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It was a hot, sticky night and I had not slept well. I woke at 5am, an hour before the alarm went off. It has been a bit of a noisy hotel and we woke to the sound of a truck being revved in the car park just below our window.

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Buses wait for no man

Our aim for today was to get to Loja and then connect on a different bus for Zamora. We changed plans in the morning to head instead for Vilcabamba. All three places are on the edge of a national park which we hope to visit.

The bus to Loja was pretty good, comfy, friendly staff. We had an extra special treat lined up for us though - a six hour journey accompanied by Jackie Chan, another martial arts film, Steven Seagal (of course) all rounded off with Jean Claude van Damme. The bus left Machala at 8am - a bit early for six hours of violence!

We headed back down the coast past the banana plantations before heading inland. I dozed and watched the world go by. The landscape changed as we headed inland and started to climb. It was as if we had traveled through a number of different climates. Bananas gave way to  dense, jungle like vegetation, then came tropical palms and plants. Higher still it looked more alpine and at one point I said to Stef that I expected to see Julie Andrews in full flood with "The hills are alive, with the sound of music .....".

The road climbed steadily upwards. Each time I though we were at the top we would round a corner and the mountains still rolled ahead of us. There were fantastic views down and across the valleys, awash with green vegetation. The houses we passed along the way seemed smarter, larger and generally in better condition than in Perú and Machala. The pace of life seems slower and everything seems more relaxed. The air smells of paprika, hot and dusty reminding us both of smells we had encountered in India. One of the times the bus stopped familiar faces got on board. About an hour earlier and on the other side of the valley many ups and downs away they had got off the bus. How they caught us up was a mystery but they did - they had left a bag on board.

The bus fills and empties. Young children no more than seven or eight get on on their own, travel a few miles and then get off. At noon it fills up with schoolchildren. In the distance they all look really smart with white shirts and navy skirts or trousers. Close up, the whites are grubby and worn and look like they have been handed down through many generations. For young children, some of them have pre-occupied and anxious looks on their faces as if they have the world's problems on their shoulders. One boy carries a plastic bag full of eggs. With the way the bus lurches it is amazing he does not smash them.

People try their luck on the bus and the conductor throws a few off who do not have the money to pay. He also gives an old guy a hard time. He has what must be his grandson with him (the only blond haired person in sight). The child has a seat but a man is standing. The conductor tries to make the child move but gives us with no success.

The people getting on and off tell tales without speaking. Most look like farmers. Their clothes are worn and dirty, probably as much through age as lack of washing, although there were a few who would benefit from a bath. Others are smart, office looking types. One or two have laptop bags with them, a rare sight here but oh so common in London. What is great for us though is that we are the only tourists on the bus, in fact we have seen no other tourists since the immigration control in Ecuador. When we stowed our bags in the luggage compartment a local chap put a box in the compartment. It had ventilation holes in it so that the live chicken inside could breathe!

We arrived in Loja at about 2:30pm, surprised to see a bus terminal that all companies operate from - not what we had seen in Perú or in Machala. Needing cash, to stretch our legs and some lunch we took a taxi into the town centre. The town has a relaxed feel to it and it looks clean and tidy. Unlike Perú there is no litter lining the streets and there is not the feeling of dust and dirt everywhere that we have become used to. People at the bus station were very friendly giving us the information we needed about where to go. We had this in Machala yesterday too. A young chap, seeing us consulting Lonely Planet asked if we needed any help, a genuine offer and not a ploy to get us to buy something or go somewhere.

Refreshed, we headed back to the bus terminal to get a bus to Vilcabamba. This was a little mini van. Our backpacks went onto the roof and we crawled inside. At its peak there were twenty people in the van, a little cosy! It initially crawled through Loja at a snail's pace, knowing there would be people to pick up along the way. Once full, the speed picked up unless there was an uphill stretch when it struggled. Its a little local shuttle between the outlying villages and it stops to pick up and put down more times in an hour than I can remember.

The villages also have a more prosperous than Perú feel. Each has its obligatory central square with people simply sitting and watching the world go by. At Lonely Planet's suggestion we asked to be dropped off just outside Vilcabamba by the entrance to our hotel, Hostal Madre Tierre. It was a short uphill walk along a dirt track to get there - hard work in the humid heat and with a full pack. The hotel is a collection of small bungalows dotted up the hillside. There is a small pool, a bar, billiard table, trampoline and a spa offering different treatments and massages.

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Banana Republic

Our room is really designed for a family having one double and three single beds. It has a separate table and chairs, almost its own private dining area, and a small balcony. The whole place is set in tropical gardens and we have bananas and lemons almost within arms reach of our balcony. Dinner is included in the room rate but unusually for what we have seen so far of South America they stop serving at 8pm. This has been the time we have started to think about going out for something to eat for the last two months!

Hot, sticky and thirsty we went for a drink and dinner. They have a really thirst quenching drink here called horchata. Our dictionary says it is a "cold drink made from tiger nuts and water". Not knowing what tiger nuts are we are none the wiser about what it is but keep drinking it anyway. The hotel is now owned by an American couple, Carol and John, who bought it last September and there was a lot of American English being spoken. We got chatting to a young couple who were friends of Carol's. They are here for five weeks helping to refurbish parts of the hotel. From what they said it sounds like Vilcabamba is a little hive of scientific activity due to the climate here. Even though she has only been here less than a year they also said that Carol apparently knows everyone in town and is a great source of information.

We met Carol at dinner, or rather saw her chatting to her guests (feels like a fair contingent are friends and family) and staff. Just after 9pm she and her husband started to say their farewells and before I knew it I was hugged and given a kiss goodnight. Very tactile and very friendly and very not British!

After a failed attempt at getting on line using the hotels wireless modem we went up to our room, as everyone else already had! Not yet tired enough for bed we both finished catching up on our diaries. A small scorpion was crawling up the wall. Not knowing how nasty it would be if we got stung we played safe and Stef splatted it - he is so brave!