Passage Note #52: Through the Back Door: Peru to Southern Ecuador/Cuenca
We had been forewarned about the difficulty of re-entering Ecuador from Peru through the remote outpost known as The Back Door - an infrequently traveled route across the border. There were several admonishments, not the least of which came from Greta, a young lithesome well-traveled German we met at Chachapoyas Backpacker Hostal who had just come through the Back Door from Ecuador into Peru. “I’ve never been so scared” she told us. “I went into a rant at the top of one of the dangerous mountain passes and demanded that the taxi driver let me out....just let me get out.....he was driving like a madman...but he wouldn’t stop the taxi”.
Despite that, we decided to be adventurous and try it for ourselves anyway. So instead of traveling the long road to Chiclayo on the coast and then taking the usual route north, we set our sights on this short cut and reaching the Ecuadorian town of Vilcabamba. From there it would be easy to get to Cuenca - our intended destination.
It turned out to be one of the gnarliest trips we have been on in a long time (Chuck says it still doesn’t compare to Afghanistan in the 70’s). In the end what made it treacherous was the intersection of a couple of variables: the roads, the drivers, the vehicles, and the weather.
We starting gathering bits and pieces of information about how to do this and were delighted to walk into the Chachapoyas Tourist office and find not only a map but a detailed chart of transportation modes, distances, and costs (included in our Trip Report). We figured it would take us 2 days, 1 overnight hotel stay at San Ignacio, and 5 modes of transportation: crowded mini-vans called combis or colectivos, station wagon car-taxis holding 4 people (but sometimes squeezing 8 illegally), a ranchero (open sided truck), a mototaxi and a regular-type bus.
We didn’t think it would be so dangerous as it would be arduous. Very few tourists come through this way and the roads are rough and in disrepair but it was safe ever since Ecuador and Peru signed a peace treaty fifteen years ago.
We ascended high into foggy cloud forests, dove down into green valleys far below, forded streams when we weren’t crossing marginal bridges the width of our vehicle, and then climbed back up to nose-bleed elevations with spectacular views. The roads were muddy one lane tracks, often blind hairpin turns with sheer drop-offs and actively crumbling edges, no such thing as a guard rail - too close to the tires to look. Road crews often delayed our progress. We got to practice our new spanish vocabulary word emblazoned on frequent road signs - “derrumba” --- rock slide. On one leg we took 4 hours just to go 30 miles. The car-taxis were the scariest - the drivers were absolutely loco crazy (just as Greta had warned) and skid along the hairpin drop-off mountainous curves at high speeds on two wheels with bald tires; the windshields looked like spider webs from rock hits......all the while blaring what Linda calls "giddyup" music with an agitated beat (a frenetic merengue) that set a tone for the way they drove. Nor does it inspire great confidence when the driver stops at a roadside shrine to make an offering to the Saint of Safe Passage.
On the second day of the trip we walked across the “international bridge” at La Balsa on the Peruvian border, and into Ecuador - the only people to cross that day. After checking in at the storefront customs office, we took a ranchero on more unpredictable roads to Zumba (not the class but the village), and boarded a bus to Vilcabamba, a town known for some of the longest life expectancies in the world. We thought it ironic that we had to die a thousand deaths before finally reaching the Valley of Longevity as Vilcabamba is called. Maybe it was a test - if you make it through the back way, you deserve to be here. Trim the herd!!
Pretty Vilcabamba valley is synonymous with tranquility and long life. Historically the playground of Incan royalty, it is presided over by a mountain called Mandango, the “Sleeping Inca” after the talisman rock silhouette on the ridge. Besides its beauty, a major incentive for its popularity is its reputation for its inhabitants’ longevity, some living up to 135 years! In 1973 a National Geographic Magazine cover story introduced these centenarians + to the world and an influx of tourism followed, leading to the gringo-ization of today. With all this talk of youthfulness, you can bet the town is full of places offering magic juju, new-agey stuff, and spas/resorts catering to the idea. Now don’t all go running out there just yet. If you look closely behind the strong hype (reputations die hard), you will find the claim disputed in many circles. The controversy stems from erroneous self-reporting by the locals about their age to better scientific analysis of the mineral-rich water, to which the long lifespans are attributed. But there is no disputing the fact that the local elderly population do display an amazing health and vigor in their old age. One reason which speaks loudly to us is the way in which the older generation is treated here - with respect and good care. Ok, so we'll spare you a diatribe about the attitude towards our elders who are generally dismissed in the U.S. Nonetheless, we did drink a hell of a lot of water while we were there!!
Six hours north of Vilcabamba by bus, the city of Cuenca was a highlight destination for us. This is a gorgeous and artsy colonial town. Linda had visited here twenty three years ago on her way to the Galapagos Islands and had fond memories of the city’s beauty......especially of standing on the green banks of the Tomebamba River below and looking up at the colonial mansions hanging from the Barranco district above. She remembered being captivated by the Todos Santos archeological excavation where a succession of Cañari, Inca and Spanish stonework nestled on top of each other. She was pleased to be back after all these years.
Situated at the confluence of four rivers surrounded by mountains, Cuenca became a favorite place of Incan conquerer Tupac Yupanqui, who created a splendid second Incan capital rivaling Cuzco. The magnificent city was destroyed before the Spanish arrived and historians speculate it may have been the legendary El Dorado, City of Gold, sought by the Spaniards.
Hostal Izhcayluma was as picturesque and serene as the village and valley of Vilcabamba itself and not too far out of the center of town - it was a nice walk and we welcomed the chance to stretch our legs. One night at dinner at the lovely hostal, we met an interesting couple from North Carolina. We were dismayed to hear they did not like Peru and couldn’t wait to leave.....the total opposite of our feelings. They recounted stories of meeting unkind people and pickpocketing. They saw a man stumble and fall down some steps and when Tom went to help him, his act of kindness was rewarded by an accomplice attempting to steal his backpack.
Reminiscences of Peruvian People
We were sad to hear of Tom and Janet's impressions. Encounters with local people strongly color every traveler’s feelings about and perceptions of a place. We reminisced about our own personal experiences in Peru during the past weeks - all so wonderfully positive. Just a few of the wonderful people we met in our travels in Peru:
• Beginning with our introduction to Lima with the crew at 511 Lima Hostal, we were made to feel like family by everyone there and are still in touch with Humberto, Alejandro, Gonzalo and Claudio through email and Facebook (see Passage Note #50).
• In Arequipa, Walter Bustamante is certified as a chef of “pre-Incan cuisine” at his restaurant called Sonncollay. Linda met him when she went exploring by herself the day Chuck stayed behind at the hostal with stomach problems. When Linda expressed a desire to eat dinner there depending on how Chuck felt, Walter took Linda’s hand, led her into the kitchen, and brewed some local tea called muñay (pre-Incan of course). He poured it into a clean beer bottle with the directive: “He ate something fried in old, bad oil. Have him drink this and he will feel better in three hours.” It did the trick! We returned the next night (our last in Arequipa) to have dinner and thank him but the restaurant was closed and we never got to see Walter again or try his cooking.
• Rosa, from the non-profit organization, Wayra, gave a workshop to the women artisans in Cocachimba. Rocio, the Limeña building a house at nearby Gocta Falls who initiated Wayra’s involvement in the community, invited Linda to meet Rosa and observe. One of the things Rosa taught the women was how to make measurements so that the sweaters they knitted had the sizes and symmetry to make them marketable to tourists (see Passage Note #51). Weeks later, Rosa surprised Linda with an email containing a photo she took of her watching the workshop and a kind offer to connect Linda with sources of Peruvian gemstones for her jewelry.
• Santos, the Marvelous Spatuletail Hummingbird guy, is as unassuming and sweet as a person could be (see Passage Note #51). We enjoyed spending time with him at the Huembo Visitors Center. He is only in his mid thirties but has been personally working to save the habitat of this endangered little bird since his awareness of a lek on his farm property ten years ago. The little bird has changed his life. He was so humble talking about this over dinner when he took us into Pomacochas town in his mototaxi. It was he who led the ornithologists to observe and later BBC’s David Attenborough to film the display of the males. Read a heartwarming interview with Santos to get a sense of him.
• Jose, the owner of Chachapoyas Backpackers Hostal, welcomed us with open arms even though we were not staying there (see Passage Note #51). He enriched our trip by introducing us to his family and delightedly regaling us with stories and films about the archeological wonders of his region. He is very proud of his Chachapoyan ancestry. We never did get the timing right to use him as a guide as we had hoped. The following week on the trail returning from our hike to Gocta Falls, we passed a group on their way down to the waterfalls. Quizzically, their leader approached us with hands covering his face. When we got closer he dropped his hands with a yelp of surprise - yup, it was Jose -- followed by a round of hugs.
• Our journey to Ecuador through the “Back Door” necessitated a transportation connection through a town called Jaen. We arrived hungry at lunchtime and walked from the collectivo stop to a little restaurant next door. We drooled at the pictures of roasted chicken (a common meal) displayed around the interior and tried to order some. The waiter kept insisting on offering us soup instead. We were a bit bewildered and couldn’t understand the jist of his response. A local woman sitting at the table next to us came over and explained in passable english that the chicken was only served in the evening and the only thing they served at lunch was soup. Well, alright then - that was disappointing but ok with us. However, the next thing we knew, she was talking to the man behind the counter and he was sending someone to buy chicken at the market to cook for us. A bit stunned, we thanked her profusely and told her how kind she was. So what did she do then? She pulled out a small woven bag with the word “Jaen” on it from her pocket, emptied it of her phone and some change, and gave it to us as “un regalo” (gift) to remember her by.
Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with old colonial buildings - almost everything interesting in Cuenca occupies an old restored mansion. Currently touted as the "hotspot of American retirement", Cuenca has the highest per capita income in Ecuador.
Wandering through the artist-laden area of Calle Larga, we happened upon an open door to a painting studio. Gustave Lopez Moreno, an older man, was moving large canvases around with the help of his son Christian in preparation for a prestigious local exhibit, and invited us in to chat and to come to the opening. He told us that the private Museo Culturas Aboriginales was owned by his sister. A little while later we did enjoy meeting Anita and found her extensive collection of indigenous artifacts interesting and well-displayed. It is surprising how many museums are privately owned in Cuenca.
Further on we came upon a richly decorated but neglected facade with a sign that said “Antiques”. Curious, we rang the bell and were buzzed in to an open courtyard with an ornate stairway leading to a balcony. There stood a well dressed elderly woman, assisted by a female companion, beckoning us to come upstairs. This was her family home where she had grown up and still lived; its exquisite original decoration and furnishings had been faithfully preserved. You were immediately transported back in time to an era of fabulous colonial wealth. But both she and the building looked terribly frail, like they were hanging on to their existence and to each other by a delicate thread...... as if any day now their bell jar might break and they would both disintegrate into dust together.
There is good eating in Cuenca as you might expect in a sophisticated bohemian city. But one of the best meals we ate in all of Ecuador was the dinner at Casa Alonzo, the restaurant in the elegant Mansion Alcazar. Every detail is attended to in this restored mansion hotel, making the setting and presentation as wonderful as the food and service. The staff at the hotel were impeccable and it was a joy to meet the chef when he made his rounds at the customer tables.
Artisan Villages Outside of Cuenca
There is a trio of three artisan villages most people visit outside of Cuenca: Gualaceo, Chordeleg, and Sigsig. We ventured out into the surrounding countryside to experience two of them - Gualaceo (35 km. east) and Chordeleg. In Gualaceo, we stopped in at the Jimenez family workshop (La Casa de la Makana) which produces exceptional Ikat textiles using original pre-Columbian techniques of spinning, dyeing, weaving, and knotting. Ikat involves tying bundles of wool yarn with waterproof fiber and dyeing it with natural colors, removing the ties, and weaving it into “macanas” (woolen cloth used by the women of the sierra) with designs of various figurines. Of course we had to have one for Linda’s burgeoning textile collection since the Jimenez fabric adorns the presidential palace in Quito. Nearby we went to an orquideario called “Ecuagenera”, Ecuador’s major orchid grower and exporter, and wandered around the beautiful indoor gardens overflowing with exotic blooms and the greenhouses packed with flasks of seedlings. The variety of endemic orchids in Ecuador (as well as the hybrids and cultivars developed here) is quite astounding.
We had mentioned to our guide Miguel that we were surprised at how quiet Cuenca was on Sundays - the streets were empty, stores and museums closed, no one at church or in the main square. He told us “That’s because everyone is in Gualaceo to eat ‘hornado’ - the best in all of Ecuador”. That’s what we did for lunch - went to the Mercado (market) where the upper floor is nothing but stall after stall of women selling hornado - pieces of delicious roasted pork with crisp crunchy skin, served with choclo corn and eaten with several kinds of stuffed tortillas (different than Mexican tortillas - more like pancakes here). We did try this dish again in several other cities in Ecuador and never did find a match for the flavor in Gualaceo.
We visited Choreleg, a picturesque village specializing in jewelry since before the Incas arrived. Although we were not interested in purchasing any, we were surprised how much we enjoyed the quaint atmosphere of this town with its lush main plaza and colorful church The main shopping street entering from the highway is lined with street lights from which giant filigree earrings dangle....the characteristic design found in Chordeleg. Even if buying jewelry is not on the shopping agenda it is a fun stop.
Cuenca is the epicenter for the world production of the misnamed Panama Hat...... which is not Panamanian at all but Ecuadorian. Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (Toquilla-Straw Hat) is the politically correct name if you talk to an Ecuadorian and its real origin was in a town called Montecristi (the hats are actually known as Monecristi's to connoisseurs), located in the coastal mountains not far from Bahia de Caraquez (where Jacaranda is parked).
Erroneously known worldwide as Panama Hats, these popular sombreros are made of a fiber grown near Montecristi called toquilla, shipped to Cuenca, and manufactured here. They were popularized (& misnamed)
when they were exported via Panama by Spanish entrepreneurs in the 1800’s and the misnomer stuck during the Panama Canal era. There is a Panama Hat Museum in Cuenca where you can watch a demonstration of how they are made. The third village mentioned above, Sigsig, also specializes in them. So much goes into making a hat (some weavers work only by moonlight) that the best “superfino” quality can go for a few hundred dollars - and a lot higher outside of Ecuador. Totally justifiable considering the work involved.
Back to Jacaranda....and Family
The few days we had in Cuenca did not do it justice but we were anxious to return to Bahia de Caraquez, not only to check on Jacaranda, but to finally reconnect with Chuck’s sister Maureen and brother-in-law Buzz on their boat, Encore, waiting on the mooring behind us at Puerto Amistad. We haven't seen them in 5 years since they sailed away from us in Mexico to be in Ecuador/Panama waters. We narrowly missed them when they arrived in Ecuador in July, on the same day we departed for our trip to Peru. So we took a van to Guayaquil and then a bus to Bahia, arriving in the evening just in time for joyful hugs and a reunion dinner together! In between catching up and boat projects we are already planning our next trip with them to northern and central Ecuador.