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Published: November 13th 2013
With Mandango Mountain (the sleeping Inca) left of centre.
After four bus rides, a border crossing, a walk across town and a lift in the back of a pick up truck from some friendly locals, Andrea and I made it to Hosteria Izhcayluma, close to Vilcabamba in the hills of southern Ecuador, just as reception was closing. The project of German brothers Peter and Dieter, Izhcayluma was the closest to luxury accommodation I've experienced this year, with a good restaurant, bar, swimming pool, massage centre and great views of the town and surrounding hills. Vilcabamba is a small town with a relaxed atmosphere and constant spring-like climate. These qualities, combined with Ecuador's relatively low cost of living, have attracted many foreigners, particularly from the USA, to settle in the area in recent years. (Its reputation for the longevity of its residents may also be a factor, although this does not appear to be supported by studies
and there have been allegations of people exaggerating their age
Endeavouring to be more active than we were on the Peruvian coast, Andrea and I did a couple of walks, in the valley, passing through a local village, and up in the hills where the views were excellent. On the latter, we had an encounter with a particular US migrant, who threatened to set his
"aggressive" dogs on us as we admired his house from the public footpath. A keen horserider, Andrea experienced more of the surroundings by taking two excursions on horseback.
Sunset was a magical time in Vilcabamba, with vivid red colours and on occasions, rainbows, which Andrea and I generally watched from the viewpoint at Izhcayluma. As the sky darkened, the outline of the mountains clearly revealed the resemblance of a particular mountain, the Mandango, to a sleeping Inca. Once completely dark, only the lights from Vilcabamba below, the red glow of a town in the next valley and the glow of the Milky Way above could be seen.
Andrea and I had planned to return to Peru to see the historic fort of Kuelap, however, the journey was complicated and would have meant spending much of our last few days together on buses. As we wanted to make the most of this time, we decided to stay in Vilcabamba. Unfortunately, however, I became unwell and was unable to do much other than lie in bed for a couple of days. Once I felt well enough, we travelled to Podocarpus National Park to do a hike in the cloud forest,
staying overnight in a cabin. The walk started with a climb up to around 3500 metres followed by a steep descent and a walk along a ridge. The clouds cleared periodically, revealing the valley below, with Vilcabamba to the south and the region's main city, Loja, to the north. Having been told a kitchen was available, we brought dinner in the form of dried noodles. What we weren't told, however, is that we would have to make a fire if we wanted to cook them. After an unpromising start, we managed to get it going and half an hour later, our pan of water had almost reached simmering point. A man appeared briefly and complained about the smoke, and a woman and a young girl were waiting, so we decided that would do. As we ate our lukewarm noodles, we watched as the young girl created a roaring fire with neatly arranged wood and very little smoke and had two pans of water boiling vigorously. At this point, we finished our noodles quickly and returned to the cabin!
On our penultimate day at Izhcayluma, we spent the evening in the bar with a couple of other guests and staff.
One of the staff, Martin from Holland, served us several "Peligrosos", which were less a cocktail, more a mix of every spirit on the shelf. As I was still not feeling great, Andrea, who was on top form, helped me out by drinking most of mine and then finished off the evening in style by jumping into the swimming pool! During the time that we travelled, Andrea and I shared many special moments, including numerous wonderful sunsets, but now the sun was setting on our time together. We got up at 5 am and before I could come to my senses, she was leaving in a taxi to start the long journey back to Lima for her flight home. I've travelled alone quite happily this year but it suddenly felt very strange and lonely.
Later in the morning, I caught the bus to the city of Cuenca. My hostel was virtually empty and I spent most of my newly acquired free time playing the guitar and catching up with my long-neglected blog. Cuenca was a very pleasant city with some attractive colonial buildings in the centre. I also had a walk along the rivers Tomebamba and Yanuncay, which, in
contrast to many South American cities, were clean and litter free, and with the surrounding trees it was easy to forget you were in a city of half a million people. On my last night in Cuenca, I went to an artesan beer house, where I talked to a traveller from Holland and enjoyed pints of their ruby and stout brews.
The next day, I travelled on to Baños, named after its thermal springs which can be bathed in. The bus passed Chimborazo on the way, the highest mountain in Ecuador (and the world, according to some - the equatorial bulge makes it the farthest point on the Earth's surface from the Earth's centre). Baños is a small town, popular with tourists from Ecuador and elsewhere, as evidenced by the presence of hostels and restaurants on virtually every street. I turned up at my hostel of choice but it was full, so I found a cheap place nearby. However, it was very quiet and I was looking to meet people, so I moved down the road to Great Hostel the next day. Here, I met Claudia from Germany and we did a hike in the foothills of the volcano
Tungurahua, which had been active only two months earlier. We stopped for lunch in the village of Runtun, then carried on to the Casa del Arbol at 2850 metres, around 1000 metres above the town - a treehouse with a swing off a ledge that gives the sensation of flying. Unfortunately there was too much cloud to see the volcano.
In the evening we went to the thermal baths. There were three pools, two of which were mostly empty. On entering, we discovered why - the first was hot to the point of being painful while the second was unheated. We squeezed into the third pool, which was the perfect temperature, then finished by standing under the waterfall for a few seconds, which was refreshing, being colder than the unheated pool! In the baths, we bumped into Claudia's friends, Dominik from Germany and Sebastian from Holland and met up for a beer afterwards.
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