Three weeks on the road in Yana II with Dragoman's intrepid sales assistant, Phoebe, travelling from the snow-capped peaks of the Andes along the Pacific coastline of Northern Peru, through the cloud forests of Ecuador and on to the jungle of the Amazon Basin, on the 'Ecuador & North Peruvian Wanderer' (ZQL).
We have departures available now for 2021 and 2022.
Lima (Day 1)
Our trip begins in Lima, Peru’s sprawling capital. I roll in a day early after a long layover in Mexico City and quietly thank myself for having the forethought to book an airport transfer as I dodge the taxi queue to meet my driver. Instantly, we are catapulted into a commotion of one way roads, frantic drivers and roadworks whilst the sun beats down on us. I meet the rest of the group at the hotel that evening, as travellers nearing their 100th day on board after joining the truck in Rio emit a sigh of relief when they realise that there will only be fourteen of us for the next leg. Swapping the hotel lobby for chaotic city streets, we make tracks for Chinatown and settle down for Chow mein and fried rice, chatting animatedly after our pre-trip meeting. We turn in early as a 4:30am start looms.
Huaraz (Day 2-4)
Rosy-fingered dawn is only minutes away but Yana is already set to leave Lima in the early morning quiet. Navigating roads riddled with potholes we head out of the city and on in to the desert. Following the many turns of the Paramonga Route, we continue for almost ten hours into the staggering scenery of the Cordillera Blanca. Gradually ascending narrow mountain passes, we follow giant transporter lorries crawling uphill and encounter our first taste of altitude. On board, water bottles inflate with the air pressure and my table mate is instantly woken from his nap as his crisp packet pops like a gunshot.
We finally pull in to the mountain town of Huaraz, the epicentre for all outdoor endeavours in the Ancash Region. The group opts in for the area’s biggest draw; a full day trek through Huascarán National Park to the breathtaking Laguna 69. The lake is an otherworldly body of turquoise water that sits at a cool 4,650m in the shadow of Peru’s highest mountain. The trek itself is challenging, requiring another 5am start and a punishing altitude that almost defeats us in the final uphill push to the lake’s shore. After dipping our toes in the glacial water, we return through alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers and contented cows. Eventually we collapse breathless and sweating back in the minivan, brimming with the satisfaction of our efforts. The next morning we swap the mountains for the sea and make our descent to the shores of the Pacific Coast.
Huanchaco (Day 5-6)
Leaving the mountains, our grateful lungs fill with air and everyone sleeps easy. The drive is long and we slowly get to know Peru from the perspective of its petrol stations. The truck rolls at a snail’s pace along treacherously narrow roads as we cross a perilous mountain pass. On our right, there is a sheer drop to a ravine just centimetres from Yana’s wheels, the road threatening to crumble away at any moment. Overhead, condors soar through the gorge as we drive alongside the river. When we eventually hit the warm and welcome tarmac of the Pan American Highway, the whole truck sighs with relief.
After stopping for supplies we arrive in the surfer town of Huanchaco, where the wide beach is dotted with the silhouettes of the distinctive reed boats known as caballitos de tortora, or ‘little reed horses’. Fishermen have been using the same technique to make these boats here for over 5,000 years, although these delicate vessels only last for two months on the sea. We pitch our tents alongside dreadlocked campers in the grounds of a local hotel and spend the next day exploring the pre-Inca adobe complex of Chan Chan and the Huaca de la Luna, the Temple of the Moon. A sacred black hairless dog stands guardian to the mud brick ruins of Chan Chan, constructed centuries ago just a few kilometres from the sea. These archaeological remains testify to the ancient civilizations of the Chimu and the Moche, before their tragic demise at the hands of the Inca. At the end of the day, we try our best to swim amongst colossal waves and pay a dollar to walk along the ramshackle pier jutting into the sea before unwinding over happy hours in the beachfront bars.
Punta Sal (Day 7-8)
Continuing along the Pacific Coast, another day’s drive brings us to Punta Sal. Driving through the buzzing town of Mancora which seems composed almost entirely of street stalls flogging tie-dye souvenirs, we pull in to our beachside camping spot. We pitch our tents in the sand just metres away from the sea but far enough to evade the incoming tide. The next couple of days are idled away in beachside bliss, enjoying the hot sun and warm currents of the Pacific. The evenings are spent drinking homemade Pisco Sours and Cuba Libres with generous lashings of rum, all concocted by the friendly local chef who prepared a barbecue to mark our arrival. These two days come as a welcome hiatus, with no driving and plenty of sunshine.
Cuenca (Day 9-10)
We continue north to the border with southern Ecuador and are cleared within minutes, although Yana’s crossing is not so easy. During our two hour wait, we while away time playing games and collectively tackling a particularly difficult cryptic crossword. Nearby, UNICEF support stands offer relief to throngs of Venezuelans attempting to enter Ecuador. Throughout the trip we have seen small families and groups seeking passage, bearing cardboard placards by the side of the road.
We are eventually waved through and immediately the landscape changes to hills carpeted in cloud forest. After just minutes of driving, our path is blocked by an enormous landslide. Unable to turn around and deciding against a nine hour detour, we are forced to wait it out. Hordes of travellers spill out of their vehicles and watch as the police attempt to push back the many cars that have driven right up to the carnage in a selfish attempt to get through first. One man with a drill stands on top of the pile trying to split the chunks of rock while a bulldozer lays a path of gravel over the debris to form a makeshift road. After several hours, this is our escape and we cross the landslide to loud cheering all-round.
Late that night we reach Cuenca, a beautiful city composed of stunning colonial architecture, numerous churches and a vibrant street art scene. With a relatively short window to explore, this was best done over the course of the morning from the top deck of a Hop on Hop off. Insufficiently plied with suncream, our sightseeing is marred by the constant need to shade our faces whilst ducking frequently to avoid being garrotted by low-hanging telephone wires. The birthplace of the Panama hat, throughout Cuenca you can observe local artisans weaving fine reeds to create the iconic headwear. Admiring chic, well-dressed locals strolling confidently along shaded boulevards, we bemoan our scruffy backpacker clothes and decide to make the most of our swanky hotel’s laundry service before leaving the next morning.
Chugchilán (Day 11-12)
We leave the buzz of the city for the quiet altitude of the cloud forest as we journey on to Chugchilán, a small town at the centre of the Quilotoa hiking scene. Our hostel seems to be one of two options by way of accommodation in the town. Entirely wooden, it resembles a ski chalet complete with a much-needed roaring log fire. We divvy up bunk beds before we are served dinner alongside a few other stray hikers and European backpackers.
The next morning we’re up early to tackle the Quilotoa Crater Lake. Over the course of the day we undertake a 13k hike back to the hostel, trekking along the ‘Andean flat’ of the crater rim and admiring the views of the lake surrounded by walls of mountain, like a giant cereal bowl containing the last dregs of milk. After a few kilometres our path descends down a steep bank of scree past forests of pine trees that were donated to Quilotoa by the Canadians. Scree is swapped for rock as we continue via the ancient trails originally used by the Incas. The sun beats down on us as we trudge through the farmlands of Tigua, and it is several hours before we return to the hostel and empty the freezer entirely of Magnums.
Baños, Rio Verde (Day 13-15)
Descending from the highlands, we travel for a full day and skirt the edge of the rainforest as we reach Baños. The town is heaving with tourists and roadsides are lined with billboards offering zip lining and all manner of hotel spa treatments. Unlike most visitors, we continue on through Baños and pitch our tents at a campsite in the quieter town of Rio Verde. We pass enormous waterfalls and watch gun-ho tourists launching themselves off various precipices, assuming superman-like positions as they zip line across to the other side. Our campsite is a slice of jungle paradise, although sleep eludes us as tropical rain pounds the sides of the tents. We are sticky and constantly wet, our skin covered in a potent mixture of sun cream, sweat and insect repellent. Over the next few days, we hike out to waterfalls with impressive names like the Devil’s Cauldron and take our pick from an assortment of outdoor activities. I opt for white water rafting and spend the next morning being flung down the rapids of the Pastaza River, pausing occasionally as our guide stops to admire a wild orchid on the riverbank. Others spend their time relaxing in hot springs or taking tours of the waterfalls, but this was a welcome shot of adrenaline. Gathering around the campfire on our final evening, a projector is placed to the side of the makeshift campsite disco shack, and we gather round for a late night movie under the stars.
Ecuadorian Amazon (Day 16-19)
A jaw-rattling drive the next morning brings us into the heart of the jungle. We leave the roads and continue by track into a world of green, spotting shocking blue butterflies with the wingspan of a bird and enormous red snails the length of a size 12 flip flop. We are based in the Huasquila Jungle Lodge, an eco lodge run by the local community that surprises us all with honeymoon-style chalets, crisp white bed linen and three course meals throughout our stay. In reception we meet a man with a tarantula tattooed across the back of his hand who introduces himself as Orlando, our trusty guide. In the mornings we follow him around the jungle, trekking through dense and humid vegetation to waterfalls that bless us with a welcome breeze. He knows the forest like an old friend, constantly drawing our attention to flowers, trees and termite mounds, stopping to weave Quechua crowns from the long grasses and digging giant Queen Ants from their underground furrows. We shower in waterfalls and climb through dark caves, dodging startled bats, drooping stalactites and giant scorpion spiders that cling to the narrow walls.
When the sun sets, Orlando dons a head torch and we return to the thicket. He spots possums in the treetops and tiny mushrooms that illuminate in the darkness. Afterwards, he grinds down cacao fresh from the pod and warms it up in a frying pan with a dash of cinnamon. It is a shock to all of our taste buds, accustomed as they are to the milk and sugar of high street chocolate bars. One day, he leads a few of us out to the nearby Jumandy caves, so named after the local chieftain who once led his people here to evade capture from the Spanish. The entire afternoon is spent in the stale air and darkness of the underground, wading tentatively through water up to our waists and crawling through claustrophobic passageways. We are all grateful when we return to daylight, only to spot several black tarantulas on the wall of the ladies’ bathroom.
Our final day is spent speeding along the river in motorised canoes and trekking through the jungle in pouring rain. On board, a few of us swap our seats for rubber rings and spend an hour tubing along lazy currents that sweep us downstream. We pull in to an animal sanctuary and admire the efforts of volunteers to conserve endangered local wildlife, including ocelots, toucans and Capuchin monkeys. Later, perched on an unstable looking jetty, we stop by Caiman Lagoon and watch as Orlando calls to the Jurassic creatures, beckoning them close with hunks of meat. In the compound of a local Quechua family, we sip from a bowl of freshly made chicha and learn how to fire a blow dart. After just a few days, we have become enchanted by the jungle and are reluctant to move on.
Quito (Day 20)
Before we know it, the end of our trip nears and we arrive in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. Over a farewell dinner in a nearby restaurant, truck family members old and new say goodbye to parting friends. With our sense of adventure satiated, numbers exchanged and friendships cemented, we make our promises of a reunion and turn in before the morning brings a lonely airport transfer and the long flight home.