Vilcabamba: The Valley of Life

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In August we made our way down to Vilcabamba. It’s a tiny village in the province of Loja, near the Peruvian border. To get there from Cuenca you take a bus to the city of Loja, a long and winding trip that the people at the ticket counter say will take 5 hours but always seems to take longer. Along the way you pass through several fascinating villages in their own right, like Susudel, where I did a temazcal sweat lodge last November, and Saraguro, where the the men wear their black hair long and braided, and they all still wear their traditional black clothing.

The Saraguros, with their black hats, black jackets and flowing black skirts or pants cut above the ankle, are easily recognizable when they come to visit Cuenca. The story goes that they still wear black to mourn the death of Atahualpa at the hands of Francisco Pizarro.

Loja itself is a small but bustling town, and probably one of the most secluded provincial capitals outside of the jungle. Like most communities in the Sierra, it’s girded by impressive mountains, but the ones around Loja are still well wooded, unlike in many places where the original high mountain forests have given over to steep cornfields. Its well-appointed historic center is tucked away from the bus routes, so you’ve got to make a point to check it out if you’re passing through.

A lot of people, on their way to the renowned Vilcabamba, don’t give these other destinations a second thought, but I haven’t found a community in Ecuador I didn’t want to spend at least a day or two in. Even more, if you’ve traveled with me before you know that anywhere I go, I start making plans to live there. Hence my year and counting in Cuenca, where I had planned to teach for 6 months when I arrived.

There are buses headed down to Vilcabamba from Loja every 30 minutes, and the ride lasts only an hour. Along the way you realize that if it weren’t for its reputation, Vilcabamba would be a hidden mountain village like any other. Far away from any major cities, deep in the mountains and down a twisting, narrow road, you pass through several villages as tiny, beautiful and fascinating as Vilcabamba is. But by a twist of fate, it was Vilcabamba that got famous. As such, it receives an incredible amount of tourists, most of whom unfortunately, in their rush to see as much of the hot spots as they can in the travel time they’ve alloted themselves, hurry through much of the surrounding countryside to relax there, between trekking to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.

You might be wondering by now, why is Vilcabamba famous? I’ve heard a lot of varying explanations, but the common thread is that people in Vilcabamba live for a long time. Some people say that the oldest residents have lived to the age of 130 years.

The rumor is that it’s the clean air and water that contribute to the locals’ longevity, but the stories I’ve chosen to believe say that people there don’t actually live longer than people anywhere else do, on average. It’s that, because of the way land records have been kept there, titles to property have either remained in people’s names long after their death, or that a father and son by the same name end up holding the title, between the two of them, for up to 130 years. Examining these deeds, what with one name on them for that length of time, would seem to indicate that someone had indeed lived for that long.

The other confounding variable I’ve heard about is that people here haven’t historically been hung up on staying young. On the contrary, age is, or at least has been, a source of respect from those around you. As a result, it’s been the case that people would exaggerate their ages rather than try to hide it or underestimate it as we might be inclined to do. One researcher had reportedly visited Vilcabamba to meet a man who people said was in his 70’s, and returned less than 10 years later to meet the same man who was now allegedly in his 90’s.

So it goes. Most of the claims to longevity here in Vilcabamba have been systematically disproven by curious researchers over the last several decades. But the locals are still faithfully making their claims about the healthfulness of their food, water, and climate, and tourists still dutifully make their way here to check it out. The fact is, it doesn’t matter to your average traveler whether the valley is a healthy place or not. They come, more than anything, because it now has a reputation as a tourist destination. It’s got nice places to stay, established hiking trails, and plenty of other travelers around to swap drinks and stories with. And, like just about all of Ecuador, the surroundings are beautiful and never too hot nor cold. What more could you ask for?

On this trip, we arrived in Vilcabamba in the afternoon, with time enough to have lunch in town and then find our accomodations for the evening. We ended up eating at a restaurant with Mexican food on a corner of the town plaza, and spent our repast drinking Pilsener, eating burritos, tossing a game of Cribbage and watching the people go by. At least half of the people we saw were travelers, coming mostly from Europe.

There were also a fair share of other people from Latin America, and even a handful of locals. But if Mexican food in a small Ecuadorian village wasn’t the first clue, Vilcabamba is a town that caters to travelers. After we paid our bill and began seeking out a room for the night, we began to find out that the many hotels scattered in and around the town are accustomed to tourists as well. Not only for their fluency in English and well-kept grounds, but also for the unusually high rates for a bed.

When I say the prices are high, I should also say that for $24 a night, you can get a private cabin with nice, hot water and a cozy hammock on a deck with an unobstructed view of the valley. I mean, that’s what we did. I had stayed at the same hostel on my previous trip to Vilcabamba with my dad, and while I had hoped to try out some of the other accomodations, it was ultimately the promise of German cooking and beer that lured me back. The beautiful setting is also a nice hook.

Due to Vilcabamba’s continued popularity amongst travelers, it hasn’t only been locals who’ve realized that there’s money to be made there.

The Izhcayluma hostel, for instance, is owned and operated by German expats and travelers, and while they’re happy to enjoy the local culture and the fine surroundings, they, like any traveler, like to have a taste of home from time to time as well. And as such, their guests can request a plate of spaetzle and a big, dark beer alongside. Nice! Especially after a year of Pilsener. Not to say I don’t enjoy the Pilsener, but given the rare opportunity for an alternative, I’ll take it.

So after a night of German pasta and beer, and darts tossed in a bar full of people trading adventure stories in various second languages, we awoke to a chilly morning and breakfast of crepes, overlooking the village of Vilcabamba in the valley below. Then we took a bike ride.

The hostel also provides a small fleet of mountain bikes for its patrons, albeit in various states of repair. After test riding a few around the grounds of the hostel, we settled on a couple that, while occasionally slipping out of gear, did have functional brakes and chains. We then made the rapid descent back into Vilcabamba down the steep hill that separates it from Izhcayluma. My enjoyment of the fast-paced downhill was tempered by the knowledge that what comes down must go back up, and that my clunky vehicle would not be doing so in a very efficient way. Nonetheless, in a few minutes we were back in town and on our way back out the other side, on the road to the entrance of Podocarpus National Park.

We were able to ride on a dirt road that followed a river up one of the valleys adjacent to Vilcabamba, which was dotted by an interesting mixture of countryside and communities, shared by locals and expats. It was a common sight to find signs along the way written in either English, Spanish, or both. Also apparent was a humbler cultural heritage that predated Vilcabamba’s present notoriety.

Eventually we reached a bridge across the river which indicated (misleadingly) that it was the entrance to Podocarpus. We found a hidden place to stash our bikes, crossed the bridge, and made our way up the steep trail on the other side of the valley. At this point of the journey we were still well within a small community, and had to wind our way between houses, power lines, small barking dogs, and obstinate donkeys who stared at us from the middle of the trail, with what we interpreted as either menace or callous disregard. But while they refused to give way or stop looking at us, they also never made any attempt to bite or kick as we passed them by.

Once we got past these first few barriers, the little settlement gave way to wide open spaces and the occasional signpost promising Podocarpus up ahead. The name Podocarpus comes from the scientific term for Ecuador’s only native conifer, apparently featured prominently within the park itself. I’d like to show you a picture of the park’s namesake, but as fate would have it, we never got to a place resembling a forest. While we did wend through some small groves of trees, none spread much further than a few hundred paces.

Instead, our environs consisted of the vast panoramas of open hillsides that are typical of a hike through the Ecuadorian countryside, such as the one pictured below, with the lovely and talented Nancy Macas in the foreground:

So went our hike. While there were several signs along the way promising the eminence of podocarpus, we walked for several hours having never glimpsed it. Having had brought only a banana and a bottle of water, we were forced to turn around eventually, vowing to return to Podocarpus in the future by way of Zamora, a jungle town to the southeast of Loja.

After we had finished all but a few gulps of the water we’d taken with us, for awhile we played the age-old game of “let’s just hike around that next bend and then we’ll turn back.” It wasn’t long before that got us into one last forest grove, which seemed as appropriate a turning back point as any.

When you go hiking, you never really know what’s in store. In various hikes of mine I’ve had short hikes become all day hikes, daytrips turn into overnight camping, and hunts for hot springs prove fruitless. I’ve had other hikes go the way I expected them to, if not reveal beauty I could have never predicted. If this one had begun with unfulfilled promises of big trees, what it delivered was scenery equally as striking. Which reminds me of the philosophy that there are two basic aspects to our lives.

The first, like the scenery you see on a hike, consists of those things which are bigger than ourselves and entirely out of our control. Whether those things come to us through fate, destiny, luck, karma or some other means is also interesting to think about, but irrelevant as they occur in the moment. They can bring good things or bad, but all we can do is let them come. The second, the one that is completely within our control, and which ultimately defines us as human beings on our journeys, is our personal reaction to those first things.

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