In the valley of eternal youth

Trip Start May 05, 2013
Trip End Nov 06, 2013

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Flag of Ecuador  , Loja,
Monday, July 1, 2013

It was hard to leave Cuenca, it is such a laid back, easy sort of city to spend more than a few days in and we could easily have spent a lot more time there. No doubt we will return at some point.

We are now approaching the end of our time in Ecuador and so, staying in the Andes we head on down to the far south of the country where we will cross the border into Peru avoiding the somewhat hectic and main border crossing at the coast. Apparently this crossing is not without its problems as the roads are very basic and frequently get washed out etc. so it is not always straightforward, but we will give it a go.

The only other alternative crossing is via the Amazon which involves a week long journey on a basic cargo ship down the river. Having spoken to a few people who have taken this route it seemed a step too far. Sleeping three high in hammocks on deck, surrounded by livestock and sweaty Peruvian sailors maybe somebody's idea of a good time but it is not mine and, I am pretty sure, is not Carolyn's!

Instead we set out on another long bus journey from Cuenca to Loja, a decent sized town and the gateway to the south of the country. It is quite remote from the rest of the country and, apparently once declared independence but is now firmly part of Ecuador. We stop only briefly just to buy a ticket in the station before running ( literally) to jump on the bus to Vilcabamba our home for the next few days.

Vilcabamba is set in a "magical" valley and is famous for its long living residents. Scientists have apparently studied this phenomenon an found that there is no basis in fact for these assertions but that the 70 and 80 year olds here do seem to enjoy better health and are more "sprightly"! Perhaps the herbal Viagra the bus vendors were selling so well on the way here has something to do with it.

What we do notice here is not the long living residents but the abundance of gringo hippies in the town, both new age and sexagenarians and septuagenarians apparently still hankering after their sixties heydays of peace and free love. I have lost count of the number of balding men with long grey ponytails or pigtails which seem de rigueur here and i anpm half expecting The Grateful Dead to putvon a reunion concert here in the town! On arrival at the hostal I immediately change out of my retro tee shirt with "Woodstock" and psychedelic logos emblazoned across the chest lest I get mistaken for one. My hippie days are long gone! 

On arrival a the bus station we jump in a camionetta, a sort of communal taxi which is in fact, a pick up truck and head up to the valley and Hostal Izhcayluma which will be our home for the next few days. More expensive than our norm, but a nice treat for our last few days in the country and by far, the nicest place we have stayed so far. As I sit here on the terrace writing this I am watching the sunrise over the mountains across the valley right in front of me. The birds are singing and the butterflies are starting to come out. The peace and tranquility is broken only by cocks crowing and donkeys braying but even that is seems quite musical in its own way. I can quite see why the hippies have migrated here.

The town may have a hippie vibe, as indeed does the hostal, but it is owned by a couple of German guys who run the place with typical Germanic efficiency and, unusually for Ecuador, everything works. Good wifi, hot water and given the somewhat remote location, reasonably priced and pretty good food.

The Hostal sells itself on its hiking so we try out the easiest one as a taster. It should take us in a loop around the valley to a village called Chaupi and last for around 3.5 hours. We manage to get lost as we are still walking and only halfway after 4 hours. So we concede defeat and hitch a ride back to town. The walk that we do make however is really nice taking us along narrow pathways along the sides of the valley where our only company are the occasional groups of cows ( and a few bulls) which block the path. We see lots of different birds along the way but the only ones we can identify are the mocking birds which have been pointed out to us previously. Most impressive of all though are the thousands of butterflies we see of all shapes and sizes. Some smaller than a little fingernail, some several inches across. All in a variety of beautiful colours. Even though we got lost we have had a great day.

We have been lucky with the weather to date so we can't complain when on Sunday it starts to rain. We decide to walk down the hill into the town and have Sunday lunch at one of the many restaurants around the Plaza. It was a tourist orientated place and really not that good for the price. Not the first time we have found this to be the case so we resolve to stick to local places in future where we always seem to find great food.

We did toy with the idea of taking a horse ride into the forest for which this area is famed but the weather put paid to that and we will leave that for another place. Instead we get a lift in a pick up truck to the refuge in Podocarpus National Park a few mile away and take a hike around the park. The drive there is, once again through spectacular scenery which never ceases to amaze us. Once at the park we check in with the ranger who explains the various hiking options to us. It was hot when we left the Hostal and, foolishly, we didn't appreciate the increase in altitude so we were totally unprepared for the fact that it was now drizzling and cold and, as the ranger pointed out to us, we were dressed in tee shirts!

The drizzle didn't last for long and once we got walking we were warm enough, almost! The trail we chose was relatively short, about 3 hours, but very, very steep in places. The trail is very well marked and leads us up through the Podocarpus (Ecuador's only native conifer) cloud forest into high páramo. Apparently, there is a huge variety of bird life and animals in the park but we see few birds as we are not nearly early enough and the animals are nowhere to be seen. We have the place to ourselves, or so we thought until we bump into the guy from the room next door to us at the Hostal, accompanied by his guide.

As we head on up the trail the route gets steadily steeper, and a lot, lot muddier. Keeping our footing is extremely difficult but we manage to stay upright by hanging on to vines, roots, branches or anything else within reach. Despite all this we stop to admire the views and the vegetation which changes constantly as we ascend. Looking closely, we see many different lichens, mosses, ferns and thousands of orchids. Just walking 10 metres, we could fill a garden centre back home with plants that would be incredibly expensive there.

Eventually the cloud forest thins out into rocky páramo as we reach the mirador at the peak to briefly admire the views to Loja in the distance and we immediately think of Rob and Sue, Carolyn's Aunt and Uncle in Wales who have a holiday home in Trabuco, close to another Loja in Andalucia where we spent a few months earlier this year.

After just a few minutes on the peak, the winds starts to blow very strongly and the clouds start rolling in very quickly. No relishing a mudslide all the way back down we head off down the trail back to the refuge to await a pick truck to take us back to Vilcabamba. Whilst sitting on the steps we meet an inquisitive Andean Fox who kindly poses for a few photos.
Exhausted once again, we jump into the pick up and head back to the hostal for probably our last night before heading to the border and into Peru.

P.S.  After some searching for information regarding the claims to longevity in the valley we discover that after many years of research by many professors from universities from far and wide, it turns out that it is not the water, not the climate but simply that the people had been lying about the ages to the many researchers that have investigated the claims!!
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Ian Ellston on

Love reading your adventures. Currently in NH USA where I have a house, mum is with me at 78 she is still quite active. Still live full time in Dubai, but spend a lot of weekends in Sri Lanka. Can see a move there soon.....

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