Felt hats, food galore and Andean pop: by bus to Ecuador’s far south

Each bus journey in Ecuador was a unique adventure, but common themes soon became familiar. Soon after leaving the chaos of the bus station, the bus would pull over by the side of the road and people would pour on board to sell their wares. Pots of chicken stew, meat kebabs, fruit salads, fruits on sticks, homemade ice-creams retrieved from polystyrene coolboxes, little bags of popcorn, bread, cakes, pastries, crisps, cold drinks dripping with condensation. Then once all transactions were complete, food sellers would be replaced by an evangelical preacher, or someone promoting a cure-all in a little pill bottle, or someone selling miniature leather jackets to hang from a rear-view mirror, or the latest chocolate bar. At last, instead of peace from being sold something, Andean pop would be played at an unavoidable volume for the rest of the journey.

This song, in particular, followed us everywhere we went in the Andes in Ecuador and Peru; there were endless variations but it was always the same tune. Apparently this is the original, from a Bolivian band in 1982, although its roots may lie further back in folk music. This video is also a good example of the Andean pop music videos that would often accompany long bus journeys in both countries. Play this loudly for about 8 hours and you will get the idea. (The refrain may be familiar from a recent Jennifer Lopez song. When we were looking at the flat we now live in in Montreal, three girls playing in the schoolyard opposite were singing this, and we took that as an auspicious sign, as we were instantly transported back to South America).

In the mountains, the bus would pick up anyone flagging it down, and Kichwa families would climb up the bus steps, small children and elderly women using our knees as support for the final step. They wore colourful clothes, with bright woven shawls, and felt fedora-esque hats, often adorned with feathers. They must have found us as fascinating to look at as we them, because we were often the subject of long, intense stares from people sitting a couple of feet away, who would still be watching us intently ten or twenty minutes later.

Our next journey took us from Cuenca, via Loja, to sleepy hippy dippy Vilcabamba in Ecuador’s far south. At one point we travelled through the town of Saraguro, the centre of one of the most distinctive ethnic groups in Ecuador. The Saraguro community was transported to this region, from Bolivia, by the Inca about 500 years ago. They dress largely in black, men wearing knee length trousers, and both men and women wearing their hair in a single plait. Vilcabamba was a pleasant but strange place, the centre of an alternative community that seemed to have displaced the original Ecuadorian one. It was its location at the edge of Podocarpus National Park that had drawn us there. We explored the countryside around the town, surprised to find huge crabs scuttling about high up the hillside. vilcabambacrab

Then we headed to the National Park, which spans an elevational range of over 2000m, and is home to spectacled bears, mountain tapirs, jaguars and an abundance of bird and plant species, many of them endemic. We just scratched the surface, scrambling up a steep trail dripping with bromeliads and orchids, before a climb along the jagged spine of a ridge with far-reaching views down steep forested slopes. Podocarpusorchid

After much deliberation, our journey onward to Peru was to be a long one, as the rainy season meant that the more direct route through a remote border crossing would be treacherous with landslides. Instead, it was to be the bus to Piura, in the Peruvian desert, and then back up into the mountains once in Peru. The journey took all day, and we wound our way along twisting mountain roads. The bus had a display which helpfully showed the speed, confirming that we were crawling along at about 20km/hour as we went uphill. After endless lush hillsides, we dropped down to the small humid border town of Macara, where we stopped for a short while. We got out to stretch our legs and took in the scene opposite, of smoke billowing from an outside grill at a neighbourhood cafe, and people heading home in the evening twilight. Then, as the light was fading, we stopped on one side of a bridge a little further along the road. A small booth on one side gave us our exit stamps, while the bus waited for us to continue our journey, and we walked across the bridge and into Peru.

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