The bus slowed down as we approached another 180 degree bend high up in the mountains in southern Ecuador. I heard the gears crunch and glanced out the window. And then down. The wheels were centimetres away from the edge. There had been a lot of rain and, although it was now nice and sunny, several parts of the unpaved road had been washed away. I caught my breath as I saw the muddy track crumbling under the tyres and cascading to the valley below.
It was my last day in Ecuador and I was heading south on what is described as the less travelled route to Peru. There are three border crossings: the Panamerican along the coast, the road through Macará which is less hassle and this one via the remote town of Zumba. The lush green scenery more than compensated for the hair-raising sections. It was the first time I felt compelled to take out my camera on a bus this trip. The scenery is sure to get even more dramatic as I move further into the Peruvian high plains, the altiplano.
Even though the heat and humidity in the Galápagos had sometimes left me drained, I told myself I’d miss the sun once I was back in the mountains. And, sure enough, as soon as I arrived in Cuenca on the bus from Guayaquil, the temperature dropped and the drizzle and clouds moved in.
Cuenca is Ecuador’s third city and gets rave write-ups for its colonial architecture. I found it a little underwhelming, to be honest, although I really liked that it’s not just a tourist town, but a real working city. There are some distinctive churches and the usual attractive streets, but it was the curious hat museum which really caught my attention. Panama hats are made all over this area and the Museu Municipal Casa del Sombrero provides some history and insight into the process.
I saw pretty much everything I wanted to on the first day, so on the second day I caught the bus for the long 4/5 hour round trip to Ingapirca, Ecuador’s only real Inca site. It’s certainly no Machu Picchu, but the setting is nice and it whetted my appetite for the bigger glories to come in Peru. Around the site you can see the beautiful flowers called angel’s trumpet which are in fact poisonous. They are also being used in scams and attacks. If inhaled or ingested, it can disable the victims and render them helpless and susceptible. Our guide told us of someone he knew who’d been robbed of $7000.
Loja was my next stop. It’s another colonial town and probably missable in favour of nearby Vilcabamba. But I’d been there before and this time decided to stay in Loja. I ended up staying three nights, as I came down with the usual travellers’ sickness. It turned out well, however, because I did nothing and ate nothing, thus saving a bit. My Galápagos trip had severely damaged my funds, to the extent I needed to rob a bank. Or worse, get a job. But a few days’ rest did the trick instead.
I caught a 9am bus to Zumba which was supposed to take 5 or 5 1/2 hours depending on whom you ask. It took almost 7. But I wasn’t complaining, because the view out of the window was so exhilarating. We climbed up and down valleys along a twisting, vertiginous road. The highest point took us through the Podocarpus National Park, where visibility was reduced to almost nothing in thick rain clouds. But on the other side the sun came out to reveal small towns and farmlands thick with fruit trees, papayas, lychees, guanábana (soursop) and bananas.
I decided to break the journey and stay in Zumba for a night. When you’re constantly on the road, you don’t always realise how tired you can become, especially if, like me, you try to be doing something every day. But my enforced rest in Loja had also reinvigorated me mentally. When I boarded the bus to Zumba and the sun came out, I felt a new lease of life and excitement as Peru and a new country awaited.