A Travellerspoint blog

Heading South

The Friendliest Border Crossing in the World

semi-overcast 24 °C
View 2012 RTW on Drifters's travel map.

As usual, we have stayed very busy and done a lot of travelling this last week. I believe the last entry left off with a few days of moving south through Ayampe, Mantanita, Cuenca, and then on to Vilcabamba Ecuador. The town of Vilcabamba is on the map because they have some of the longest lived people in the world. (It is not uncommon for locals to live well over 100 years old.) Plus the village is set in a beautiful valley surrounded by huge mountains. After spending so much time on buses we were ready to stay at a comfortable hotel for a couple of days. Plus we had seen signs for Izhcayluma Hotel in Vilcabamba posted all over Ecuador. Hotel Izhcayluma was a few minutes out of town and was as good as expected. The owner has spent years developing acres of gardens around the property and it affords some amazing views of the countryside. Plus there was a pool, a bar, a big breakfast included, and probably the nicest bathroom we have seen yet on our trip.

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We spent our first day and night in Vilcabamba exploring the small town and playing a few games of billiards back at the hotel. The next morning after breakfast we set off on a 6 hour trek to see some more of the area. The hike took us up and along a ridge of one of the nearby mountains and then ended at a waterfall. We took a lot of pictures, and the hike was just long enough that we were completely worn out for the rest of the day when we got back. The next morning we planned to head further south to the Ecuador border town of Las Balsas. (We can´t seem to stay in one place very long. Plus we are travelling with a great companion Sophie who needs to be in Lima by May 30th.) We considered going back to Loja and the Pan American Highway to cross into Peru, but this route sounded more adventurous and less traveled. The journey was supposed to take about 6 hours to the town of Zumba and then another harrowing hour in an open sided truck to the border at Las Balsas. Although the ride took longer than expected (as usual) it was probably my favorite of the trip so far. It sounds really cliché, but the views of the mountains in this part of the world are absolutely breathtaking. Every time you go around a corner you are blessed with another amazing landscape with lush jungles and huge mountains. Unfortunately the road was a bit muddy and there was some construction so it ended up taking closer to nine hours to get to the border.

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We arrived in Las Balsas after dark. Although we always try to avoid getting new places after dark, (especially border towns) it seems to happen quite often. I don´t think Las Balsas should even qualify as a town, there was only one street with customs and immigration offices and one store that I could see. We were immediately approached by the local customs officer on duty who asked what we needed. We had planned to stay in Ecuador because it was late and we had been told previously that the border closed at night. However, the customs officer explained that the hostel we were looking for was actually on the Peruvian side of the border and that there was nowhere in Ecuador to stay, unless we wanted to try to catch a ride back to Zumba where we came from. Fortunately, the officer was extremely helpful and said we should be able to cross the border without a problem. He then proceeded to walk us personally across the border so that we would be safe, (twice actually because we had to go back to Ecuador to get an exit stamp) introduced us to all the immigration officers on the Peruvian side, and then also got us a taxi to the next town of San Ignazio because he thought it would be better and more comfortable for us. It was such a pleasant experience on both sides of the border. I don´t think I have ever even seen a customs officer so much as smile, but this gentleman shook my hand and gave Anastasia a hug when we were ready to leave. So apparently the decision to skip the Pan American border crossing was a good one.

Even though we had hoped to stay in Las Balsas, our journey for the day wasn´t over yet. We got into a packed taxi and set off for another hour and a half drive. It was obvious immediately that the roads in Peru would be different than they were in Ecuador. It was all dirt and mud, and had started to rain, so the car was sliding around like we were in snow. After about 20 minutes we got to a section of road where they were clearing a previous mud slide, and had to sit for about 30 minutes while the construction vehicles cleared a path large enough for us to get through. Then about 40 minutes later we came to another section of road that must have just collapsed, because there were no construction workers present, just a few people that were trying to drive the other way down the road and also couldn´t get through. The other car load of people had grabbed branches from the side of the road and were using them as makeshift shovels to clear the dirt and mud out of the way. After about another 45 minutes of work we were on our way again. We finally arrived in San Ignazio exhausted, but at least we were prepared with the name of a hostel there to stay at. It was not a very clean or nice place to be, but they had beds so we crashed for the night. In the morning Sophie and I got up early and explored the town a bit. There was not much to see, it appears to be a working class town with zero tourists and not much in the way of entertainment. Not that it mattered, as we left in the morning on yet another bus to continue on to our final destination of Chachapoyas. It took about 7 more hours and 3 buses, but we did get to Chachapoyas that afternoon.

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The main reason we opted to head to Chachapoyas was to see the nearby ruins of Kuelap, which are said to rival Machu Picchu and are not nearly as crowded. (The locals claim they are not as famous as Machu Picchu because unlike Machu Picchu they were not discovered by an American) But after arriving in town and finding a place to stay, we realized that there was a lot of amazing sights to see in the area. So our expected 1-2 days in Chachapoyas was extended to 4. We opted to stay at Hostel Revash which was recommended by Hotel Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba. It was a nice place with clean rooms and we were able to bargain down the price so it was well within our budget. The owner Carlos and his family were very nice and welcoming, although not the most organized people. Our time in Chachapoyas was spent more as tourists than as backpackers, as we went on guided tours every day we were there. The first day we went to the ruins of Kuelap which are actually a few hours away by car, but it was well worth it. They essentially built a mountain out of limestone rocks to protect their town which was enclosed in the walls. It was a really interesting archaeological site to see, and again, gave us some great views of the surrounding countryside. Plus we had a very good guide which always improves the experience. After returning from the tour, the hotel recommended a great restaurant in town and we were finally able to try Cuy, which we have been looking for since Quito. It was fantastic and we ended up eating at the restaurant every day we were in Chachapoyas. The following day we took a tour to the Cogta waterfall, which at over 700 meters is the 3rd highest waterfall in the world. (Who knew?) It was a good opportunity to get in a few hours of hiking, and the falls were really amazing. Standing at the bottom of the falls you could just feel the intense power of all the water, and we were able to get some more good photos. Then on our third day we took a tour which stopped at two different locations. We saw the really interesting Sarcophaguses of Karajia, that were built into the side of a mountain to honor the deceased, and then we went to explore a recently discovered cavern in a nearby city. I always like walking in caves and this one was really interesting. It was discovered less than 10 years ago and was used by ancient indigenous people for rituals and as a burial ground. You can still see paintings on the walls and bones scattered throughout the cave. It was actually a bit creepy. I also have to mention that the ride to see these sites was quite adventurous as the road was closed and we had to walk for a while and then catch a taxi; and even though I feel like I am getting used to driving on these roads through the Andes where you are only a foot away from plunging down the side of a mountain, this driver was so out of control I actually had to close my eyes on a couple occasions because I was sure we were going to die. Anyway, after returning to the hotel, since we still hadn´t gotten enough of our tours we had asked Carlos to arrange for us to visit a local Shaman to participate in some of their rituals and to be cleansed. We have been trying to visit a Shaman for a couple weeks now and were really looking forward to it, but unfortunately when we got out to his home we were told by someone else that he was not there. After a few phone calls and questions, we came to find out that he was in the next town over, and was much too drunk to give any cleansings that evening. So no Shaman for us, although given his condition maybe it was just as well.

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We went back to the hotel a bit disappointed, but were entertained on the way by some local legends that the hotel guy was happy to tell us about. We then played some cards and enjoyed the rest of the evening. We planned to stay in Chachapoyas the next day and visit the nearby market town of Huancas, and then take a night bus to Chiclayo which is closer to the coast. However, I was feeling a bit under the weather the next morning so I stayed at the hostel while Anastasia and our friends Sophie and Sandra went to Huancas to explore. But I will leave that trip for Anastasia to explain in the next entry.

So long for now, and we miss everyone!

Posted by Drifters 18:05 Archived in Peru Comments (4)

Travelling Around Mainland Ecuador

sunny 30 °C
View 2012 RTW on Drifters's travel map.

Hello,
It has been awhile since we have posted an entry and so much has happened! First of all we need to recount what happened upon our return from the Galapagos. Once we landed in Quito, we hopped on the taxi and then on the bus to Mindo, which is about 3 hours west of Quito. We figured a little bus journey would be a great experience for mom and dad, and give them a little glimpse into our almost everyday bus existence. Mindo is a great little place in a cloud forest with lots of opportunities to birdwatch and also to tube down the river if you are into it. We chose to stay at El Quetzal, a nice little B&B that also doubles as an organic chocolate factory. It also helped that the owner used to live in Ann Arbor and it was nice to communicate in English for a couple of days. While in Mindo Ryan and parents went on a very early bird-watching tour (I opted for a great sleep in and a mystery novel in solitude) and then we all took a yummey chocolate tour with a browney as a highlight.
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Unfortunatelly, we only could spend one full day in Mindo and had to start back to Quito for parents to catch a plane back home. After staying one more night at the spectacular hotel Quito, mom and dad went home to Michigan and we moved to a not as luxourious but still decent Travellers Inn. On the same day we also met Sophie, who we previously ran into in Belize and really had a wonderful time together. It just so happened that Sophie was volunteering in Galapagos and was back in Quito on the same day we were. That was just perfect, since we really wanted to meet up with her again and listen to all the travel stories. Monday we went and hiked volcano Cotopaxi, about a couple of hours away from Quito and had a chance to see a glacier and freeze our buns off on the top of the highest active volcano in the world! Well, not on the very top, but pretty close. Cotopaxi is surrounded by a national park with lots of nature and wildlife to see as well.
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And then we were off to the beautiful sunny Costa, Ecuadorian Pacific coast, Ruta del Sol, Ruta del Spondelus, whatever you might call it - it is beautiful and sunny there! We took a night bus to Puerto Lopez, for we did not know where to go and this was a direct route from Quito. We arrived in the morning and checked into the hostel I booked the night before. The reviews for the place were great and I do not know what happened since, because upon awakening from our after-night-bus slumber we found ourselves to be locked from outside in the not so great room! Thats the great way to make sure people won´t leave without paying! We howled for a while and almost broke the door before a fellow traveller let us out. And when I saw a giant rat sasheying across the yard I realized - this wasnt meant to be. So we moved on to a different place for the next night. And then we finally found Monte Libano, at the end of the town.
Puerto Lopez is a fishing village with a tourist problem. It was nice to see a fishing village actually live up to its name (Sorry, Hopkins!), for every morning there is a fleet of fishing boats coming from the ocean with a fresh catch, that is being sold and dealt with in a timely manner - by that I mean cooked and consumed - right there on the beach. It was a spectacular sight and we properly enjoyed it.
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Sophie took the next bus in after realizing that it sucks to be all by yourself in Quito when you can be on the coast with us. She did make a mistake of staying in Rats Inn, but quickly moved to Monte Libano after realizing how awesome our place was.
On our second day in Puerto Lopez we went to Isla de la Plata that also doubled as the ¨Poor Men´s Galapagos¨. It took a whole hour and a half to get there by boat, while watching people getting sea sick. The island was beautiful with great colonies of frigate birds, blue-footed boobies and pelicans, and we did do a little of the hiking and even snorkling. Unfortunatelly, the water was really murky (Pacific!) and we did not see really see anything.
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In our hostel we met a Canadian couple who told us about a fishing trip they did and we got all excited about the idea. So, the day after our island adventure we grabed Sophie and the Canadians and went fishing with Wiston Churchil and Miguel from Holland. What a fun day that was! We saw great colonies of blue-footed boobies right outside of Puerto Lopez and then we cought a bunch of fish! The highlight of the trip was ceviche, freshly prepared by Wiston with the fish we just cought!
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On the same trip Wiston pointed out a deserted strip of beach and - hoppa! - our next adventure was planned. Next day we got up and took a taxi to the deserted beach, and were in for a surprise. Taxi driver let us out on the side on the road and pointed to the bushes. In the bushes there was a start to a trail leading to a beach, but about 100 meters from the ocean the trail turned into mud about 2 feet deep and we almost died laughing and sinking in the stinky mud trying to cross it! We were sure glad there was an ocean at the end of it all. After washing off the mud we spent our Tuesday playing in the waves and sunbathing and Ryan found an alternative way back to the freeway, so we did not have to plow through the mud again.
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On Wednesday we decided to do some hiking in the Machallila National Park, which is about 30 minutes tuk-tuk ride from Puerto Lopez. The trail was spectacular and went trough hills and also some spectacular streches of beach, ending in Los Frailes beach. It took us about 2 hours to hike and then we spent about 3 hours whirling about in great waves. It was my favorite thing ever!

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Thursday was Sophie´s birthday and we were supposed to go for a surfing lesson at nine, but the waves were not there so we had to wait until two in the afternoon. We were glad we did, because the family of Monte Libano, Maria and Yadin cooked us a spectacular lunch of fresh fish, rice and salad in the honor of Sophie´s birthday. It was very sweet, but we would expect nothing less from that wonderful family.
Finally, 2 o´clock had arrived and we meet with yet another Miguel and went surfing. Ryan was the most succesful and I was the least, but we had great fun learning to surf! In the evening Yadin made a fire on the beach and we sat around celebrating, drinking rum and enjoying the waves breaking near by.
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Next day it was time to leave, we hugged our Monte Libano family, ran into Wiston, hugged him and hopped on the bus south to Ayampe. Ayampe is a very quet little spot with a fantastic surfing beach. There is not much there exept for three or four hostels and just as many restaurants. We stayed for one night and then moved on to Montanita, another surfing town, but much bigger and touristier. It was a little too much partying for us, so after spending the night we bused through Guayaquil to Cuenca, stayed there one night, and this morning came to Vilcabamba for some hiking and great views. Here we are now, our last days in Ecuador before crossing to Peru.
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Posted by Drifters 18:04 Archived in Ecuador Tagged beaches Comments (1)

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