I was invited to visit a government run senior residence in Zaruma, Ecuador and was excited to make the trip. Who wouldn’t have said yes for an opportunity not only to meet more Ecuadorian seniors, but for the chance to discover the gold capital of southwest Ecuador? I especially liked enunciating out loud the exotic sounding name – Zaruma!
The drive to Zaruma from Cuenca was about 4 hours over bumpy roads to the coast at Machala (banana country) and over more bumpy roads back into the mountains of Zaruma at 4,000 feet. I was traveling in an official government truck with a social services driver and an Ecuadorian senior care analyst. We stopped for lunch at Piñas, a small town known for its fog and cold as well as its orchids. We picked up a health educator on the way.
Zaruma, in the province of El Oro (oro = gold), was founded by Spanish explorer Alfonso de Mercadillo in 1595. But long before the Spaniards arrived with a fervent desire to find gold for the Spanish crown, Zaruma was inhabited by the Canar and Inca peoples.
I visited one gold mine, Mina El Sexmo (the Sixth Mine), now a museum. My colleagues and I were required to wear rubber galoshes and a helmet. I cannot imagine how anyone then, or even now would be willing to endure darkness, dampness, and endanger one’s health day after day. Entrance is free. On weekends the coffee shop is open, providing a beautiful view of the valley below and of the surrounding mountains.
According to Wikipedia “Around 10,000 people are employed in mining directly or indirectly, producing 9-10 tons per year of the precious metal. This activity generates work for locals plus a large group of immigrants from other provinces and northern Peru. There are approximately 180 mining companies operating on 2,800 hectares of concessions. Some researchers claim that in the period 1536-1820, Spain benefited from approximately 2,700 tons of Zaruma gold.”
Among the most appealing visuals of Zaruma are the “Republican era” wood walkways and old timber and stucco homes in the town center, some with gold ormolu touches and lattice work, warmer and kinder to the eye and body than modern concrete seen in new buildings throughout the Andes. Make a point to see the Sanctuary of the Virgen del Carmen, the all-wood mother church of Zaruma painted Caribbean blue inside. The altar (lined with gold and silver), and the chandeliers, not to mention the paint color, make it inviting. It was built in 1912 and overlooks the main Independence Plaza. Note: A 1749 earthquake collapsed most of Zamora’s buildings and its mines. A depression followed but the city was quickly rebuilt.
There’s one museum, the Museo Municipal, just off the main square. I did not have time to explore inside. I understand it holds a number of local curiosities including mining paraphernalia.
If you love birding and nature, there is Reserva Buenaventura nine kilometers from Piñas, run by Fundacion Jocotoco. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is $15.
I spent two days visiting low income seniors at a new government-run home on a plateau overlooking a valley about ½ mile from the city center. The director (“coordinador”) is a jolly young man, a social worker, surrounded by a staff which includes a psychologist, nursing assistants, and physical therapists. Lots of “carino” as you can probably feel when looking at the photo included here of a physical therapist with her sweet charge.
I stayed at Hosteria El Jardin in Barrio Limoncito about ¼ mile below the city; a taxi to get there costs about $1.50 from the center. The excellent accommodations are provided by a veterinarian, Dr. Jorge Guzman, and his wife Patty. He takes care of the garden. She is fastidious and very fixed in her ways. Breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., not later!! She did, after much begging, agree to serve me at 8:30 a.m. as I had slept two hours the night before. Other than that, the place is clean (check room for small spiders and do a final sweep of floors and ceilings before sleeping). It meets western standards, has comfortable new Chaide and Chaide mattresses, and if you are driving, there is a safe place for your car or truck inside the gates. YOU MUST RESERVE AHEAD as the hosteria is often completely booked with mining engineers from around the world (http://hosteriaeljardinzaruma.com/galeria.html cell phone contact numbers are 099 756-8134, 099 211-6043 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). About $25/night including breakfast.
Best part of all, the beautiful Hosteria El Jardin gardens, views, and, QUIET. My lungs were happy. Within hours they were dry after the dampness of Cuenca. A healing environment.
Bring dried fruit, yucca chips, herbal teas, and bottled water to keep handy during your stay. There are two decent (clean kitchen) restaurants in the city center – 200 Millas, and a small Ecuadorian place three doors down from the Cerro del Oro Hotel, same side of Calle Sucre, serving excellent local coffee. Hosteria El Jardin also serves and sells excellent zarumeno coffee. If you are a coffee lover, remember to buy some before leaving!! Apparently, there is also a good restaurant on Plaza del la Independencia, Tertulia, next to the beautiful church. Don’t know how I missed it!
A typical Zarumeno dish is tegrillo, a concoction of baked plantains (the most abundant crop of the province) with eggs, cheese, and cream, or meat instead of cheese … I tried three bites of the cheese tegrillo, not something I would choose to order again. I did not see any “culinary” choices other than a popular local rice dish with fried pork and peanut sauce, and bolones de queso or bolones de mani (plaintain balls made with cheese or peanuts).
Another place for lodging is Hosteria Tierra Linda Mi Zaruma (see Trip Advisor for details) in Vizcaya. It has a swimming pool and is easier to get to if you have a car. In town, Hotel Cierro de Oro is basic, and a reasonable $12-$15 per person. The owners are delightful; ask for rooms facing the front otherwise you will have no windows and no light. It has comfortable Chaide and Chaide mattresses, the linens and bathrooms are a bit old but acceptable, and the floors and curtains need some attention. Call owner Gonzalo Zambrano at (07)2972505 for reservations or write email@example.com Gonzalo’s wife runs the wedding and quinceanera dress shop next door.
The best time to visit Zaruma (my bias) is when it is warm and dry and there are fewer bugs, September through November. The rainy season begins in December.
Sites of interest other than architecture downtown, the main church, and the Sexmo Mine, according to the Spanish version of Wikipedia, are below. The English translation is strange but you’ll get the gist:
– Zaruma: Cerro Zaruma Urcu, Environment Landscape, Montúfar Mineralogical Museum of Antiquities, Mina El Sexmo Tourist Complex (BIRA Company, Gringos Cemetery, Pamba Ramirez Petroglyphs).
– Neighborhood Rome: Sanctuary of the Lord of Rome, Quartz Processors, Brewing where they make brandy, brown sugar and Creole.
– Ortega Neighborhood: Laguna Natural under the Bridge Road to St. Paul’s Church Ortega, Ortega River, Ortega Roosters court.
– Malvas Parish: Church and Park, Heritage House, orchid gardens, Candy and Snacks, Cerro El Boqueron, the Guava Hill, Sendero El Espino, Sendero El Guasito.
– Parish Arcapamba: Site The Church Guando Park Craft Factory delicacy, dairies, Cerro de Chinchapuro, hydraulic Mills quartz Guando River, Trail Guando Pogllo, Lomas La Posada, 4 roads, La Cabaña.
– Muluncay Parish: Church and Park, Trail Buza Muluncay-Bridge, Bay Sugarloaf Petroglyphs Buza, Bells and Pailas Factory, Bay Cup, Quarter Muluncay Chico, Chico Muluncay Trail – Sugarloaf.
– Parish Huertas: Prehispanic Settlement Guayquichuma, Church and Central Park, Byron Prehispanic Settlement, Cave of Brokers, Quebrada Honda, Tomagatillo-Sidrapamba Trail, Waterfall Cachicarana.
– Sinsao Parish: Church and Park, production of brown sugar and spirits
– Parish Salvias: Cerro de Arcos, Cerro Chivaturco, Salvias petroglyphs, waterfalls Chorro Blanco, Chacacapac, El Molino, jumon, Dur Dur, Dark Hollow, Papa Beto Lagunas, San Jose, Laguna de Arcos, Rio Palmas.
– Parish Guizhaguiña: Chinchilla Laguna, San Pablo Petroglyphs, Stone Ball, Chepel, Payama, Braids, prehispanic settlements in San Antonio, Sanctuary of the Virgin delos Remedios, Pilgrim House, Lagunas Negra, gripe, of yoked, El Campanario.
– Parish Guanazan: Archaeological, Epigraphy of Guinacho, Ciquircalo prehispanic settlements, Paltacalo Cerros, El Tocto.
– Abañín Parish: Monoliths with human figure, landscape, park and church.
Wendy Jane Carrel, M.A., has been researching and writing about health care options for older adults in Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico for the last three years. She has lived or worked on four continents in over 40 countries.
All photos by Wendy Jane Carrel
This blog was posted on Cuenca High Life, February 2016 http://www.cuencahighlife.com/zaruma/
I enjoyed a very Good Friday.
I worked on projects in the a.m. and at 12:15 walked in the rain from the Zona Roja to Cuenca’s El Centro. Since I’m from Los Angeles where it rarely rains, I was reminded of the times I’ve walked in the rain in Paris.
At 1:00 pm I met up with a British teacher of English at a French café on Parque Calderon. The teacher is always fun to talk to; he’s been in Ecuador 17 years and provides me with remarkable insights about what I seem to be experiencing.
When it was time for my British friend to leave and meet up with other friends, an elderly man walked in, accompanied by his family. The family seated him on a bench about 2’ from me. Oh my. I had the biggest smile on my face watching him and listening – his conversation was sharp and clear, his appetite impressive, his cheerful demeanor inviting. It was meant to be, we met up.
The man’s name is Cesar and he is 102 years old. According to his niece, he does not suffer from any ailments, he is in excellent health. You could tell by his remarkable energy.
Cesar was driven to Cuenca from Guayaquil earlier in the day by his grand-nephew – a 3 hour trip on winding roads – to visit family!!!
I asked how Cesar spent his years, he said he had studied English, was an English teacher but did not work often as there was not a lot of interest in learning English when he was a young man. I asked his niece how he managed to pay for his life if work was sporadic, she said he inherited money to last a life time so he never has felt much stress. I was wondering, is this one of the secrets to longevity?
Cesar wanted to practice his English with me: Are you married? How much money do you have?
Cesar is cute……very cute… and was a wonderful gift on this day (as was the chance to see my British friend again).
Happy Easter Cesar!! And thank you; you and your generation are an inspiration!
Yep, I admit it, vanity. I’ve carried white and grey in my hair since age 19. If my hair were pure white, I might wear it that way. For the moment I feel best as a strawberry blond, a color that picks up the gold and auburn in my hazel eyes, and, complements my skin tone.
For more than a dozen years I have been content using NaturColor, a product made in Italy with no ammonia, no resorcinol, and no parabens. See http://www.NaturColor.com. I’ve been buying it in Los Angeles at Erewhon Market or at Whole Foods Market, and at Clark’s Nutrition in Palm Desert, CA. No stinging, no reaction on my scalp. The color I use gives a flat, natural result; my hair comes out smooth, silky, healthy. My hair does not need a conditioner or conditioning because of aloe vera and other herbal ingredients. I’ve always felt good using this product.
But in Ecuador, it’s been hard to find a mostly organic hair color product. And as in North America, natural written on the box does not mean organic, nor does it mean without chemicals.
I’ve found three salons in Cuenca that use Redken Chromatics with no ammonia. At one salon my scalp turned bright red, followed by a wild headache. I called NY to talk to a veteran Redken colorist to get a take on what could have happened. The 8NW color result was beautiful, yes, but I learned it is possible I am highly allergic to this product. I did try. Next, I experimented with a L’Oreal product without ammonia. Ouch. Same story, toxic for me.
After these experiences I headed to central Cuenca, where I found two beauty supply stores with choices for products without ammonia, but each of the products, I discovered after reading the boxes, have components of resorcinol and parabens. Visit cosmeticosdelaustro.com at Gran Colombia 12-01 if you are scouting on your own or Distribudora Pedro Santos at Tarqui 10-77 where they sell no ammonia Revlon Color Silk products.
Next I tried a semi-permanent Italian product made in Mexico, Designer Color by Tec Italy. No stinging, no discoloration of scalp, no ammonia, but it does contain resorcinol and parabens. So far it is the mildest but I am concerned about resorcinol and parabens entering my body through my scalp.
At Burbujas, a high-end beauty product store that can be found in all major Ecuadorian cities, I discovered NaturVital. NaturVital is based in the UK but has a Latin American office with headquarters in Spain. I was very excited to read on the box no ammonia, no resorcinol, and no parabens. But alas, sorry to say, the hydrogen peroxide in the formula is really strong. It stung, and I developed a very strong headache during the wait period that got worse as the day progressed.
I realize I am more sensitive than most people. But who will take care of my health if I do not? Maybe the universe is sending a message, no more hair color. Umm….. what shall I do?
While I’m deciding, I’m still on the quest…
Here are some of the salons that apply hair color that I’ve discovered in Cuenca, there are many others:
- Lucy’s Edificio Los Pinos (a classy new building), Calle Los Pinos, just off Ordonez Lasso in San Sebastian, the west part of town. Lucy is young, charming, and gifted with color. She’s also a great cutter. This is the high society Cuencana hang-out and the place I tried both the Redken Chromatics and the L’Oreal products without ammonia. Tel. (7)410-2725 No English spoken.
- Peluqueria Lucia Palacios Roberto Crespo 5-34 in the attractive El Vergel neighborhood on the southeast part of town in a non-descript older building. Lucia has been a stylist for 30 years; she is attentive and loving, and understands differences between products. She reads, carefully studies, and is knowledgeable about effects. Prices less than at Lucy’s. No English spoken. Tel. (7)288-1473
- Renova Also in the upscale El Vergel neighborhood at Los Fresnos 1-100 and Paucarbamba, tel. (7)2885802. Redken Chromatics products. Ask for Adriana Bazallo. Priced a little under Lucy’s. Some English spoken.
- Roxanne Lord at Sojo Spa. American stylist in Edificio La Cuadra #2 on Jose Astudillo at Eduardo Crespo Malo She has a lovely personality, a number of Americans go to her, American prices. She does not use color products without ammonia. Roxanne_lrd@yahoo.com
- GringoTree.com has received several recommendations for a lady I have yet to meet, Berenice Lopez of Berenice Spa, who worked as a cosmetologist in New Jersey and New York for 17 years and has returned to her hometown of Cuenca. She speaks English. Calle del Arupo 1-08 at Calle de Los Alisos. Tel. (099)273-5378 cell
If you are interested in toxic effects of hair color tints, permanent or semi-permanent, there are several resources on the Internet which put forth their ideas. Here below is an article by a British gal, published at NaturalNews.com:
Suffering From Hair Coloring – A Chemical Overdose
(NaturalNews) Recently a young woman in the U.K. suffered a severe reaction to a hair dye with chemical burns to her skin around her face, neck and scalp and a rash over her body (1). This is in line with reports of an increase in hair dye allergies. A survey in London found that contact dermatitis due to a hair dye allergy rose by 7.1 percent over a six-year period after a patch test (2).
According a story on a Current Affairs program, the number of reactions to hair dye is soaring (3).
Hair dye, particularly permanent hair dye, contains harsher chemicals than other dye types. Permanent hair dye consists of color and developer. Contained in the color mixture are a range of synthetic dyes and intermediates such as ammonia, diamino-benzenes, phenylenediamines, resorcinol and phenols. The color, mixed with a developer such as hydrogen peroxide, produces a color.
A team in the U.K. tested permanent hair dyes due to concerns that many products contain highly allergenic and potentially carcinogenic chemicals. They found 6 of the main sensitizers, each with different degrees of strength, in a number of the 15 products tested and without mention on product labels.
“Those ingredients included P-Phenylenediamine, an extreme sensitiser found in all but three of the products tested; Phenlymethylpyrazolene, a strong sensitizer found in three of the dyes; m-Aminophenol, found in six of the dyes; N,N-bis, a strong sensitizer found in four dyes; 4-Aimon-2-hydroxytoluene, a strong sensitizer found in six dyes and Toluene-2.5-diamine, a sensitizer of unclassifiable strength found in two dyes.” ((http://www.cosmeticsdesign-europe.com/n…)
These chemicals cause sensitization which means that after initial exposure to them, or other products containing them, a more severe reaction may occur.
Reactions to the hair dye products include severe swelling and rashes. In addition, there are links to a range of cancers, including breast, bladder and leukemias which have as yet to be definitely proven.
Note that p-phenylenediamine (PPD) is derived from coal-tar which is a potentially carcinogenic ingredient. Du Pont does not recommend prolonged skin contact with this chemical.
About the author
Lynn Berry loves good food and cooking and is passionate about nutrition and natural health care. She has a website promoting healthy eating at www.low-calorie-vegetarian-recipe.com.
I have to admit, I miss the take-out salads of North America and Europe, and the reliable salad bars at Whole Foods Markets where I would spend $3 for breakfast and $4 for lunch with the added bonus of great variety (ready-made organic quinoa, etc.), WiFi (an instant office), and a blissful array of natural products to return home with – organic shampoos, other organic products – body creams, vitamins, household cleansers. No such all-in-one place in Cuenca.
The key here is to be adaptable, to ask everyone you meet up with what they have found, and, to continue the search. Here, one of my searches has been for salad…
I grew up eating fresh salads. I realize I am not standard issue and am more particular than most. But if you are at all like me, you’ll survive… here is what I have found….
The closest approximation of take-out salads, as North Americans and Europeans know them, is at the upscale Gourmet Deli at the Hotel Oro Verde on Ordonez Lasso. Plan on spending $5-$6, not including something to drink; it’s a quiet place to be if you plan to eat your salad there. Another place I find to be reliable is the Spanish deli chain La Espanola at Mall del Rio (also in Guayaquil and Quito). The servers behind the counter will create the salad to your specifications, i.e. without meat (all their meat is processed), without cheese, etc., and serve you Spanish olive oil and lemon on the side. See photo below; the white items on the left are mushrooms which they substituted for meat or poultry.
If you are planning to eat out as opposed to take-out, you can find salads that have a familiar look to them at California Kitchen on Luis Cordero near Calle Larga, where you will feel like you are in the U.S. (a favorite ex-pat restaurant, well-managed by a delightful American family from San Diego), and at the intimate Windhorse Café on Calle Larga (run by precious Americans, former Peace Corps volunteers) where the salad(s) of the day will contain organic ingredients from their own garden or ingredients they’ve selected at markets. Other salads catering to “Western” palates can be found at Coffee Tree, Hotel Victoria, Mansion Alcazar.
Another option is to find the ingredients and make your own salad.
I am fortunate to have a French friend in Cuenca with refined food tastes; she makes it a point to be at an organic market at 6 am to find the freshest produce possible. She washes all she returns with in vinegar and water and puts a lot of love energy into her creations. Here below is her 100% organic salad made from Cuenca area produce, need I say that it was delicious?!
Here below is a photo of a salad I prepared with local produce. Mine was less labor intensive than that of my talented French friend, and not 100% organic:
Green Lab hydroponic lettuce from Supermaxi
Ecua Organic albahaca (basil) from Supermaxi, better than any organic basil I have tasted in California
Shredded carrots from Supermaxi, I usually buy the organic but not available daily
Avocado from Supermaxi
Green Garden cherry tomatoes from Supermaxi, “natural” but not organic
Potato salad with peas and hard-boiled eggs, no sugar added, from Bocatti
Anise seeds, more flavorful than any I’ve purchased in the U.S., found at Coral
Dried oregano, from Supermaxi, more flavorful than any I’ve purchased in the U.S.
Ecuadorian sea salt from the Feria Libre market, gift from European friends
Lemon from the organic farm of the owner of the condo where I am staying
Spanish olive oil from Supermaxi, not the quality of what you find at Trader Joe’s
but I’ve heard there is a private Ecuadorian source for top quality
olive oil that a number of ex-pats have found, hope to meet that source
Please click on photos to enlarge.
Here’s to your discovery of healthful salads and salad ingredients in Cuenca! Buen provecho!!
Addendum: My French friend read the blog and somehow felt it was implied that hydroponically grown lettuce is organic. So for clarification, here’s a link to an article on the subject: http://www.tmsspecialtyproducts.com/article/Is-hydroponic-lettuce-organic/201003180801MCT_____NEWSSERV_BC-HOME-HYDROPONIC-ND_58080
As any Ecuadorian or non-Ecuadorian who lives in Cuenca will tell you, BEWARE when you ride a city bus or cross a street.
If you fall or are hit, it will be your fault. You are not legally or medically protected by the company, person or vehicle that caused you injury, unless you come from one of the city’s powerful families. But of course, if you are from one of the city’s powerful families, you will not be taking public transportation; you’ll be in your own SUV or taking the Radio Taxi.
In Cuenca, it’s true – you take your life into your hands riding a bus. How do I know?
On January 25, I descended from Bus #13, on my way back from Coral Centro (a popular place to shop for sundries and food). One foot, the first one off the platform, was about to hit the ground, when the driver took off. The drop to the ground from the bus is an average of 2 feet in the older blue buses. I landed on my wrists and my left side. I was dazed and confused, not able to move for some time.
Now you are wondering… am I old, am I disabled, am I clumsy? I would think not. As anyone who has witnessed me norteño dancing to a Mexican version of Irish Riverdance can attest, I am light of weight, nimble, and fast on my feet.
So what happened? Was this an isolated incident?
Sorry to say, it was not. Many drivers take off before you are safely off the bus. They do this every day. Such situations occur for Ecuadorians and non-Ecuadorians alike.
Imagine being a tiny (under 5’) indigenous woman carrying heavy burlap bags on your back and in your hands? Or a mother with a child in her arms? Or a middle aged woman whose coat gets caught in the door as she is on the ground and she gets dragged along the road to the next stop ¼ mile away? Apparently, this happened to one ex-pat. What if you have a disability? If you have an ambulatory disability, you will not be riding the bus – no way to get a wheelchair on board, and too high to step into if you are wearing a prosthetic device. If you are elderly, you walk or take a taxi, that’s if you can afford a taxi, most seniors cannot.
What to do if this happens to you? You can report the incident to the police, or to the owners of the bus. This means knowing the exact bus number and time of the accident. Will there be any changes or interest in you? Unlikely for now. Why? Because this is how it has always been. My understanding is that some of the city’s wealthy families own the buses. Their drivers are paid minimum wage or slightly above minimum wage. The drivers are rarely screened, nor trained in public safety. The blue buses (don’t be deceived by photos) are rickety, dirty unless washed during a holiday such as “Carnaval”, and, they spew black diesel fuel into the air contaminating the environment and possibly affecting your health. But this is a developing country and better some transportation than none. Fortunately, three years from now, there will be an electric trolley system around the periphery of the central district, El Centro, and public safety issues may be improved.
The President and Vice President are acutely aware of public health and public safety issues regarding buses and factory conditions and are working with great dedication and diligence to improve the situation throughout the country; their challenge is enormous. But as in any nation, awareness requires a change of public attitude; when you are conditioned to accept “abuse” as normal, such awareness takes time. As of yet, I am told, there are no laws regarding bus companies and driver responsibility, though safety laws are gradually being implemented in factories. In Europe or North America, the driver of bus #13 would have been suspended, fined, or lost his job, and the owners would have seen to it that you were cared for.
I am lucky. Even though I was three days and nights with a wild headache, cuts and bruises, very sore from my left foot to my left hip, and hobbling along, I could eventually walk again. It took two months to heal. But why didn’t the driver stop or anyone from the bus help? I believe I must have let out quite a yelp. A few days after the event. a lovely American nurse friend who heard about it sent me to an intuitive, healing Ecuadorian physician. Conclusion: I suffered severe shock, no broken bones.
What was the lesson? Always pay attention to who is driving the bus, or if you can afford it, opt for a taxi. If the bus driver takes off without speeding, stops slowly and starts slowly, plays gentle melodic music, and greets you when you get on, it is likely he will be a balanced person and you’ll be safer. If you perceive that the driver has anger management issues, pay attention! Pay attention to his energy. Had I paid attention to the driver of Bus #13 on the first trip to Corral Centro (same driver on the return trip)when he suddenly pulled over in front of “Bazaar Melodie” on Avenida de las Americas to flirt with a girl selling bananas, I might have realized this man had serious issues. Three times the smiling girl brought him different stalks of the fruit. The third time, as he fished for coins to pay her and realized he didn’t have any, he stormed off by accelerating fast; jolting everyone on the bus; his rage filled the air. If there had not been torrents of rain and wind that afternoon, plus my eagerness to get to where I was staying, I might have waited for the next Bus #13 with a different driver for the return trip.
If you decide to venture forth and ride the Cuenca buses, go to http://www.cuencatransit.com for more information; the web site is in English.
Two ironic notes:
There are signs for seating intended for persons with disabilities and for seniors in the buses.
On the back of many Cuenca buses are billboards advocating no violence against women, asking men to respect all women.
Addendum: GringoTree.com wrote on March 21…
“City bus operators say that the 25 cent fare they charge passengers isn’t enough to maintain Cuenca’s fleet of almost 500 buses. The current fare was set a decade ago and doesn’t account for inflation. They also complain that they were not involved in decisions regarding the city’s new light-rail system, particularly the one to reduce the number of buses in El Centro.” (The light-rail system will not be up and running for 2-3 years).
Vilcabamba, located in southern Ecuador, is known as the Valley of Longevity.
According to INIGER, the Ecuadorian Institute for Gerontological Research, many of its inhabitants live long and healthful lives. INIGER, housed in an impressive new building about a 15 minute walk from town center (off the circle road near the zoo and orchid gardens), was officially opened in 2011 by President Correa. See http://www.inclusion.gob.ec/instituto-nacional-de-investigaciones-gerontologicas-iniger/ about the Iniger studies and the correlation between the environment and longevity. Some information is in dispute as many elders do not know exactly when they were born, for at the time they were born, there were no records.
How do you get to “Vilca”? By road from Peru, by plane to Loja’s Malacata airport via Guayaquil or Quito and then drive in, or, by private plane.
The drive from Loja to Vilca may remind travelers of the road to Hana on Maui island – winding and long for such a short distance (28 miles to Vilca), but astoundingly beautiful. The bio-diversity is breathtaking. It’s understandable why many expats from Europe and North America have moved to this somewhat hidden spot with its lush, fertile valleys and mountains, and what appears to be an abundance of organic food and fresh water. Mandango mountain to the west acts as symbolic protection; many consider the mountain and the valley below a spiritual place. I’m here in December, “the dry season”, and it is uncommonly green.
There are many small hostels and hotels. I checked in at the attractive, French run Le Rendez-Vous with bungalows serving as shelter. The gardens are immaculate, the manager Lino from Dijon warm and welcoming, and the morning breakfast memorable – multi-grain toast with homemade marmalade, a tortilla (omelette served golden), local coffee, and homemade fruit juice. The linen was clean, the water warm, the floors well swept. Great location – two blocks off the main square; and secure – gated and behind a wall. The bill was $20 all inclusive.
It’s pretty easy to get a feel for this place, in one day – lunch at Mama Tierra on a hill hear the entrance to town, a drive to see the exclusive enclave of San Joaquin founded by Americans see www.haciendasanjoaquin.com (you need an invitation),a drive to the German run Izhcayluma Hosteria y Restaurante www.izhcayluma.com on a hill over-looking the valley – beautiful views at dusk (cover your arms and legs to avoid bites), the town square with its shops and restaurants. Activities are seeing the waterfall Del Palto in the Podocarpus National Park (a five hour walk – ask instructions before you leave for how to enter the park and how to see the waterfall, not advised during the rainy season), Rumi Hulco nature reserve, walking along the Rio Chamba, hiking, horseback riding, swimming, lazing around under the sun, visiting a spa, sitting in the shade sipping on cool drinks while talking to new friends. It’s an easy place to meet-up with almost anyone who crosses your path. I learned more about Vilca in my few minutes at the local juice bar on the town square, run by an American naturopath, than I did by reading guide books.
I liked discovering Layseca’s on the plaza, a charming mini-restaurant and bakery with homemade goods served by its smiling proprietress Eleanor, who is Peruvian. I bought some herbs and organic honey at Soul Flower boutique on the plaza; Layseca also has local goods for sale.
The only downside to Vilca for me are the no see’ums, little bugs that tend to bite in rings or in one area on your arms, legs, neck, face. I was attacked, and I can assure you, it put a damper on my Vilca experience. The bites are small at first, they then swell up and itch like crazy. Your body looks as though you’ve come down with chicken pox. I admire those who acclimate, tolerate, and survive these invisible bugs/fleas. The reason they exist here and not in Cuenca, Loja, or Quito, is elevation. Vilcabamba is below 5,000 feet.
I deliberated whether or not to show you photos of my bites and opted not to. 😉
The average temps here are 60 degrees at night and 80 during the day. The air is clean (except for diesel fuel from buses and trucks passing through on the main highway), and the water apparently top quality. It seems quiet and relatively safe. The area is also known as the Valley of the Good Life. The people I met who live here would agree.
For more information on Vilcabamba + photos, one source is Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilcabamba,_Ecuador .
I just had to get to Loja to see it, feel it. I heard it was warmer than Cuenca and that I might also like it because it is known as Ecuador’s center of art, music , poetry, and dance. Did you say dance?!! Well yes, cumbia will entice me every time!! I was excited to get there!
The road trip from Cuenca along the Pan American Highway (also known as the Ruta del Sol) was long for such a short distance, 78 miles. It took almost 3 hours. The car climbed and climbed, and then descended and climbed, and descended and descended… The vistas were beautiful, magical, changing at each elevation. Haciendas below, horses, cows, and sheep, miles and miles of uninhabited land, flowers, trees, birds, the occasional indigenous woman in traditional finery walking along the road. Far more beautiful for me than the drive between Quito and Cuenca.
I enjoyed the strong sun on the road. By the time the car pulled in front of Loja’s Howard Johnson Hotel in mid-afternoon, it was raining. You might cringe when you read the name Howard Johnson, but it was a nice surprise.
In Ecuador, HJ is a hotel of high standards and does not resemble what you might remember about HJ’s if you grew up in the states years ago – ordinary. Everything about this Loja hotel is welcoming – the staff, the delicious gourmet cuisine in the dining room (yes, excellent, really), the comfortable bed, the bathroom amenities, and the warm rooms… for a southern Californian like me, being warm is essential… I usually stay at low budget hostels but am delighted I chose to splurge. Other recommended places to stay are the Zamorano Real, Hostal Aguilera Internacional, and the Hostal Dubai (have not seen them, so cannot advise).
It doesn’t take long to see most of this hilly city of 200,000 (about 1/4 the size of Cuenca). One of the best ways, if you have little time, is to hire a taxi at $10 an hour and have him let you off to visit and take pictures at major landmarks – the original city square (the city was founded in 1548 ), the original Gate to the City on Avenida Gran Columbia (looks like a walled fortress but holds 4 galleries and a cafe – climb the tower for a city view); the inviting 25 acre Jipiro park in the north of town with its replicas of a Chinese pagoda and an Arab mosque – a must; the Reynaldo Espinosa Botanical Garden on the road to Vilcabamba south of town, the mural of Simon Bolivar (known as the Liberator, the South American equivalent of George Washington), and La Banda park which incorporates a zoo. The walkways along the Malacatos and Zamora rivers are lined with weeping willows and full of lush vegetation. If there were no muddy sidewalks and streets, nor a number of dilapidated buildings, due to lack of infrastructure and funds, you can see how Loja could transform itself into a small wonder. I especially liked the gentility of its people.
It would be great if Ecuador could invest the way Mexico has (if it could) in restoration of its pueblos magicos (magical old cities) so they might invite more interest. (Old town Quito and old town Cuenca are in the midst of such a transformation but it would be great to see this happen in smaller towns too). I will always remember the perfection of El Fuerte in Sinaloa, or Los Alamos in Sonora. But of course, Ecuador’s President Correa has his hands full and is doing his best with basic, needed services first – education, health care, affordable food. He has already elevated the standard of living in the country in four short years from an average income of $200 a month in 2006 to $318 per month beginning January 2013.
Loja is famous as a gastronomic center. Coffee (you can also find it in downtown Cuenca at El Tostador on Avenida Sucre 10-20), quimbolitos con pasas (cornmeal, milk, butter, sugar and raisins baked in a banana leaf), sweet tamales or meat tamales, also available in Lojana cafes in Cuenca or at grocery stores – the latter usually not moist), all kinds of meats, and other specialties. Because of the short stay and need to push on, I missed eating at the famous Mama Loja Restaurant . But I can attest to the remarkable quality at the Howard Johnson formal dining room overlooking the city.
I enjoyed a potato soup with vegetables that had remarkable flavors (no not Ecuador’s famous locro soup of potatoes, avocado and cheese, delicious in another way (see previous posts). Remember to request NO SALT and add your own when traveling or living in Ecuador, otherwise you might be in for a surprise.
There are two universities in Loja, one publicly funded, the other a private Catholic institution. Included are a medical school, a law school, and a music conservatory. I toured a beautiful new private hospital – the UTPL – whose doctors come from all over the country; some have received additional training in the U.S., Europe, or Chile. I also visited two elder care homes, both run by dedicated nuns with a sense of humor, and, a hospice home for the terminally ill whose director is a young doctor/minister.
In the end, I never heard any cumbia music (not even in a taxi), nor did I discover any dancing. Saving all that for a return visit.
Happy traveling and stay safe!