It is no secret that we loved Colombia. The first days we were in Ecuador, many times we just wanted to make a u-turn. But we pressed on. While Ecuador’s northern highlands and the central mountains were nice and undeniably scenic, we still could not forget Colombia. That is, until we reached the southern highlands.
The southern highlands of Ecuador is just stunning. Similar to Colombia, there are mountains and lush valleys, but they are on a bigger scale – taller and wider. The towns, on the other hand, are smaller and gentler. Even the biggest city in the region, Cuenca, only has a few hundred thousand people. And the remote villages are infinitely interesting to drive through, often thriving with indigenous communities.
It was in southern Ecuador, I think on our drive to Vilcabamba, when we first seriously talked about coming back to South America on another overlanding trip when the kids are older. That is saying a lot. This trip has been amazing on many obvious levels, but it has also been a sometimes bumpy road of personal discovery. There were moments when we didn’t think we would make it. But just like anything else, one day at a time, and all of a sudden we are wrapping up Ecuador and on our way to Peru.
But first, Cuenca, one of only two stops in southern Ecuador as we already had our sights set on Peru.
Cuenca is famous for being one of the best places to retire for North Americans. We don’t disagree. But we didn’t go there for that. We went into the city only to get Jamie his 18 month vaccinations. When we asked our hotel, Mariscal Inn and Suites, for a doctor recommendation, the owner told us to go to the hospital for free, and that he would show us how to get there the next day. The next morning I found out that by “showing” us, he meant he would drive us to the hospital, take us inside, translate and wait for us, then drive us back to the hotel. That, was the highlight of Cuenca for us. I guess we are really done with cities.
Leaving Cuenca, it was a two day drive to Vilcabamba. Halfway through the drive we stopped in a small town for the night and found a pretty spot next to an abandoned church. It was on the hillside with a view of the valley and only a handful of houses and a few grazing cows around. We enjoyed one of the most peaceful sunsets on this trip and were pretty proud that we found this free gem, except that around 4am the villagers started showing up in the church parking lot for whatever no one should be doing at 4am. Sounds of men, women and children (!) chatting away, laughing, and cars coming in and out. We couldn’t even see what they were doing it was completely dark. We just haven’t had good luck with boondock sites.
Finally, we get to Vilcabamba, the city of eternal spring and valley of longevity.
How to put Vilcabamba in words? Well, one afternoon we found a restaurant with a nice $3 almuerzo (set lunch) and sat down at one of their sidewalk tables. (This sounds much fancier than it was. It literally was a table with 3 plastic chairs on the actual sidewalk.)
We were just finishing up an excellent goat stew when a woman sat down to the table next to us. She had long flowing blonde hair, a long skirt, a knitted tank top and beaded necklaces – all in some kind of natural hue. She had a baby with her close to Jamie’s age so we exchanged the usual pleasantries, names and ages of our children. All of a sudden, she stood up, alarmed, picked up her baby and took him to the ditch right next to our sidewalk table. Then she pulled down his pants and cradled his bare bottom in a sitting position to encourage him to pee. He did.
When that emergency was over, I remarked, “Wow, he is toilet trained! He is only one!”
“Yes, we have worked with him for a few months.”
“Really? Does he have any accidents?”
“Sometimes. But it’s okay. We live in nature.”
At this time a man with long dark dreadlocks, tight pants, tattoos and remarkably stylish leather boots came to join her. He saw Ty and Jamie and we exchanged the same pleasantries, names and ages of our kids, and a bit about our trip. Then he asked if we wanted to check out where they live just a few miles north of town. They live in a “community”, called Shambhalabamba. It is wonderful there and there are many families with lots of children. It is a nice place with a lot of nature and next to a river. They also have circus training, a fish pond, and a huge garden. We should really come visit tomorrow during communal lunch and meet the people there!
In our previous life had Simon and I encountered these people we would have had much different reactions than we did. We would have been appalled at the woman letting her toddler pee on the street LIKE A DOG! And we would have quietly ridiculed these crazy and most likely lazy hippies who just get high and do song and dance circles around their teepees.
Wow, how judgmental we were. Today we were first amused at the pee. A few drops of pee on the street by a ping pong ball size bladder can’t really be that bad? Think about how many disposable diapers it saves the world.
And about the community by the river, we were very intrigued. Really, if we weren’t already planning on crossing the border to Peru with another couple the next day, we would have gone to check it out. After all, what these people are doing is really not so weird. Think about the tiny house movement, the omnivores dilemma’s return to the pastoral. The desire to purge the excess and re-embrace the primitive is in fact quite commonplace now. And banding together to make it happen is actually very practical.
So Vilcabamba is much like this young family we met. It is diverse, a little weird, magical, and pretty cool. It is one of those places we would have liked to get to know more.
As much as we were curious about Vilcabamba, we felt Peru calling. There are three land borders to cross from Ecuador into Peru. Most people take the coastal route but we chose the La Balsa border directly south of Vilcabamba to stay in the mountains. This border is the least used of the three due to its remote location.
We were a bit apprehensive taking this border because the drive from Vilcabamba is 4-6 hours through very remote winding mountain roads. And we heard of horror stories of mud and landslides when it rains, and construction delays on the road. So we were glad to run into a Canadian couple, Rich and Ashley (desktoglory) to take this border together.
The drive ended up AMAZING. The best drive of the trip to this point. The photos do not do it justice at all. We had to stop ourselves from stopping too much to take pictures so we could get to the border on time. And Simon loved slipping and sliding in the mud. In the end, it took about 5.5 hours for the drive with lots of stops. The border crossing itself was easy peasy once the Peruvian official came back from his 12-3pm lunch break. It took about one hour to process immigration and vehicle import all of us. As far as border days are concerned, it does not get better than this.