Quito to Cuenca Wedged into the seats that were built for only those with extremely short legs, on the ¨luxury executive¨ bus we realised that the pleasure of roomy, modern buses in Argentina and Brazil was over. One of the most obvious luxuries of this particular bus was the stereo, which blasted out Ecuadorian pop music at the traditionally ear splitting volume for almost the entire journey. The bus left at 6am, but by 7am we were still combing the metropolis for passengers. The bus carreered around almost knocking people over as the conductor hung out of the door shouting “Cuenca, Cuenca, Cuenca” at any poor unsuspecting citizen going about their daily business. Presumably this was just in case anyone felt like changing their minds about going to work/wandering around and thought they would jump on a bus to a city 10 hours away….. Although Galàpagos life felt pretty 3rd world at times, as a province it has an income per capita which is 50% higher than the rest of Ecuador, and it was only now as we left Quito that I saw for the first time the relative poverty that many Ecuadorians live in. (I am sure this will be a lot worse in Peru and Bolivia though) The road twisted and turned with cloud covered peaks on each side. We passed through tiny villages where almost every house was unfinished, spikes stuck up from flat-rooved concrete boxes ready for the next storey that would never be built and huge piles of rubble were everywhere. Cows who looked like the latest followers of the “Atkins Diet” grazed in brown pastures and women gutting pigs that were strung up on the side of the road. The main road from North to South is along a highland valley bordered by 2 Andean mountain ranges. 50% of the population live high up in this valley, in towns sitting amongst the snow capped volcanic mountains, known as the “Avenue of the volcanoes”. These people are mainly the indigenous peoples of Ecuador: the Andean Indians, and every so often I could just about make out a brightly dressed Indian woman wandering high in the patchwork fields tending to her land. Closer to the road the “Campesina´s” dress was even more colourful; a brightly coloured poncho, bright flared skirt and a tall hat shaped like a pork pie. The women were mostly surrounded by several children, chickens, sheep, cows and pigs etc. Our “non-stop-direct” bus stopped everywhere to pick people up and the aisle was soon full off leathery-faced indigenous Indians and women with babies strapped to their back with a shawl. (No need for expensive prams, cots and pushchairs here!) People lugged huge sacks of rice etc onto the bus with them and familes waited by the side of the road with their luggage strapped onto donkeys. This felt more like the real Ecuador and it´s real people, whose lives had clearly not changed for centuries. The second half of the journey was quite mind blowing: the narrow road twisted and turned up and down mountains, often clinging to the edge of cliffs. I couldn`t look out the window as the sheer drop into a ravine (and there no barriers) was quite disturbing. Knowing the driver hadn’t had a break in 7 hours didn´t help! Eventually the rocky peaks and harsh grasslands changed into tall green hills and we arrived in Cuenca, the main city in the Southern Highlands. Cuenca After all the hype about the “Colonial gem” of Cuenca, we were slightly disappointed. It did have a few leafy plaza´s with whitewashed colonial buildings and domed churches, but the narrow cobbled streets were choked with constant beeping traffic and pollution. The pollution was so bad you could easily have disappeared into a cloud of exhaust fumes as you walked along the street. We decided to escape the city for a days hiking in the Cajas national park, an hour away. The lowest altitude of the park is 3150m. Round topped mountains touched the grey clouds and the glacial valleys were littered with lakes. From the top of the first summit we could see some of the 235 lakes which just looked like tiny puddles, but shined against the bleakness of the scenery. Although we only walked about half an hour up to this summit the altitude made it so hard, we were gasping for breath every few steps. Who knows how we will cope in Peru which is much higher! The landscape was rugged, grey and slightly errie, it reminded me a lot of the Scottish highlands. The weather was wet, windy and cold but the greyness and rain made me feel quite at home tucked inside my layers. Apparently there are very few clear days here per year. We also hiked through some strange “magical” forests with “quenua” trees that can live at high altitudes whose trunks twisted around each other and looked like an evil forest. Like something out of a Grimm fairy tale or Lord of the Rings, you half expected a hobbit to jump out and say hello. What a weird place! In the end the best thing about Cuenca was it´s food. We found a restaurant with “international dishes” such as hummus, curry, Thai etc and we were in our element! I am still excited by these types of foods after 3 months of rice, beans and dodgy soups. We have also eaten some great quality Ecuadorian food though, Yucca, plantain, potato and avocado soup and some great tropical fruits – there is definitely a good side to the cuisine here! Next we caught a bus south to the village of Vilcabamba. Another stomach churning ride around mountain passes and with death defying drops at my side of the bus, but this time on a bus that seemed modern on the outside but the chugging and whistling noise of the exhaust gave away an ancient engine inside. Vilcabamba Vilcabamba is one of those places everyone comes to for 2 days and leaves 2 weeks later. Its set in a valley completely engulfed by beautiful mountains, but at 1500m has a warm climate and a laid back hippie feel to it, heaven. It´s the kind of place where every house has a hammock, people take their pigs for a walk down the main street and donkeys wander along the road loaded down with all sorts of things. It’s famous for 2 main reasons: firstly it’s the home of an extremely hallucinogenic cactus that travellers come here to sample (no we haven´t seen any) and secondly because it’s known as the “Valley of Eternal Youth”. The earth is supposed to have “positive energy” and apparently many of its residents live until well over 100. Scientists have even studied why this could be and attributed it to the climate, clean air, healthy diet, lots of hill walking and lack of westernised medicine in the valley. When doctors came in and tried to cure many of the older people of intestinal parasites many of the oldies died so the theory only got stronger. We are staying at a place called “Madre Tierra” which means Mother Earth. This is very fitting as it’s a kind of rustic health spa with a real healthy/hippie/positive energy vibe to it. From the minute you arrive they are plying you with homemade juice and tea made with “20 healing herbs”. The rooms are little thatched cottages which are spread out over a steep hillside among acres of tropical gardens. With some luck and complaining we ended up in one of the best cottages right at the top (major huffing and puffing required to get there though!)with its own terrace and hammocks overlooking the whole valley. Breakfast and dinner are served on a little terrace with fairy lights and mystical-type music and all the guests sit together. We have met some really interesting people here including the owners,a retired American actor-turned-peace-activist and his wife. Food is included in the price and is delicious, homemade, and organic so it´s amazing value. It would have been very easy never to have left the “resort” but we did venture down to the village and on a few hikes into the hills (more serious huffing and puffing) in a vague attempt to get fit for the Inca trail. Spa-tastic Miraculously I managed to persuade Jason and the spreadsheet that we should take advantage of the spa and have the “full body treatment package” after chatting to various glowing travellers who recommended it. This may sound a tad indulgent for backpackers, but it was only abou
t UKP25 for about 7 treatments so it was extremely cheap! I am not an expert on Spa treatments, but I think this one was pretty unique! It all started out very normal. We had Aloe-Vera/Olive oil goo massaged into our hair and a facial using things they had picked in the garden, there were no bottles to be seen and the various masks smelled good enough to eat. That´s where things stopped being normal. We were led into a room and told to strip off, the next thing I know we are both put into a box with just our heads poking out the top! I wondered if Paul Daniels might be involved for a minute… then she turned on the steam and we sweated. We were still helpless with giggling when she suddenly pulled me out of my box and began rubbing me down with ice cold wet towels. It was then I started to wonder if this lady had seen almost every guest of the resort naked! The hot/cold routine was repeated a few times until finally I was standing there starkers with her pointing a hose pipe at me.. by this time I think my dignity had been lost. As she hosed me with ice cold water I think the whole resort heard my screams. Jason took it like a man though, I was convulsed with laughter at the sight of him standing starkers, infront of a 4 foot Equadorian lady who had one eye closed trying very hard to aim up and down his leg “strategically” missing the middle bit! Next came the sea-salt body scrub which felt like your skin was being rubbed away, and then into the Mud Bath. We were sat in a big stone bath tub and given a bowl of hot mud and left to cover ourselves in it. Oh what fun as many mud fights ensued! 15 minutes later the lady came back, and the fact that we were sitting in a bath tub both naked covered from head to toe in mud infront of a complete stranger didn´t even feel abnormal! After more delicious facial treats and massages (in which Jason kept asking the lady to “stop tickling” him as he couldn´t stop laughing) we floated out of the spa surrounded by a serene glow. It certainly wasn´t what I expected but it was fantastic fun and we felt rejuvanated ready for the next few weeks of hard bus journeys and hiking. I am sure there is something in that herbal tea though… almost everyone who comes finds it extremely difficult to leave and ends up staying days or weeks longer, some forever! Unfortunately we were just about to leave this morning when the news came in of a road blockage between this town and the city where we need to go to catch the bus to Peru. Apparently students are protesting that their bus fares have gone up! What a shame…. we have to stay in paradise one more day..