Aborted Great Escape

Our plans to leave Loja for the day or at least a good portion of one, failed miserably. With all good intentions to visit Podocarpus National Park, all musings were dismissed when we read the fine print. 

The main entrance to the park is almost 9 miles outside of Loja, not that this is a problem with cheap taxis all around. Once at the park, it is a five mile hike to the rangers’ station where you pay the admission charge. Our outdated Frommer’s guide lists the fee as $10 per person. It was the dirty four-letter word that stopped us in our tracks – “hike”. Who allows such foul language in print? Making matters worse, once in the park there is more of the nasty waiting. Roaming around are jaguars, tapirs, bears and sloth. No thank you, we will do our sloth impressions by staying in Loja for the day. 

On Thursday, we did escape; we took the bus to Vilcabamba. According to all the schedules, this trip should have been an

hour. In reality, it took closer to an hour and 40 minutes. The bus will stop for anyone standing on the roadside that waves it down entire way. Some people were less than 10 feet apart, causing us to stop twice. People got off at numerous points on the trip, using this bus as their only local transport. The distance between Loja and Vilcabamba is only 26 miles. Bus cost ran us $1.30 each for one way.

Once upon a time, this was the retreat area for Incan royals. The original name was “huilco pamba” from the Quichua language meaning sacred trees in the plain. The mountain in the background is called Mandango, the sleeping Inca, the protector of the region. 

This area is known as the Valley of Longevity, due to the many residents who claim to have lived over 100 years, some as old as 135 years. French and scientists from other countries confirm these claims after an extensive study of the locals. Thus, this has become a haven for ex-pats, believing a move here will add years to their life. 

Getting off the bus, visions of an old-west country town ran through my mind. The only difference here was a modern bus system and paved highways and roads. A primary road

running through town has all the small shops needed for survival. There is a grain store, hardware store, a small convenience store and a pharmacy. The only thing missing from this strip is a bar. Do not panic. There are bars in this tiny town. 

One only needs to walk a single block where reaching the center square suddenly is like the movie Pleasantville; everything transforms from black and white into living color. No, you have not magically transported to Santa Cruz or Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. All around the square and littering the side streets are tiny tiendas selling the same handcrafted jewelry that one sees at every music or cultural festival or from straggly dreadlocked men and women with tie dyed dirty clothes who set out a blanket displaying the same baubles until the police run them off. Because the designs are so ubiquitous worldwide, you really have to question the claim these are handmade by the seller. 

Within minutes of surveying the cafés and other shop, watching people in the park, people lingering on the streets,

it is whiter here than at a Ku Klux Klan rally. Most of it is wrinkled white, like bed linens that have not been changed after a restless night’s sleep. Covering some, but not enough of this wrinkled white are tie dyed fabrics. For a few wild moments, I thought the 70s had returned, but none of our youth returned with it.

In front of one café was a sign showing “Happy Birthday, Summer”. We happened to be nearby when Summer appeared for her birthday party. Elegant in stature, a tall platinum blonde woman floated by wearing a long sundress, earrings made from the feathers of some unfortunate parrot. They hung down about eight inches from her earlobes. Layers of silver necklaces adorned her neck, but did nothing for her pale milky, but age spotted skin. She generously applied the eye shadow in a rainbow of colors to highlight the memory of the parrot on her ears. The gauzy sleeveless white dress with a hem almost to the ground swayed in the breeze as she walked; her white sandals only brightened by the red polish on her toes. Without the earring and the makeup, she could have been a ghost of decades past. 

As we looked around, the town center recreates an era long gone by, but by garnering permission since this is the valley of longevity. Celebrate the past here like you will live forever!

Our last exchange hosts had strongly suggested we have a meal at Izhcayluma Hosteria and Restaurant as stated on their card. We had read that there was a used English bookstore along the way to the restaurant; planning to kill two birds, we headed out. According to the rather unfriendly man at the tourism office, the bookstore was only a 15-minute walk “that way” with the pointing of a finger. These were not very precise directions at all.

We started up the road he pointed to, walked 20 minutes up a steep graded road, but there was no bookstore in site. Ron stopped in a hostel to ask directions. It is another 200 meters or so up the road. After 200 more meters, there still was no sign of it. Stopping for more directions at a small tienda, we were told it was around the corner and then about 200 meters. This bookstore seemed to be like the carrot in front of two jackasses; we were never going to find it. This seemed to be a good argument for a Kindle. We headed back to town and took a taxi to the restaurant.

As we were riding in the taxi, we passed the bookstore. It would have been another mile from where we gave up; a mile of climbing a graded street similar to climbing a ladder. That dirty four letter word crops up again “hike”. 

Reaching the restaurant, we perceived this as being fancier than we had bargained for, just on the appearance. Mentally, I am ordering water and soup, passing on a real entrée. The entire restaurant overlooks the mountain range with lush tropical gardens directly below with trails for hotel guests to explore. 

When I cautiously opened the menu, I was euphoric when spotting the price list. It was very reasonable. I ordered

spaghetti with chicken, bacon, peppers and onions. Ron chose the chicken curry. Though I did not think my dish had much flavor, the view was sumptuous and worth every noodle. 

Later in the evening, we went into town. Every Thursday, they have a free admission culture night with bands, singers, and dancers in St.

Sebastian’s Square. We were watching a band play, and then there was an announcement. President Rafael Correa was there and made his entrance into the crowd about 30 feet from where we were standing. He greeted the crowd without droning on with a political speech, so the dancing started shortly thereafter.