Friday, June 07, 2019

Into Ecuador

From Chachapoyas the closest border crossing into Ecuador is the one at La Balsa, the least visited of the 3 crossings between the 2 countries. It is so rarely used that until late last year there was no cross border transportation service and the only way to and through the border was by hopping along using a series of local vans and rancheros (trucks with benches), until eventually getting far enough into Ecuador to find the regular bus services. We started on this route by van but eventually caught up to the one and only daily bus across the border and took it the rest of the way to make our lives a little easier. I don't think this service will last very long, we were 2 of the 7 total crossing the border on the bus. So quiet is this crossing, literally a bridge across a river, that there was only 1 little shop open and nowhere to change money. I didn't get the impression that anyone wanted to really inspect us very hard either other than the nurse standing by with yellow fever vaccinations. She got 2 people from our bus, but not us.
The area is beautiful, and we had descended enough that we were officially in the Amazonas region of both Peru and Ecuador and the jungle vegetation in the narrow valley we were following convinced us of this as well. The Ecuadorian road from the border was a narrow dirt road with only occasionally enough width for 2 vehicles to pass and barely enough room for our bus to turn the corners without plummeting a long way down. It was nerve-wracking to say the least!
Fortunately we had the wisdom to only book a ticket to the first small town, called Zumba, still barely inside Ecuador and called it a night, having finally arrived just after dark. Driving those kinds of roads in the dark seems like a very bad idea.
The next day the long journey continued, winding slowly up and down and around the mountains, finally gaining enough altitude that the jungle disappeared and we were back into our more familiar Andean environment. The views were beautiful and the road got progressively better as we went along until we could finally breathe easily once again. We passed through the popular hippy destination of Vilcabamba, the only really popular area in this corner of Ecuador, continuing to the regional hub of Loja. We only just passed through Loja and changed buses but it was a slap in the face after Peru and Bolivia. It looked civilized and organized. Were we in the first world again? Officially no, but there is a huge, very noticeable difference when you get to Ecuador. In some ways at least. Things looked a little less run down and more organized with more rules and more money. No doubt that is not the case everywhere but it was our first impression and it generally held true from what we saw. It has a higher standard of living. It wasn't all for the better though. Prices were higher (as expected) but easily the most annoying change is that buses in Ecuador don't have working toilets on board. Sure, the distances generally aren't as far but 5 hours without stopping is a long time when you gotta go... Suddenly we found ourselves back on water rations again, intentionally dehydrating ourselves every other day in preparation for another bus ride.
From Loja we got a bus to Zaruma, our actual destination. Nobody we have mentioned Zaruma to has ever heard of it. Perfect :) We are still very much on the "gringo trail" in general but do things in weird enough ways that we haven't been swamped with other travelers most of the time. Zaruma is an example of that. The only reason I know it is because I'm a self-confessed Unesco geek and saw it on the tentative world heritage site list. If a whole historic town is on the tentative list, that usually means it is more interesting than average. If it is already on The List, it usually means it is quite nice but already on the tourist radar with package tourists and inflated prices. Catching somewhere unknown on the tentative list can be the secret to finding something special before everyone else does... There are exceptions but this is my general rule of thumb and we took a chance on Zaruma.
Zaruma liked us and we liked it. It is a small historic colonial town built in the mountains and formerly important as a gold mining centre, adding significant amounts of gold to go with the silver the Spanish were shipping back to the old world back in the day. Unlike Potosi, Zaruma didn't locally prosper from this wealth and build grand monuments and structures which are left to see. It remains quite small and modest but still retains much of its original wooden architecture and town layout, both of which are unique for the time and place. To us, in a practical sense, it was a cute, hilly town with wood buildings, pillars and even sidewalks in places. I imagine it could have fit in somewhere in the wild west actually with the odd gunslinger roaming around. Except the geography made no sense. We had beautiful views of green mountainous countryside all around instead of sandy tumbleweed.
We got quite a few curious stares and didn't see any other foreign tourists while we were there. We were confirmed in our suspicions that we had really ventured off the tourist radar when we walked past the tourist info office and were spotted by the guy working there who promptly jumped up and ran out to call us back in for a chat. He was so excited to see foreign tourists that he didn't know where to begin, offering us all sorts of official gifts like bracelets, pens, notepads, magnets, etc. along with the usual maps and local tourist info. Then we had coffee together (Zaruma is also known for some of the best in Ecuador) while watching a historical video about the town. I'd say Zaruma is ready and eager for the tourists but is still a long way from being discovered. It is still possible to tour the remains of the gold mine as well but we didn't do it.

There are some great views over town

In town it's all about the wood and columns

The small central plaza

Can't forget the gold miners...

From Zaruma we went to Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador and a popular visit for its Unesco-listed old town. Again, it is all about the colonial old town which looked the way we have become accustomed to. The Spanish were definitely consistent in the way they built. It was pretty with the usual church-centric plazas and pretty buildings but unfortunately for us it rained or threatened rain the whole time, most of the museums were closed as was the main cathedral for it's annual cleaning.

Historic Cuenca

Cuenca cathedral

We only stayed a day because we had to get down to Guayaquil, Ecuador's biggest city for our flight to the Galapagos islands. We had an afternoon and night in Guayaquil which was just enough time to do a little shopping and check out the Malecon 2000. Generally speaking, Guayaquil has an unsavory reputation but the city has been trying to clean itself up a bit and completely redeveloped the riverfront area into a fenced-off 2.5km long boardwalk with a number of attractions and enough of a police presence to declare it safe. It's not the cleanest river but it was nice to have something to do and see instead of hiding in our room. Another well known curiosity in the city is the so-called Iguana park, a small plaza known for its resident iguanas, some of which are huge. Pigeons and iguanas together and kids feeding both. For the most part though Guayaquil was just a necessary stop and not somewhere we had any great interest in and wouldn't be coming back to.

The Malecon 2000

Monument to South American liberators Bolivar and San Martin who only met once. Here.
Iguana park



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