It feels like we've been covering a lot of ground in the last two weeks. After spending over five weeks in tiny Ecuador, we realized we needed to get moving if we want to make Patagonia by early October. Baños was pretty much the last place we wanted to spend time in in Ecuador and the first place we wanted to see in Peru was Huaraz; the two are separated by about 600 miles apart (as the crow flies) and a border crossing. We knew we were in for dozens of hours of buses (it ended up being 34 hours), so we picked a few places along the way that seemed to make good stopping points and started on our journey.
Our first stop was only two hours away from Baños: a town called Riobamba. From there begins a supposedly scenic and exhilirating train ride called the Devil's Nose Train. However, when we arrived we found out that much of the route is currently under construction and we'd have to take a bus two hours away to catch the only part of the line that is in operation. This meant that taking the train would only be a scenic ride and not a form of transportation taking us further south and closer to Peru, so we opted not to do it. We left Riobamba the next morning and headed south to a town called Loja, stopping only to switch buses in Cuenca-- 11 hours of buses in total. The plan was to spend one night and the following day (which happened to be my birthday) in Loja, and then get on an overnight bus that would cross the border into Peru that night, arriving in Piura, Peru the next morning.
Arriving in Loja on the Friday night of not only a national holiday weekend (Ecuador's Independence Day), but also the start of a local holiday, we expected to find some action, or at least people out in the streets. The town was bewilderingly dead. We found a hotel that wasn't fully booked after stopping into a few and then set out to find dinner. The few restaurants that we could find were either closed or almost totally empty, so we settled on some chifa (Chinese food), and hoped we wouldn't wake up with food poisoning. The next morning (no food poisoning!), we checked out of the hotel room, left our backpacks behind the desk, and decided to check out a few of the parks on the outskirts of the city. To make a long story short, even though the commercial markets and all the stores were packed with people, all the cafes, sites, and parks we tried to visit were either closed or completely empty. The one place we did end up spending a bit of time in was a park that had llamas hanging around the paintball area (?!) and a fenced off section containing two ostriches. After a few hours of somewhat aimless wandering and admitting that we just didn't really "get" this city, we finally headed to a restaurant for a snack. It was only 3:00 pm and we had eight more hours to kill in a town that didn't even seem to have an open cafe where we could kill time. I began to feel as though this place was boring me to death, and if it hadn't been my birthday and our last day in Ecuador, it might not have mattered too much, but I guess I didn't want to end our five weeks in Ecuador or my 31st year on a bad note. So I said to Nick, "Why don't we just go to Vilcabamba for the night and rescue this awful day? We can sit by a pool, go out to a decent dinner and just go to Peru 24 hours later than planned."
An hour later, we had grabbed our backpacks from our hotel, switched our bus tickets to Peru for the next night, and gotten on a bus to Vilcabamba, which is only an hour south of Loja. I had heard Vilcabamba was somewhat of an old hippie hang out, but most of the hostels had pools and the weather was supposed to be good there, so I didn't really care too much what the town really had to offer as long as we got out of lame Loja. We arrived into the tiny town and immediately spotted groups of tie-dye-clad ex-pats of all ages playing guitar, devil's sticks, and poi in the main square. This is usually an indication that there's a good vegan restaurant or at least a yogurt and granola shop in the area, so I laughed and took it as a good sign. Our hotel had a pool, sauna, and five small hot tubs, which we immediately got into. Over the next 24 hours, we ate tacos, had the best soft serve ice cream I've ever had in my life, played foosball, hiked through a nature preserve, hung out poolside, and tried Snake Juice. Overall, I'm glad we went there and ended our Ecuador leg on a relaxing and fun note. However, unless you're in the area and have time to kill, or have always wanted to learn how to hackey sack, I think Vilcabamba (and of course Loja, ugh) is pretty skippable, especially compared to the rest of lovely Ecuador!
Next up: Peru. Our overnight bus from Loja to Piura stopped at the Macará-La Tina border at about 3:00 am, formalities lasted about an hour, and off we were to Piura... or so we thought. About 40 minutes before the bus was supposed to arrive, it stopped, we were abrubtly woken up, and people got off the bus, so we did too. We were immediately confronted with five loud and pushy cab drivers, asking us where we wanted to go. "We need a bus to Chiclayo," we said sleepily while getting our luggage out from under the bus. Before we knew it, we were in a cab paying our last US Dollars (which are used in Ecudor) to a cab driver to drive us two blocks to the bus station where buses depart to Chiclayo. It started to dawn on us during this short cab ride that we were not in Piura, as we looked around the streets, which were unpaved, and as I glanced at my map of Piura and realized that it didn't match where we were. Ugh: we had gotten off the bus a city too early, it was 6:30 am, I didn't know what town we were actually in, and we didn't have a cent of Peruvian cash on us. Not knowing what city you're in can be a bit discomforting: you don't know whether you're in a sketchy or safe part of town, and (concerning for us) you don't know where the ATM is. The bus company that runs to Chiclayo wouldn't accept credit cards (a recurring challenge in South America), so we were going to be stuck there until we found an ATM where we could withdraw Peruvian currency. So we reluctantly hopped on a moto-taxi with all our stuff and asked the driver to take us to the nearest ATM. Half an hour later we were back at the bus station with tickets to Chiclayo in hand. Turns out we were in Sullana, a small city about 40 minutes north of Piura. We didn't get mugged, the bus station sold very good banana chips, and an hour and a half later, we were on a bus to Chiclayo. Bottom line: buses stop in way more cities than just the destination. Ask a local before you de-board the bus, especially if you're half asleep
We spent less than 24 hours in Chiclayo, a coastal city in northern Peru. Peru's coast is not the most scenic: it's a desert, and during about half the year it is overcast, but it doesn't rain. This makes for a very drab and depressing landscape, at least during winter (i.e., now). To add insult to injury, the desert on both sides of the Panamerican Highway, which runs along the coast, is extremely littered. The area around Chiclayo has some Inca and pre-Inca ruins, but we did not take the time to explore them. It is also known for a type of sweet made with layers of shortbread-like cookies filled with manjar (dulce de leche). The city's streets are full of little shops selling different variations of this basic recipe. I'd say this sweet is probably the highlight of Chiclayo, at least for us!
The next day we were off to Trujillo, the next big city south on the Panamerican. We had decided to set up a tour of Chan Chan, a huge pre-Inka adobe city just outside of Trujillo. Chan Chan itself was interesting, at least in terms of its sheer size and its bird and fish motifs. Plus, we were blessed with the precense of a French guy who was dealing with gringo stomach and kept vomiting througout the tour. Charming! Poor guy...
After the tour and a stroll through Trujillo's attractive colonial center, we boarded a bus for Huaraz, finally on our way to our first "real" destination in Peru! More on that later...