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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

Leaving Ecuador: From Baños to the Border (ive)

ECUADOR | Wednesday, 18 March 2009 | Views [1940] | Comments [2]

View of Mandango Rocks from the first cross

View of Mandango Rocks from the first cross

The flip side of the uneasiness of the groundlessness of traveling that I was talking about before, is the joy of the freedom that goes along with the groundlessness of traveling. There is something beautiful about waking up each morning on the road with full knowledge that the day will bring a chain of new experiences and that we are free to decide the direction of those experiences. We never know exactly what we'll encounter with each decision, of course – but we do get to decide what to gravitate toward. Each day is very noticeably fresh. Like every day of life, really. Fresh and full of new and unexpected experiences -- just more obvious and unavoidable on the road.

So, we were excited to get back on the road after the month at La Hesperia. We both felt sad to leave the place, with all its beauty and the satisfaction of hard work. But the last week or so seemed a bit odd anyway. Just after six of the twelve volunteers finished their stints, the rainy season brought unusually torrential downpours that washed out part of the main road between Quito and our site. “Mucho lluvia (a lot of rain) – a refrain that would befriend us throughout our stay in South America. Several new volunteers couldn't make the trip with the road impassable, had to change their plans, and went to different sites, leaving us with a much smaller and mellower group. The “mucho lluvia” also made working more difficult, and many of our afternoons were spent waiting to see if the rain would stop enough to let us get back to work; it rarely did. And little by little the morning work, done under the few hours of sunshine before the rains began, got mellower, too. Days of clearing fields and reforesting were replaced by mornings of painting signs and afternoons of baking bread. So as much as I loved La Hesperia, I felt ready to move on to new things when the month was up.

We spent some time debating our first destination after leaving. We really wanted to spend time in the Amazon jungle during our time in South America. We found out that getting to any of the Amazon spots in Peru would be a real hassle, involving either expensive airfare or long truck-rides over muddied rainy season dirt roads. Ecuador has better access to the Amazon – but the more we asked around the more we were told that to really get the real Amazon experience means going pretty far in. “If you go to Puyo or Tena you'll feel like you are in the Amazon because you have never been to the Amazon, but if you go further in you will understand why the cities are never like being in the Amazon.” But the deep Amazon lodges of Ecuador are expensive – about fifteen times the cost per night of the average hotel in the country - and going would bring risk of being short of funds for later adventures on other continents. In the end, the same reasoning that had us decide to forego the Galapagos Islands won out. First, we thought it might be more likely that we will get back to South America later in life than other continents. Second, while the costs seem extreme compared to the daily costs for this trip, they may not later in life when we have returned to work. At the risk of never getting to either, we can always at least try to go later. Also, after a month in the cloud forest, more time fending off bugs was less than appealing. A few days in the Amazon would also further tighten an already tight run to Lima for our scheduled departure. And, finally, when the hard push comes to shove, we both want to go on African Safari more than either the Galapagos or the Amazon. And when a new volunteer showed up two days before we left and told us his African Safari was the greatest thrill of his well-traveled life, the fate of the Amazon was sealed.

So as we walked down the long main hill out of La Hesperia, packs on our backs once again, we hopped a bus in the direction of Quito – got off at Machachi (which, unusually, ended up being a busy street corner rather than a bus terminal, a plaza, or even a bus company storefront) – and hopped the first bus with the destination of Ambato on its front windshield. We began traveling south down the Panamericana – passing by the gorgeous volcano, Cotopaxi, with its almost perfectly symmetrical volcanic crater. We expected Ambato to be a quick stop to change buses on our way to Baños, but were surprised to find that the small city of Ambato has two bus terminals and we'd arrived at the one that did not have buses to Baños. We took advantage of the break to track down some cold sodas and then hopped a cab to the other station. The taxi driver originally asked 1.5x the going price – but Miral had wisely asked someone at the first bus station how much a taxi to the other station should be. The driver quickly backed down on his price and then tried to befriend us through his very limited knowledge of Canada (“Conoces Canada?” “No, pero en el mapa!” "Do you know Canada?" "No, but on the map!") after we told him we were from Vancouver. For whatever reason, Miral enjoys varying her responses to the almost constant question, “De donde eres? (Where are you from?) between “Estados Unidos” and “Canada.” I never know which she´ll offer.

We got the right bus and drove past Volcan Tungurahua as we entered the town of Baños de Agua Santa (better known more simply as Baños) and excitedly noticed that the volcano, which had returned to life in recent years and fallen off the mountain climbing circuit, was spewing out clouds of smoke. It was a great welcome from this town frequently visited by tourists for its sunny climate, famous hot springs (hence the name “Baños” which is 'bathroom' in Spanish), and tons of outdoor opportunities. With the help of an odd man on the street who saw our backpacks and said he had lived in Yonkers, New York, for ten years (and had the English skills to back it up), we found our guide-book recommended hostel, but it was booked up (first time that had happened!). From there, we stumbled into the odd Hotel Transylvania, with its leather furniture set up as a living room in the middle of its outdoor garden. But it had clean rooms, private bathrooms, free internet access – and open rooms, so we stopped for the night. The Israeli couple who owned the place were surprisingly indifferent to me telling them about my time studying in Haifa and much more interested in whether Miral is Israeli, “...because you look like you could be.” The husband became awkwardly silent when she explained that she is Egyptian; my, “You know, neighbors,” commentary didn't seem to help. But he later warmed back up again. He helped us sort through outdoor opportunities near town, including white water rafting, mountain biking, extended trekking, volcano climbing, horseback riding, and bridge jumping, and we both settled on Canyoning – which is basically repelling down waterfalls – and made plans for the next afternoon. We grabbed a dinner of Mexican food and made a failed attempt at returning to the world of beer drinking (we both got headaches after one!) before calling it an early night.

The next day, after sharing breakfast at the hotel with a young medical resident from Peoria, Illinois, and hearing stories of how she'd fallen in love with Baños during some hospital work there and returned for R&R, we spent the morning at the Zoologico San Marten, hailed as the finest zoo in Ecuador with animals from the Galapagos to the Amazon. Somehow Miral convinced me that seeing these animals locked in cages would be better than not seeing them at all; I think I still had a headache from the beer the night before. The animals were really gorgeous and fascinating, ranging from massive condors to a jaguar that was less than pleased with all of the gawkers. But, as in most zoos, the animals all either looked bored out of their minds, interacted in agonizing ways with the patrons (like the parrot who repeated “Hola!” ad nauseum to the howls of laughter from passing families), or they pretty pathetically played in a tire swing or swatted at their meat supply. All except for a few squirrel monkeys who were either well-trained and allowed to leave their cage, or had escaped – we never did figure out which. But they played and jumped in the trees like truly joyful beings. We caught the bus back to the hotel to get ready for our Canyoning experience.

When we got back to the hotel, we found that we were to be joined on our canyoning trip by another guest at the hotel. It ended up to be a woman Miral had dubbed “Coughy Cougherson” the night before. She sat at one of the internet stations near us with a hacking cough that left everyone in the room feeling like, “Great. I'm going to spend the next six months in a third-world hospital with some rare bronchial disease.” She ended up being very nice – a human rights law student from El Salvador who was returning to her program in Argentina by traveling through South America. So off we went to learn how to repel waterfalls. We were outfitted in wet suits and climbing harnesses – and, apparently the recommended technical footwear for waterfall repelling, Keds blue-cloth sneakers. Our first waterfall was 25-meters and with the help of a belay from our guide, we one-by-one and step-by-step (“Uno. Dos. Uno. Dos.” - the refrain of our guide) swung back, released and tightened around our rope with each step, and walked backwards down the waterfall. Needless to say, it's an odd feeling leaning backward over a waterfall. The highlights of the journey down were a point where our belay held us in place so we could pose with no hands – letting go about 4-meters above the end of the waterfall to plunge backward into the waters below – and then climbing back up to push off a slide naturally formed in the rock into the same water. Miral's favorite highlight was that the guide yelled, “Woo! Hoo!” in pseudo-enthusiastic style every so often as we made our way down. The next waterfall was only about 15 meters and we simply slid down it on our butts while our belay lowered us. Not that much of a thrill. But then we came to the 45-meter waterfall. We each walked backward again to a particular small flat rock, at which point our guide told us to get on our knees, stand backwards, and begin walking. The 45-meter drop below was now obvious and made that request a lot more nerve-racking. And it became even scarier when after about three steps down it became obvious that the rock face disappeared – the waterfall was simply rolling over a precipice. Unsure of whether I was expected to continue walking upside down under the precipice until I made it back to the canyon wall about 30 feet behind the waterfall or to just drop off wall, I just listened to the guide's instructions to just keep walking back. Doing that made clear that it was the latter. We later shared that we each had the same moment of terror/excitement as we first found ourselves completely suspended 45-meters in the air in the midst of this rushing waterfall – but then each realized that the same hand motions of releasing and grasping the rope gave us a really well-controlled slide down the rope – and we each relaxed and enjoyed the incredible view as we made our way down. Even Miral, working to overcome her fear of heights, admitted that she loved the view. This last drop really made the trip.

We climbed out of the canyon and got back to Baños a little later than expected, which meant Miral and I needed to hightail it out of town. We were trying to catch a famous train ride running south, called the Autoferro. It is a portion of a train that once ran the length of Ecuador, but sections had been lost little by little to years when the La Nina brought massive flooding. The main run now is from Riobamba to Alaussi, where passengers are allowed to sit on the roof of the train as it journeys through spectacular Andean views – and then, just after Alaussi, a final descent via switchbacks down a 330-foot sheer rock face nicknamed La Nariz Diablo (The Devil's Nose). We were told by many that this was a not to be missed experience – and the idea of breaking up all of our bus travel with a little time on a train was really appealing. But the train only runs three times each week and missing the train the next morning would have us waiting in the area four more days than we wanted to be – so we ran to catch a bus from Baños to Riobamba. I would have loved to have arrived in Riobamba for an attempt to summit Ecuador's nearby largest volcanic peak, the 20,703 foot Chimborazo, but this wasn't in the cards. Also not in the cards was the train ride from Riobamba to Alaussi. Yup. “Mucho lluvia.” Too much rain on sections of the track. But the woman at our hotel that was right across the street from the train station explained that a special bus would leave Riobamba for Alaussi in the morning and then tourists could at least make the famous train run down La Nariz Diablo after Alaussi. Since we arrived into Riobamba late in the evening, we hadn’t had the chance to pre-purchase tickets on that bus and found the next morning that the bus was full. The bus driver agreed to let us, and about five other late-comers, sit on a pad on the floor of the bus – which made for a less than comfortable ride, but the breath-taking countryside view (supposedly much less impressive than the train ride but really impressive nonetheless) made up for it. We got to Alaussi and boarded the train – which, oddly, was an old school bus re-vamped into a one car train. It ran on the tracks, but the driver gassed and broke as if it were a car. While the switchback ride down the rock face was really impressive for its engineering prowess, it didn't really reveal any great views and seemed less impressive to me than the switchback train that climbs in and out of Cuzco, Peru, that I'd been on in 2000. So, much ado about little, but we were glad we made the effort. After the train journeyed back up the rock face and dropped us back in Alaussi, we almost immediately boarded a bus to Cuenca, since we hadn't heard or seen about much to do in Alaussi.

Cuenca is Ecuador's third largest city, so it's big, but Miral and I both agreed with the guide book description that it somehow maintains the feeling of an old-world town, with narrow and winding cobblestone streets, lots of beautiful colonial-era churches, plazas, and buildings, and a good deal of original colonial architecture throughout the town. Miral and I also both agreed that it had  bit of the feeling of Cartagena in Colombia, but not as beautifully maintained and much more of a living, breathing city than Cartagena, which largely has the feel of a tourist destination. I really loved the vibe in Cuenca – Miral was not as impressed. But after all of the running for waterfalls and trains we both agreed calling it home base for at least a solid day would be nice. We arrived on a Sunday night, which meant most stores were closed and dining options were limited, but we found a great Heladeria (ice cream shop) and I dined on a giant banana split, while Miral, never one to pass up an opportunity to express her affinity for the French, opted for some crepes. The ice cream place was just off the historic center of town, Parque Calderon, so we walked through the plaza a bit before turning in for the night.

We started out our full-day in Cuenca by walking to the Museo del Banco Central, which was described as “massive” and “the pride and joy of Cuenca.” We were less impressed, although it did have a great exhibit exploring the cultures of the really wide variety of indigenous peoples that live in Ecuador – from coastal, to highland, to Amazonian, to Afro-Ecuadorian, its amazing how many different cultures call Ecuador home and the display was really well done. The stop also gave us a chance to explore Pumapongo, the ruins of an Inca palace that are right outside the museum, which also included an impeccably maintained garden of many foods the Incas had cultivated, from hundreds of varieties of potatoes to the super-grain of Quinoa. We wound our way back through the city to a vegetarian restaurant  we'd seen in the morning for a really large, but pretty unimpressive meal of vegetarian versions of traditional Ecuadorian meat dishes – including “Chaufa” (Chinese fried rice – go figure). It is Ecuadorian custom for restaurants to serve “almuerzos” - huge and really cheap lunch meals of contents chosen by the restaurant; this place seemed to be trying to follow that lead veggie-style. We spent the afternoon wandering around Cuenca, which included Miral shopping for a classic Cuenca gift for her dad (can't give the details here since it hasn't been sent yet!), me shopping for an English language  book since I'd finished all of the ones I'd brought and borrowed, and a stop at the Mercado de las Flores – a flower market built by the men of Cuenca during the early twentieth century to keep occupied their increasingly bored housewives who were forbidden from working. After a small flower purchase, we settled into a little cafe in the Parque Calderon and people watched over wine to the accompaniment of awful 80's American pop music. We spent the next morning having a great Ecuadorian breakfast at the same cafe (including a final humita for the road) and taking some final photos of buildings and people relaxing in Parque Calderon. We also had our photos taken by two schoolgirls in the park who insisted they had a school assignment to photograph tourists to their city, but seemed to us more interested in either getting revenge for our shots of their townspeople or just wanted to get a shot of some weirdo gringos for their friends. As one of our world-travel guidebooks had reminded us, as western tourists, we are just as fascinating to them as they are to us. Then we hopped a bus to Loja, a major city described by everyone in Ecuador as little more than eye-sore, and quickly into a collectivo (vans that make less expensive, shorter runs than full-sized buses) from there to Vilcabamba, our final destination before crossing into Peru.

Vilcabamba was hailed as a small town just beginning to grow in popularity with tourists that is known for its temperate climate, laid-back atmosphere, and great hiking, bird-watching, and horseback riding  --  a bit of a Baños before there was a tour company on every street corner. We thought it would be a great place to hang out for a few days before starting on what we expected to be a pretty harried attempt to see as much of Peru as possible in three weeks. We'd seen an ad for a “Bed and Breakfast” in the English-language bookstore in Cuenca and found out that owners Bruce and Caty had rooms available for the time we were there. This B&B turned out to be little more than the house Bruce and Caty rent with their infant son, and they were offering the extra rooms in the place as a way to make some extra money. It was a cozy little place, made more interesting by morning conversations with Bruce over breakfast. He is an eccentric but fascinating guy who is from Ontario and spent most of his life on Vancouver Island, BC, running a non-profit agency and writing several books about recapturing one's life through a shortened work week – his basic mantra being that time to do what one wants to do with life is a much huger asset than any of the material goods one can buy with the extra cash from the typical 50-60 hour North American work week. Obvious stuff – but he worked hard to teach people to actually convince their bosses to let them do it. I also loved his story of how he ended up in Ecuador with an Ecuadorian wife. As his brother lay on his premature death-bed, he and Bruce lamented that Bruce had never showed him Vancouver Island as they had talked about for years. After his brother died, he asked himself what else he hadn't done in life that he could run out of time on. He decided to follow a long-time whim to teach English as a Second Language in China. He loved the work, but found the Chinese language impossible for him to master, so he returned to Canada, decided Spanish would be easier for him to learn. He applied to an ESL school in Ecuador, got a job there, where he met and fell in love with Caty. Funny how certain occurrences and decisions end up being such huge crossroads in unforeseen ways. They settled in Vilcabamba because it offers an unusual mix of locals and ex-pats from countries all over the world, bringing a lot of interesting culture to an affordable and pretty sleepy little town. She teaches Spanish to tourists and passers-through in Vilcabamba, he teaches English online to people all over the world, and along with the cash from the B&B and the remainder of Bruce's Canadian savings, they eek out a very simple existence closely attending to the raising of their precious one-year-old son. Renting the house next-door to them was a really smart young kid from California who in semi “Into The Wild” style, had decided he could learn more about life from following his passions than following expectations to attend college, and after saving money earned teaching music, decided to move to Ecuador to create a self-sustaining farm and live a simple life. He was searching for land for his farm while we were visiting. Throw into the mix two people who had quit their jobs to follow a dream of world-wide travel and you can imagine the juicy conversations about how to live a fulfilling life that went on those few days.

Bruce gave us a walking tour of the town on our first morning, both of the sites and of some of the local flavor – like Tom, the long-haired retiree from Texas who sat in cafes in the plaza all day drinking beer and complaining about the rising costs of his vice despite his full awareness that the prices are 1/8 of what they are in the States. After the tour, we decided to rent some mountain bikes and check out some of the roads outside of town. After a lunch of some great soup and garden burgers (yes, Vilcabamba is already beginning to cater to the backpacker crowd) and a brief mid-day rainfall that almost scared us off. we rode on a windy and hilly dirt road, with Miral raving about the fun of bike riding and being all smiles even as she walked the bike up some of the hills, and me being reminded that my days living in Seattle (as opposed to Tacoma), where I was on my bike all the time and could take on steep hills without getting very winded, were now long-gone. We found ourselves at a trail head entering Podocarpus National Park and decided to leave the bikes behind and see what we could see on the trail. We hiked a semi-steep run up the hills that seemed designed more for horse travel than hikers, but we got up to some really nice views of the valleys around us before the early signs of night fall arrived. We made it back to the bikes just in time for the skies to open and the rains to fall, making for a really gleeful, soggy, mostly downhill ride back to town. We ended the day watching an Ecuadorian independent film recommended by Bruce and Caty (“Que Tan Lejos?” or “How Much Farther?”) --  a story of three people who meet along an attempt to travel from Quito to Cuenca for various quirky reasons only to find their travels stymied by a strike that has blocked the country's highways (apparently a common tactic of disgruntled South American workers, as we would later discover in Peru). We loved that we easily got many of the inside Ecuadorian jokes embedded in what was really a fun little movie – like a scene where a store clerk is unable to offer change of a $20 bill (have we mentioned that Ecuador switched over to using American money a few years back? Weird!) and races from store to store asking if any of their fellow clerks can help them out, a scene where the main characters enter a bodega that is opened but abandoned until they begin to yell for assistance, and a scene on a long-distance bus in which arguments break out between passengers over who was assigned to what seat and who was taking what seats unassigned (as both ticketed and unticketed passengers are allowed on board  in the chaotic Ecuadorian bus ticketing system). We'd experienced all of these situations repeatedly during our five or six weeks in the country!

We spent most of our second and last day in Vilcabamba hiking up to Mandango – a beautiful sheer rock face that tops one of the nearby mountains. It's a somewhat steep climb to “the first cross.” Pretty much every town in South America has a cross sitting at a Mirador (look-out point) offering the most beautiful view of the city. Vilcabamba happens to have two. The first one did offer a great view of the town. Since Bruce said the second one offered a view of several valleys, we climbed to it at the top of Mandango, pretty much a rock scramble at the end, and took in the amazing beauty. We got back into town for a late lunch of huge portions of Mexican food, showered up, and spent the rest of the day wandering around town and working out our plans for departure. We found out that there is a bus that goes directly from Loja, Ecuador to Piura, Peru, offering a pretty painless border crossing as the bus waits for you to complete the paperwork. So after one last morning breakfast of fresh fruit, granola, and yogurt with toasted bread at our “B&B,” we hit the colectivo back to Loja, had a lunch of homemade avocado and salsa de aji (hot pepper sauce) sandwiches at the bus terminal (bringing stares and giggles from nearby ticket sales people), and got on our bus to leave behind country number two and enter country number three on our journey...















Dear Ivan and Miral,

I really enjoyed your blog on Vilcabamba. I spent 10 days there in February, and really love it there. I am returning this Wednesday for 3 weeks. I'd like to study Spanish while I'm there. Can you tell me how to get in touch with Caty?



  Avram Sacks Mar 24, 2009 7:12 AM


Ivan & Miral--
Thank you so much for letting Julie pass along the link to your blog! I have just spent the last several hours reading every word you have written and looking at all your photos. What an amazing journey! I've laughed out loud and been reduced to tears at times. I wish you both peace and happiness during your wonderful journey!!

  Patty Zapf Apr 2, 2009 3:23 AM

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