Travels with V

Peru & Ecuador

Hats off for Cuenca

Cuenca - Lima

We’re now experiencing a couple of days of constant bus traveling through two countries. It’s a numbing journey with little else to do but sit in an uncomfortable bus seat and look out through a foggy window.

From La Selva we were transported back on Rio Napa to the oiltown of Coca. The plan was to take a bus to Puyo, some six hours away. From there we would take a taxi to a small village called Shell (!!!) to take some photos of an oil refinery. And later catch a new bus to Cuenca in the south of Ecuador.


But bus travelling in Ecuador is somewhat different to what we’re used to. Almost all the intercity buses go very early in the morning or at night. So, scrapping our plans, we decide to take the early morning option and go directly to Cuenca. It turns out to be for the best, since rain is pouring down, not the best weather for a photo expedition…

Beginning our trip on a half filled bus we quickly realize why they can’t keep the schedule in this country. The “intercity bus” stops every few kilometers to pick up locals who want to go to the next village or factory. It’s a hop-on-hop-off thing, after twenty minutes we have picked up and let off more than twenty persons.


After some nine hours we finally arrive in Cuenca, a youthful city with lots of cafés, bars and local microbrewery pubs. It has a great “cozy” atmosphere.

By the main square is the building with offices of the administrative power and outside in the street there’a rally. Hundreds of kids, mostly girls, with banners demanding something to be done for all the “desapparecidos”, the missing persons. They tell us that a shockingly large number of youth are kidnapped, never to be found. Almost 4000 in the last few years.

There’s a lot of guessing about what has happened to them, most likely they are captured by criminal organizations and lost in trafficking. Or robbed and killed.


Kidnappings seem to be a fast growing problem in this part of the world. Also in Peru where we saw electronic advertisments about disappeared kids between 11 and 16 years old. It’s absolutely horrifying.

In Cuenca there’s no doubt about what is the town’s and the region’s biggest contribution to the cultural history. It’s depicted and sold everywhere, the “Panama” hat. Of course it doesn’t come from Panama, but many Ecuadorean workers who dug the Panama canal wore this traditional hat to shield their heads from the burning sun.

The hat is made from the leaves of a special palm that grows by the sea in this region. We meet two women who are experts in making them, and they describe the work as ardous and time-consuming, it’s not something they would like to see their children do.

There are big differences in quality between cheap and expensive hats. The cheap ones are made with coarse leaves and loosely braided, the expensive ones are so tightly braided that you can carry water in the hat. Such a hat can cost over a thousand dollars, and they are almost always exported.

This is how a real Panama hat is made:

Our bus problems are not over. After two days in cool Cuenca we decide to go back across the border to Peru, this time to the airport of Tumbes for a quick transport to Lima. But there are no buses going from Cuenca to Tumbes. And all buses for Peru are night buses.

This is a bad situation because we know about the problematic border crossing at Huaquillas. We can either take a taxi from there to Tumbes, but we have to wait there a couple of hours for a morning cab, the night rides are too dangerous. Or we can continue with the bus, go past Tumbes and all the way down to Mancora again. And from there take a taxi to Tumbes. A total of eleven hours on bus and taxi. It sounds crazy, but that what we do. Staying in Huaquillas in the middle of the night is the worst option of all.

“The Airport is closed!”

But problems continue to haunt us. When we finally reach Tumbes about eight in the morning the airport entry is blocked. A guard approaches and tells us that the airport is closed. We almost scream that it can’t be right, we have tickets for a flight to Lima at 13:30.

-Ok, he says, but we don’t open until 10. Come back then.

We calculate that our transport from Coca to Tumbes, 510 km, took us 26 hours in total. Trying to be eco friendly and avoid air transport is not always easy.

Eventually we arrive again in Lima. The idea is to continue the next day to Paracas further south. Then we discover that just two blocks  from our hotel there’s a huge excavation site of a pre-columbian temple. We run over to spend an hour before the bus leaves.

This tempel is from a few hundred years bc to a couple of hundred years ad, and was extended and used by three different cultures. The first and the second constructed the pyramid formed temple and the third buried their dead in it.

The graves contain people wrapped in cloth, sitting in fetal position. This was quite common in Indian burials, it is assumed that it symbolized a “new birth” into the realm of the dead. Furthermore there were burial gifts, also common. But there have also been found corpses of small children in some graves. The scientific explanation for this is that the newborn child comes from “the other side”, and still has memories of how to get there, thus being able to help the buried grown-up to find a safe passage.

We of course think it’s horrendous to sacrifice toddlers, but for these people death was just another form of life, but in another dimension. They would always, sooner or later come back again to this world.

Now we climb on board the bus to Paracas for the last leg of our journey. Where we also plan to go into the Nazca desert. Join us!

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