of sticks and other produce are loaded on and off the bus. Three excited young boys get on with a newly acquired squirrel doing summersaults in its cage and entertaining the entire bus.
Cuenca is another UNESCO listed heritage town set in a valley, it’s tidy, clean and sizeable with cobblestone streets and historic architecture. It’s Sunday and the folks are all out for the ‘Pase del Niño’ street parade. Small children dressed to the nines ride on an assortment of animals waving to the crowds, followed by shiny utility trucks full of more children also dressed to the nines.
We head off in search of the ultimate Panama hat bargain, the practice is harder than the theory nevertheless the next morning we catch the bus sporting our new hats.
Nariz Del Diablo: We leave at 6am for the 4 hour bus ride to Alausi and the ‘Nariz Del Diablo’ the train ride of the Devil’s Nose. The bus drops us at the side of the Pan American Highway, a few minutes later the police offer us a lift in the back of their utility truck to the train station.
The train is popular with travellers, mainly because you can ride on the roof, it seems there is no public liability in Ecuador which provides little comfort but a great view. The train descends clinging to the side of a steep gorge before traversing a couple of switch backs on a sheer cliff face and ending in a river bed with abandoned buildings before returning back up the gorge. The line used to go to the coast at Guayaquil but flood washed the valley tracks away in the 90´s and were never rebuilt. As it is on the current ride, passengers are often required to get down and clear and repair tracks if they have been blocked or damaged by a landslip.
Banos: Back in Alausi we take a bus to Banos the long way around via Riobamba. This is Volcano country and it seems some activity a few years back destroyed the direct route and no one has bothered to repair it. On the bus we have a long chat with a couple of Australians we had spent some time with in Bolivia, it seems remarkable how we continue to bump into other travellers.
Banos is a cute hillside town popular with western travellers and Ecuadorians. It has lots of hot springs, scenery, walks, climbing and is a starting point for treks into the Amazon jungle. We forgo the 60km bike ride down to Puyo in the jungle, the road goes through waterfalls (wear a raincoat), and if you go by bus don’t put your pack on the roof. Baños is the Spanish word for toilets, a most unfortunate name for such a pretty little town.
Quito: and the Equator are a four hour bus ride north and our most northern destination. We spend a few days in the downtown guesthouse area, a trendy pedestrian friendly area near the University with lots of young people and restaurants. We are surprised by the cleanliness and order of downtown Quito. We take a tour to Otavalo market billed as one of the largest and most colourful in South America stopping on the way at look outs to view volcano craters and lakes, it is stunning scenery. On Sundays Quito’s old city is closed to traffic and everyone turns out to lunch outdoors, watch local musicians, dance and wander the streets so we join in.
We catch a local bus 40 minutes north to Mitad del Mundo and the Equator, a monument with a line marked by paving stones and our northern most point, we take the obligatory photos with a foot in each hemisphere. We have travelled by bus and taxi through South America from Ushuaia at 55 degrees south to the Equator so it is with both excitement and reflection we take our last bus ride back to Quito.