A trip to the southern Ecuadorian Sierra for many should be one filled with excitement and anticipation. After just completing trips to both the Amazon and Galapagos Islands, adventures that surpassed my wildest dreams, I had a feeling that the south wouldn't be in the same league. I couldn't have been more wrong. Out of the three trips, the south I have to say was the one filled with most beauty and variety.
To reach the first port of call, Vilcabamaba, a nice 15 hour bus journey was needed from the capital of Quito, through Volcano Alley where Cotopaxi, the Illiniza's, Tungurahua, and Chimborazo stood tall and proud, dominating the skyline of the crisp evening air. The sun was already rising by the time Loja was finally reached, where another bus was needed to Vilcabamba. After previous night bus rides, this one, a little to my disappointment, was uneventful, and I managed to somehow sleep through the twists and turns of the mountain roads, where one wrong turn or lack of brakes a screeching would mean a fall of 300m down the sheer rock face to an almost certain death. The only highlight worth mentioning was awakening at Cuenca's bus terminal to see two drunks dressed just like Laurel and Hardy taking a hard earned beating from the patrolling security guards. I don't know if it was solely for the way they were dressed, but they looked like innocent drunks to me!
The first thing I noticed about the south was the sheer beauty of the landscape, the valleys and mountains covered in greenery and waterfalls, lasting all the way to Vilcabamba, a dormant, quiet little town an hour drive south from Loja, which has become something of a tourist magnet in the past few decades after the town was coined 'The Valley of Longevity' after a journal article stated numerous people were alive and kicking at the ripe old age of 135 years. Personally I think these people had been sniffing a little too much of the white stuff. Not the cocaine variety, but of the less potent cactus powder that has, so I have been told, vivid hallucinogenic properties that can be found in abundance here. Strangely, during my time in Vilcabamba I failed to see anyone even approaching this age.
Vilcabamba, due to its location sees good hot sunny weather throughout the year, and the day of my arrival was no different, the short walk from the bus terminal to the hostel leaving me red faced and my back drenched in stinky sweat. It's moments like this when travelling with a loved one, you know the bond between you is strong, especially having been travelling non-stop for close to two-thirds of the last day!
The chosen hostel, Hostal Valle Sagrado (Calle Sucre, Parque Central, Tel: 07/580686), which happened to be the oldest accommodation in town. If I hadn't already known this fact before arriving, looking at the rooms with their worn characteristics would have certainly led to this conclusion. Made from adobe brick and smelling like damp had reached its last stages of development would make many people look elsewhere. Sadly I felt obliged to take the room as in place of the owners who were out buying a horse, a man in his late seventies, tossing a machete from hand to hand and looking a little deranged was put in charge, and someone I didn't have the ability to reject. I was later to realise that this wasn't the wisest of decisions as for the first time in my life I had an allergy attacked my immune system, leading to fits of sneezing every night making the necessity of sleep hard to come by.
The unfinished walls meant big gaps between the bedroom, my private bathroom, and the shared bathroom, allowing all sorts of grotesque and disgusting toilet noises to be heard throughout my stay here. Luckily on my arrival after such a long journey, these noises were kept to a minimum, and I was able to catch up on some much needed beauty sleep, awakening five hours later to a caldron of intense heat. Not use to such heat where I have the joys of working on the slopes of Cotopaxi Volcano, I decided to bring my pale legs out for a rare public appearance, walking the thirty minutes to the other side of town where Zoologico Vilcabamba (Centro Recreacional Yamburara, daily 8am-5pm) can be found. As entrance only costs $0.50 I decided it would have been rude not to enter I couldn't really complain with the animals that $0.50 bought, strolling around for a relaxing hour. Highlights included a couple of very bored looking pumas in very cramped conditions and some of the most evil looking birds I have seen in my life.
To quench my thirst and prepare for the sapping walk back to town, I decided to gulp down a couple of cool glasses of sugar cane juice. The dirty colour of this fine liquid doesn't really fill you with confidence, but you should never judge solely on looks, otherwise I’d be fighting a losing battle! It was on this slow paced stumble back to Hostal Valle Sagrado it came to my attention just how relaxed Vilcabamba is, with people lying in hammocks, munching on fresh fruit plucked from the trees. It's a scene more common of the coast than in valleys bordering Peru.
My first evening in Vilcabamba was spent eating cheap but excellent quality Mexican food with my girlfriend in La Terraza (Calle Diego Vaca de la Vega and Bolivar) and participating in the joyful activity of people watching, which was perfect as Saturday night is definitely party time in the main plaza, with groups of youths coming from the surrounding towns and villages to drink copious amounts of high percentage alcohol.
Instead though of all joining together to form one big party, the new arrivals seemed happy to enough to jump in the back of the twenty or so pick-ups parked around the main square, and with each trucks music pumped up, they had their own individual parties, grooving away in the back to songs such as 'Hit Me Baby One More Time'. Not by the legendary baldie Britney Spears, but by the equally impressive Travis. It seems indie rock is the choice of music here over the normal favourite of salsa. After reminiscing over songs I hadn't heard for a good year I decided it was time to call it a night as there was a hard days hiking to be had the following day to Cerro Mandango, the rock formation looming over the village that if looking in the right direction looks strangely like a face. Many researchers believe this face was the main reason the Incan's chose Vilcabamba as a spiritual home.