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Trying my luck with another volcano and the saga of getting to Peru (Banos, Rio Bamba, Cuenca)

ECUADOR | Tuesday, 2 October 2012 | Views [898]



Banos was meant to be a break from walking. But then I forgot that as the main attraction it had a lot of adventure sports. Mindful of it supposed to being a relaxing destination I opted for the 70km bike ride to Puyo through the waterfall valley. I heard it was mostly downhill and on the road so suitably relaxing. Of course I did not listen to the part that said that only the third of the road is downhill and then it gets progressively uphill. Even with that though it was not a huge effort and made for a lovely ride from the mountains into the jungle. About half way through the weather changes and becomes nice and sunny. The waterfalls are also beautiful and so all in all it was a pretty stunning ride with some much needed ice cream breaks. We finished off the day with a nice bath in the thermal springs and I have to say that my body really thanked me for it. I could have easily spent a bit more time in Banos and enjoyed the views and really great food but my schedule is now very strict so after just 2 days I left for Riobamba. It was a pain to find a nice hotel in Riobamba. The city itself is quite pleasant but somehow lucks in decent budget options. After walking around for an hour I decided to splash out and get myself a proper single room with double bed. And it was totally worth it - I also realised that it’s only for the second time in my travels when I decided that I’ve had enough and really needed a break from dorms…so thought that I doubly deserved it… In Banos I have already done my research and knew that unfortunately there was no way of me climbing Chimborazo (well, at least past the refuge) as it’s a very technical and difficult volcano and so I decided that if I can’t climb it I am going to bike it. I found great bike agency - Probici – with really good equipment who did rides completely off the road rather than the usual straight down the road ones. I have never felt more secured on a bike in my life - it came with pads, helmet, gloves, riding instructions and support car. It was an amazingly exhilarating ride down, with some tough bits and one painfully steep moment. The scenery is just breath taking and we were in luck as there was no cloud in the sky so we could photograph Chimborazo in all its glory. The one downside was that being this high it did get bitterly cold and windy. The whole thing takes 9 hours so it’s not exactly a walk in the park and I also did not realise that my knees will end up taking that much impact (silly, I know), so unfortunately it was back to the hotel room for me with ice packs and hot compresses and a promise to take a few days off from any knee involving activities… And there was a good chance of that happening as my next destination was Cuenca – arguably the most charming city in Ecuador. I got there on Sunday which turned out to be a little unfortunate as it was my namesday, Sundays are dry in Ecuador and 90% of restaurants were closed. But it did provide for peaceful wondering around the streets and the city is indeed enchanting. It is colonial yet working town with beautiful squares and so many churches that I gave up counting. After hearing the reviews of the nearby Inca ruins from different travellers I decided not to visit Ingapirca but instead enjoy Cuenca and indulge in some retail therapy…and a lot of ice cream… Couple of days later (rushed again by the impeding schedule) I headed down to Vilcabamba. I have very mixed feelings about the place. It is nice and beautifully set but is also very bizarre mix of hippy communities looking to connect with nature and elderly US retirees pricing out the locals out of their land and town… I stayed with a friend at a very pleasant Ecolodge just outside of the town which comes with its own organic garden and relaxing walking trails. But of course we opted for a more adventurous way of spending our day together and headed in the search of a waterfall in the nearby Podocarpus National Park. Technically you get a map with where it is and technically it has distance written on it but neither of the maps that we had seen seemed to agree on either of the points. So we got our knowledge from the tourist office and headed out. Very soon, at the exit out of Vilcabamba there is a reassuring sign saying 2.5km to the waterfall. Now, that distance, even in hot midday sun, is not really much. So we went, carrying next to no water and expecting an easy walk. Turns out that its 2.5km to where the track to the waterfall begins and from there it’s another 2 hours climb to the waterfall. Apparently not many people make it there… No surprise – we only found the trail cause we bumped into a local farmer. The trail itself is not hard at all, yes, you do need to go up to 2000m but that’s not that much. Our problem was that about half way through we run out of water and were walking with no shade cover. There were moments when it looked like we might turn back but despite doubting that the bloody thing actually exists we did eventually made it and met some lovely people who much more sanely did the whole thing on horses and shared their water with us. We also stole some incredibly sour oranges which only made us thirstier. The waterfall was nice, there was a place to swim and the guide of the group on horses told us that the water was potable and so we were saved  The walk back was pretty much a race to the nearest shop to get some soft drinks and well deserved ice cream. The next day I decided to make my journey to Peru. My original plan was dead simple: get a bus to Loja and then from there to Piura and cross the border on an international bus, nice and simple. Whilst in Vilcabamba I spoke to a lot of people who suggested that I should just go to the local crossing at La Balsa as my first destination was Chachapoyas which is straight down from Vilcabamba. I was repeatedly reassured that even though there never used to be, there is now a direct bus from San Ignacio (first town on Peruvian side) to Chachapoyas. To double check I even went to the tourist office and got the same advice. So I changed my plans and opted for the La Balsa option. I set out at 6am to Zumba, the nearest town to the border on the Ecuadorian side. You have to leave on the first bus otherwise you have no chance of making it to the other side. Now, I am partly to blame for a bit of the events that follow as I did not stop to take more money out in Vilcabamba and I set out on this journey with $14 in my pocket. The cost breakdown (again confirmed by the tourist office) was supposed to be: $7 bus to Zumba, $2 truck to the border, $3 taxi to San Ignacio from the other side and then I am in town with cash machines and banks – so I had $2 to spare. There is no road to Zumba. It’s a dirt track that is stupidly narrow and runs alongside the mountain. The journey is stunning - it does go through literally middle of nowhere. You are in a middle of a jungle, only with locals, passing by small villages that you did not even suspect would have been there. The nature changes from stern plants of higher mountains through cloud forest into a lush jungle of the Amazon. About 2 hours from Zumba (the journey takes 6 hours) I redid my calculations and thought that maybe, if I have a chance, I should look for a cash machine in Zumba, just to be on a safe side. I was dropped off at the Zumba bus terminal which is 2km from town, has no place to leave luggage and it was now 40 degrees heat. There was no way I would walk all the way to town and back with all my luggage and potentially no way of buying more water (I had with me 3 croissants and a small bottle of water that would have to last me all the way to San Ignacio). I have, luckily, negotiated with the local taxi driver who offered to take me around the cash machines and only pay him if I indeed managed to withdraw some money. I did not manage to withdraw any money and so was getting slightly anxious about my situation. I didn’t have enough to go back to Vilcabamba so my best option seemed to just press on. After 2 hours wait I got a ranchero (truck) to the border itself (1.5h drive on even less existing road). The crossing at La Balsa is sooo picturesque; there are literally 4 buildings on each side and a beautiful river flowing through the valley in the middle. As border crossings go, this was the most attractive and hassle free I have ever encountered. I didn’t have quite enough to pay the ranchero driver but he did let me off with a little discount - I wanted to save my very last $5 bill for the other side. Straight after the migration procedures I found the taxi going to town and here I encountered the first real problem: the taxi was 37SOL and after exchanging the money I was left with 13SOL – so just a little bit short. I must have looked pretty tired as the taxi driver agreed to take me to San Ignacio for whatever money I had, and also reassured me that the town is rather large and has several banks. And so I spent the journey chatting away to my travel companion, 70 year old gentleman who was very curious about what we have there in Poland. I swear we run through all the fruits and vegetables as well as farm animals. We got to San Ignacio at sunset and directed by the taxi driver I found myself hotel for the night. Immediately I run out to the cash machine in search of some money; I was thirsty and starving. And then my card didn’t work. Luckily the bank people were still there and called the central bank to restart the system and reassured me that these things happen quite often and when I come back in an hour all will be fine and dandy. A bit anxious but full of hope I returned after an hour to find the bank closed, still not being able to get money and also managing to enter the wrong PIN on my other card and it ending up being swollen… I was hungry, tired and really freaked out that I have actually now no money to pay for the hotel room or even to buy a bottle of water. So as every girl in my place would do – I started to cry… As I was walking away from the bank with tears streaming down my cheeks I run into the taxi driver who brought me back from the border. He decided to help me out and drove me around the town in hope of finding other cash machines that would work. Failing that he secured a transport for me for the morning in a car to next, bigger town with a promise that I will pay on arrival, spoke to my hotel manager and convinced him to forget my debt if I do not manage to get money out in the morning from the bank and bought me water and food and told me to go, rest and relax and that tomorrow will be a better day… Honestly I felt like he was my angel that day and I will never, ever forget how much a stranger did for me that evening. At 4am I got a call from my bank’s fraud department and it turned out that it was them who blocked my card… So all got solved in the end and at 7am I run down to get cash and got myself a breakfast fit for a queen. After all the adventures I was really looking forward to getting on a direct bus to Chachapoyas… Of course it doesn’t exist! So it was a combi from San Ignacio to Jaen. From Jaen I found one company that was running taxis to Bagua Grande (with a massive help of a Peruvian guy who I met in the combi), after waiting for 2 hours and getting to a stage of paying for the full taxi (I had to wait for the minimum of 4 passengers) we finally left with the craziest driver I have ever met, he was overtaking with 100m spare and I really thought there is no way I will make it to Chachapoyas, ever. From Bagua Grande there was last change to another taxi, this time direct to Chachapoyas. It really felt like I finally reached civilisation after 36 hours of hell – there was good coffee, cakes and internet. I was finally, truly in Peru.

Tags: banos, cuenca, ecuador, la balsa, san ignacio, trekking, vilcabamba, zumba

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