Heading South to Vilcabamba

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Tuesday, August 10, 2004

We had planned on staying in Ecuador for maybe a month, but after almost two and a half months we've only managed to make it as far as Riobamba! However, we now have a deadline - a very good friend is coming down to spend time with us in Cuzco, Peru, in early September - so we decided it was time to start heading south in earnest. From Riobamba the Panamerican Highway splits - either you can take the main route down to the coast, or continue through the remote Southern Highlands - and as usual we opted to take the 'road less travelled'.

The next major city was the capital of Cañar province, but first we had to cross the remote and rugged hills and valleys that have isolated this area of the country until relatively recently. The highway quickly deteriorated into a potholed, dusty gravel road which climbed up to 11,000 ft and then rapidly descended to 6,000 ft several times in succession. Passing through the small town of Biblian we were fascinated by a gleaming white stone edifice high on the hill dominating the valley - was it a church, palace or castle? Our curiosity got the better of us, so we headed up the steep, steep hill to check it out. It turned out that originally there had just been a small shrine built into the cliff, but in the 1940s it was expanded into a full-scale church, perched precariously on the side of the mountain. It is dedicated to the 'Virgin of the Dew', and it was evident from the numerous testimonials displayed that many people believed strongly in miracles attributed to the Virgin during a huge pilgrimage every September.

The next day found us exploring the plazas and churches in Cuenca, a beautiful colonial city that was designated a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. It has a delightful 'Old World' feel, and is full of cobbled streets, ornate balconies, clay-tiled roofs and hidden courtyards. The city was founded in 1577, and many of the impressive colonial buildings date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The old town centre is dominated by the three massive blue domes of the New Cathedral, a huge structure that occupies a complete city block. It would have been even taller and more impressive, but apparently an error in design resulted in the building not being able to support the planned twin bell towers. Across the Parque Calderón the old cathedral is much simpler and unpretentious, and was renovated for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ecuador in 1985. It was used as a triangulation point by the La Condamine expedition from 1736 to 1739 which determined the exact location of the equator and measured the shape of the earth.

There are several markets in Cuenca, and as usual we delighted in exploring them all - we find that markets often provide the quickest and most interesting way to quickly 'feel the pulse' of any community. The meat and produce markets were brimming with all the familiar staples, as well as many unusual and exotic fruits and vegetables. But of particular interest was the flower market, held daily in a small plaza in front of one of the old churches. Who could resist long stemmed Ecuadorian roses at a $1.00 a dozen?!

After Cuenca the road improved considerably through the productive agricultural valleys, but soon we were climbing back up to the bleak and desolate 'páramo' at over 11,000 ft. The previous days roller coaster ride continued with precipitous drops deep into the valleys, and the occasional detour where a massive landslide had obliterated the road. It eventually descended gradually into Loja at 6,500 ft, another provincial capital but with the distinction of being one of the oldest colonial towns in Ecuador - founded in 1548. A second claim to fame is that a small hydroelectric scheme which started generating in 1897 (producing a massive 34 kilowatts!) made Loja the first town in Ecuador to have electric power. Perhaps more important was the first documented cure of malaria using quinine extracted from bark of a local tree - Cinchona succirubra - named after the beautiful Countess of Cinchón who was treated successfully by a Franciscan monk. The equitable climate and resulting biodiversity of the region resulted in several botanical expeditions in the 19th century designating this area the 'Garden of Ecuador'.

An hours drive south of Loja is the small community of Vilcabamba, nestled in the "Valley of Longevity" and famed for it's long-lived inhabitants. We figured that if we stayed here for a few days we might add a few years to our life span! That remains to be seen, but nonetheless we thought this would be a nice tranquil spot to recover from several days of hard driving. Maybe, but then we made the serious mistake of signing up for full day of horse riding up to the nearby Podocarpus National Park (named for the only native gymnosperm found in Ecuador). Eight hours and 45 km later, after a delightful day high in the mountains with spectacular panoramic views, we were a mass of aches and pains, bumps and bruises, and could hardly walk. Once again, we've discovered that we're not as young as we used to be....but after a one hour full-body massage, we feel as good as new!
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