Trip Start Aug 23, 2006
Trip End Apr 15, 2007

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Friday, December 15, 2006

We hopped a bus out of Cuenca, headed for Loja, a college town about 5 hours away.  The trip took us through a sparsely populated high Andean plateau, our bus slaloming between potholes and roaming cattle, stopping occasionally to pick up or let off passengers, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.  Often there's been no sign of habitation for miles, though if you pay close attention you might spot a footpath leading off into the scrub, or maybe a mud brick farmhouse somewhere in the distance.
Loja turned out to be like so many other towns in Ecuador, built around a central square and cathedral which is surrounded by retail and business districts.  Chain and mega stores are glaringly absent, here it's still the land of the mom & pop pharmacy, bookstore, tailor or coffee shop.  The streets were all decorated for Christmas, and we were lucky enough to catch the town Christmas nativity pageant and parade that night, which, strangely enough, seemed to be organized and run by the local army detachment.  It started late, which left the opening act, a young boy dressed as an angel, precariously perched in a tree for more than an hour.  When it finally started, he flew across the road on a rope to hover in front of the manger flapping his arms to near rapturous applause, while a narrator with an  auctioneers voice began to tell the story of Christ's birth.  The poor angel was left hovering in front of the manger for what seemed like 20 minutes, all the while slowly flapping his arms, which was quite comical as he had wings clipped to his back. This was followed by the arrival of the three wise men on horseback, villagers with cows and sheep, three strangely helmeted men dressed in orange robes whom we couldn't quite place (outside of a Dr. Who episode), folk dancing teenagers, floats bearing costumed children and local beauty queens arm in arm with military officers, jesters on stilts and folk dancing grandmothers.  I can't tell you how fantastic it all was, in a bizarre cultural collage sort of way. 
The next day, having about 10 hours to burn until our night bus to Peru, we headed off for the local university's nature park.  We ended up being given a guided tour by 3 students in the forestry program who saw this as the perfect opportunity to practice their English.  They were great company, giving us a quick tutorial on Ecuadoran flora and fauna, local delicacies, politics, pretty much whatever came to mind.  They turned what would have been a plain old walk in the woods into a whole lot more. 
After a month in Ecuador, we're doubtful we'll find anyplace that will top it, though of course we're still going to try.  Genuinely friendly people, incredible scenery and wildlife, and more things to do than you could ever pack into just a month. 
We're in Chiclayo, Peru now, about to grab a night bus for a 12 hour ride to the east to visit a slightly off the beaten path mountain fortress that's said to rival Machu Pichu.  We'll let you know if it's even remotely true.
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