Little did we know that our adventure to Vilcabamba, Ecuador would begin right in Maria, the little village nearest to the ruins of Kuelap. We returned to Maria after our morning exploration of Kuelap at 1:15pm, which we believed would be ample time for the supposed 2pm colectivo. So there we sat and ate our lunch of instant ramen and warm water that I had packed earlier that morning.
Because not a single colectivo drove by, we desperately waved down every tour van that passed but they were either full or heading a different direction. Even some locals were amused by us hitchhiking gringos. Because they had nothing else to do, two women helped us hitchhike. In the meantime, we played with their puppies.
Finally after an hour and a half one van stopped for us. He was a private car hire with a bunch of Peruvian tourists from Lima. Although he wasn’t going to Chachapoyas, he was headed in that direction and said he could drop us off at the major intersection at the bottom of the hill outside of Chachapoyas. We desperately wanted to get the hell out of Maria and eagerly hopped into the van.
By around 5pm, we arrived to the intersection, bid farewell to our friends, and waited for our next ride. At this point I decided against going up to Chachapoyas since we were only going to leave the next day for Ecuador. We decided to go as far north as possible to make our travels easier the next day.
Likewise, we faced more fruitless attempts at waving down trucks, buses, vans, and full colectivos. A friendly cop, who had been watching us hitchhike, crossed the street and asked us a bunch of questions with a big smile about where we were from, where we were going, etc. While we were chatting, he waved down the next vehicle which was a station wagon with a middle-aged couple, and asked them if they could give us a ride to Pedro Ruiz! They didn’t seem too thrilled, but probably felt obliged because it is difficult to decline the request of a friendly cop. The driver asked us if we were willing to pay 5 soles each (~$1.30). Of course we were! I thanked the cop profusely, even gave him a big hug, hopped into the station wagon, and we were on our way.
As soon as we took off, Chris asked the couple how they were doing. They ignored him. However the 40-minute ride to Pedro Ruiz was not only beautiful, but highly entertaining. The trunk of the station wagon of the mid-40’s couple was half filled with subwoofers, and the driver blasted loud party music the entire ride. He even had a fancy screen on his dashboard with music videos. We were thoroughly amused.
We were dropped off at Pedro Ruiz a bit after 6pm. By this point we had two options: to eat dinner and find a cheap hostel and continue our journey the next morning, or to keep heading north to our next destination of Bagua Grande. “Let’s see if we can get a ride within 15-20 minutes,” I said, “and if not, let’s just stay here.”
Because we had literally missed the last colectivo from Pedro Ruiz to Bagua Grande, we had no option but to stand on the road again and wave down cars. Within the first minute a local actually pulled over for us, but he was headed for Chachapoyas. But 5 minutes later, perhaps the last colectivo from Chachapoyas headed for Bagua Grande stopped for us. It was only 2/3 full. “10 soles each!” the driver told us. We hopped on in, thrilled that we didn’t have to wait long. The sun had just set, and darkness was filling the valley.
The bus ride from Pedro Ruiz to Bagua Grande typically takes 1.5 hours, so I estimated our arrival time to be around 8pm. I planned on finding a cheap hotel and continuing our journey early the next morning to Jaen, San Ignacio, the border at La Balza, Zumba, and then our final destination of Vilcabamba, Ecuador. Hands down, I was being ambitious.
An hour into our ride, the engine died. You’ve got to be shitting me, I thought, just as I was thinking about how fortunate we were to have caught the last colectivo to Bagua Grande! A few minutes passed and the driver was able to start up the engine again. Only to have it die moments after. This happened one more time, and finally everyone got out of the van. We watched the driver wave down a truck, climb into the back, and leave us behind. Because our Spanish sucked we had no idea what was going on, and thought it would have been funny if the driver just abandoned his passengers and vehicle along a windy road in the mountains in pitch darkness. A quick inquiry from the locals assured us he was just going into the next town to get help or gas or something.
Funny enough Chris actually had half a bottle of wine in his backpack (we had popped it open while we were in Maria). I used the cap of my thermos for the wine, and we ended up sharing it with a handful of locals as we sat on the street. Timed passed quite quickly as we laughed and cracked jokes on the side of the road.
We arrived to the bus terminal of Bagua Grande at exactly 9pm. It was hot and dusty, and the streets were filled with moto-taxis. Within minutes we checked into a hotel for 50 soles (~$15.75)–perhaps a bit pricey for the area but we wanted air conditioning. Dinner was a plate of rice, chicken, and potatoes from a street vendor for 4 soles (~$1.25). I literally only had about 40 soles left in my wallet (~$13), and I did not want to withdraw more soles from a bank since we were leaving Peru the next day. Every sole counted and I was down to the last centavo.
Every minute of travel time the next day would also count because our goal was to catch the 12pm ranchero from the border to Zumba. If we were to miss this ranchero, we wouldn’t make it to Vilcabamba until the next afternoon. With a total of 3 colectivos until the Peruvian/Ecuadorian border, we knew it would be a matter of time and luck.
It was still dark the next morning when we took a moto-taxi for 2 soles (~60¢) from our hotel to the colectivos bound for Jaen. Perhaps because it was an early Sunday, but the colectivo was slow to fill up. We paid 5 soles each (~$1.30) and by 6:40am we were on our way to Jaen, about an hour out. Unlike Bagua Grande, Jaen was a beautiful city surrounded by lush green rice fields and valleys, and we enjoyed the quick ride.
We each paid 12 soles (~$3.75) for the colectivo to San Ignacio, about a 2-hour ride north. This colectivo also took some time to fill up, and we headed out at around 8:30am. By 10:30am, we got into the town of San Ignacio, where we immediately hopped on our final moto-taxi for 2 soles to the colectivos bound for La Balza.
Unlike the last two colectivos where we were obliged to wait for 20-30 minutes to fill up, Chris and I were the last two passengers needed to fill up the 5-seater car. Also unlike the last two colectivos, the driver was incredibly slow. We paid 17 soles (~$5.25) and departed San Ignacio just before 11am, and we were dropped off at the La Balza border at 12:05pm. I made it to the border with exactly 1.25 soles left in my wallet (40¢). Considering that we still had to go to the migration office, we knew we had missed the 12:00 ranchero.
Because there was absolutely no one on the Peruvian side of the border (everyone else crosses along the popular coastal route), our paperwork and stamps were done within 5 minutes. We then crossed the bridge over the river that separates the two countries. Apparently this bridge had not existed ~10 years ago; one used to cross the border by raft!
After we got our stamps, we sat down in front of a family’s home and asked if they served any food. It was a long morning and we were famished, especially since our “breakfast” on the road merely consisted of 2 packets of cookies and some mandarins we purchased from the fruit stand during our first hitchhike. At 12:30pm, we had our first meal of the day, a delicious home-cooked meal of rice, chicken, and vegetables for $2.
Because we had missed the 12pm ranchero, the guy from customs told us there would be another one at 5:30pm. We could take it to Zumba, the nearest village about 1.5 hours out, where we could spend the night before continuing to Vilcabamba the next morning.
But we were lucky. Boy, were we lucky. At 1:30pm, a woman showed up and had a conversation with the family who cooked our lunch. Because I was napping with my head on the table, I wasn’t paying any attention to their conversation; Chris, on the other hand, knew they were talking about us. They asked us where we were going. “We want to go to Vilcabamba,” we told them in Spanish. The woman was headed for Loja, an hour north of Vilcabamba…and she offered us a ride!!!
We followed her to her vehicle, which was a giant, white, off-roading truck. Her husband was the driver, and her 8-year old son, Agosto, sat in the back. They moved their luggage from the backseat to their truck bed, and we tossed our backpacks into the truck bed as well. We climbed into the truck and left the border at 1:45pm.
Unlike the Peruvian side, 90% of the Ecuadorian side was unpaved, windy, bumpy dirt road. The next 4 hours would be a ride that would put the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland to shame. That, and there were no seat belts in the back, and the driver drove like a freakin’ maniac. No joke. What should have been a 6-7 hour ride ended up being 4.5 hours. There also seemed to be no end to landslides and road construction.
When poor Agosto wasn’t sleeping, he would occasionally stick his head out the window to puke, and I was the middle man between him and his mother, passing cups of water and tissues. Despite all the puking, his father did not change his driving habits.
However Agosto was thrilled to discover we were from the United States. He asked so many questions and made our ride memorable. When all the vehicles were forced to stop due to landslides and construction, he even wanted a picture with us. I wanted one too.
We were dropped off in the famous valley of Vilcabamba at exactly 6:30pm, earlier than what it would have been had we taken the 12pm ranchero! They did not ask or expect any payment, and since we filled up their gas tank at a gas station ($11 to fill up a truck with diesel!!!), we figured that was a good enough token of appreciation.
Exhausted from a crazy day of traveling, we walked through the town square and checked into a beautiful, relaxing hotel for $35/night. A bit pricier than I would have liked, but it was a nice treat after 2 days of hitchhiking and busing. It was easy to assume that our day would end there, but it didn’t.
We had only heard of Vilcabamba through a friend back in the U.S.; his brother-in-law owned a craft brewery, Sol De Venado, just outside of town and told us to visit the brewery and his family. It was 7pm when we checked into the hotel, and we quickly discovered that his brewery was only open on the weekends from 1-7pm. “Should we just go?” Chris asked. “Yep, let’s go right now!” I said.
Rather than walking the kilometer to the brewery, we took a cab for $1.50. The brewery was still open! We were thrilled to have made it. There, we met Curtis, who decided not too long ago he wanted to spend his retirement on his dream brewery. (I actually found his awesome story here; I must say it is a kickass way to retire!) He even makes the malt for his brews. And, for non-drinkers like me, he also makes his own honey ginger ale, using his very own locally grown organic honey.
After chowing down on excellent goat stew, rice, yuka, beers and ginger ale, fireworks began to explode down the street for the local fiestas that were happening that very weekend. We crossed the street into the tiny town for the impressive show of fireworks.
Right after the firework show Chris and I retreated to the hotel, exhausted from the entire day of adventure and misadventure, and satisfied from our amazing meal, beer, firework show, and company with a new friend.
The next couple of days in Vilcabamba were some of the most relaxing days we’ve had in South America. With the large expat community, amazing food can be found everywhere. Before arriving I read that the weather in Vilcabamba is perfect all year round; no one owns a heater or air conditioner. And damn right the weather was perfect. Perfect for lounging and relaxing in a hammock in a gorgeous garden with a cool breeze.
I suck at relaxing, so after a couple days of rejuvenation, we continued our journey north to see more of what Ecuador had to offer. Fortunately travel was pretty straight forward from then on.
To top everything off, we met another backpacker on our last day in Vilcabamba who had not also just traveled from Peru into Vilcabamba, but actually caught the exact 12pm ranchero that we had hoped to catch. He told us that the ranchero left Vilcabamba at 12pm, but the bus from Zumba that was supposed to have left at 1:30pm ended up leaving at 4pm. This bus ended up stopping on the road at 8pm due to a landslide and road blockage, and everyone was forced to sleep in the uncomfortable bus until the next morning when construction workers could clear out the landslide. Missing the ranchero ended up working in our favor after all.