After hitchhiking back to Quito Emma and I decided to stick around for a day so I could do some laundry and she could go to the immigration office to sort out some visa issues. While in Quito we stayed at the same shady place in the Mariscal Foch district I had previously visited. There I met a guy named Will from Asheville, North Carolina who was participating in various volunteer programs for the summer.
The next day Will, Emma and I traveled to a small city called Tena in El Oriente which is Ecuador’s large slice of the Amazon. There were quite a few problems getting there as an all too common landslide decided to bury the road forcing us to wait in the middle of no where for four hours while the crews took on the labor intensive task of clearing the road.
We arrived in Tena and found a cheap place to stay so the three of us split a room. After a much needed banana pancake in the morning, Emma and I said goodbye to Will and headed off into the jungle. We went until the road ended at a sturdy yet ominous looking bridge that spanned across the raging muddy Río Napo. We walked into a tiny indigenous village (if you can call it a village) called Serena and crossed another rickety bridge. We found the small house of the local and well respected shaman who had as many wrinkles on her face as she had years behind her. She spoke no English or Spanish, only the local dialect of Kichwa. We stayed in her guest house which was lined with several beds and hammocks with mosquito nets. We hiked in the jungle with a local Kichwa man, Jaime, who told us all about the different uses of plants. We walked deeper into the jungle and came across a strange plant with these small purple sacks on it. Jaime handed me a sack and told me to suck out the acid within. I did and it tasted like citrus. I peered into the tiny sack and watched tiny little ants crawl out running for their lives. Mmmm citrus. After some more ant sacks we walked deeper into the jungle and heard the strange unidentifiable noises that only the jungle makes. Much to the displeasure of my boots, we walked through knee deep mud. Each time I would step on seemingly stable ground my foot would sink beneath the surface. The jungle is incredibly wet, even when it isn’t raining. Eventually we came across a giant sebu tree with wide arching roots. Jaime told us that when hunters are forced to sleep in the jungle they find a sebu tree and sleep in between the roots to protect them from tigers. That evening I went swimming in the cold jungle river which flowed into the river Napo in the headwaters of the mighty Amazon.
The next day we watched the shaman go about her daily chores. Each morning she goes to the river to pan for gold and when it becomes too hot she spends the rest of the day making rope and jewelry. We walked through the jungle again for several hours and tried many strange things like cacao beans and various parts of a palm tree. Later that day we bathed in the river again and soaked up the sun on its banks. The shaman is a sort of spiritual healer to the community and people come from far and wide to be treated by her. Their symptoms include everything from snake bites to love sickness. I watched her collect and cut up a large vine hanging from one of the cacao trees outside of her house. She then brewed this vine for several hours in a pot. The substance, called ayhuasca, looked as foul as it smelled. Ayuhuasca is very commonly used to cleanse the body of all toxins as well as evil spirits. Aside from the cleansing properties, it is also a powerful hallucinogen. A young man came to be cleansed because he injured his hand and could not move it any more. I watched the ritual feeling slightly out of place. The shaman motioned to me and handed me a cup of the rancid brew and then proceeded to beat me in the head with some “sacred” leaves while chanting an old song. I sat there feeling really stupid as she kept hitting me on the head. She blew smoke on my hands and hair and then told me I had a good soul. After beating Emma on the head she told her she had evil spirits. The shaman then proceeded to vomit profusely…
An hour and a half later I still had a disgusting taste in my mouth and had to get something to drink. I walked through the dark jungle and across the bridge into the village to buy a coke. That’s when things started to get weird. I’ll leave out the details but after expelling all my toxins all of the ground, strange lucid dreams of childhood memories with my brother and some psychedelic anacondas, I awoke at dawn feeling better than I had in a long time. I can’t say that I would ever drink the stuff again, but I do not regret the experience. I was full of energy almost as though I was revived in some way.
I swam in the river as the sun began to rise and realized how incredibly hungry I was. I ate a massive breakfast and we went out into the jungle again. We collected worms and spent the afternoon unsuccessfully fishing with a bamboo rod. I was laying on the beach when I noticed an ant biting my thumb. Without thinking I ate the little guy taking satisfaction in the citrus taste. I had officially become a barbarian, it was time to leave the jungle.
The next day we hitchhiked to Misahuallí where we encountered a troupe of monkeys hanging out on the banks of the wide river. They were everywhere jumping, swinging in trees, drinking soda from bottles, stealing bags of Doritos from children, just the usual monkey business. I really liked Misahuallí. It had a nice charm to it, the wide river, the monkeys, the colorful buildings. I wish I would have stayed there instead of Tena, but I was getting hot and I was ready to head up into the cool Andes again. I was ready to hit the road on my own again. We caught a ride in the back of a military truck and parted ways. The soldiers took Emma back to Tena and I started hitching south to Puyo.
It wasn’t long before I was picked up by an off-duty taxi driver named Hector. He didn’t speak much so it was kind of a quiet ride. I did share my chocolate with him though. He was headed for Ambato which means we would pass by the familiar town of Baños again, where I asked Hector to drop me off. There I learned that my good friends Kat and Boyd were still traveling together and happened to be in Baños as well. We met up shortly after and went out for dinner and a few drinks reveling in the glory of the Quilotoa Loop and what we’ve been doing since we last saw each other.
The next morning I woke up with a cold and I really wasn’t feeling well. I had breakfast with Kat and Boyd and then reluctantly parted ways with them again. Hopefully I’ll meet up with Kat and Peru and the next time I come to South America Boyd will probably still be here. I caught a bus to Ambato and endured screaming children the entire ride. When I arrived I learned that I should have taken the bus south to Riobamba instead. This is why I don’t like buses. I was really feeling bad at this point and was in no mood to hitchhike. I wanted to head south to Loja but learned that it was a 10 hour bus ride (Ecuador is bigger than you would think) and I could not sit on the bus for that long. It was only six hours to Cuenca but the next bus was not going to leave for a couple hours. I sucked it up and started hitching down to Riobamba. I was quickly picked up by Luis, his wife Sylvia, and their daughter Camila. They made all sorts of jokes and I assured them that I’m normally not so quiet and that I was feeling unwell. We drove a while before little Camila had to use the bathroom. We stopped at a gas station where a wreck had just occurred. Luis and I walked up to the scene just in time to see a body being covered and another person being rushed away in an ambulance. The front of the truck and careened off the road into a giant pile of dirt. The truck wasn’t in that bad of shape but I could see where both passengers flew out through the windshield and even where they landed. In the skid marks there was a trail of blood where they slid across the hard earth. They both probably would have lived had they just been wearing their seat belts, but in my experience seat belts are seldom used in South America except when approaching a police checkpoint.
They dropped me off in Riobamba along the route to Cuenca but not before taking pictures with “el gringo loco” for their facbook profiles (Ecuadorians love facebook). I was then picked up by a trucker named Jaime who was driving an hour or so up the road to deliver some cement for a railroad that was being built, ironically for a cement factory. We passed by the giant volcano Chimborozo as I was having a very difficult time talking and I had to apologize for continuously dozing off. When we reached his stop I thanked him and started walking down the road. I decided I would wait in the cool rainy weather for the next bus that came so that I could sleep the rest of the way to Cuenca. Eventually the bus came and I boarded to find it completely full. I had to do a combination of standing and sitting on the floor and trashcan for two hours until a seat finally opened up. I sat down next to a French-American woman in her mid sixties who was compelled to talk to me the rest of the way. Though she was nice, I was not in a talking mood so I did a lot of listening. She told me how originally she was only going to be traveling for a few weeks but six months later here she was, heading to Peru. She had a lot of cool stories about traveling in Syria, India, Africa and Asia and told me how she entered the Peace Corps in Morocco when she turned 55. She was very encouraging and told me that travelers don’t let money restrict their travels, they make it work.
We arrived in Cuenca at dusk and I caught a cab to the city center to rest for the night. It was Friday night and the city was bustling with nightlife but I just wasn’t feeling up to it. I had heard so many great things about Cuenca and it’s a real shame I didn’t go there sooner. I was pressed on time to get to Peru and I simply did not get to do Cuenca justice. Cuenca was very charming and I felt really safe there. It gave off all sorts of good vibes with it’s cobbled streets and clean water. Cuenca is also home to the largest American population outside of the United States. A lot of people go there to retire in the laid back atmosphere surrounded by high mountains. I originally wanted to stay a couple of days in Parque Las Cajas just south of Cuenca but was advised against going when it was raining. Not only was it raining and my cold was well underway, I didn’t feel so bad about skipping Las. Next time.
Still not feeling like hitching, I took the four hour bus ride to Loja. There I had lunch and it was still early enough to catch the two hour bus ride to Vilcabamba. Vilcabamba is famous for its really old inhabitants. The people who live here are said to live as old as 150. It is for this reason that Vilcabamba is known as the valley of rare fruits. I stepped off the bus in and immediately noticed a strange metaphorical smell in the air. Something was different about Vilcabamba, not good, but not bad either, just different. I sat on a bench near the terminal for a while and it seemed just like any other Ecuadorian town. There were several shops run by old women right next to each other that sold exactly the same thing, taxi drivers were pulling over and whistling to get my attention, a pack of stray dogs were chasing after a female in heat, children kicked a soccer ball in the street, some people were burning a heap of plastic and cardboard boxes in the gutter, the usual. Something weird was happening here. I was in a hurry to get to Peru and I learned that a bus would be passing through on the way to Zumba at 10:30 that night so I decided to see what I could find in the city center before returning to catch the bus. I used a computer for a couple hours to begin writing the first part of this post. I decided to walk around the main plaza when my suspicions about Vilcabamba were confirmed.
I walked around the plaza and noticed quite a few English speakers, more than usual. I was craving a quality hamburger so I walked in a small family owned restaurant a block from the plaza and sat down. Their weren’t more than a dozen people in the room and they were all speaking English, even the table of Ecuadorians. The owner of the restaurant came over to take my order and he turned out to be an expat from Virginia who moved to Vilcabamba ten years ago. Eventually he brought me a heavenly hamburger served on rye with guacamole and a side of quality French fries (South American French fries suck and are always mushy).
“Can I ask you a question?”, I said.
“Is it just me or is this a very strange town?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well everyone seems to speak English.”
“What are you talking about? No one speaks English here.”
I looked around the room and said, “But everyone in here is speaking English. They’re speaking English in the plaza outside too.”
Then a woman piped in, “I speak English.”
The man gave me a funny look and said, “Humph, I guess everyone does speak English.” he paused for a few moments and said, “We get a lot of weirdos in Vilcabamba. People who want to live to be 150. People on the run from the law, tax evaders, rapists, murders. Occasionally the FBI will come pick them up. People who think they’re being followed by the government. People that move here because of that whole Mayan calendar end of the world thing.”
He gave me a funny look and then retreated behind the bar. An older guy dressed like a cowboy stumbled across the room and asked if he could sit in the empty chair. His name was Gavin and he was a Kiwi from New Zealand. I could smell the booze on his breath and I could tell this was going to be along conversation once he started rambling. He moved to Vilcabamba in the early eighties and now ran a horseback riding tour business. He told me the history of Vilcabamba from his point of view and I asked him why it was so strange here. He poured across the room, “You see that guy over there? Last week he told me he killed six people and now he’s hiding from the FBI. Say you want to ride horses through the cloud forest? I hate this place and I’m trying to make money so I can leave. You know there’s a group of people here that want to set me on fire? With gasoline and everything.”
“If you hate it so much why have you lived here for the past thirty years?”
“Well I guess I want to be here when the apocalypse happens.”
“You want a front row seat for the judgment day?”, Gavin then began laughing uncontrollably and wrote down what I had said saying he was going to quote me in his next book. After some more drunk rambling of lost pyramids somewhere on the border of Peru and Brazil as well as some stories of smuggling horses from Ecuador into Peru I managed to get away from him.
I caught the bus to Zumba and left the convenience of paved roads for some time. We winded up into the mountains and arrived in Zumba at around 3:30 in the morning. I had no where to go so I finally broke out my nifty hammock and camped outside of the bus terminal. The next morning I began walking to Las Balsas, the last “village” before Peru. After two hours of hiking down the lonesome dirt road I was picked up by Edwin Peña from Loja heading on his way to the border. A couple hours later I received my exit stamp and walked across the bridge to Peru for the first time.
Las Balsas is one of the most remote border crossings between Peru and Ecuador (there are only 4). My destination was Chachapoyas but I quickly learned how remote this region is. For one, people here don’t have cars, and the people who do have cars don’t normally travel this far deep into the northern highlands of Peru. Eventually I succumbed and paid for the shared Taxi towards San Ignacio, it was incredibly cheap anyways. There I met a young Czech couple who were having some trouble because they couldn’t speak Spanish. I helped them out and then helped them find a place to exchange they’re dollars for soles without getting ripped off. They were heading to Chachapoyas as well so we found another ride to the next town of Jaén and then from there to Bagua Grande. We drove down out of the mountains into a vast desert valley that resembled west Texas with all of the mesquite-like trees and cacti. In Bagua Grande we found our last ride to Chachapoyas where we stayed for the night. I spent the rest of the night walking around and trying to figure out the correct price of everything from lunch to a coke and a cervesa.
The next morning I took my last shared taxi to Tingo where I bought some breakfast and a large bottle of water. With all of my belongings on my back I hiked into a mountain crevasse toward the ancient ruins of Kuélap. It was hot and humid and eventually began to rain. When I finally got situated with all of my rain gear it would stop. Then I would overheat with my rain jacket on and then it would pour again. This went on for sometime before I eventually reached a small village completely inaccessible by motor vehicles. After four hours hiking uphill without a single step downhill, I reached the foot of the ruins. I dragged myself up to the ruins which were constructed by the Chachapoyas people who were eventually conquered by the Incas in the early 1400′s. I climbed up to a lookout tower where I took a short nap. I explored the ruins before walking down the other side of the mountain. It began to pour again by the time I reached the road and I was fortunately picked up by a bright orange pickup truck carrying construction workers down the mountain. We sped down the steep muddy dirty roads along a terrifying ridge. I was so scared that I actually had to close my eyes for the entire ride. I find myself praying a lot more than usual in Latin America.
We arrived in the small mountain town of Maria where I had a seat on a bench outside of a building to calm my nerves. The town was nestled on the side of the mountain without electricity and had less than 100 people living there.It was still raining as I watched a large cloud roll off the mountain across the valley and run into Maria like a freight train. There were no more cars and even if there were, I would not attempt to descend the mountain in this fog. A woman came out of the building I was sitting in front of and conveniently asked me if I needed a place to stay for the night.
I was eating dinner in the family’s restaurant with a few construction workers when a tall guy with long hair walked in and ordered a plate with an English accent in Spanish. I got to talking to him and his name is Mark from a small town in the middle of England. Mark is a photographer who has been traveling for four years now. He started in Canada and bought a 1998 Dodge Caravan in Boston and drove it all the way to Peru. He lived in Mexico for a year and Costa Rica for another year before continuing further south. I asked him what his plans were and he was going to see Kuélap the next day before heading to Leymebamba, my next destination as well. I asked him for a ride and he obliged saying that he was going to ask me if I wanted to come along. We went back up to Kuélap so Mark could take some photographs. He is currently building a portfolio for Lonely Planet and had me model in a bunch of his pictures. One day you may see me and my scraggly beard on the front page of Lonely Planet Peru trying to force an alpaca to climb some stairs. We spent the rest of the day driving to Leymebamba. Mark has this nifty GPS tracker in his car just in case it ever gets stolen. As long as I’m with mark you can see where I am every ten minutes by clicking this link.
After leaving Leymebamba it took us two days to drive 112 kilometers across a narrow mountain pass. The road was only wide enough for one car with a straight drop off on one side at all times. We drove all day to Celendín where our tire deflated as soon as we found a hotel. The next morning a large parade took place and we watched kids in brilliantly colored costumes dance in the street. The indigenous people here where these funny straw hats which are almost like cowboy hats except with really tall tops. After the parade we had the tire fixed and set off for Cajamarca. We arrived early enough to soak in the Baños del Inca where we talked about traveling and how some people to travel indefinitely by working over the Internet. If you have any ideas for travel articles or related topics you would like to see please leave a comment. Some examples include how to travel the world for under $1000 a month, top 5 things to do in northern Peru, or 10 things every traveler should keep in their backpack.
We hung out in Cajamarca for the night and all of today seeing the sights and taking photographs for Mark’s portfolio. I got to model. This city has a lot of history but I won’t bore you with the details, that’s what Wikipedia is for. Cajamarca is pretty remote and travelers don’t pass through here very often. Not only are we taller than everyone around here, Mark has long hair and I have a long beard with a curly mustache. We stick out like an Eskimo on the beach and attract quite a lot of attention. Girls follow us calling us “guapo” while the men look on with jealousy. Little kids follow us around saying the few words of English they learn in school. They all make the same mistake of saying “good morning” in the afternoon. When we say “no, good afternoon” they run away in all directions laughing. Mark and I dropped our clothes off at the lavaderia and I was wearing my last clean shirt, a deep cut V-neck which exposes more chest than I would like it to now that it’s stretched and worn. Body hair is uncommon on most men and a toothless old main told me I had a beautiful beard and elegant chest hair. Creeped out and flattered, I went to go pick up my laundry. Later we met up with a few people from CouchSurfing for some eats and drinks.
We left Cajamarca and descended out of the high Andean mountain range into a vast sandy desert. Once again I was on the Panamerican highway which stretches from Fairbanks, Alaska to Ushuia, Argentina, roughly 35,000 kilometers. The Pacific was in view on the horizon for the second time during my adventure. After a run in with the police and talking the “fine” down from S432 to S40 we drove through Trujillo to the surf side town of Huanchaco where we are staying for a few days. This is my kind of beach. It’s cloudy and cool because of all the sand and dust in the air which blocks out the sun. There are always a dozen or so people dawning wetsuits and surfing the rolling waves. I like this town a lot. If I had more time I would stay here for a week or two. I love being able to sit outside and listen to the waves crash on the beach without having to swat away flies or mosquitoes and drown in a pool of my own sweat.
All is well in Peru. I’m happy to be here but I’m starting to feel rushed to see the country as I have less than a month before returning home. Many places to go and many places to see. Next stop Huraz and the mountains again.
Totally contempt yet longing for home,