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Driving the Jungle Route to Perú

Southern Ecuador – the beautiful town of Cuenca, Parque Nacional Cajas, and the weird village of Vilcabamba. Then driving the Jungle Route to Perú. To the chaotic town of Jaen and on to Chachapoya. To visit the remains of the eponymous culture.

Ingapirca 2 Chachapoya

Cuenca, 28th August

We leave the Incas and their gardening Lamas in Ingapirca. Heading southwards to Cuenca.

Just about 2h. The landscape gets less mountainous, and traffic gets heavier – especially with trucks.

On the way we experience a steep learning curve: we finally understand why vegetarians often complain about South American food. 

Well, we’re not absolutely sure about this. As there was no space to park Prado we could only take this beautiful pic from the car window. Unfortunately, it was impossible to ask the guys if they also serve a vegan version of this roasted pork. You know, similar to vegan eggs sold in certain shops.

Cuenca the 3rd largest town in Ecuador. And pretty different from other urban centers: there’s a big’n’animated historic center with many beautiful buildings.

Today a visit is not our 1st priority. To start with, we have to visit Cuenca’s Beer Company. Just to taste their IPA in a courtyard with the famous cathedral in the background. 

Next morning. Pretty nice weather. thus, no reason to waste time by visiting Cuenca’s old stones. 

We drive to Parque Nacional Cajas. Just some 40km away. A paramó at an altitude of 4000m with a lot of lakes.

At Laguna Toreadora the usual admin. stuff to enter the national park. And we’re ready for hike number 1. A 4h circuit around half a dozen of lakes, going up’n’down the whole time, crossing some of these famous polylepis forests, and being famous for its marvelous views.

The next morning we’re finally ready to discover Cuenca’s historic center. To start with the Parque Calderón and the huge new cathedral.

You can even climb up to the roof. To enjoy the nice view.

Inside the cathedral is rather modern’n’nondescript.

Whatever, they also have an old cathedral. Nowadays converted into a kind of museum.

While sneaking thru Cuenca’s historic town you also learn a lot about the town’s appreciation of Uncle Sam’s influence.

A look at the famous Plaza de las Flores and Plaza de San Francisco. Well, the latter does not really feel safe despite the omnipresence of the police. The guys are constantly engaged to take pics for everybody instead of engaging themselves in searching for eventual bad girls.

Finally, a few of these historic houses.

Sometimes you just follow a guidebook to plan your next trip. We think that’s the very reason why you buy it. We trust in the good advice of Lonely Planet. It absolutely recommends visiting 3 villages in the surrounding of Cuenca. 3 villages famous for their colorful Sunday markets, their unique handicrafts, and the outstanding beauty of their colonial centers.

As it is a Sunday we’re on the way to marvel at these places. To start with the small town of Galeceo. True, there are 1 or 2 historic buildings at the main square …

Quickly it becomes clear there’s definitely no Sunday market as well as we could not discover any outstanding handicrafts except the cheap Chinese-made souvenirs they sell everywhere.

But, should you be keen on having an excellent roasted Guinee pig – that’s the very place to go for it.

Whatever. The next village will surely be better.

We’re in Chordeleg. There’s a mass on the main square. And 100reds of sinners listening seriously to the priest’s words. Probably knowing exactly what expects them should they not follow them.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any outstanding colonial architecture or any sign of a Sunday market. Well, there are a few shops selling jewelry. Probably, that’s what they do every day of the week.

Finally, we arrive in the village of Sigsig. Immediately we discover some more Guinee pigs being roasted for the Sunday lunch,

A little later we even find the market hall. A pretty modern building. True, they sell some veggies’n’chicken. Probably, that’s what they do every day of the week.

And the outstanding colonial architecture? Instead, we can admire outstanding ugly examples of the worst 3rd world architecture has to offer.

We give up and return to Cuenca.

Dear authors of Lonely Planet – whoever you are – we kindly ask you to avoid absolute nonsense in your guidebook whenever possible. We’re convinced a publisher like Lonely Planet cannot check every recommendation in their books. They also have to trust their authors to a certain degree that they know personally what they suggest. We consider it a real pain in the ass to get such misinformation.

Well. maybe it’s our mistake, we didn’t double-check with Mr. Google. Definitely, it will not happen again.

Jaen, 30th August

We’re on the way to the south. Slowly but surely out of Ecuador. On the so-called Jungle Route on the Amazonian side of the Cordilleras. Some 150km and 4h to Vilcabamba. The road pretty ok, the weather not that nice at all, and the landscape – as usual, mountainous up’n’down the whole time.

Initially, we planned to stay in Loja. Still, the weather is so bad that we just decide to skip Ecuador’s southernmost town and continue to Vilcabamba, just 40km to the south. Also to save time tomorrow when we’ll have quite a few km to reach the Peruvian border.

Approaching Vilcabamba feels a little strange. Definitely, it’s a pretty remote village, and definitely far away from everything. Still, in its neighborhood, we discover quite a number of huge villas. Visibly people who earned some bucks.

Yeah, we know, quite a number of US senior citizens have settled in the surrounding of Vilcabamba. Maybe their houses? No idea. Or coffee producers?

Arriving in the village, the whole place even feels more strange. Everything is really small and astonishingly rundown. Many places are closed. A few proud US citizens sneaking around. But also they look like guys who escaped from social welfare. Others seem to be followers of an esoteric guru. And the poor Ecuatories? Just a few of them, probably trying to take some benefit from this strange society. 

Whatever, it’s just for 1 night.

The next morning we leave this strange place quite early. Definitely, no reason to stay any longer.

It’s about 160km to the border. The road: some 100km paved. Well, the further we drive the more it degrades.  Landslide infested, lack of maintenance, poor construction, etc. Still quite passable; even if pretty wet’n’slippery. The last 60km rather muddy, sometimes slippery.

Maybe a word about the weather: worse than yesterday, raining or drizzling the whole day. Perfect conditions for having more landslides on this road.

Thus, the worst conditions to drive the Jungle Road – La Ruta de Selva. Wowww – and we’re on this road to Perú.

After 3h we pass Zumba. Ecuador’s outpost in the south. Definitely a lost place. Just a lot of army people hanging around.

Then another 30 km to reach Perú.

1h later, we finally see the border post of La Balsa. Down at the river. But what the hell. 100reds of cars queuing up. On both sides. Looks like the border has been blocked. Maybe internet is not working, thus immigration and customs cannot do their work. And poor customers wait for weeks until some guys realize that they forgot to plug in with the newly installed fiber optic. Who knows.

Whatever, we drive down to have a look. Really there are 100reds of cars parked on both sides of the road. Nothing moves. A guy tells us, that the bridge to Perú is closed. At least for 2 days.  

Finally, we find a guy from customs. Suddenly it becomes clear that there is an Ecuatory- Peruvy joint event on the bridge to celebrate eternal friendship, cooperation, or whatever you can imagine. We just have to wait until the mass has finished and we may move on. Of course, in the meantime, we will do all necessary paperwork with Ecuatory immigration and customs.

Immigration takes us nearly 5′. Simply because internet is so slow in La Balsa. Customs just 1′. Because the guys know how slow internet is. Thus, they even don’t try to cancel our TIP in Ecuador’s electronic super system. They just stamp our document and we take a picture of it as proof that Prado left the country. A solution ok for us.

Time to walk to the bridge. To observe what’s happening. 1/2h later the priest has told the poor sinners what he has to tell – and we can cross the bridge to Peru. 

On the Peruvian side, we have to wait another hour. Just to let the poor guys finish their lunch’n’siesta.

Then again, the immigration’n’customs ceremony. 10′ later we’re done; allowed to spend 90 days in the country. Probably to accelerate the process, the Peruvies did even not ask for any Covid vaxxes, or the online sanitation form we had to fill in.  Only they recommend us to immediately buy an insurance for Prado in Jaen to avoid any complications with the police.

Then about 2h on a good road to Jaen.

Jaen, an absolutely nondescript town. Chaotic, with 100 000s of moto-taxis, ugly – that’s it,

Nevertheless, to start with, we need an ATM. There are not many of them without exorbitant fees. And there is none of them without a huge queue. 3/4h later it’s our turn. The maximum the ATM disperses is 100$. But you can use each card twice to get your cash. No problem. Just the guys behind us start wondering why the hell we need such a long time.

On to a lousy sleepery. And the nearby watering hole cum eatery to celebrate our arrival in Perú.

Chachapoyas, 2nd September

The next morning the usual stuff we do after crossing a border: buy the insurance for Prado. Fortunately, we already contacted the agent of La Positiva a few days ago via WhatsApp to make sure everything is ready once we arrive. So we get everything within 20′.

Then a new SIM card and a new kettle as Perú is back to 220V.

Finally, we’re ready to drive on. To Chachpoyas some 4h away.

Initially thru arid, rather flat land. Then thru the mountains of Cordillera Negra.

In the afternoon we reach Chachpoyas. What a difference to Jaen. A small, quiet town with a pretty nice center. And most important none of these chaotic moto-taxis.

Of course, nobody visits the town for its tiny colonial center. It’s all about the archeological sites of the people of Chachapoyas in the area. Mainly the mountain fortress of Kuélap and the numerous sarcophagi in the area.

We start with Kuélap. We know that part of the fortification wall collapsed last April. For unknown reasons, they closed everything. Just remains the outside to see.

Some 30km to the station of the cable car they built a few years ago. We pay some 5$ and we’re allowed to drive the 4km to the fortress in a pretty new, Chinese-built cable car. But be warned: the operators seem to be pretty Corony-addicted guys. They want to see your 3 vaxxes, your hands washed constantly, and you have to wear at least 2 masks. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter how you wear them.

Arriving in Kuélap, you register in a huge book. Then they urge you to sneak thru numerous stalls with all kinds of souvenirs to finally reach the trail leading to the fortress.

Parts of the trail have just been constructed a few weeks ago. To attract visitors to come – even if only the exterior can be visited.

After some hiking the outer walls become visible. Well, especially the parts that collapsed. By now covered with an enormous blue tarp. Visibly not much more has happened since the incident last April.

After 1/2h we’re as near to the fortress as we currently are allowed to. Many guys sneak around to make sure that none of the few tourists visiting go any further.

Nevertheless, to comfort poor visitors a little bit, they are allowed to see the reconstruction of a hut of the Chachapoyas. No idea how realistic this is.

That’s it. We’re on our way back to Chachapoyas. To send Prado to a spa.

After the visit remains the question if it’s worth visiting Kuélap until it’s open again. We think probably not really. 

If Kuélap is on your bucket list better postpone your trip thru South America until they open it again. Still consider, it may open again in October, or it may take another 10 years.

Next morning. We visit the Sarcophagi of Karajía and the Quiocta Cave. 2 places you can easily experience by yourself. But as you need each time your personal guide to enter the sites we decide for a tour. The very 1st 1 since we’ve been back on the road.

Thus, we’re perched in a minibus with 16 other victims. Then driven to a village near Karajía. Finally, a 2km walk downhills to the site.

Arriving there a long explanation from our guide – then we may sneak around a little bit, take pictures and try to make the selfie of our life.

Back to the minibus, we experience the usual on a tour. Nevertheless, a short time later we’re on the road again. To the Quiocta Cave.

Not really an archeological site – rather a cave with a few stalagmites. Even if they placed a few bones in a corner.

Still, a marvelous place to have your picture taken.

Then we’re on our way back to Chachapoyas. To recover from all these incredible adventures.

Guys, that’s it for this post. Use your time for more important things than reading it. Nevertheless, please don’t forget to remain jealous until the next 1 will be published. Soon.

Cheeeers

Monika’n’Martin

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