Tuesday, August 21, 2012

2012, 29th July – 4th August: Cuenca, Vilcabamba & Border - Ecuador

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:


Cuenca is a very pleasant small city in the south of Ecuador. The historic centre has a mix of colonial and art deco architecture, which makes it a pleasing place in which to wander and relax for a few days.


Vilcabamba is further south towards the border with Peru. At a reduced elevation of around 1500 metres it is hotter than Cuenca. As one drops down from Loja towards Vilcabamba, the landscape´s colour palette changes to rich red / brown / yellow hues as the earth becomes that bit drier. With the warm colours spread across the mountain sides beneath an electric blue sky, Vilcabamba is surrounded on all sides by picturesque views.

The town has a population of two halves; those of Ecuadorian descent and the ´modern and moneyed hippies´ (mostly from the USA). Someone cottoned on to the fact that Vilcabamba is a very pleasant place to be and I expect if you come with enough savings you could pass many years doing very little until you have forgotten what a job is; but then again having a job is ´just so conformist man´ - conveniently forgetting that it is all the ´conformists´ busting their guts in their jobs that produce goods and services at a price that affords the ´non-conformists alternative lifestyles´) – ok, pompous and self-indulgent rant over. The moneyed side of Vilcabamba is represented by many property agents selling land and houses to foreigners at ridiculously high prices – prices that you might expect to pay in the USA (therefore four or five times what you should be paying in Ecuador). So there must be a queue of mugs lined up, ready to ´live the alternative dream´ (milling about, drinking beer in the plaza.....for a few decades).

Cerro Mandango Near Vilcabamba

In my hostel I met Chris from England (who now lives in Venezuela). Together we climbed Cerro Mandango – a mini mountain just near the town. ´Mandango´ comes from the Quechua for ´laying God´, reflecting the mountain´s long rectangular summit. Since battering my body during my time acclimatising for and climbing Volcán Chimborazo I had struggled to ward off various viruses – reflecting how tired my body was. While climbing Cerro Mandango, which is an easy ´walk in the park´ compared to proper mountain climbs, I felt totally rough with yet another virus and had to spend the rest of that day and the next resting.

The Journey to the Border with Peru

I chose to cross from Ecuador to Peru via the remote border crossing at La Balsa (Ecuador) to eventually reach Chachapoyas in Peru – the overall journey from Vilcabamba (Ecuador) to Chachapoyas (Peru) taking two days.

Soon after heading south on a coach from Vilcabamba, the road was unpaved and the fun and games began, with the overriding theme being dust, dust and more dust. Along the way, on numerous occasions  the road had fallen prey to landslides and there were groups of men with diggers and trucks valiantly attempting to keep the road open. Sometimes a digger would be precariously positioned high up on a slope trying to stabilise the steep slopes above the road by reducing the gradient with tiers. As the photographs I took from the coach windows attest, this was no ordinary journey and the fact that the road is frequently impassable during the wet season is understandable.

Road Under Repair: En-Route from Vilcabamba to Zumba

I was fortunate to meet three women on the coach who were also taking on the adventurous border crossing – Kate from England, Michelle from Australia and Deena from Canada. Upon reaching the journey´s first pit-stop in Zumba we saw that the dust from the road that gets everywhere had easily penetrated the hold of the coach and our rucksacks were truly covered (an ongoing theme on both sides of the border). The journey from Zumba to the frontier was made on a ´ranchera´ (an open-sided ´truck´ with bench seats in the back), a real bone-shaker. This road was even smaller than that north of Zumba, just wide enough for the ranchera. The views along the remote road (track) were spectacular, with beautiful valleys covered in lush vegetation and some homesteads growing sugar cane and bananas amongst other crops.

The Ecuadorian-Peruvian border at La Balsa (a hamlet of about four buildings on the Ecuadorian side) is a true outpost. It is marked by a bridge across a picturesque river. Formalities on each side are processed by amiable chaps in very basic offices and currencies can be changed at little kiosks or in one of the few cafes. As far as memorable border crossings go during this South American adventure of mine, this one and the speedboat crossing of the Beagle Channel from Puerto Williams (Isla Navarino, Chile) to Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego, Argentina) back in November last year feature in my top two.

Ranchera Transport from Zumba to Border at La Balsa

The continuation of the journey southwards on the Peruvian side of the border is documented in my next blog release.

Tim at the Ecuadorian Border Control Point at La Balsa