Vilcabamba, the portentously secret place of longevity

Ecuador is a perfect metonym for Latin America. It is a small country with correct infrastructure and inexplicably little tourism, and therefore a lot of authenticity. There are plenty of reasons to visit Ecuador: it is an easy country to explore (on this second visit I covered it by practically fully from south to north), with clear Spanish accent, great knowledge and pride of its inhabitants about their heritage, vast natural diversity everywhere and affordable prices (perhaps a little less now with inflation and the value of the US dollar, the currency used in Ecuador for almost twenty years). Ecuador has two tourist epicenters: the paradise of the Galapagos (whose administration works with admirable efficiency) and the beaches of Montañita and the Pacific coast, a kind of hippie-chic pilgrimage route of southern South America. But there is more! The Ecuadorian Andean central axis and the eastern Amazon jungle are normally off the beaten path for most tourists. Vilcabamba is the starting point for both.

Some mountains in Vilcabamba

Year 2020, December. Borders strictly closed in Chile (health crisis, and opportunity to appease the political crisis). They release us, finally, under some conditions, and perhaps for a short time. Where to go? My automatic response: Ecuador. My friend said: are you sure? Yes, are you coming or going somewhere else? I’ll follow you, you surely know that everything will be fine there. And so it is. Ecuador was the first country in South America to get into the covid-19 crisis, and it was brutal. Stories of known deaths from covid were common in my conversations with the local population. But, just as it was the first country in the region to face the covid, it was also the first to get out of it (or at least control it). That is why for me it was the obvious destination for this new way of traveling. Also, a few years ago Ecuador had already surprised me and was the catalyst for my conversion from tourist to traveler. The route, this time for almost a month, was relatively clear, and it would begin in an enigmatic town in the south, Vilcabamba

Vilcabamba is a mystical but still pristine town. Located 45 minutes south of the first large city in southern Ecuador, Loja, it has a relatively hidden location. It is not easy to get there. We arrived from Santiago de Chile to the impeccable Guayaquil airport, from where we went to the bus terminal to take a bus to Loja. The route, beautiful, takes 9 hours and a third of the total travel time goes through the route near the coast between Guayaquil and Machala, full of banana trees, my favorite tree. Then comes the second geographical half (although it takes two thirds in time): the crossing through the mountains that separate Machala from Loja, with a stop for lunch included (U$3, in a very traditional, abundant and rich eatery).

El camino hacia Loja

Arriving in Loja (which has an airport, but only connects sporadically with Quito), we take a bus to Vilcabamba, which crosses the splendid Podocarpus Park, with verdant mountains that open up the magnificent valley where Vilcabamba is located. In our case, we moved a little further south, 3 minutes from the town, to stay at the idyllic Hostería Izhcayluma, run by a group of German friends who faithfully represents the spirit of the town. By the way, one way to get there that I suspect must be amazing is to cross the border between Peru and Ecuador from Jaén (after visiting the archaeological Chachapoyas or the wild Tarapoto) to Loja, where there are daily bus departures. The route can take many hours, but it seems to be worth it in itself.

From Santiago to Vilcabamba it took almost 21 hours. My body held up well, my friend’s not at all. Although it was getting dark, I went for a walk along one of the accommodation’s hiking circuits (it is possible to do good and extensive hiking routes from the hotel itself, since the land faces the hills of the valley). Watching the sunset, alone, listening only to the birds and the crickets, was a good first glimpse of what I expected tomorrow.

The accommodation maintains an aesthetic that is respectful of the environment, without compromising on comfort. I slept peacefully, except for the visit in the bathroom of some grasshoppers (who visited me every night; fortunately it was me, my friend from the city was left very peaceful in his room), and after a hearty breakfast with local and elaborated products In the same accommodation we went to explore the area. Today we would divide the day into two activities: a walk towards the small hills on the west side of the town and the visit to the town itself.

By the way, Vilcabamba offers many options for hiking lovers, the most famous being the visit to Cerro Mandango (which can be visited for free, but it is recommended to hire a guide: the climb is not as easy as it seems or as short as it appears on the map) and the El Palto Waterfall, to the South and East of the town respectively. In our case, we would do one hike near the town, and the next day we would visit the Podocarpus Park (an error in the organization of the days left us without going up to Mandango, but at the same time it is the perfect excuse to return to Vilcabamba , and of course I will).

Cerro Mandango

We left our accommodation (where they gave us some maps of the possible routes) and we walked north, towards the town, to reach a kind of very simple suburb that we covered completely. Its streets are small passages, some paved with stones from the area between which grass emerges and others openly made of dirt, where we saw the friendly local people in their daily lives, going to their fields to work the land, and children playing soccer. After leaving the community, we crossed the road to enter the beginning of the path that would take us a few kilometers to the West and then to the North, until we found a bridge that crosses the river in order to then return to the urban area on the north side of Vilcabamba.

On the route —a dirt road combined for hikers and vehicles—, we found another face of the area, with villas, which is what they call some sober hotels but with certain luxuries. Men walked with their cattle, either some goats or some cows and a couple of bulls that, although intimidating with their presence alone, quickly stepped aside to let us pass. The vegetation was transforming from an earthy green to a more marked green, and with more abundant foliage as we got closer to the river. It was also a climb that was barely felt, that is, ideal for acclimatizing (it is 1,500 masl) before other more demanding routes. However, we were surprised at a gate that blocked the path and prevented us from continuing. Surely we could have jumped or opened it (there was no lock), but we opted for prudence and not risk it, since we had not figured out the details of the route well. So we had to go back the way we had walked, already going downhill, which made it faster.

As we arrived at the main road, we took the direct route to the town, which was a further 10 minute walk away. Vilcabamba has two main squares: the central park, to the East, and the market area and the transport hub, which is where we arrived from Loja (and where we are now going on foot). There was life, and you could already perceive the atmosphere: there was the market, mostly with fruits and vegetables from the area, in established stalls, and another area with awnings and blankets, in a kind of periodic informal market, where they also sold local products. I couldn’t resist and my first package of Ecuadorian coffee was purchased at that exact time, at prices that don’t even come close to those in Chile (where whole-grain coffee is still a luxury and sometimes an extravagance, as opposed to the sky-high popularity of Nescafé and Starbucks). The people caught my attention: while in the area with established stalls there were only local people, mostly adult women, in the lower area of ​​blankets there was a greater diversity between locals and new inhabitants of the town.

And there is one of the ‘critical’ elements regarding Vilcabamba and the area, which deserves a parenthesis. Some areas of Latin America have become retirement havens or hippie havens for many years, either for Americans in the first case or for other Latin Americans in the second. Both represent a challenge (if not a problem) for local communities: loss of the original charm that makes a place attractive, rising prices of both real estate and food, displacement of communities due to gentrification, arrival of other customs that disturb the local harmony (noise, drugs, other customs). San Miguel de Allende and San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Mexico (both places I adore anyway) and Cuenca in Ecuador itself are some well-known examples of this phenomenon. Vilcabamba, in a certain way, is also facing it in an incipient way (the difficulty of getting there is an obvious protector) and, when planning my trip, I was afraid of finding a town in tension due to tourism and the arrival of new inhabitants (however, we must accept it is part of what happens in charming places).

Vilcabamba Square

However, my fear dissipated and became, maudlin speaking, calm. There was no foreign invasion. There was no distorting hippism. There were foreigners adapted and respecting the local culture. Or at least so it seemed to me. We decided to stop this daily market scene for a moment to settle in a small cafeteria in front of the square to hydrate ourselves. Two delicious coffees, based on local coffee beans, and two juices, blackberry and strawberry, so intense in flavor, were the ideal snack for that mid-morning. And confirming the correct capitalist cultural influence in the town: a charming cafeteria, relatively modern, but run by its owners, a couple from Vilcabambino.

Another parenthesis is necessary: ​​why did I go to Vilcabamba? The town is formally famous for the longevity of its inhabitants. It is not strange to find in the valley people who are over a hundred years old, and in good health. Perhaps it is its climatic characteristics, or the properties of its agricultural products, or the harmony and peace of the area, in a country that has suffered moments of instability. Vilcabamba is known because of its life expectancy. After that, for its landscapes and its food. It is known that Ecuadorian chocolate is of the highest quality, although it is the central area that stands out in the production of cocoa, but also its coffee, overshadowed in fame by the Colombian, is of the highest quality. Ecuadorian coffee is an intense coffee, and even more artisanal production, which can be seen in the Vilcabamba area, where you can visit some small coffee farms.

After recovering our energy, sheltering ourselves with coffee from the cold of the mountains and enjoying the charm of the town, we proceeded to go a couple of blocks East to visit the central park and the town’s main church. The church is simple, water green, and at that time it was open so that it could be seen from the inside. As it was December, the church was in Christmas mode, decorated with the manger and lots of colored lights. It was the first approach to the Ecuadorian Christmas aesthetic, which in other cities we could confirm it had plenty of color and large figures, and were mostly religious. The park was still quiet but we remembered that in the cafeteria they told us that in the afternoon it would be filled with people and different activities.

The colorful church of Vilcabamba

Before going for lunch, we decided to visit the back streets of the town. The houses maintain a traditional aesthetic, without further restoration but without needing it, giving us to understand that Vilcabamba is still a town with strictly controlled tourism and with its new inhabitants living in other areas, perhaps less urban, of the area. I would remember that reflection when, talking with an older American couple on the bus from Loja to Vilcabamba after visiting Podocarpus, they told me that they lived 10 minutes by truck from Vilcabamba, in a house that they built for themselves on land that they bought. The trade is mostly focused on the needs of the local population and not the tourist, and for this reason there are very few excursion agencies (focused mostly on horseback riding). Perhaps with the pandemic and the closure of tourism, some had to close, but that was not the impression I had.

Ecuador uses the dollar as its official currency. Hence, it is a convenient country for tourists “money-wise”, since prices are much lower compared to Europe, the United States and even Chile, Peru and Brazil. However, if one goes with dollars, as was the case with my friend, these will possibly of a high denomination, which will not be easily used. After several attempts, the first place where he was accepted to pay with US$100 and receive a lot of money back in single notes was in a pharmacy. Recommendation: change money at the airport (we arrived at 3:00 am, and the exchange houses were closed), travel with a small denomination or withdraw money at a bank or at an ATM in Loja or another city big.

The restaurants in the town are mostly small family businesses, with local food and products from the area, plus typical ingredients of Ecuadorian cuisine such as rice, beans (beans or beans) and plantain (or banana). We opted for a nice place in one of the corners of one of the streets in front of the central park. And here we had the first linguistic-cultural ‘crisis’: the guineo soup from the starter menu. “What is the guineo?” we asked. “The guineo is… guineo!” The waiter answered us kindly, without being able to explain himself clearly to this pair of tourists. I accompanied him to the kitchen to see the guineo, and it turned out to be a type of banana. There was no a la carte food that day — it had to be the “menu del dia”. I was ok with that. My friend, happy with the chips that he would buy later in the store. For starters, guinea soup. Second, rice with beans and fried plantain, accompanied by chicken. Very simple, very delicious, very authentic. And very abundant. It struck us that we were the only formal tourists at the time, not only in the restaurant but in the village. Latin American pandemic tourism.

A calm street in Vilcabamba

After lunch, we went next door for dessert and coffee. There wasn’t much of a choice of cakes, but it didn’t matter: they all looked delicious. Coffee, chocolate and dried fruit cakes. I would have ordered all of them, but I was already full from lunch so we only ordered two, which were fantastic. And the coffee, equally perfect. While I was ordering at the counter, I took the opportunity to chat a bit with the local lady. He very kindly explained to me that there were indeed few tourists, but he hoped that with the opening of the borders they would return. Vilcabamba tourism was mostly foreign, very few local tourists came there. During the confinement, the community worked together to face its consequences. They were proud that they had not had active cases of people with COVID for several days — they had worked hard to take care of each other and they expected tourists to be aware of it.

By the way: everything narrated was done wearing a mask. The confinement in Chile, and the protection measures, were very harsh and, personally, it seemed appropriate to me. Our health systems in Latin America are fragile and had to be prevented from collapsing. As a respectful and emotionally invested traveler in Ecuador, I was not going to carry any virus that would harm the country. The exchange between the country and us should only be between positive elements, as it finally was. In those weeks I heard many stories about the ravages of the coronavirus, which will be left for another post.

After this sweet dessert, my friend was tired. The alttitude was taking its toll. I left him in the cafeteria, this time having an exquisite hot chocolate and I went to the commercial area of ​​the town towards the East of the central park. I had seen several packages of coffee from local plantations. For less than $1, without haggling, I bought my second pack of coffee. In Vilcabamba it seems coffee from large companies is not commercialized — small producers cover the entire demand. I don’t know if it was a coincidence or it was planned, but I loved that it was like that. I would have bought them all, but the trip was just starting, I didn’t have a big suitcase and Chilean customs would have given me problems if I had more than 5 kilos (but I kept buying the following days anyway, and amazing chocolate bars too: I cannot return to Chile without coffee and chocolate from producing countries).

Crossing the central park I could see that, indeed, the place was starting to get busy. There were children playing, running in the park. There were games for them, electronic horses they could ride. There were Argentine hippies selling their crafts in their minibus. There were many older adults sitting around talking. I also sat down. I wanted to talk. In my experience, the tourist who is alone always gets into conversation. It was no exception. Everyone wanted to talk with me: Why was I here? How had I arrived? How was the pandemic in Chile? What did people say about Ecuador in Chile? How had the Ecuadorians had treated me? It was all in a friendly, cordial, natural tone. Thank you, Vilcabamba, for the warmth of your people.

Mountains north of Vilcabamba

I went back to where my friend was and we walked towards the taxi station, where there are some vans which would take us back to Izhcayluma. The next day I would return to Vilcabamba, first for my excursion in Podocarpus and then to enjoy the town in its daily life (and drink and buy more coffee). In just three minutes we were back at the accommodation, ready for a massage. I chose this specific hotel because it seemed to have a very serious and professional hippie chic identity that suited me, in harmony with the landscape in which it was located. My expectations were small compared to reality: a large environment, barely intervened and in an eco-responsible way, a massage area, a yoga area, a small jungle pool and exquisite food. The massage was perfect to recover from today’s walk and the still heavy 21 hours of travel the day before. Watching the sunset on the hills, with a book resting in the hammock on the balcony of my room and afterwards eating a delicious dinner was an amazing experience. The next day, Podocarpus.

Vilcabamba is not just the town, but the valley and the nearby towns. To the north is Malacatos, which, although it could be said to be more authentic than Vilcabamba, that would be unfair, since Vilcabamba is quite authentic. I envy the Americans who retire there, but it is a healthy type of envy because it is what I aspire to do the in the future. It is certain that I will return to Vilcabamba, despite the fact that it is not easy to get there. But I would go for a longer period, perhaps a week, just to walk, slowly, the other trails that I unfortunately couldn’t do (especially Mandango, it hurt me not to go up there). For a first visit, three nights is fine, getting there takes time and really Ecuador, which is not an obvious destination from outside of South America, offers many options. On a second or third visit, it is possible to extend it. My next dream plan would be to visit the north of Peru, the aforementioned Tarapoto and Chachapoyas, and cross by bus to Ecuador. And, ideally, work digitally from there (the quality of the internet, exceptional, I was able to work a couple of hours without any problem, and my counterparts in Chile envied the mountainous scenery behind me).

Vilcabamba is the land of longevity. There, respect for the elders is very important. It is something admirable. My experience showed me that the newcomers respect and maintain these values. I hope it continues to be like that. See you soon, Vilcabamba.

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