Friday, Feb 9, 2017
Vilcabamba: A Unique Ecuadorian Experience
What a great trip we had in Vilcabamba! The beauty of the mountains and valleys surrounding this quirky little place was some of the most beautiful I have seen in Ecuador so far. I say it’s quirky because of the expats here.
It is hard to describe but there is this air of 70s “flower-power” where many Gringos around the central plaza wear tie dyed shirts and dresses, walk the streets barefoot, and carry their small kids in one arm or on their shoulders. Most of the men I saw have beards and pony tails and, the older ones, look like Woodstock refugees. It is definitely a theme here in Vilcabamba.
I also noticed there are “pockets” of Gringos out in the middle of nowhere. During our long bike ride we came across some of them. These people seem to be seeking isolation and solitude I guess. The beauty that surrounds them is incredible, so I can see why someone might like it. For me, it was a little too much off the beaten path.
Vilcabamba’s Central Plaza
The town of Vilcabamba is interesting to look at and has an easy feel to it. The school kids were out and playing in the plaza which has a large fountain in its center. Some of these kids had small buckets they filled with water from the fountain pool, and then threw it on their classmates. When the buckets just didn’t seem like enough to do the job, a couple of kids would grab another classmate and just drop him or her in the fountain itself. It was entertaining to sit and watch.
The main church (top pic) is located at the Central Plaza in Vilcabamba. It’s bell tower rang every morning at 6 am calling people to mass…then again five minutes later. The sound was so clear it was as if it was ringing just outside my hotel room door…a full two blocks away. I admit, I wasn’t having very spiritual thoughts.
The Midas Touch restaurant has outdoor tables that line the covered patio overlooking the plaza. The food is pretty good and it seems to be a favorite hangout among the local Gringo community. Everytime we walked by, or ate there, it was filled with people.
My family, with Michelle, walked the small town and checked out the buildings, the rivers, and enjoyed the surrounding beauty. The mountains and their lush green foliage is so close to town; it creates immense texture in the vistas in every direction.
When we arrived the weather was overcast but warm. It felt good to be out of the chill normally present this time of day in Cuenca.
A little boy was playing at the river’s edge while his mother watched him from behind. We passed old broken down adobe walls being overcome with green growth.
We found a covered bridge crossing the river running through Vilcabamba.
Notice in the mural above it continues onto the sidewalk forming a mouth and jawline. The laundry hanging along the front of the house added a splash of color set against a green mountainside background. The view from one of the streets looked out toward this green majestic beauty.
Vilcabamba Countryside by Mountain Bike
We decided to do a mountain bike ride beginning at the top of a mountain in a national park outside Vilcabamba. The ride would end up being 47 km (~30 miles) back to town. Easy right? Well my butt didn’t agree, nor did my quads after more than 5 hours of cycling through the hills. It was a phenomenal experience none the less.
The tour company drove us to the top of the mountain. It was a dirt road, some places covered with loose rock, other places covered in water and mud. Heidi was getting very anxious as we drove to our starting point.
Since her scooter accident and subsequent shoulder reconstruction, Heidi has been very timid about doing anything where she might wipe out and injure her shoulder. Today she faced her fears and rode the mountain trails like a champ! I’m so proud of her.
Our route took us along mountain sides with breathtaking views, through small towns and back road villages, and along fast running rivers. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of “uphill” climbs we encountered, but even when I had to walk my bike up a few times, it gave me the breather I needed to keep going.
It had rained hard the previous two nights and in some areas along the road there were landslides. In one case a backhoe was slowly removing the large rocks and dirt that completely blocked through-traffic. Fortunately we were able to carry our bikes across the blocked road. The beauty along our route just never quit.
Off the Beaten Path
It was fun meandering our way through the dirt paths, roads, and small highways. Our tour operator gave us a map he drew out on a small piece of paper. It was grossly off scale but the main points and turns were obvious enough that we never got ourselves lost.
As we drove through one small town, Heidi was hit with a water balloon from boys at a house along the main road. It was actually a good throw for them to hit her. She was so hot it was a welcomed refreshment on her body. I have decided that this is probably a regular weekend activity for the kids…Splash-O-Gringo as we drive by on our rented bikes.
The ride did become gruelling toward the end. The uphill roads were steep and my leg muscles were cramping big time. I tried to stay hydrated but it obviously wasn’t enough. Fortunately the day remained overcast for the most part. Had it been full sun I think we may have been in trouble.
We had an opportunity to hire a guide to follow us in a truck the entire way. It was an additional $50, and as a group we decided we didn’t need a guide. For me it had the feel of too much safety, and also too easy to bail if it got hard. On the other hand, never having rode the route and not being a “biker”, it may have made good sense to have back up available.
Almost Back to Vilcabamba
We were lucky though because if the temperature would have been any higher, heat exhaustion was a real possibility. Heidi was already showing signs of it toward the end of our ride. I still haven’t come to appreciate how hot it can be here in Ecuador and the toll it takes on the body over an extended period of time. Fortunately our water lasted, although we did get close to the end of it.
We finally came across a Tienda with cold water.. and cold beer a few miles from town. We were all feeling the exhaustion of our ride and decided to take a break, hydrate, and eat some food we had been carrying with us. It was a welcome respite. I downed two bottles of cold water and a beer while I looked at the colorful house and beautiful mountainside across the street from us.
Getting back on the bike after our break was painful. My butt hurt so bad I couldn’t sit on the seat and my quads were spasming when I stood up on the pedals. We were only a couple of miles outside of town and I wondered if I was going to be able to ride back in. Slowly the spasms stopped and I was able to pedal with some form of rhythm.
After about 5 and 1/2 hours we pulled back into the bike shop from where we had departed earlier that morning. I felt good. I love an adventure and overcoming the difficulties it presents. We all did great, no one got hurt, and I pushed myself to my physical limits. What a great experience!
When it came time to leave Vilcabamba and head home to Cuenca we found a new way to do it other than the bus! We hired a taxi to drive us to Loja. It was about a 30-40 min drive and all 5 of us were able to squeeze into the taxi-truck. No yellow cabs here, only white and green trucks are used in Vilcabamba to move people around. The cost from Vilcabamba to Loja was $20.
In Loja our driver dropped us off at Elite Tours. This van service charges $12 per person for the trip between Loja and Cuenca, and drive time is 3 hours 15 minutes. I believe a van leaves Loja every hour.
Our van was very comfortable, seating 1 person in the front, with two rows of three “bucket-type” seats behind. In our van we had the five of us plus one other passenger, who sat in the front seat. There was plenty of leg room and all the seats had head rests.
The driver was focused, didn’t drive insanely, and we were in Cuenca in three hours. This service runs daily between Cuenca and Loja. Elite Tours office in Cuenca is located on Remigio Crespo. Vilcabamba is a great get-away from Cuenca and using this method to get there and back saves hours and hassle, making the trip nothing to dread.
Heidi got the bug while in Vilcabamba that I’ve been dealing with . We both have spent the rest of this week trying to get over whatever it is. It is annoying to say the least.
We did have our first dentist visit in Ecuador this week. It was to get our teeth cleaned. Yeah I know, it’s been a year…gross. At least we have good tooth brushes and dental floss. Anyway, the dentist is the one who does the cleaning here. How long has it been since the dentist has done cleanings in the US?
My dentist didn’t seem to speak much (if any) English, but I know the drill. (Haha…that was an unintended pun.) The cleaning was basically done the exact same way as in the States, maybe a little messier with water flying across my face and rolling down my neck. The end result however was good, and all of us now have clean and shiny teeth. 😀 …and it was $24.50 per person.
Heidi and I head to Olon Saturday to look for a place to live along the coast, somewhere in this area. Wish us luck! We are supposed to be out of our current apartment in Cuenca March 1st.