The initial plan for today was a short one hour bus journey north to Loja. At the last minute though, upon analysing what Vilcabamba and Loja had to offer, it was decided another day in Vilcabamba was the better option. I wasn't disappointed with the decision. With the extra day in Vilcabamba, a hike into Podocarpus National Park was the day's priority, followed hopefully, time permitting by a well deserved $8 one hour massage. Considering prices for similar services in other Gringo hangouts like Quito and Baños, which average $25, you can't really complain.
After an early filling fruit breakfast from the ever reliable Natural Yogurt Vilcabamba (Calle Bolivar, Parque Central) it soon became clear in the baking early morning heat the six hours allotted time for this hike looked to be a slight underestimate. As other tourists rode past on the back of horses, hair flowing in the wind, it did cross my mind that sometimes splashing out a little extra isn't always a bad idea, but after my last try at horse riding in the Andean hills of Chugchilan, it will still be a while before I get back in the saddle.
From the map retrieved from the tourist information centre (daily except Tuesday and Friday, 8am-Noon and 2pm-6pm, Tel: 07/580890) the walk to the waterfalls was made to look easy, but from the get-go, the map and accompanying directions proved to be highly inadequate and passing isolated homesteads and quaint, picturesque churches I was always wondering if the right path was being taken. Two hours after setting off, and seeing Vilcabamba disappear into the distance a small gate marked the entrance to Podocarpus National Park, famous for an endemic species of conifer found nowhere else in the world. The valley and gorge views for me were a far more impressive sight than any unassuming tree could be. With the entrance to Podocarpus no longer in sight it was hard to go more than a few metres without hearing the rushing, splashing sound of waterfalls in every direction. Due to its isolation, this entrance to Podocarpus has no guard station, which allows a cool $10 to be saved on the entrance fee, coincidentally enough for more than hours massage.
After almost four hours of walking, and with the waterfall in shouting distance, the white froth evident from the adjacent hill, a big stumbling block was hit. The last instruction given in order to view the waterfall was 'walk into the homestead and through the neighbouring corn field, which leads down a steep embankment to the falls'. Upon reaching the homestead I was a little dismayed to see that the entrance gate, of which passing through was a necessity, was bolted shut and a huge sign put up reading 'Waterfalls, Do Not Enter, Private Property'. Although crawling underneath the gate was a distinct possibility and the farm looked completely deserted I wasn't prepared to take my chances, especially after incidents with dogs in isolated places before in my short existence. I have also seen what they do to trespassers in movies and cartoons, which isn't the hero, adrenaline filled end to my life that I always imagine and I certainly wasn't prepared to play the part of Burt Reynolds in 'Deliverance'.
Efforts were made to find alternative routes to the waterfalls, but with no luck and to make matters worse, upon trying to get back onto the main hiking trail over a small fast flowing stream, slippery rocks provided the inevitable mishap, falling straight in and saturating my legs and trainers. If this wasn't frustrating enough, a nearby bull came over to see what all the noise was about. In the confusion of whether this move was an aggressive act or not, I picked up the pace, and upon looking back to see if the bull was catching up, I had one of my 'walking inability' moments, somehow managing to trip, twist my ankle and then fall down a small embankment placing my knee straight into a fresh pile of cow turd.
By the time my girlfriend and I arrived back into Vilcabamba, making the return leg in half the time of the outward journey, the thoughts of taking a quick shower and heading for a massage had gone straight out of the window, and still with a whiff of cow poo floating around I fell straight asleep upon returning to Hostal Valle Sagrado and by the time I awoke it was already dark.
As this was my last night in Vilcabamba I ventured to the main plaza with my girlfriend and to my favourite restaurant La Terraza (Calle Diego Vaca de la Vega and Calle Bolivar, Parque Central), and participated in the eating of Mexican food in large quantities, which was the third time in three days I had enjoyed a Mexican feast. To cap the night off, a spot of people watching was had over a couple of large bottles of Pilsner beer, and the eclectic mix of Gringo's here was more than evident to see.
Favourites included a woman on the main square howling on all fours, creepy guys hitting on girls young enough to put them behind bars for life, and a couple of American guys dressed in velvet suits from Victorian times, complete with matching top hats and probably part of a strange cult, the same kind you read about in newspapers. Once the last drop of beer was finished there was nothing left to do but return to the hostel in order to be up bright and early for the trip to Loja the next morning.