Sunday, April 24, 2016

Vilcabamba and Peru Border

After Cuenca, I decided it was time to head for the border and get out of Ecuador. I hadn't planned on spending that much time in the country, as much as I enjoyed it, and I was itching to move. Funny how quick that itch can disappear if you put me in the right place though...

The border was still a couple days' worth of riding, so I headed for the last star on my map between me and the border: Vilcabamba.

When I'd been talking with people in Cuenca, I'd gotten a recommendation for a place to stay in Vilcabamba called Hostel Izhcayluma (I had to have him spell it for me so I could find it). He said it was a little outside town, which is usually a no-no for me: I don't want to have to get on the motorcycle to get into town, and it gets expensive to get a cab every time you want a snack or to wander. But he said it was a pretty self-contained place, so I decided to give it a try.

As I was getting close to the city, however, I spotted a sign which had me pulling a U-turn: "Craft Beer here." That's enough to get my attention, so I swung back around and found out that they had barbecue at this little stand on the side of the road as well. Since I'd only eaten breakfast and it was already mid-afternoon, I scarfed down some delicious barbecue along with a dark beer that, while not amazing, was better than the usual lager that I'd been getting.

After how bland Colombian and Ecuadorian food had been, a flavorful barbecue sauce was amazing.
I cruised the last 20 minutes into town on a full stomach, and after seeing the town didn't feel at all bad about going to a place outside of town. It was pretty small and didn't seem to have much going on, so I didn't figure I'd be taking too many trips into town anyway.

I arrived at the hostel and... well, to put it simply, was stunned. It was practically a resort, with a pool, a massage therapist on staff, and beautiful plant-lined pathways and covered pavilions. I booked two nights, but was pretty sure I was going to stay more as soon as I saw the facilities, my recent decision to make for the border be damned.

My cabin with hammocks out front.

The swimming pool. Not pictured: the waterfall on the left that drains down into the pool through a rocky stream.

The view of the valley below.
Vilcabamba is known as "The Valley of Longevity," and with places like this one, I can see it. Supposedly the combination of a laid back lifestyle, good weather, and good foods has allowed people here to live longer than anywhere else in Ecuador.

I settled down into the hostel (I had a bed up on a second-story platform under the steeply angled roof of the cabin), I booked myself a massage for the next day, and then pulled out my new guitar and started jamming on the porch. It didn't take long before a few other residents stopped to listen and we started chatting, and I ended up grabbing dinner with them that night - though I couldn't make myself stay up very late afterwards, and hit the bed pretty hard and pretty early.

I got up in the morning and got a wonderful massage, and then spent the day lounging around the pool, enjoying the views, and making one quick trip into town that just confirmed my decision to stay up on the hill overlooking the city instead of down in it.

This guy was hanging out with me in the hostel.

It was worth the little bit of drizzle we got to see this sunset afterwards.
As evening came on though, I started getting extremely cold - the temperature had dropped, but not so much that I should be shivering uncontrollably. The people I'd met at the hostel had made plans to grab dinner together in town, but I ended up having to bail as I realized that the shivers were indicative of a fever and I might not be completely over what I thought had been a 24-hour bug in Cuenca. I got some soup, tea, and garlic bread from the restaurant at the hostel, and then went to the desk to go ahead and book a few more nights so I wouldn't have to wake up sick and get on the bike. Unfortunately... they were completely booked in the shared hostel rooms. The only available space was in a private cabin for $45 a night (instead of the $9 I was paying for the bed in a shared room).

So I got into bed and read, and hoped that I was feeling better in the morning.

Fortunately I woke up feeling great after 11 hours of sleep. I decided that the hostel being booked was a sign that I shouldn't get stuck here, and packed up the bike to head out. Time to head for the border.

The road into Vilcabamba had been a gorgeous curvy paved road through the hills, and I expected more of the same to the border. Somehow I'm still an optimist about these things, which proved to be unfounded. Not long after getting outside town the road turned to dirt and declined in quality so much that I had to ask a few times to make sure I was still on the road to the border - surely no border road would be this poorly maintained.

But it got worse. Clouds rolled in overhead, and then the rain started. I donned my rain gear and continued on carefully, as the roads slowly got worse and worse. Pretty soon I was riding through running water that was flowing over the road, crossing rivers, and generally praying that my tires didn't slip on some mud or a wet rock and send me down.

It wasn't like this for long, but it wasn't fun. Muddy water means you can't see what you're riding over.

In the few places that actually had pavement, there were still landslides all over the place.
Muddy corners like this one had me basically using my feet as two more points of contact to stay upright.
And then a long overdue misfortune struck once again. Not long after I'd passed a bus (waiting for quite some time before there was room to go around him, and then finally honking until he stopped and let me by), I was trying to avoid some wet mud and went up onto what looked like a dry ridge between the wet tire tracks, only to find that it was just loose dirt that had been pushed up by the truck tires. My back tire slid off the side of the ridge and I wasn't quick enough to counterbalance and keep the bike up. Down I went.

I'd just been thinking about how it had been a while since I went down.
Unfortunately with the mud I couldn't get enough traction to pick up the bike as is, so I started unstrapping things and setting them off to the side. I got the bike upright and had moved it to a dry spot where I could load everything back up, and then as I was walking back to where I'd left my stuff I heard an engine coming around the corner. The bus I'd passed (who'd gone out of their way to let me by) was coming behind me and I was blocking the entire road. I rushed to get everything strapped back on the bike, but still ended up making the bus wait a minute or two while I got ready.

I got moving again, going through a small town and stopping to check my directions once again, and the road didn't get any better. The rain slowed down, but it had been raining since the day before so everything was still slimy. And then - for the third time on this trip - I had my second fall of the same day.

I didn't get a picture of the bike on the ground, but if you look closely you can see where it happened.
The mud here was so slick that my tires were sliding all over the place, and I hardly had any traction to stay upright, let alone steer. I started losing my back tire and put a foot down to catch it, and my foot simply sunk in a few inches and then slid like it was on ice, and I surfed the bike down to the ground with my hands still on the handlebars. Even after I'd pulled all of my heavy things off the bike, it was still a huge effort getting it back upright, because my boots wouldn't grip at all in this mud. But I finally got it upright, and hopped on to navigate it to a place where I could strap things back on. I almost went down again just doing that, as my back tire was literally going whichever direction it felt like, and I could just barely keep the bike going the way I wanted with the front tire.

This is where I was trying to get to the side of the road - that's my front and rear tire tracks. Note how they're not even close to going the same way, as my back tire was just fishing around way off to the right of where I was steering the bike.
I finally got the bike to someplace stable, got everything back on (almost face-planting in the mud as I carried some of it, because the mud was so slick), and kept on to the border. Luckily the road wasn't too bad after this, though there were still a few hairy spots.

I arrived at the border to find... almost nothing. About four shacks, a bridge with a long board on a hinge blocking it, and not many official looking buildings. I eventually tracked down which shack was migration and customs, got my exit paperwork stamped, and ducked as I rode under the board across the road because I got tired of waiting for someone to raise it up.

Over on the other side it wasn't much more crowded. There were a few more buildings, but they seemed to be less a part of the border crossing and more just a little town. I got my passport stamped and asked about customs, and the migration officer pointed me to a building that I'd already looked in and had seen was empty. "Oh, come with me then." So we went down the road to the customs officer's house, knocked on his door, and got him to come up the road to do some paperwork.

It was apparently a busy day for him, because there was also a Korean family waiting to cross into Ecuador in their car, a pair of bicyclists heading the same direction as me, and a motorcycle with Colorado plates parked outside as well. As soon as I came back with the customs officer they all flocked over as well - apparently none of them knew enough Spanish to communicate that the customs guy wasn't there and talk the migration guy into showing us where his house was. Since they'd already been waiting for a few hours, I let them go first - doing a little translating for the Korean family, though their English wasn't much better than their nonexistent Spanish, so it was a little tricky. We got them on their way, and then Steven (the guy from Colorado) and I started paperwork on our bikes.

Chickens milling around outside waiting for their turn to do their customs paperwork.
I talked with the officer a bit while he was filling out my paperwork, and I asked him how many people usually come through this border a day. "One," he said. One person per day normally. It really was a busy day for him, and I can see why he'd normally be hanging out in his house until he had work to do. This crossing used to not even have a bridge - just a ferry, hence the border crossing's name of "Balsas" (ferries).

Once I finally got my paperwork done, I headed up the mountain on the other side of the river, thankfully on pavement this time. I'd heard Peru roads could be pretty rough, and having gone through such horrible mud on the way in I didn't expect pavement on this side of the border, but paved it was. Other than the occasional landslide blocking half the road, it was a pretty nice ride. The delays of dropping the bike twice, going slow on mud, and a bit extra at the border than I'd expected meant I wasn't going to make it was far as I though though, so I found myself a hotel in San Ignacio for $10 a night, found a secure parking lot to stash the bike, and started cleaning the mud off of me. I felt kind of bad for the ladies who cleaned my room afterward, because despite trying to keep things neat, I left dried mud all over the place.

Finally out of Ecuador, I started making plans for Peru - but quickly fell asleep after an exhausting day. Planning could come later, I told myself. As it turns out, I wouldn't do much planning for pretty much all of Peru, instead just cruising along on whims and impulses.

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