Over the last 17 days we’ve traveled long days on buses, have stayed in 7 different places and seen beautiful countryside at many different elevations! Sometimes we think the landscape looks like Southern California, but more green, or Oregon, or Hawaii, but here the mountains are higher and there is so much water and it’s very green. A few days ago we crossed the border to Colombia.
Staying 5 weeks in Cuenca was wonderful. I found time to read books – 11 of them! But it was time to move on – we had places to explore.”
Our first trip after leaving Cuenca was to head south by private van to Hosteria Izhcayluma in Vilcambamba instead of taking the bus. Although it cost $2 more per person, they promised it would shave 2 hours off the 6.5 hour commercial bus trip! We would’ve had more legroom in the bus. We were crammed in like sardines in a 12 passenger van. I think that they should’ve paid ME to ride on their van.
The Hosteria is a very nice resort offering dorms for backpackers for less than $9 a night and individual private cabins. We stayed 4 nights in a duplex cabin surrounded by tropical gardens with a beautiful river rock rainforest shower. I enjoyed lounging in the hammock on the big porch. We each had a 90 minute massage ($22+ gratuity). We went over budget, but enjoyed taking a VACATION within our vacation.
Years ago it was discovered that a large number of centenarians lived in this area so it became known as the Valley of Longevity. It also has a reputation for being somewhat of a hippy – alternative lifestyle town – that attracts conspiracy theorists, organic healthnuts (no disrespect intended), smokers of a certain weed and the likes.
The elevation at Vilcabamba is 5,000′.
Being just 50 miles to the Peruvian border we were tempted to make a run for it. Instead we chose to travel north on the eastern side of the Andes Mountains in order not to backtrack to Cuenca. We were venturing into an area the guidebooks don’t even mention. The Hosteria manager said it was the best part of Ecuador, we would be safe and easily find accommodations.
We were traveling by bus in the rain through the cloud forest. I was resting my eyes when I heard a gasp and opened them to see a waterfall spilling over the road and splashing into my window.
We continued through a road construction zone where a previous mudslide had buried half of the road arriving at a second waterfall cascading over road when the bus driver decided to maneuver the bus around and go back but upon returning to the previous waterfall found it surging over the road blocking our way. Once again the driver yet again turned his bus around. I thought for sure we were going to be stuck in a no-man’s-land between the two waterfalls or pushed off the road and down the mountain by the powerful waterfall. You know what I was thinking? This wouldn’t happen in the USA; in the USA the bus would never have left the station! With the turning around twice we passed one waterfall 3 times so the third time I had my camera ready to roll! And because you’re reading this you will know, we did, in fact, survive and made it safe to the little town of Zamora.
We were totally off the tourist grid – and out of our comfort zone when we arrived with no clue where to stay, but I smelled coffee, good coffee and realized that taking time out for a cup of coffee couldn’t hurt while considering our options. It was a real surprise to find this excellent coffeehouse – Inza Café was owned and operated by an expat from Phoenix, Arizona. (Some of you will no doubt will wonder about her story. Due to the financial situation of 2008 she went bankrupt and lost her home and business. Being half Colombian she went to Colombia where she was scammed and lost more money, so she came to Ecuador, fell in love with Zamora and started her coffee shop where they also serve burritos, quesadillas and nachos and she dispenses free travel advise and maps to lost travelers like me.)
Hotel Torres was typically Ecuadorian, up a flight of stairs from the street and operated by a whole family living on the premises. Don’t expect to have hand towels, wash clothes or bath mat. For that matter, don’t expect quiet – especially on a Friday or Saturday night – which it was.
Concrete buildings and tile floors conduct noise like water conducts electricity. If someone drops a pan in the kitchen below, the sound travels 5 stories up. The same goes for every wooden door opening and closing, car honking and alarms wailing, blender blending, hammer and chisel banging, TV blaring, child crying, and bullhorns blasting advertisements for everything from the circus to farm fresh mangos!
Ecuadorians live and work in tight quarters; their days begin earlier than those of these retired Americans on vacation! Americans attitude about noise is different. We feel entitled to peace and quiet in the space we’ve bought and paid for. (The morning after I wrote this we were awakened at 6:30am to the loud sound of desks and chairs being rearranged from the school on the other side of our bedroom wall. Needless to say, we moved to a different room for the next 3 nights and experienced different noises.)
It was nearing our bedtime when the amplified music and singing started (it always starts at bedtime for us) reverberating loudly throughout the building. When I first mentioned it to the man at the desk I was told it was the Bingo game, but the son shook his head and I could hear him correcting his father, “It’s a party.” The second time I asked the daughter who was on duty and she wasn’t in the least concerned assuring me it wouldn’t last long, “until 1:00 am or so!” We asked to be moved to another room with no exterior windows but couldn’t completely get away from the noise even sleeping with ear plugs.
This same town has a clock on the hill that loudly and obnoxiously broadcasts the hour over loudspeakers. First you hear the grinding of the gears, then a carrousel-like melody and finally a chime for each hour, 6 of them at 6:00am when it starts up again in the morning after mercifully shutting off at midnight. It felt very propagandist-like.
Zamora is at 3500′ elevation – in the cloud forest and gateway to the Podocarpus National Park. We hiked through the drizzle up to two of the park’s waterfalls. I was amazed by the beauty of the plants, especially the abundant pink orchids, the green mountains and hovering clouds.
On the Monday we walked through the misty rain anticipating Inza Coffee only to find it still closed. With the bus to Macas due in soon we left town with neither coffee nor breakfast! We dashed back to the hotel to pack up and the taxi dropped us off right as the bus pulled in. The joys of travel.
Our one night in Macas was another disappointment. The place was full of teachers on a retreat and they had live entertainment with loud music blasting long into the night. Awaking to rain once again we decided to ditch Macas and give up on Tenas and a possible jungle lodge trip, and instead opted for another long day traveling in bus to Baños de Agua Santa.
The drive was along an eastern ridge of the Andes mountains sometimes at low elevations and sometimes climbing to higher elevations. The driver would speedily pass other trucks and buses only to have to brake hard to let someone on or off the bus and then speed up again to re-pass those same vehicles which passed him while stopped. It was like a game of Leap Frog. The towns on the east are gateways to the Amazon jungle and at one point a huge vista opened up to where we could look down on jungle spreading out for miles and miles below us. The plant life and flowers visible through the bus window changed with the elevation from mossy ferns and hydrangeas to tropical palms, banana trees, bromeliads, hibiscus, red ginger and anthyrrhiums.
Through bus windows I could see small homes built on stone foundations – an island surrounded by dirt. Shacks are shacks, but on a rainy day surrounded by a muddy yard their poverty is ever so miserable and sorry-looking! The glass less windows were shuttered and doors shut to a muddy yard inhabited by scrawny chickens scratching for bugs and wet mongrels curled up tightly in balls attempting to remain dry. The richer folks had porches on their wooden shacks.
Affectionately called Baños – short for Baños de las Aguas Santas (Spanish for “Baths of Holy Water”) – is a small town nestled at the base of huge Volcan Tunguruhua yet perched on the rim over a deep river canyon.
This is the waterfall in town that feeds the town’s popular bathhouses with cold water to cool down the boiling hot sulphuric water which comes out of the rocks feeding the bathhouse’s thermal pools. These are the Holy Waters for which the town is named for.
We loved the easily walkable and touristy Baños because of the many dining choices and, yes, coffee shops too! We rented a quad to explore. I visited the bath house one evening to immerse my achey knees in the ugly gray smelly waters. I tried several times but never could fully immerse myself in the hottest pool.
Kudos to Kathleen in Vilcabamba who told us about Hostel Timara. We loved our tiny room there – and only $20 a night.
We left on a Friday before the weekend hoards arrived to travel the famed Avenue of the Volcanos. Almost all of Ecuador’s 55 volcanoes are in this northern region, several of them snowcapped, but we never got to see these glorious mountaintops because it was raining. We spotted a clearing once and saw the brilliant white of the snow line but not a mountaintop.
The 6 hour bus trip bypassed Quito for Otovalo where we caught a taxi to take us the 11 kilometers up to the tiny town of Cotacachi, elevation 7300′, situated in a valley between two extinct volcanos: Cotacachi and Imbabura. We never saw Cotacachi’s peak either as it was always covered by dark clouds.
This little town was beautiful as well and had a lovely springlike daytime temperature, although it got a little cool at night.
There is a group of expats living here although it doesn’t feel like Gringolandia. We met Mary who was willing to show us around her place. Behind a wooden gate one would never know there was a path that led to a secret garden oasis and 7 brick, 2-story shared-wall homes. I wanted to buy it right then and there!
We took a day trip to Ibarra and sampled their home-made ice cream on a stick, and a day trip to visit the famed indigenous market of Otovalo but didn’t see anything we couldn’t live without.
Cotacachi is the leather artisan’s town and I walked the “leather street” looking at all the stores’ beautiful leather goods: stylish jackets, shoes, and purses. I resisted temptation and didn’t buy anything. I ran into a Gate 1 Tour group here. Other than that we just enjoyed 6 relaxing days in this laid-back, quiet town drinking coffee at the Rio Intag Cafe and reading the guidebook’s chapter on Colombia, which is where we were headed when we left on Thursday, the 23rd of April, 2015.