Our past few days we have been on the road with Beth and Larry (family from Cuenca). They rented a car for a few days so that we could check out some places a few hours outside of Cuenca. Before heading to Vilcabamba we checked out the town of Oña.
Beth had read about a tequila tasting in this town just 2 hours outside of Cuenca and asked if we wanted to go. Tequila tasting, yes of course! Jeff and Larry picked up the car on Tuesday morning and we departed for Oña around 11am. Just outside of Oña we pull up to the place, which is really just a person’s house on top of a hill surrounded by lots of Agave plants.
As we arrived, a few others we’re just leaving. This was a good thing because had those people not had been there I am not sure we would have known what to do… we sort of just walked in, they asked “Tequila?” We said “yes.” Then we were escorted to this little room in the back, given 4 shot glasses, salt and a lime- and the tasting began.
The tasting, and our visit, was pretty quick, just one type of tequila to try that is made on site and an agave nectar. We tasted both. The tequila was pretty strong, but I am no connoisseur so hard for me to say if it was smooth or not. All I can tell you is that my tummy was quite warm after. The agave nectar was interesting, very thick brown syrup and a little sweet. It’s supposed to be great if you are sick, or to help improve your joints. No alcohol in it I don’t think. Afterwards Beth made a few purchases and that concluded our visit. Pretty funny because she had a two page write up on this place about seeing the farm, how it’s made etc. Well, yes you could taste tequila but it’s not a tour 🙂 Either way, it was a beautiful ride up through the mountains.
So fast forward to Thursday and we decide to venture out on another road trip. This time the destination was Loja and Vilcabamba. Loja is a 4 hour drive from Cuenca and a pretty big town with 100K people. We ended up just driving through Loja and going straight to Vilcabamba (another 30km south). You may have heard of this place before? Back in time it was a popular retreat for Inca royalty, and is often called the valley of longevity or sacred valley because many of the residents live to be over 100+. After a long drive in, it was such a pleasant surprise to arrive at our hotel.
Beth called in advance and reserved two rooms for us at Madre Tierra. (means mother earth). The hotel is situated up on the hill just 2km outside of the center of Vilcabamba and overlooks the valley- a beautiful view.
We settled in the first night with a few drinks, some vino and a tasty dinner at the hotel. Every night they offer the special of the day that includes soup, salad, entree, and dessert for $7.50, a pretty good deal and the quality of the food is superb. The first night dinner was a choice of vegetable or chicken crepes & the second night was grilled chicken ceasar salad, both very good. After dinner, Beth and Larry taught us how to play new card game called 31. We had a great time playing on our patio till around 11pm with some vino and music.
Horseback Tour in Vilcabamba
Upon our arrival to Madre Tierra Jeff and I talked to the gal at the reception desk regarding activities we could do on Friday and decided on a horseback tour. Originally all four of us were going to do the 4 hour horseback up to a waterfall near the Podocarpus National Park. Well, plans changed a bit the next morning after talking to Peter, the owner, who advised us that this ride was fairly intense and not advised for beginners, or those scared of heights. Given this new information (which would have been helpful the night before but better late than never), Beth and Larry opted to do a less intense and shorter tour with a horseback ride up to Mirador (another hike up in the mountains with stunning views) Jeff and I stuck with the original 4 hour waterfall tour.
The four hour tour….
We got picked up around 9 am on Friday, hopped in a truck and were dropped off at the stable in downtown Vilcabamba to get our horses. We met our guide, a young guy maybe early 20’s, and shame on me but I forgot his name! He was a really nice guy, spoke only a little English but enough so Jeff and I knew what we were doing.. kind of 🙂 So we mounted our horses and we we’re off. The first part of the ride was easy and on the main road to get through town and head towards the path that leads you up the mountain. It was nice to use this time (20 minutes) to get use to the horse, practice controlling the reins and using the commands. It had been a while since I have been on a horse and an even longer time for Jeff, if ever? Midway through our ride up to the path we passed a guy in town who just looked at us and said “oh boy that’s one scary ride you two are about to do.” I think oh great and look at Jeff with a slight bit of terror on my face. He smiles and we say “well, here goes nothing.”
After the easy trip through town it was time to begin our ascend. To get to the start of the path we had to cross over a few rivers which was pretty fun because the horses just go right across with the water coming up to just under their bellies. The main path took an hour and a half. It was INTENSE. Picture being on the side of the mountain on a very small path with a very steep incline that the horse navigates through. The path in most parts is like a trench that is 18 inches deep which made me feel a bit more safe because it would have been difficult for the horse to get off course. After 30 minutes in, my fears had dissipated and replaced with the beautiful views of the Andes mountains. I could no longer see Vilcabamba. You are up on this mountain in what feels like the middle of nowhere no one else around but us three and maybe a few random donkeys on the trail here and there. I can only hope our pictures do a justice to share with you the experience.
It’s amazing when you think how strong these horses are, trekking up this mountain that honestly I don’t think I would have been able to hike up myself. They do it no problem with a person on their back. Jeff’s horse was a bit on the slow side, but that’s definitely better than one that wants to go fast for this type of trek at least. Our guide’s horse seemed a bit crazy at times, but he knew what he was doing and had it under control. I loved my horse, his name was Cortez. He was funny though because at the beginning of the trail when the real uphill started, he tried to turn around and head back to the stable. Sorry bud, we are in this together because I need you to get where we are going. He finally agreed 🙂
Once at the top of the path, we dismounted and tied up the horses at what seemed like someone’s hut? Our guide spoke with the people, we said hello and then hiked down to the waterfall. It was a pretty steep hike down and our legs were a bit shakey from being on the horse for the last hour and a half. After ten minutes we arrived to an amazing waterfall. It had to be 150ft high with such strong pressure that you could feel the mist from 20 feet away.
We decided to strip down and go for a swim (yes we had our suits on underneath) Holy shit that was some cold water!! I barely made it under the fall because the pressure was so strong and the water was so cold. Our guide got some great pictures of us in action.
We spent 20 minutes at the waterfall, then hiked back up to get our horses. The hike back up was much harder than anticipated. We saw a few other people near the waterfall, some guys camping out nearby and another couple who was hiking the path we just did on horseback. Ok, now it was time for the descend. I was a bit nervous knowing how steep it was coming up and wondering how this was going to work going downhill.
It actually wasn’t that bad and the trip down was much faster than the way up. It’s important to lean back in the saddle and balance your weight using your leg muscles otherwise you feel like you are going to flip forward over the horse. I told you earlier I really liked my horse and trusted him the most during the decend. It’s like he would wait until I was ready for the very steep parts. As we approached Cortex would pause to think and plan the best path and proceed very carefully. We had a good rhythm going and made for really fun adventure.
I am so glad Jeff and I decided to do it. It wasn’t as scary as what was described to us and the views were totally worth it. Could we have died? Maybe, because there wasn’t anything stopping you if the horse trips or goes off the ledge, but you have to think…they don’t want to die either right? Well that’s what I thought and we made it back to tell the story.
So, if you’re like Jeff you want to know what it cost… $30 per person. $70 total with tip for the guide. Well worth it. I know Jeff has mentioned this in previous posts but things are so different here than the US..no waivers no disclaimers, just casual ..oh yeah this is a beautiful trip, no questions about our ability or experience with horses. But in a way, it’s a good thing because you just go for it and don’t over think it. If we had 10 pages of disclaimers beforehand I might have said, nah let’s skip this and that would have been a big mistake.
Check out more photos and videos from our experience here.