11.06.2009 - 17.06.2009 29 °C
My last stop in Ecuador was Vilcabamba, close to the border with Peru in the south. The inhabitants of the town and surrounding valley have a reputation for longevity. Strange then that in addition to 'Vilcagua' brand bottled water, the shops in the town also sell 'Vilcacigarillos'.
The ultra-chilled atmosphere has attracted all sorts of immigrants from Europe and North America, starting perhaps with the fruitarian, often-times hermit, self-proclaimed reincarnation of John the Baptist, and general crackpot, Johnny Lovewisdom. These days it counts a number of English-speaking expat retirees amongst its population.
My first night I stayed in a super-dingy but super-cheapo hostal near the bus terminal. Rule #6 of the hostal states 'please don't make scandal', which I rather liked:
Teaming up with two Americans and a Spanish guy, I set off on a walk into the hills above Vilcabamba. More amazing views, warm weather and clear air.
Though the perilous ridge-top path didn't exactly seem conducive to long life...
My first horse ride
A slightly unfortunate episode in the saga of my travels. We hired some horses and after some brief instructions from our cowboy-esque guide on how to steer the beasts, set off up a track towards some distant waterfalls.
I tried to take a photo, and ended up some distance from the rest of the group. You can see the beginning of the troubles already...
We were supposed to be able to vary the speed by squeezing the horse with our feet to go faster (never necessary), or pulling up on the reins to slow down (never effective). But the horses made the same journey every day, and had their own idea about the appropriate pace, that can be summarised as 'go slightly faster than the terrain permits'. So without any encouragement they galloped whenever possible. Quite alarming (and surely unsafe) for a first-timer. But lots of fun.
We arrived at the promised waterfalls.
At this point, it being a hot day, I stripped down to my undies and jumped in. On the way back therefore I wore just my very thin cargo pants. I didn't think much of the strange sensation from my backside until it was too late.
Dear reader, I will spare you the grisly details, but suffice to say they were the biggest blisters I have ever seen. And they weren't anywhere the sun shines.
Travelling to Peru
After a final evening in Vilcabamba in which I met one of the two local mayoral candidates, attended the vote (basically a giant piss-up), and shared a drinkable consolation with the candidate when he didn't win...
I embarked on the journey south to Peru, having opted for the super-remote border crossing at La Balsa.
Several hours of unpaved roads on either side of the border:
Once at the border outpost I had to go and rouse the police officer and immigration official, who were sitting around by a coffee stand, to get them to unlock their little huts and give me the necessary stamps. A nurse asked me if I was suffering from flu. I said no.
The border itself, a tiny river, was spanned by a huge concrete bridge, tarmac'd and sturdy enough to support a 4-lane motorway. But then at either end led away a single-lane track of mud and stones.
Getting to Huaraz
From Cuenca, Laura had jetted off to Ecuador's Galapagos islands. I'd arranged to meet her in Huaraz, northern Peru. Peru is much larger than Ecuador, and at over 1000 miles from north to south, combined with the worse roads, my happy days of 3-hour bus journeys were over. It took two days to get from Vilcabamba to Huaraz, passing through Jaen, my first taste of the omnipresent dust that filled the air, clogged the nose, and browned clothing all the way to Chile...
... Chimbote, a running joke in Peru as the continent's stinkiest town -- a well-deserved reputation, as the town is a hive of fish-processing factories (town crest below) ...
... and the spectacular climb up between the Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash:
Aside from the copious religious icons that decorate all south american buses, the names of the transport companies themselves started to have a religious theme:
It's worrying when it seems to be a matter of religious faith whether your bus will arrive at its destination.
At last I arrived in Huaraz:
And went climbing!