From Vilcabamba to Lima in 2 days…

It turns out that border crossings don’t get any easier the more you do them. The next stage of our journey involved getting from Vilcabamba to Piura in Peru (and then on to Lima). A bus from Vilcabamba to Loja, a bus from Loja to Piura. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. A top tip: if you are ever travelling on buses in South America at the weekend, book in advance! We were informed by our hostel in the afternoon before we were due to leave for Loja that every ticket on our second bus at 11pm was booked. Our only hope was to leave straight away and try to get on the only other alternative; a second bus at 12am. In a panic, we immediately left Vilcabamba and caught the first bus to Loja. We arrived just before 5pm and quickly booked 2 of the last few tickets for the next bus. Unfortunately, we were 7 hours early and were forced to hang around in a packed bus terminal. We played a riveting game of scrabble, ate a questionable dinner in a fast-food chicken restaurant, bought what we thought was fudge but turned out not to be and spoke to lots of Ecuadorean families who were very surprised that we were on our way to Peru. 

When we finally got on our bus we were surrounded by locals and Peruvians on their way home. Only 2 other tourists boarded the bus with us. It certainly wasn’t luxurious but between us we managed a few naps until we reached the border. At the border we had to get off the bus and queue to be stamped out of Ecuador by a not-so-friendly woman behind the counter. Then we walked across the border and joined the queue to be stamped into Peru. Even at 3am the whole process took almost an hour. I dread to think how long it takes in peak times. Once we were stamped we boarded the bus again and carried on our journey to Piura. At around 7am we arrived at the bus terminal in Piura, sleep-deprived and hungry. Perhaps stupidly, we’d made the decision to make the 16 hour bus journey to Lima that same day and had to wait around for the next stage of our epic journey at 3pm. 

Piura turned out to be nicer than we expected and we actually enjoyed the half-day we spent there. We went for breakfast, visited a brand-new shopping centre, travelled in a tuk-tuk, enjoyed coffee and quiche for lunch and wandered around the town. When the time finally arrived for our overnight bus to Lima, we were in high spirits, refreshed and full. I’m pleased to say that Cruz del Sur delivered the best bus journey we have been on in South America and our journey to Lima was completely seamless (for once!). We had leg rests, cup holders, tray tables, a tasty meal, reclineable seats and  loads of leg room (all of which seemed like the height of luxury for us). At 10pm we settled into our makeshift beds and slept. We didn’t wake up until 6am; 20 minutes before we reached Lima. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed being on a bus so much and a free night’s accommodation is always a plus! Our adventures would continue in Lima; the capital city of Peru.

Sorry for the lack of photos – there was nothing particularly interesting to take them of!

Vilcabamba’s very best. 

After Montanita, we made our way to Vilcabamba with a quick overnight stop in Cuenca. We had to get the bus from Montanita to Guayaquil and then another bus to Cuenca. Both journeys were relatively painless despite stopping many times on route (incredibly frustrating) and we arrived at our hostel in Cuenca in good time.

We stayed at Mallki hostel for one night in a very cramped and basic 8 bed dorm room. The bunk beds were so wobbly that we thought they might collapse – both of us were on top bunks. We ventured into the centre shortly after checking in and found a lovely coffee shop before exploring the beautiful colonial buildings. Then we stumbled across a lovely little Italian restaurant and enjoyed some wine, beer and pasta. The following day we went back for more coffee and ate burritos for lunch before catching our bus to Vilcabamba.

Cuenca’s colonial buildings


The journey to Vilcabamba took about 5 hours and we reached Hostel Izhcayluma at 6pm on the dot (typical German efficiency). The luxury we found at this beautiful ‘hostel’ was unlike anything we’d had on our travels to date. It was more like a hotel. We had an enormous dorm room with single beds, a massive stone shower, a stunning view from the restaurant and an amazing natural water swimming pool. No meals were included in our stay but the restaurant food was reasonable, huge and delicious. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all great. We only left the hostel twice; once to head into town to grab some essentials and another when we checked out. We spent hours reading in hammocks, chilling around the pool and just enjoying the relaxing experience for 4 days. Kat also went to a free yoga class every morning which was a great addition. On our final night we splashed out on a double room but actually found we preferred the dorm room (a bargain at $9.50 per bed).

Hammock time

Views from the restaurant

Enjoying the pool


Vilcabamba itself was also very relaxing and is somewhat of a Mecca for expats – particularly from the US. We found quaint, little artesenal shops, smoothie cafes and a quirky, colourful church in the main square. But the main reason we loved Vilcabamba so much was the relaxing time we spent at Izhcayluma. If you are ever looking for somewhere to experience budget luxury when travelling South America and want to feel completely at ease, then this is the place to go. We both felt completely refreshed and calm after our time here and consider it one of our favourite places to date – we probably should have stayed even longer. Maybe this travelling lark isn’t all that bad…

Feeling relaxed and refreshed

Vilcabamba’s main square

Colourful church

 

Unfortunately our time in Vilcabamba came to an end and we had to make our way to Peru. We had such fantastic experiences in Ecuador and loved the country but were ready for our next adventure – albeit after another dramatic and LONG border crossing. Read all about it in the next blog…

A whale of a time on Ecuador’s coast

The next part of our journey was the best so far. After Mindo we had to somehow find our way to Puerto Lopez – our base for visiting Isla de la Plata. It proved to be quite difficult to get to from Mindo; we were told we had to get a bus to Los Blancos, then a bus to Santo Domingo, followed by a bus to Portoviejo, then a bus to Jipijapa and then finally a bus to Puerto Lopez. Luckily the journey actually involved fewer buses than this (3 in total). 

We got to Puerto Lopez at around 9pm and checked into our hostel (which incidentally had great reviews on booking.com). I have no idea how it had anything but awful reviews as it was the worst hostel we had stepped foot in – the tiny kitchen was in someone’s bedroom, there was a shop at the entrance of the hostel, the bedding was filthy, the bathroom was disgusting and the mattresses were wafer-thin. The killer for us though was that there were bed bugs all over some of the beds. It was this that made us leave the hostel without staying a night. So the two of us and another girl left to find a new place to stay for the night. We found one very quickly with 3 single beds and a hot shower for the same price! Safe to say we had a much more comfortable night than we would have done in the previous hostel.

The next day was amazing. We’d booked a tour to visit Isla de la Plata and go whale-watching. We set off with our group at around 10am on a boat to the island. On the way we saw some whales in the distance doing all sorts of somersaults. Unfortunately, something happened to our boat and we had to climb onto another. On the second boat we saw more whales, closer this time, but found it hard to see due to all the people. When we reached Isla de la Plata we saw sea turtles all around the boat which was incredible. We then set off on a 2 hour hike around the island and saw blue-footed boobies, lizards and other cool birds. 

Whales in the distance


Blue-footed boobies

After the trek we were able to go snorkelling, This was the first time that I’d ever been snorkelling and I loved it. The fish were the brightest I’ve ever seen and I loved swimming amongst them. It took some convincing for Kat to get it but she eventually did and loved it too! Then we got back on the boat and headed back to Puerto Lopez. The best part of the day was on this journey. We saw a baby whale and its mother swimming along with us. The captain of the boat got so close to the whales that we could see their sheer size. It was literally breath-taking and one of the best experiences of my life. When we reached Puerto Lopez again we were absolutely buzzing.

Dory?

Snorkelling

Whale hello there!

 

We decided to head to Montanita next and spent 2 nights there. We spent our only full day exploring the streets lined with market stalls, enjoying delicious food from the restaurants and drinking all day. I was a little tipsy by the time we got back to our hostel and opted for an early night. Next would be our journey to Vilcabamba, including a quick stop-over in Cuenca.

Chasing tail in Mindo

Following our time in Cotopaxi, we spent one more night in Quito before moving on again the next day. One taxi and two long buses got us to the town of Mindo within a few hours. Mindo is a small place in Ecuador, located in a valley surrounded by dense forests. We arrived to find a tiny and very quiet place. Our guesthouse was small and a bit strange – we were essentially staying in the home of an older couple. 

After checking in and unpacking, we found a small restaurant nearby for lunch. We shared salad and chips and were pleased to discover that it was both cheap and delicious – our favourite combination. I enjoyed a large beer (which, incidentally, is VERY cheap in Ecuador) and Kat ordered her new favourite drink – limonada natural. 

When we were suitably full, we went off to find some coffee. We’d read that one of the best places in Mindo was called El Quetzal so that’s where we headed. In actual fact, the coffee wasn’t great but we did enjoy the brownie – probably because El Quetzal doubles as a chocolate museum. This convinced us to book onto the last chocolate tour of the day. It was a great decision. We saw where the chocolate is grown, how it is made and got to try A LOT of it. We had coffee chocolate, chilli chocolate, dark chocolate, almond chocolate, etc, etc. They even let us try their home-brewed ginger beer. Safe to say, we were suitably stuffed with chocolate and left in very high spirits. That night we had another run-in with very loud and inconsiderate people in the guesthouse. It turns out that not everyone is willing to go to bed at 10pm. 

The next day we decided to check out the local hummingbird garden. We saw loads of varieties of hummingbirds and a few other species of birds. We watched them for a while and could have watched them all day. Kat was sad because she didn’t see a toucan so we had to add that to our to-do list. We had lunch in a lovely place with an American chef and ended up booking ourselves onto a night walk having bumped into the guide. It left at 8pm, so obviously we needed a nap to prepare ourselves fully. The walk itself was in the surrounding forest and we saw frogs, beetles, bugs, spiders and even an incredibly rare kinkajou. I have no photos from this walk because the only device we had with us decided to run out of memory. However, I promise that it was really fun and I would recommend it to anyone who visits Mindo. 


Hummingbirds


Now, back to those toucans. Kat wouldn’t let it rest that we hadn’t seen one yet, so we woke up at 5am the following morning to go birdwatching. There were 4 of us and the guide on the tour and we had one telescope between us. At times it was difficult to see the birds before they disappeared. However, we did see a very rare quetzal bird, woodpeckers, parrots and more hummingbirds. And of course, most importantly, we saw 4 different types of toucans. Kat was very happy. By the time we got back, we were shattered so caught up on our lost sleep with a nap and then went out for dinner.

Quetzal

Toucan


We rather enjoyed our time in Mindo but were ready to move on. Unfortunately, we were overcharged when we checked out of the guesthouse so this left a bit of a sour taste to our visit. Still, we were very excited for our next trip to Puerto Lopez. We were off to find some whales!

Cotopaxi’s best secret

After our time in Quito, we walked the short distance to The Secret Garden Hostel to await our transport to Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi itself is an active volcano south of Quito. We weren’t heading for the volcano exactly, but an area of the national park nearby. From Quito, our small and very squished bus took us through bumpy and winding roads for over 5 hours until we eventually reached The Secret Garden, Cotopaxi. We loved the surroundings from the moment we arrived – greenery, mountains, volcanoes, animals and no cars as far as the eye could see. We’d booked to spend the weekend here, on a bit of a splurge, in rustic luxury and with 3 meals served a day included in the price.

Cotopaxi volcano


The first step was to leave our bags and gather with the rest of the arriving masses around the warming fire. We were given a small mug of mulled wine which went down a treat. The staff filled us in on all the details – where the facilities were, when the treks were, and most importantly, what time the food was served. After the initiation, we were shown to our room – a cute-as-a-button hobbit home built into the surrounding hills. It was like something out of a book (ha) and the views were absolutely stunning. In fact, the only view that was better than the one from our bedroom was the one from the toilet. Honestly; check the photo.

Hobbit home

Toilet view

There was no time to sit back and enjoy the landscape as we were heading off on a trek almost immediately after arriving. This one was through the forest to visit 2 waterfalls. We donned our borrowed wellies and woolly hats and set off with the rest of the group. The walk itself was actually quite enjoyable (yes, I did just say that) and not too difficult but the altitude made it quite hard to breathe. We had to climb some very slippery rocks at one point and I felt a bit like Bear Grylls. Both waterfalls we visited were beautiful and some of the group even jumped into the second one – I wasn’t brave (or stupid) enough for this. The walk back was equally as pleasant and we reached The Secret Garden just in time for a warming quinoa and potato soup. After this we had some time to relax before returning for a 5pm meeting. We did feel a bit like we were at school at times – set meal times, organised day trips, everyone sat at the same table – but we actually quite enjoyed the routine after weeks without any. Dinner that evening was nutritious and delicious and we enjoyed a bottle of red wine before teaching an older German couple how to play some card games. 

Enjoying a hike

Chasing waterfalls

Bear Grylls


The next day we arranged to go on a 5-6 hour hike up to Pasachoa mountain. We thought it would be good practise for future hikes. Little did we now just how difficult it would be. I genuinely think it may have been one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. No exaggeration. Neither of us had hiking boots (but you know this from the Quito blog) so we took on the hike in trainers. By the end of the hike they didn’t even look like trainers – caked in mud, soaking wet and on the verge of ruin. We walked uphill for what felt like forever, waded through thick mud in the valley and climbed up wet rocks and trees in the forest. I spent 98% of the journey complaining. When we did reach the top of Pasachoa we had lunch and enjoyed the views. The walk back down was a lot easier and at one point I decided I would roll down to save time. In total, the hike took almost 7 hours and we were absolutely exhausted when we got back. Luckily, dinner was delicious (fresh burgers from the BBQ) and we were able to have an early night to recover. 

Top of Pasachoa

Views and dirty shoes


Our final day involved a lot of sitting around – we made the decision to not do another hike after the trials and tribulations of the previous day. Instead, we made the most of the breakfast and lunch served to us and read a book each. Then, along with a small group we had met, we hopped on the bus to head back to Quito. We were staying there for one more night before moving on to our next destination; Mindo. We loved our time at The Secret Garden in Cotopaxi and would recommend it to anyone who needs a break when travelling. 

The middle of the world (ish) in Quito

After a long time travelling to reach Ecuador, we were absolutely delighted to finally reach our hostel in Quito. We had booked 3 nights in Hostel Revolution – one of many recommendations from the blog ‘Two wandering soles‘. We’d been told lots of mixed reviews about the capital of Ecuador and left still unsure of our own opinion.

As soon as we had checked in we walked straight to the supermarket. Having lived almost solely on a diet of instant noodles for a while, we decided to splash out on dinner and bought rice and fresh vegetables. It was one of the most nutritious meals eaten in the last few weeks! We then more than enjoyed the hostel happy hour(s) – $1.50 for a large ice-cold beer or a rum and coke. Much needed after the long boarder crossing. The people we met in the hostel were lovely and we played cards with some of them before heading to bed feeling much more relaxed. 

Our first day in Quito started with a blissful lie-in – the first morning in 4 days we didn’t have to get up early. We decided that we would go on the hunt for some walking boots as we were (and still are) exceptionally under-prepared for our upcoming hike to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, every pair we found was far too expensive and we decided renting them was probably a much cheaper option. On the way back we ate lunch in one of many KFCs in Quito. As it turned out, KFCs were one of the most common sites – one particular stretch of road had SIX. Still, set least it was cheap and safe. We then found a local market and bought a lovely hand-painted tray as a souvenir (this now has to be carried around for 2 more months in South America and then 9 in Australia…). Our next stop was the busy central market selling all sorts of fresh fruit, vegetables and indeterminable meats. We bought some fruit and headed off in search of coffee. A place called El Duche in the old town was in the Tripadvisor top 10 and rightly so as we found out. We had a delicious iced coffee and iced tea and watched as the bakers prepared cakes and bread in front of us. It was fascinating and really set this cafe apart from others we’d been to. After a long day out, we ate leftovers from the night before back at the hostel, watched films in bed and had an early night. 


On our last day in Quito we walked back to El Duche for our coffee fix and then visited the beautiful La Basilica church (avoiding the political protest in the main square). It turned out that you can actually climb the church towers all the way to the top for a small fee. Rickety ladders, steep stairs and wooden draw bridges lead to some heart-in-mouth moments but it was worth it in the end. The view from the top of the church was incredible and we were really glad we made it to the very top. After getting the lift back down most of the way (lazy, I know), we set off to Mitad del Mundo (where the equator supposedly lies). I was really excited to see this as I thought it would be a great story to tell in future – I’ve stood on the equator. Unfortunately, the 3 hour one-way journey on 2 busses was not worth it and I later found out that Mitad del Mundo is not even the real equator – how gutting! That night we stayed in again and packed in preparation for our next adventure in The Secret Garden, Cotopaxi…



Our first border crossing 😩

The next major obstacle in our South American travels – and one I was absolutely dreading – was the border crossing from Colombia to Ecuador. We’d read horror stories of night busses being hijacked, crossing the border itself taking hours and countless other problems. So, we decided to do it in 3 days in the hope that it would be easier. In the end, it was hellish. Enjoy; this is a long one! 

Day 1: Salento to Popayan

Admittedly, our starting point wasn’t the best as Salento was not only very far away from the border but also had no real bus connections to anywhere. The first step therefore was to get a bus to somewhere that did – Armenia (not the country FYI). That bus took just under and hour and then we had to find a bus to our next destination. We soon found out that only one bus company (apparently) go from Armenia to Popayan. Unfortunately, as it turned out, this bus was far from the luxury of our previous long journey. In fact, the bus was so old we were surprised it was still functioning. On the 7 hour journey we had no toilet and only a couple of toilet breaks. I was back to my old complaining self. 

When we finally reached Popayan we decided to walk (20 minutes) to our hostel. As soon as we left the bus terminal the heavens opened and it chucked it down. The two of us, our clothes, our shoes and our bags got absolutely soaked and we arrived at the hostel looking like drowned rats. We dried ourselves off and made it to the supermarket 5 minutes before they closed (more luck than judgement) to buy noodles and snacks. The one night stay in Popayan was uneventful and we just used it as a stopover.

Day 2: Popayan to Ipiales

The next day involved travelling to the last town before the Colombia-Ecuador border: Ipiales. At the bus terminal the same company we had used the day before tried to rip us off and then squeezed us onto a bus that was already full. We claimed 2 seats together at the back after complaining. We were pretty sure the bus was even older than the one from the day before. The journey itself was absolutely horrendous. The bus hurtled through the mountains and swung us from side to side for 8 hours straight. It also stopped at various points for no apparent reason. When we did reach Ipiales, we were travel-sick, exhausted and done with busses. We were looking forward to a good night sleep in the hotel that we’d booked. Unfortunately, it turned out that our ‘hotel’ was dirty, dowdy and dodgy (and not exactly a hotel). We didn’t feel safe being there and it was freezing. We wanted to be out of there as soon as we could.

Day 3: Ipiales to Quito

At 7am we left the hotel and hailed a taxi back to the bus terminal. ‘Collectivos’ (collective taxis) heading to the border were easy to find and cheap. When we got there we had to first get our exit stamps from Colombia. Now, Colombians are only in a hurry when it suits them so of course there was only one desk open. After a long wait, we were leaving Colombia and walked across the border into Ecuador. All done? Nope. Next we had to get our entrance stamps for Ecuador. As it turned out, Ecuadorians are not in an hurry either and we waited another hour here. The next step was a taxi to the local bus terminal in Tulcan. 

From there we had to get yet another bus, this time to Quito (our final destination). As soon as we got out of the taxi we were accosted by 3 men asking us where we were going. We were ushered onto a bus leaving “NOW” to Quito. Almost an hour later, after picking up more passengers at every bus stop in sight, we were on the way. The bus didn’t stop once for a toilet break but did stop countless times along the way for pick-ups and drop-offs. We had about a million different people trying to sell us everything from ice-creams to cooked meats. The 5 hour journey took almost 7 hours and ended up going nowhere near our hostel. So we jumped off and, after receiving the help of various kind Ecuadorians, found a bus heading towards our hostel. Eventually we made it and after 3 days of hellish bus journeys, needed a cold beer or 12. Hopefully the next border crossing won’t be so terrible…