When last we met, dear readers, we were watching the whales in the waters off Puerto López. Puerto López, just so you know, is a dump of a town with a nice beach. In fact, we spent all of our non-whaling time in Puerto López sitting on the beach under a cabana, eating jelly sandwiches and street food, and generally not doin’ nothin’. From there we made our way to our final stop in Ecuador, the bustling mountain town of Loja.
I’m going to pause here for a special message to all my loyal subscribers who are following this blog via email. First, thank you! I hope you’re enjoying our adventures in South America, and I appreciate you all for coming along. Second, it has come to my attention that if you’re reading this in your email, you’re missing out on two things: the banner photo at the top of thepost and any videos I’ve embedded. I don’t know why WordPress won’t include those in the mailing, but you’ll want to see both for this article so feel free to click on through to the actual website for the full effect.
Loja is a bustling and surprisingly affluent town in the southern Ecuadorian highlands. It’s pleasant enough during the day, but it’s really beautiful at night when all the historic buildings are lit up. Another great thing about Loja: although it’s surrounded by mountains, the central district is predominately flat, easy to walk, with a fairly simple north-south bus line on the central thoroughfare.
We spent five days in Loja before heading to Peru. Five days was good because I ended up being sick for some of it and a bus ride would have been miserable, but five days also felt a little long because there wasn’t quite as much to do around town as we’d thought from the guide books. The museums and churches went by quickly, and we never managed to get into the one we wanted to.
From a religious perspective, this is the most significant time of year in Loja due to the presence of La Virgen del Cisne, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary that resides in the village of El Cisne but is moved to the Cathedral of Loja in early August, where she remains until the end of September. We tried several times to see her, but apparently there is always mass going on when she’s in residence and we didn’t want to be tacky and intrude with our big, stonkin’ tourist cameras.
The biggest natural attraction near Loja is Podocarpus National Park. Since it’s a lengthy taxi ride out of town and a really long walk from the ranger’s station up to where the trail heads begin, at first we didn’t think we would get to go. However, via Couchsurfing.com we met a couple of cool guys named Santiago and Darwin who offered to drive us up there and show us along the easiest (but still insanely steep) trail to the mirador over Loja valley.
Loja is also known as a center for the arts, and especially music, in Ecuador. On a recommendation from Santiago and Darwin, we spent our last evening at a concert at the Plaza de San Sebastián. The music was good Ecuadorian pop, but on our way there we were visited by an apparition.
Waaay back in the Galapagos, just around the corner from our hostel, there was the decapitated body of an Alice-In-Wonderland-style caterpillar ride, like something the Joker would strap Batman and Robin to in a dilapidated theme park. The caterpillar’s body was stretched along one street while his head was parked around the corner. Later, in Mindo, we saw a photo of the caterpillar on a flyer for an artisan’s fair that was supposed to take place while we were in town. The fair was a bust (five tables of baubles for sale) and no caterpillar in sight. But there in Loja, on our last night in the country, completely out of nowhere, the caterpillar appears in all its neon glory. We even got video!
However, for every good thing, there is an evil opposite. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – in all its horror – the gas truck of Loja. Play this video with the audio turned up, if you dare:
In Ecuador, gas for cooking and heating is brought to your home in a way similar to how milk was delivered in the golden age of black and white sitcoms – by a guy going door to door in a truck. In Quito, the gas truck would drive around honking its horn and if you needed gas you would yell out your window for it to stop, then run to pick up a canister.
In Loja, however, the gas vendor tools around playing the ditty in above video like a demented ice cream truck. It never stops. You can hear it all over the city. It runs incessantly from early in the morning until after sundown. The first time I heard it, I thought it was some idiot practicing the only four notes he’d learned on his flute. By the second day I’d figured out it was a vehicle of some sort. By the third day I wanted to hurt it.
The fourth day I spent ill in our third floor hotel room, sitting at a desk with the window open while beating a new short story into shape. The gas truck ditty drifted through the air like a bad smell for the ears. I could hear it nearby. I could hear it far away. I could hear it in my frickin’ imagination, whether the truck was there or not. Lea suggested I record it for posterity. I refused in the name of peace and sanity. She went and did it anyway.
Then I remembered that one of the reasons I write is to take things that are stuck in my head and put them in someone else’s. So here it is again:
Friday morning came and it was time to say goodbye to Loja, to Ecuador, and to all its friendly people. In general Ecuadoreans are kind, laid-back, genial, and helpful. I’d like to think that was true everywhere, but Ecuador seems like a special place. It’s certainly somewhere you should visit, and even after six weeks I was sad to see it go.
Then we got on the bus.
Oh my god, y’all. The bus.
This is a whole other article, but I’m going to lay it right here so it’s on the record before one of these things tumbles over a cliff and crushes us.
We spent a lot of time in Ecuador getting around by bus. Having entered Peru, we’ve come to realize that we’re going to spend a lot more time on the bus, because Ecuador was a relatively small country and now all the places we want to go are pretty far apart. In fact, as I type this, I realize that we’ve spent 22 hours of the last three days on a bus, including an 8 hour border crossing trip from Loja to Piura, three hours early in the morning from Piura to Chiclayo, then an 11-hour overnight that left Chiclayo at 6:00 p.m. and arrived in Chachapoyas at 5:00 in the morning. Thankfully our hostel acknowledges the reality of the local bus schedule and let us check in that early. We were dirty and we were tired.
Riding a long-haul bus through the Andes is like flying on an airplane where there’s turbulence for the entire flight. Riding in the Andes is a workout for the abs as you try and keep yourself sitting upright while the cabin sways back and forth. Riding in the Andes is EXCITING! especially in Ecuador where the bus drivers don’t slow down for anything, not even hairpin curves next to boulder-strewn ravines.
The buses show movies. The movies are mandatory, pirated off the internet, and of course dubbed in Spanish. Sometimes the volume is low enough that you can ignore it (such as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer: Retaliation on our very first ride) but some are piped in so loud that you can’t block it out (such as last night’s Spanish dub of Wonder). We watched Eugenio Derbez’s Instructions Not Included and its direct French remake Two Is a Family (higher production values but not as funny – even in Spanish I could tell). We’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, both with the last fifteen minutes missing. We saw the first half of Snakes on a Plane before the bus’s TV went out.
The buses don’t stop. Well, that’s not true. They won’t stop when you want them to. They’ll stop in traffic jams, they’ll stop to pick up passengers and let them off, they’ll stop to let vendedores sell questionable snacks, but they sure as hell won’t stop for ten minutes to let passengers stretch their legs or use the bathroom. (To be fair, the bus from Guayaquil to Loja did stop at a hillside restaurant to let people grab lunch, but it was the odd bus out.)
The buses in Ecuador are sketchier (and scarier) but Ecuador’s stations are centralized and some are even nice. The bus terminals in Guayaquil and the south end of Quito are practically airports. In Ecuador the bus lines tend to stop and leave from shared stations, so all you have to do is walk up and down a hall of ticket-sellers looking for the destination you need. In Peru, it’s not so easy.
In Peru, the buses are somewhat nicer (dinner included, sleeper compartments, potential for cat pee smell), but the stations are a mess. Each bus line has its own separate station and its own dedicated routes. There is a website called Andes Transit which purports to list bus routes and schedules. It was somewhat accurate in Ecuador, but its Peruvian information veers into fiction.
From Ecuador we landed in Piura at Loja Internacional’s station, then taxied to the other side of town to a hostel I’d booked that was near the Movil Tours station, whom Andes Transit indicated had a direct route to Chachapoyas. Andes Transit lied. Movil could have bussed us south to Chiclayo the next evening, but we’d have had to stay overnight. The guys at the Dora bus station directed us to Linnea, two miles down the road in the other direction, who ran multiple routes to Chiclayo, so we took a collectivo back across the city to book an early morning ride.
When we got to Chiclayo on Linnea, their station was only two blocks from the Civa station, so we hoofed it down the road, bought our tickets for the night bus, and checked our massive backpacks at the equipaje desk.
So what do you do with an eight-hour layover in Chiclayo when you’ve been up since 4:00a.m. and doubt you’ll get much sleep the next night? Well obviously you visit a witch doctor’s market, stumble upon a surprise parade, give props to a random street band, and crash a wedding.
Also, we were able in eight hours to scratch Chiclayo off the list of places we ever need to visit again. (Pro tip: skip Piura too.)
Here in Chachapoyas there’s not much to do on a Sunday, so we went ahead and walked eighteen blocks in a big circle to scope out the options from the various bus lines in town. The winner is probably going to be Movil Tours, who are the only company to offer a direct line to our next stop in Trujillo, and have sleeper seats available for S/.85.00 ($25.68). Not bad for a fourteen hour ride back to the coast.
But first we get to enjoy Chachapoyas and the Fortaleza de Kuelap. Stay tuned, mis amigos.
P.S. Lea’s Macrophotography Exhibit II !