Posts Tagged With: Cuenca Ecuador

Izhcayluma: The Inca Gods Must Be Crying

Izhcayluma, now known as Vilcabamba, was a playground for Inca royalty

Waiting sometimes gives us a great deal of time to think. But we as a species hate waiting. Impatience takes over and crankiness takes hold. In extreme situations anger builds and it’s unleashed.

On a long journey you have to learn to keep cool. Patience. Use the wait time in productive ways.

Ten minute wait for a taxi, the hotel manager said. Immediately I wondered how I could productively spend those 10 minutes. Ah, I need the exact address of the hostel in Vilcabamba where I was headed.  A couple of days earlier in Cuenca I had seen a hotel brochure. The brochure to the Izhcayluma Hosteria contained not only the address but a map with specific directions. It won’t take more than 10 minutes to walk over to the Cigale Hostel  and Restaurant where they had a bunch of the brochures on a table. I told the Victoria Hotel manager I’d be right back and headed over to the Cigale. Good thing I did.

My original plan to get to Vilcabamba from Cuenca was to take a taxi from the Victoria Hotel to the airport ($2.50). From the Cuenca airport, just across the street, I would then take a minivan that carries up to 15 passengers to Loja ($12). Then from Loja, hop on another bus for a 45-minute ride to Vilcabamba ($3). It would have taken my 7 hours to get to Vilcabamba at a total cost of $17.50.

The 150-year-old Vilcabamba Church in the town square.

But as I reached for an Izhcayluma brochure at the Cigale, I noticed posted on the wall a flier for a minivan shuttle service from the Cigale directly to the Izhcayluma. For $15 and in only four hours I would be delivered directly to my hotel in Vilcabamba! No need to taxi to the airport in Cuenca. No Need to change buses. My trip from Cuenca to Vilcabamba shortened by 3 hours! Obviously a better deal.

The waiter at the Cigale handed me the restaurant phone to make the reservation. Done. I rushed back over to the Victoria to announce my change of plans to the front desk. When I got there he had already placed my backpack in a waiting taxi. I approached the taxi, gave him .50 cents for his wait and told him I no longer needed his services. Off to the Cigale I went to wait for the shuttle to Vilcabamba. Departure time, 1:45 p.m. It was 12 noon. More waiting. I fired up the laptop.

In no time the driver of the van and his assistant entered the Cigale. They asked if I was going to Vilcabamba. They said we’d be ready to go shortly since I was the only passenger. Really? An entire van all to myself? What luxury!

Keep in mind that travel in South America and many other developing parts of the world are often cramped, smelly, dirty and uncomfortable. This was a major score. In three months of traveling across the continent I had never had the pleasure of having transportation all to myself. This was heaven.

Tire goes flat during trip from Cuenca to Vilcabamba.

And heaven it was. The journey to Vilcabamba was a real pleasure. I spent it chatting with the couple – the driver and his assistant. They told me stories about Vilcabamba. How “the gringos” had taken over the town. How the village was a mecca for all sorts of kooks, including a man who swears the world will end in 2012 and convinced a visiting friend to help him build an arc. The man maintains that the entire world except Vilcabamba will be destroyed. Why Vilcabamba? They did not know. But that’s the reason he came to the village. I really want to meet this man and see his arc, which I’m told is complete. He is currently stocking it with food and plans to start adding animals – two of every kind, of course – as the end of the world grows closer. I really want to meet this guy! Then again, maybe not.  I’ve already met my share of natural healers, tarot card readers, hug circles, self-described Messiahs, hippies, potheads, lunatics, dropouts, and yes, retired gringos who make up more than three-quarters of Vilcabamba’s population. Needless to say, English is spoken here in abundance.

My private cabana space overlooks the mountains. The town is below, deep in a valley

Ecuadorians in Vilcabamba have grudgingly embraced the gringos. They include among “los gringos” Europeans, mostly Germans. But all foreigners to them are gringos. The gringos came to town and took over. They began to buy up property. A steal in their minds, but to Vilcabambans, they paid way too much. That drove up land and home prices. And drove out the locals. Soon, restaurants, shops and grocery stores that catered to the specific needs of the gringos began to crop up. Canned foods on shelves. Processed foods. Signs in restaurants and around town in English. Businesses geared toward tourism and touring. The entire make of the town rapidly changed. And the gringos are still coming. A huge development just for the gringos – no way locals can afford such home prices – is being built just outside of Vilcabamba. It’s Little U.S.A. in Ecuador. And the town that is known worldwide as a place where people lived well beyond 100 years of age is losing that. Their longevity was largely credited to their simple lifestyle, the natural foods they ate and the purity of the local water they drank. They’ve now started to eat and drink what the gringos eat and drink and it is taking its toll. Someday, Vilcabamba will no longer be able to claim its place in the world as the valley of longevity.

Unlike some other road trips, I arrived in Vilcabamba without any incident to report. We had a flat tire outside the town, I helped the driver change the tire and in 25 minutes we were on our way.

I settled in to my rustic cabin and marveled at the landscape. Izhcayluma – the name the Incas gave the place before it became Vilcabamba with the arrival of the Spaniards – you are breathtaking. No wonder so many outsiders have come here. And yet I can’t help but wonder if the Inca Gods are in tears over what this ancient and majestic land has now become.

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Vilcabamba, Ecuador

At Zoociedad in Cuenca with Mariutsi, Veronica, Lindsay and Paul. Cuenca was fun and interesting, but time to move on

Another hopefully not too crazy bus trip through the Andes Mountains. It’s been raining nonstop for the last two days and that can only mean one thing: rocks falling and landslides. This time I am taking a minivan, known locally as  a colectivo. It carries about 12 passengers and if you’re lucky it will be half that many so you can spread out. But more often than not it’s full and stuffed and stuffy. But it’s quicker than many of the buses that stop all along the way in every small town. At $12 it’s rather steep for Ecuador. I’m used to paying $2 to $6 for intercity transportation here. But I’m getting a late start and for that I must pay the price.
My destination is Vilcabamba, Ecuador, which has a large concentration of people more than 100 years old. Some say it’s the clean air. Some say it’s the lifestyle. I intend to find out.
I will actually try to relax in Vilcabamba – to regenerate. I am staying at the Izhcayluma Hosteria, which bills itself as a resort for backpackers. In other words, luxury at an affordable price. Here they will pamper backpackers. I plan to stay three days and probably won’t resist the beautiful trails and may well leave to the pool to go for a hike in the mountains. And of course I still have Peru ahead, much walking and hiking in my future.
Check back here. I am packing my overstuffed backpack now. I’ll tell you all about Vilcabamba and my journey there in the next post. Unless the land comes a sliding down 🙂

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My Nomadic Network

I have become them.

I am them.

I am part of it.

I am it.


I am now part of that loosely connected network of travelers with their entire lives stuffed in backpacks, roaming the world and bumping into each other in new wondrous places, in different countries and cities, across new oceans, mountains and deserts. We share phenomenal moments and fun here and there then pack up and part ways after days but sometimes weeks.

Our conversations are almost entirely about where we’ve been and where were going, and casually share itineraries sometimes with the aim to meet again elsewhere. E-mail, Facebook and other travel and social networks keep us connected.

After three months of travel it occurred to me today that I had unwittingly joined this global network of nomads. I was having breakfast in The Rock, a restaurant on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos when a couple from London, England, entered. I looked at them and thought they looked familiar. They sat at the table next to mine and the woman immediately made the statement they had seen me several weeks earlier in Ecuador‘s capital city, Quito. I confirmed that indeed that was the case. We chatted about our travels past and future. Their itinerary was very similar to mine. They had left Quito, traveled to Guayaquil then the Galapagos and now were in route to Peru and onward south to other countries in South America.

During breaks in our conversation I looked out the large windows of the restaurant – a favorite hangout for foreigners on their way to someplace else – and in a span of less than an hour  recognized several other familiar faces. These were individuals I had seen and interacted with in other parts of Ecuador and Colombia.

Paul and I in Cajas National Park near Cuenca, Ecuador. Another time, another place, another country

We were all obviously on the same track, weighted down with backpacks. A nomadic network of  travelers saying hello, saying goodbye, and hello again.

In Cuenca, Ecuador, my current location, this network was evident as I exited La Cigale restaurant. A man who held the door for me asked if I had been in the Galapagos about two or three weeks ago. I responded in the affirmative and he said he had seen me on the island. A few more steps through Cuenca’s colonial center and across the street I saw three people I had met two months earlier in Taganga, a fishing village in Colombia. We had sat on the beach there having beers and watching a spectacular sunset. These sort of encounters have been repeated over and over again in just these short three months. Imagine how many people I will have met on the road  and new experiences shared over three years of travel?

One such person is Paul Ford of Austin, Texas. I met cool Texas dude Paul in Cartagena, Colombia, where we chilled, discussed travel plans, partied and got drunk together (celebrating the birthday of another person – Luis – whom I had previously met in Barranquilla, Colombia). Paul and I had some good and crazy times in our travels together and apart.

I left Paul in Cartagena after that crazy night of celebrating Luis’ birthday and didn’t know if I’d see him again. But this is the network and somehow it works to bring travelers together. He sent me an e-mail on the couchsurfing Web site. He said he was in Cuenca, which I had already decided would be my next destination once I left the Galapagos and returned to the mainland.

Now, Paul has sort of become my Cuenca sidekick. We have spent countless hours checking out the city, hiking in Cajas National Park, and meeting new people in the nomadic network. Through Paul  I have met others and introduced him to others. And so the network goes and grows. We meet, we greet, we travel and we meet again. Long term travel has created this global network of friends, all with people, places and many things in common. It’s been simply fantastic.

Natalie of Paris, France, my fellow travel companion for a day, tries to decide on a purchase in Sigsig, Ecuador.

The nomadic network works. For the most part, it consists of some of the most open-minded, coolest, most resourceful and resilient people on the planet. Traveling for months or years with everything you own in a backpack is not easy or glamorous. Getting from one place to another takes an awful lot of logistics, energy and will to continue. Most of us are traveling on a budget and sometimes end up sleeping in some scary places. When I’m not sleeping on somebody’s couch through couchsurfing, I am in a hostel or hotel or camping. Some hostels, well, let’s just say you get what you pay for. In Cuenca, after leaving my CS hosts’ swanky digs about 45 minutes by bus outside the city, I landed in a smelly, moldy hostel that lacked housekeeping. The house maid, I was told, simply didn’t show up for work. Sometimes you do what you have to do to stay within your budget. And sometimes because you’ve penny-pinched so much you can afford to splurge a bit, if nothing else, for your own health, both physical and mental.

My smelly hostel cost $10 a night. My current digs, The Victoria Hotel, costs $40 a night, and it’s worth every penny. It has afforded me a good night’s rest, a clean bathroom, a hot shower, and a place to take care of other important business to carry on traveling.

I love my nomadic network. When I leave Cuenca I will probably see Paul and other travelers in some other country, sharing new experiences with new people, largely locals, which also is fantastic. The network is what makes the journey fun and rewarding. It’s about people. It’s about some of the coolest people. It’s me.

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