Monday, April 13, 2009

A Weekend Trip to Vilcabamba

Taking advantage of the 5 day weekend, a few of us set off on Thursday morning for Vilcabamba, a small village in the south of Ecuador. It's pretty much the farthest south most people will visit, even though it's still another 4-5 hours from the border of Peru. Before we could get down to Vilcabamba though, we would need to spend a night in Loja.

Loja is another small city that's about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Vilcabamba. Our program has a few volunteers there, and though we wanted to check out the city and see our friends, we were told a very brief few hours to Loja would be sufficient. The bus ride normally takes about 5 hours, but with the condition of the roads and the consistency of buses in this country to stop every few minutes, it took us almost 6 1/2 hours. Luckily, for the first time I made a friend on the bus and was able to keep myself entertained for most of the trip. It was necessary, as it was one of the most uncomfortable bus trips I've taken thus far. The bus was entirely over packed with people standing up in the aisles the entire time, their asses in my face. A snot-nosed little girl was sleeping on my foot and brushing her dirty face against my arm. It was lousy.

Once we got to Loja we found a $5 hostel with terrible beds and got dinner, meeting up with a few friends. We had a short night after being tired from the trip and went to the hostel to rest up and head to Vilcabamba in the morning. Sleeping poorly because of the beds and fear of bed bugs, I woke up tired and we went to the station to get a bus.

The only problem was that because it was Good Friday, buses weren't running normally. First we were told there were no buses, then that there were buses on the side of the road, and then that there were no buses. Taxi drivers wanted $20, an outrageous price, so we waited and sure enough 5 minutes later, a bus arrived. As usual, no one knew what they were talking about. We paid $1 in the end for the bus.

With another lousy bus trip to the village, a small boy was leaning into me and staring at me for the entire trip. But we'd finally arrived in the town to relax and rest. Vilcabamba is hotter than Loja or Cuenca, and it's actually one of the only places in the world with a perfectly temperate climate. It's about the same temperature every day. Possibly for this reason it's known as the "Valley of Longevity," a place where locals are said to live into their hundredth years. It could be the water as well, which is said to have a higher pH than most water in the world. Either way, it has become a haven for foreigners to get stuck in and resettle or retire to for several months a year.

Along the hills you can see the mansions owned by expats which would be multi-million dollar homes in the United States. It brings more money to this region, but at the same time increases the prices for the locals. There has also been talk that a new complex of 300 of these mansions are being built for expats, and that a mega super market will be put in for them. This new development would totally change the town, which is listed as having a population of 4,200. If the town would be ruined from that, then most likely the new comers would find some other great town to ruin in a few years time.

Regardless, the town still has the laid back and peaceful title it is billed as. Many hippies now call this place their home and sell crafts or jewelery. Hiking, biking, and horse back riding are some of the activities you can do in addition to getting massages and spas at a fraction of the price that it would cost back home. The girls in our group took advantage of that, while I just relaxed in my own way. All I wanted was a hammock and to see my friends.

We have two volunteers in Vilcabamba, and though we didn't spend the entire weekend with them, the time we spent was valuable. Also, I was happy to find out that my friend from Guayaquil just happened to be visiting this weekend as well. We caught up on stories and shared some drinks, including snake liquor. It's literally some moonshine tequila in a jar that has snakes marinating in it. We could smell it as the mustached waiter brought over the shots, and we knew it was going to be painful, but we had to do it.

It ranks up there as one of the worst things I've ever tasted, in addition to Absinthe. The effect took hold immediately, and the taste lingered long after we'd spit out our share. Just one shot was enough to make me back away. For the rest of the weekend we took it easy and just enjoyed ourselves until the inevitability of heading home. With another long travel day ahead on Sunday, we left Vilcabamba at 11:30 am, sweating in the heat after marching to the terminal, and were out of Loja by 1:30. After another long and uncomfortable trip, we finally made it back up to Cuenca by 7:30 pm.

The ironic thing in the end was that in order to get to this relaxing weekend, we first needed to take means of transportation and stay in hostels that made us anything but. The beds and pillows wound up making my back and neck stiff, and the bus ride back would have wiped away any relaxation that I'd felt. Yet it was still a fun weekend, and if I had the means to go back again, I think I would.

Above: Three images of the hills of Vilcabamba

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