Saying goodbye to Ecuador after three months was very bittersweet. Three months is the longest I’ve ever traveled/lived in a foreign country and I couldn’t be more thankful for the welcoming locals, expats, and fellow backpackers throughout my journey who made Ecuador a home away from home. I’m excited about the adventures awaiting me in Peru, but I can’t help but feel sad about leaving this incredible country that’s left me with countless memories, lasting friendships, a newfound confidence, and a deeper hunger to discover the beauty that our world has to offer. From baking breads at Finca Sommerwind in Ibarra, climbing the highest peaks throughout the Avenue of Volcanos, losing my way in the foothills of Cotopaxi, floating alongside pink dolphins and caiman deep within the Amazon, hiking through picturesque villages of the Andean countryside, learning to surf on the coast, swimming alongside giant sea turtles and sharks in the Galápagos, strolling the cobblestone streets of Cuenca, and finally horseback riding with a crazy Kiwi (just to name a few)…it’s truly been a wild ride. The days were jam-packed and sleep was minimal but I’m leaving with the satisfaction that I spent these past three months living life to the fullest and doing what I love. There will always be more mountains to climb, sights to see, and new people to meet…I can’t wait to come back for more someday!
After an incredible but exhausting couple of weeks on the Galápagos Islands, I flew back to the mainland to meet up with an Irish guy named Brian who I had met in Olón. A big storm rolled through while we were in the air and our plane wasn’t able to safely land in Guayaquil so we were re-routed to Quito to refuel and wait out the storm. I had no way of connecting with Brian to inform him of the situation so I just hoped that he would still be waiting for me at the bus station when I finally arrived. After many hours on the plane and a taxi ride to the bus station in Guayaquil, I was so relieved when I heard Brian shout my name amidst the giant, hectic terminal. We didn’t board the bus until 9 PM (a bit of a mess up because of the change in time zones) and we still had a four hour ride to Cuenca, our next destination.
Cuenca was the most beautiful city I visited in Ecuador. Quaint cobblestone streets lined with colorful colonial houses, shops, and cafés almost made me forget I was still in South America but rather in a small town in Spain. That is until I found myself in the central market where the familiar rows of colorful fruits, vegetables, stinky meat, fish, fresh-squeezed juices, clothing, and shoes assured me that I was certainly still in Ecuador. The hardworking indigenous women rushing through the streets in their vibrant velvet skirts, long braids, and panama hats lugging big bags of fruits, grains, or alpaca textiles were also a constant reminder that I was back in the Andean highlands. Four rivers run through the city, the main one Río Tomebamba separates the historical city center (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with the more bustling modern part of the city. This river, which feeds from the mountains of nearby Cajas National Park, is also the main water source for this part of the country and, up until a couple of years ago, was the main water source for the majority of Ecuador.
Multiple story colonial houses, hotels, museums, and restaurants built into the cliffs above the river make up the area called Barranco (cliff) because of the way the buildings hover over the river. It’s the perfect city to just go for a stroll or a run along the river, pop into small artsy cafés and shops, and try on every style of intricately-woven panama hat. The world-famous panama hat (mistakenly named) originated in Cuenca and is still one of the most famous exports of the country. The panama hat or toquilla-straw hat dates back to the 1800s when the Spanish began exporting the hats via Panama. The hats are made from toquilla palm fiber, grown in the inland regions of the central Ecuadorian coast, and the production process is lengthy and laborious. The density of the weave determines the price which can range between $15-500.
I spent a week in and around this lovely city and a part of me didn’t want to leave. Cuenca draws many expats and retirees from Europe and the U.S. because of its charm, livability, perfect weather, and scenic mountain vistas. The city is a melting pot of very traditional indigenous people, mestizos, and gringos which has created a very interesting and appealing mix of cultures. During my week there I spent time wandering the streets admiring the beautiful murals and paintings found on the sides of many of the buildings. I explored lots of cute boutiques and craft shops. Brian and I visited the panama hat museum where we learned about the entire production process and tried on many of the hats. We visited the amazing Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción in the main square, climbing the tower to the top for panoramic views of the historical city. We checked out a very interesting gothic art museum called “Prohibited Museum of Extreme Art” containing interesting gothic paintings, sculptures, and artifacts. We indulged in delicious food, walked along the river, and caught a perfect sunset from a mirador overlooking the entire city.
The mountains surrounding Cuenca have some of the best rock climbing areas in the country so I knew I wanted to climb while I was there. I had heard about a gym in town so I spent one morning bouldering there with a group of young boys and their trainers. My new friend Sole, who Aiden put me in touch with when I needed a shipping address for my new GoPro, helped set me up with a group of climbers who would be climbing in the mountains one of the days I was in town. Pao, Sole’s friend, invited me to join her and five other climbers for a day of climbing at a place about an hour outside of Cuenca. We hiked a narrow trail up a mountain to an area with a bunch of routes overlooking the rolling green hills and a small town set within the valley. I had so much fun pushing my lead climbing limits to the next level. I successfully completed my hardest outdoor lead to date (5.11). My fear of falling almost got the best of me multiple times but I was able to push through it with the help and encouragement of everyone there. That same day I also completed my hardest outdoor climb overall, a 5.12! The people I was climbing with are such skilled and brave climbers…I was thoroughly enjoying watching them, completely in awe by their fearlessness in jumping for holds that seemed impossible to grasp and taking massive falls (without helmets!) After a very long day of climbing, we hiked back down to the truck while the sun was setting and then headed into the nearby town for some pizza.
Following a day of rest in the city, Brian and I went on an adventure to Cajas National Park, only about a 45 minute bus ride from Cuenca. With over two thousand lakes, Cajas is a beautiful park set high in the Andean páramo. After talking to one of the rangers at the ranger station, we decided on two different hikes that would take us all day. The first hike climbed up a narrow, steep trail to the top of one of the volcanoes. The 360-degree views from the summit of the many lakes below and surrounding volcanoes were well worth the climb. We made our way down and continued on to the other trail which took us through the lower wetland areas of the park.
First we wound through this enchanted mossy Polylepis forest with beautiful spiraled trees that I monkeyed around on for awhile. Polylepis grow at the highest altitude of any trees in the world. We stopped for lunch on a big rock perched above more lakes and a rushing river. We then continued on the trail alongside the river and eventually crossed over a bridge to the other side. At some point we ended up on a different trail which took us around a swampy area and then up a hill. Upon realizing that we had lost our trail, we climbed up to a higher vantage point to assess where we needed to go.
There was a valley between the hill we were on and the road we were trying to eventually end up at. A lake set in the valley was feeding a rushing river. We started making our way down to figure out whether we would try to walk around the lake or find a way to cross the river. After seeing the width of the white water river (and virtually no logical way to cross) I had decided it would be best to try making our way around the lake. Brian, however, was eager to try climbing up a branch that stretched halfway over the river and met another branch that reached to the other side. I was extremely hesitant about this plan but soon enough he was inching his way across, limbs wrapped around the tree branch. After watching him complete this daring act, I of course had to give it a shot. I tossed him my bag and inched my way across the terrifyingly limp branches. Indeed it was a thrilling end to an otherwise very tranquil hike. We made it back to the road, hiking in the direction toward Cuenca to flag down the next bus that drove by. When the bus failed to stop for us, we decided to hitchhike. A very nice guy in a big Ford pickup coming from Guayaquil agreed to give us a lift back to town. That evening we met up with Brian’s friend from back home, another Irish lad named Brian (Murphy), for dinner and drinks.
After another relaxing day in the city and an evening trip to some nearby thermal baths with Brian and Murphy, it was time to move on to my final destination in Ecuador: Vilcabamba. Following a dramatic morning that involved a fight with the hostel owners about a sudden change in the price and an unfortunate incident with the neighbor’s dog which left me with a nice bite mark on my bum, I was happy that Brian decided to make the journey with me to Vilcabamba that afternoon. I had first learned about Vilcabamba from Andy back in Ibarra who raved about the place. After hearing such interesting things about the “Valley of Longevity,” I decided I needed to discover it for myself. Famous for having many residents over a century old, the beautiful stress-free valley with perfect year-round weather attracts many expats and retirees.
Brian and I arrived in Vilcabamba late that evening and, after wandering around looking for a hostel, we decided to grab a beer at one of the local establishments called Charlito’s. It became apparent almost immediately that this town was full of crazy gringo characters. The owner of the bar, Charlie, is an American who married an Ecuadorian woman and decided to settle down in Vilcabamba. As with most of the folks who have chosen to reside in this town, Charlie is a hippie conspiracy theorist who loves to discuss corruption, politics, and of course North Korea. We chatted with him for awhile and as we were getting up to leave an adorable woman came running up to us with a big basket of bread. Suzanna wanted us to come stay at her casa down by the river and, after a bit of hesitation, we decided to just go with it. We took a taxi through a thick forest over a very bumpy road to Suzanna’s. Her place was so lovely. We had a whole floor to ourself, including a big kitchen, dining room, and balcony. Suzanna baked us delicious bread and made us feel so welcome in her home.
The next morning I woke up to go for a hike to the top of Cerro Mandango, famous for its knife-edge trail that drops off on both sides for a nice adrenaline rush…my favorite type of hike! The dramatic peak can be seen from nearly every part of the valley. The hike was beautiful with sweeping views of the green valley, surrounding mountains, and nearby Podocarpus National Park. When I reached the top, I saw that the trail continued along the ridge line for awhile so I ventured on, the views becoming more impressive as I progressed. The trail also became increasingly narrow as I went on and I actually did experience a bit of vertigo when I looked down. I plopped down to eat my lunch of home-made organic peanut butter that I discovered at one of the bakeries in town and couldn’t have been happier. After lunch, I continued walking along the ridge line but eventually it became a bit too dodgy trying to navigate around the giant prickly pear cacti with deathly cliff edges on either side. I forged my way down a steep animal trail through the thick grass and shrubbery until it eventually converged with an actual trail that led me through a forest back down the mountain.
After a delicious breakfast the following day consisting of Suzanna’s homemade bread, fresh-squeezed OJ from oranges picked in the garden, eggs, and coffee, Brian and I went for a short hike along the river right outside of Suzanna’s. We ended up on a trail that dead ended at a gate to someone’s property. A white dog and an adorable puppy came running to the gate to greet us. We headed back down the trail to the river, surprised to find that the pups had made the great escape and were running to catch up to us. After trying to shoo them back to their home and failing, I couldn’t resist playing with them and letting them join along for awhile. We found a nice grassy field with grazing horses and a beautiful view of the valley so we decided to stop for a picnic lunch.
The next morning was the start of Brian and I’s wild two-day horseback adventure up the mountain with Mr. Gavino: the kiwi cowboy, rum drinking, unofficial town sheriff. Gavino holds the title of the craziest character I’ve met on this journey. He’s lived in Vilcabamba long enough that everyone in town knows him. They know to steer clear if he’s had too much to drink, especially if he gets started talking about North Korea. They also hold an immense amount of respect for him, for it is an undisputed fact that he is by far the most knowledgeable and experienced horseman in the valley.
We arrived at his office early that morning and Gavino, sporting his cowboy hat and sheriff badge, and Ramón, his right-hand man, helped us pack our saddle bags. We walked across town to pick up our horses and were on our way. We trotted up the dirt road out of town to our first river crossing and then continued onto the mountain trail that quickly narrowed as we rode higher up. Ramón, in front, hacked away at the thick brush and overhanging branches blocking our path with his machete. He occasionally had to dismount to clear enough path for us to pass since at points the trail was no longer even visible because it was so overgrown. What I hadn’t realized was that this was Gavin’s first trip up the mountain this year. His cabin (our destination) sits way up on the mountain on the border of Podocarpus National Park, a very remote and nearly inaccessible part of the cloud forest. Over the years Gavin has constructed trails in the surrounding area around his cabin for tourists who want to ride up to the cabin and go for hikes in the cloud forest.
As we rode higher, the views began opening up and all around us were green rolling hills and the bright blue sky above. We then descended back down into the forest because we had to cross the river. We scoped out multiple sections of the river in order to find the safest way across. I began losing hope that we would make it across as each section we came to appeared higher, faster, and more treacherous than the last. We gave the horses a breather and Gavin warned us that it wasn’t looking good. There was one more section to scout but if we couldn’t cross there then we would have to turn back. We arrived at the final spot and it looked just as bad as everywhere else. Before I knew it, Ramón was knee deep in the river checking how fast the current was and looking for any possible way for the horses to cross. He mounted his horse and gave it a go. The horse was very hesitant to enter the water but eventually Ramón was on the other side of the river. Brian turned back to me and asked if I was ready to attempt this and, despite the alarms going off in my head, I told him we were making it across. Ramón helped lead his horse across and then it was my turn. As soon as my horse stepped into the river it came to a halt. My heart was pounding as I watched the white water rush by just below me. I gave my horse a small kick and then we were moving again. We eventually made it across and I could breathe again.
Gavin had the toughest time…his horse didn’t want to enter the water at all and kept trying to turn back. Ramón had to get back in and pull them across and,soon enough, we were all safe. I don’t know what we would have done without that man. Now we just had to pray that the river wouldn’t rise any higher overnight.
After the river crossing, we began our incredibly steep ascent back up a grassy hill and with every switchback, the expanding views became more impressive. When we reached the top we rode aside a big area of farmland which Gavin informed us was Suzanna’s brothers property. It started to rain and quickly became very, very cold. The trail became so overgrown which only made matters worse. The wet leaves brushing against us left us drenched and we were now stopping every couple of minutes for Ramón and Gavin to clear the path. When we finally made it to the cabin I was so relieved. As I scurried to change into dry clothes the rain finally stopped and we all sat in front of the cabin to eat some lunch and take in the magnificent view of the mountains and valley below.
Gavin’s cabin is an adorable triangular wooden structure with a wood burning stove and a ladder leading up to a small loft. There’s no electricity and there’s a water pump that feeds from a natural spring up the mountain. There’s a guest cabin off to the side with two big rooms, lots of wooden beds, and a porch with hammocks. It’s the kind of simple mountain cabin I hope to own someday. Gavino and Ramón cooked us a delicious candlelit dinner of burritos and fresh maracuya juice (with rum of course). We chatted for awhile and then went to bed.
The next morning Gavino and I went for a short hike through the cloud forest while Brian did some meditation and Ramón rounded up the horses that were now scattered across the mountain. While bushwhacking our way through the forest with the machete, Gavino pointed out tons of different wild plants to me. There were countless herbal and medicinal plants, beautiful wild orchids, cacti type species, and even gourmet mushrooms. He pointed out plants that had been eaten or destroyed by the Andean spectacled bear. We made it back to the cabin and packed up before our long journey back to town. Without the rain I was able to really enjoy the ride down. The views from the steep switchback portion were absolutely breathtaking and it was a bit of an adrenaline rush navigating my horse down the treacherous terrain. The river seemed like a piece of cake this time around, none of our horses struggling to cross. Once we made it back to the road leading toward town we all kicked into high gear, galloping the rest of the way. One last wild adventure seemed like the perfect way to top off this crazy ride through Ecuador.
…and it’s only fitting that my journey across the border was anything short of a mad, chaotic adventure as well. I chose to take the unconventional route from Ecuador to Peru (through the mountains as opposed to the coast), so I expected to have an interesting experience when I woke up that morning at 5 AM. Just my luck, the taxi that I had arranged to pick me up from Suzanna’s to take me to the bus stop didn’t show up by 5:45 AM which left me no choice but to speed walk (lugging my giant bags) in the dark, across a rocky trail up the river and into town to try and catch the 6 AM bus. The 1.5 mile walk took me about 20 minutes but luckily the bus was nearly a half hour late. After a very scenic eight hour bus ride up and down rough, winding mountain roads, I reached the Peruvian border, La Balsa. I then walked a short way across the river to enter Peru, but with my heavy bags and in a million degree heat I entered Peru a hot and sweaty mess.
Then came the really brutal portion of the trip…a series of colectivos (shared taxis) to my final destination, Chachapoyas. First, a 1.5 hour colectivo from the border to a town called San Ignacio along another beautiful, but terrifying, mountain road where rock slides appeared around just about every corner. Then, after a half hour of begging another colectivo driver in San Ignacio to accept my US dollars, a two hour ride to a town called Jaen…while squished in between the driver and another guy in the passenger seat. After a mototaxi ride across town, I hopped in a third colectivo to another town just outside of Jaen and then a fourth colectivo (two more hours) to Chachapoyas. After a total of 18 hours in transit, I finally arrived at a hostel around midnight for some much needed rest before my day trip to the ruins of Keulap the next morning.
Let the Peruvian journey commence!