We crossed from Peru to Ecuador at the little border town of Macará, and instantly everything seemed different. The view outside the window all the way through Peru had been an endless expanse of barren scrub interrupted only by the occasional ten-foot pile of garbage. In Ecuador, it was suddenly absolutely beautiful, mile after mile of green rolling hills, craggy mountains and spetacular canyons.
Suddenly gone was the weight on our shoulders and the tightness in our chests. Gone were the armies of touts trying to sell us finger puppets, free movie passes, paintings of llamas, and silly Peruvian hats. (We may or may not have bought a couple of the hats.) Gone were the squads of goons trying to muscle us into any bar we walked past.
Haggling: gone. Constantly having to fight over the check to keep from getting randomly overcharged: gone. Children sprinting into frame just before you took a picture, and then asking you to pay them for taking their picture: gone.
Peru had been amazing, at times spectacular. But it had also been stressful, somewhat unfriendly, and had quite the reputation for violent crime.
As we crossed the border into Ecuador, we exhaled in relief.
A large portion of this relief can be attributed directly to Piura, our last stop in Peru.
Most people cross from the Peruvian city of Tumbes, along the coast. But we'd heard one too many horror stories about corrupt border guards and taxi muggings, and so we were opting to take the bus from Piura to the Ecuadorian city of Loja. And so our last impression of Peru was the city of Piura.
Friends, let us not mix words: Piura is a shithole. Imagine a large city, one with filled with tall buildings, and with dark alleyways between those buildings. Now take away the buildings, and there you have Piura in a nutshell.
There are no traffic lights, so everyone leans on their horn as they pass through an intersection. The result of this is that it is the most stressful, noisy city we've ever been in. Our hotel had an armed guard out front, and after we got lost at night in a decidedly unfriendly part of town, we were happy for it.
So we didn't much like Piura. We were quite pleased, the next morning, to board our bus to Ecuador.
1. Everyone is so friendly here.
Really. Virtually everyone in Ecuador we've met has had a quick, warm smile and an easygoing manner. Every time a bus picks up a new passenger, they almost without fail flash a broad grin at everyone else on the bus and call out a heartfelt buenos dias, to which you can't help but respond in kind. It's disarmingly easy to fall in love with a country that encourages that kind of warmth between strangers. If I got onto a bus in Philadelphia and hollered "Good afternoon!" to everyone, they'd all think I was crazy.
2. The official currency of Ecuador is the American dollar.
After months and months of pesos and soles, it's weird using US money again. Three years ago, the government here instituted a pollicy of "dollarization", switching from the heavily devauled sucre to the greenback. They use American coins, too, but also mint their own coins, which they use interchangeably. Interestingly, the US $1 coin is in widespread use here. It was introduced a few years ago in the US and I think I only ran into it there two or three times, because (I was told) collectors kept snatching them up whenever they were minted. Now I'm starting to think the reason you don't see dollar coins in the US is because they're all down here in Ecuador.
3. Every bus in Ecuador sings the same song.
I don't know what it is about the buses here, but they do something I never noticed in Argentina, Uruguay, or Peru. Whenever a bus here changes gears, it makes a high-pitched noise, so that in a city you're constantly surrounded by calls of brrrrrrrmm-PEEEEOW!-brrrrrrrm (and so on).
4. Amusing signage.
We've seen more entertaining signs and labels in Ecuador than we had before. One store proudly boasted "Your satisfaction is our compromise!" (truth in advertising at last). A restaurant was pleased to offer us "lukewarm eggs" (somehow the English side of the menu said that when it meant to say "scrambled"). My personal favorite is a tour company sporting an enormous sign that read "We speak English, German, and Australian!"
5. The importance of a machete.
We've spent some time in the jungle (a subject we'll address in future posts). The most important thing I think I learned there is that I need a machete. Every man, woman, and child living in the rain forest carries a 3' machete with them at all times. During our several bus rides through the jungle, we became quite used to having gaunt figures emerge from the dense foliage looking just a bit like a slasher-film villian. Rather then quite sensibly driving away from them in terror, the bus would let them on, and then they'd smile and say buenos dias, lay the machete at our feet, and sit on the floor for the ride. Old women, small children: everyone has a machete. I'd have bought one myself, just to fit in, but I suspect I couldn't get it through airport security.
After grabbing a night's sleep in Loja, we headed due south, to the lovely village of Vilcabamba. Vilcabamba is a gentle, quiet mountain town that reminded us just a bit of our beloved El Bolsón, and we were determined to spend a few days there doing nothing but relaxing and getting our tans back into shape (other than a few days in Huacachina, it had been months since our skin had seen much sun).
Vilcabamba is a town of a few hundred people and about as many horses and donkeys. It's nestled amongst a clutch of picturesque mountains, in a place known locally as the "Valley of Longevity". Legend has it that people living there routinely make it to their twelfth decade, and the mountain spring water produced there ("Vilcagua") bears the photo of one of the town's more wizened residents. It's a special place.
We fell in love with it pretty quickly, and wound up spending almost a week there.
Vilcabamba is about six blocks square, surrounded by farms and cabins and forested hills. At the center of it all is the town square, where we developed the habit of sitting on a bench every afternoon and enjoying some ice cream together. The square is surrounded on all four sides by a collection of endearingly motely restaurants and shops.
A half a block to the north is a restaurant/hostel called El Jardin Escondido ("The Hidden Garden"). The hostel was our home for the six days we spent in Vilcabamba, and we ate every single meal at the restaurant.
They say that half those who live in Vilcabamba are people who visited the town, fell in love with it, and never left. Such was the case with Marcus and Abby, who moved to Ecuador from Mexico to found the Hidden Garden: Marcus and his wife run the hostel, and Abby works her magic at the restuarant.
While we were there, we went through a list of every one of the places we've stayed during our trip (30 or so of them) and ranked them all. We decided that the Hidden Garden comes in at #2, second only to our cabin in El Bolsón. It was perfect.
The place had absolutely everything we could have wanted: a lovely, light, airy room with the most beautiful bathroom we've ever had; a giant, lagoon-shaped swimming pool right outside the door of our room; a massive, jungle-like garden (it's called "hidden garden" for a reason); a mouth-watering Mexican restaurant just moments away; two incrediby friendly resident cats and an adorable resident german sheperd; a free breakfast that is leagues beyond any other free breakfast we've ever had (including two eggs cooked any way you want); a private jacuzzi that you had to make a reservation to use (we reserved it from 9-10pm every night); the list goes on and on and on.
We once again found ourselves in the company of new friends that felt like old friends. We were joined at breakfast one morning by an energetic German man named Klaus, who had been travelling off and on for more than a decade and entertained us endlessly with stories of his adventures in Africa, Asia, and South America. Soon the three of us met an Englishman named Michael, at the beginning of his own South American adventure (ever the evangelicals, we tried to convince him he needed to visit Argentina). They were good people, and we miss them both.
After six days, we emerged from Vilcabamba rested, fed, tanned, and ready to face the rest of Ecuador. Klaus and Michael had recommended we sort out a boat for Galapagos sooner rather than later, so we returned to Loja and booked ourselves an overnight bus to Quito.
It had been less than a week, and we were already in love with Ecuador. It has now been five weeks more, and Ecuador is in danger of nudging out Argentina for our favorite country. This really is a special place.
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