Southern Highlands -- Vilcabamba to Cuenca, Ecuador

June 25 - July 11, 2007


Cuy (guinea pig) roasting party at Ingapirca.



We roll out of Chachapoyas at 8pm and drift off into a fitful sleep as the bus bounces and swerves over rough dirt roads. Stumbling out in the 5am darkness, back again in Chiclayo, we somehow manage to catch the 5:30am bus north to Piura where we plan to spend the night. We are crammed in the last seats in the back row, and the sun is rising behind a dense coastal haze (common here in winter). Out the window, the endless flat sandy desert peppered with scraggly-looking shrubs is strangely reminiscent of the scenes out of our train window back in Morocco. As usual, nothing is as we imagine beforehand! Our initial views of Piura reveal a ragged desert shanty town with heaps of three-wheeled motorcycle-taxis buzzing around, so we make tracks to the Transportes Loja terminal, snagging seats on the morning bus across the border to Loja, Ecuador.

Three buses and 22 hours from Chachapoyas, we land in Loja and make a beeline to the hotel for some much needed sleep and recuperation. This is the southern Andean highlands of Ecuador, elevation 7000', and it is surprisingly cool and rainy during our stay.


Rain out our hotel window in Loja.





Just south of Loja is the extensive cloud forest reserve of Parque Nacional Podocarpus (named for Ecuador's only native conifer), loaded with flowers, bromeliads and orchids adapted to the cool wet climate. There was a continuous raft of clouds blowing in from the Amazon basin and pouring over the crest of the Andes. We hiked the muddy trails in the rain and were delighted to be immersed in the pristine cloud forest after traveling for so long through mostly-deforested highland farm country.




Two hours south from Loja, Vilcabamba is southern Ecuador's valley of longevity, so named because many residents supposedly live well into their 100s. At five thousand feet, this area does indeed have near perfect weather year round. Looking east, we watched clouds roll in from the Amazon basin, hover over the crest of the Andes, then disappear overhead. Every day a brilliant blue sky stretched from VIlcabamba to the coast, a hundred miles to the west. In our five days alternately hiking the surrounding mountains and lounging in the hammock, we discovered a growing expat community -- mostly Norte Americanos -- who have succumbed to this magical place. We declined the psychic energy workshops, Reichi therapy, and shamanic healing sessions run by locals and ex-hippies, finally tore ourselves away from this highland paradise, and boarded the morning bus back to Loja, then north to Cuenca.





Riding the bus in Ecuador gives new meaning to the phrase, the journey is the destination. On our Loja to Cuenca journey, we spend eight hours mesmerized by the scenes playing out all around us. Four kids scramble about, the youngest boy torturing a tiny kitty stuffed into a shoe box. They've paid only one fare so they all cram into one seat, the one across the aisle from me. While we wind around the rough roads, the girl reaches over me and then Mark to toss a plastic bag full of vomit out the open window. Passengers bang on the front cab door, call out Gracias! and the bus stops in the middle of nowhere to let them off with their huge bags, parcels, and babies precariously tied onto their backs by flimsy shawls. Torturous music blares over the distorted sound system as we roll through one small town after another, careen around curves, bounce over bone-jarring bumps, pass one incredible and often strange scene after another, and all the while, our faces are glued to the dusty window. Is that guy varnishing a cooked pig? Did I just see a giant ear of corn? Is that the nun's cell phone ringing? Will that poor kitty survive?

Suddenly the music ceases (thank you, Lord!) and the conductor (the guy who takes the tickets, makes change, helps people on and off the bus, entertains the driver...) emerges from the enclosed front cab to load up the video player. Today is Nicholas Cage day on the bus! We watch three movies back-to-back, all dubbed in Spanish, as Nicholas plays good guys and bad guys, exchanges faces with John Travolta and, well, I never did figure out what the heck was happening in the third movie, I was too distracted by the incredibly entertaining "small movies" unfolding all around me.







We found a great hostel in Cuenca and stayed for six days with various international travelers and several teachers from the US who were working on their masters projects. Steps away from the hectic and noisy street life, its interior courtyard was a quiet oasis.

Cuenca is a beautiful world heritage colonial city of narrow cobblestone streets, red tile roofs, and white washed walls at 8300' elevation in the southern Ecuadorian highlands. It is surrounded by the green mountains and valleys of the tropical Andes. From here, we took day trips by bus to see nearby traditional highland villages and the Inca ruins of Ingapirca.

Twice we hired a taxi to climb the steep paved highway out of Cuenca, and after only thirty minutes reached the 13,500' elevation Parque Nacional Cajas. Here are over 70,000 acres of pristine moor-like meadows and grasslands, the páramo, found only in the high altitude neotropics from Costa Rica to northern Peru. We wandered along the trails, each step springy though the ground is covered by hard cushion plants that scrub our boots squeaky clean and feel just like astroturf. Delicate wildflowers of every shape and color squeeze through any available crack in the moss, growing alongside agaves more often seen in desert environments. In the protected alcoves along steep rock faces we found groves of quinoa trees -- reputed to grow at the highest elevation of any tree on the planet -- with shaggy red bark, their trunks twisted and dwarfed.

Chachapoyas, Peru (bus) Chiclayo (bus) Piura (bus) Loja, Ecuador (bus) Vilcabamba (bus) ► Cuenca (bus) ► Ingapirca (bus) ► Cuenca