Like everything in the province of Loja, Vilcabamba really merits an entire issue of Ñan. As our friend Elvia Delgado would say, “now that one will be a best-seller!” She feels deep pride for this town, her town. She speaks about Vilcabamba as if it were a country in its own right… But it is a town. A small town: from any perspective (and there are many since it’s cupped by hills), it’s little more than a gaggle of houses and streets.
We found Elvia helping her daughter out at the local hardware store. She smiles readily with everyone. When we tell her we’re here to explore and write about Vilcabamba, she gets very excited. Like a little girl. Her eyes light up. In moments, the list of places we have to visit multiplies. She calls friends on her cellphone. She tells El Chino to come by immediately; she promises Mr. Vivanco that we will be by before he milks the cows; the guide that does trekking is nowhere to be found, but that doesn’t matter, our three-day Vilcabamba agenda is already booked: Tumianuma, Mrs. Clayton at her mountain refuge, the Belgian chocolatier, the local winemaker, the pioneer “gringos” of Neverland, the new “gringos” of Chambalabamba, the healer who uses sacred mud from the mountains…
“Did you already stop by Montesueños?” No, it wasn’t on our list, either. “It’s the best view of Mandango hill,” explains Elvia. Located adjacent to this natural mountain icon, whose rocky form most obviously fuels the legend of a giant god that decided to lay down on the mountain, the view from Montesueños reveals a secret: Mandango is also a woman.
We had arrived in Vilcabamba the night before, the first day of the patron saint’s festivities, when Ecuadorians come out to dance to the fireworks and foreigners vanish like cats chased away by the deafening noise. The rest of the time, the quiet town is actually dominated by expats from all corners of the globe, who battle with their Spanish and give up easily, helped by locals who already know enough English to solve most problems. Sometimes, one even imagines this pocket-sized town as a world eco-capital… But we exaggerate.
That first morning we witnessed Vilcabamba’s second-ever “Longevity Race”. Five participated and crossed the finish line strolling along happily. The concept of longevity in Vilcabamba is everywhere: on banners and posters, murals and wall illustrations, on water bottles and cigarette packs. Everyone in town is aware that part of the attraction of coming this far down the Andes’ spine is to see the “oldies” up close, like celebrity-spotting in L.A. And you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve found the ‘stars’ sat on the benches of the main square. But Elvia assures us that they are not the oldies we’re after… She calls them “kids”. They are only sixty, maybe seventy at most… “the true oldies are out in the boondocks,” she says with a mysterious tone, waving her hand towards the hills.
Try Murano for excellent Mediterranean-inspired treats and delicious desserts. Also United Falafel Org, next to the church, is good for coffee, sweets and Middle-Eastern with a beautiful indoor garden. Tasty Belgian breads await at the French bakery (on Eterna Juventud and Vaca de Vega) and Katherine (Calle Sucre), offers traditional dishes. If hunger strikes late at night, head to the pincho (skewer) bar one block east from the main square.
Montesueños (“Dreamhill”) is the name of the house built by Brian O’Leary (deceased in 2011) and his wife, the artist Meredith Miller. It’s a beautiful (and surprising) combination of the original tile-roofed house and curvaceous, more modern structures. It’s worth visiting simply to witness the eclectic style. O’Leary, an astronaut (and at one point even a consultant for U.S. presidential candidates), was also a scientific provocateur. Carried by his alternative ideas, he left the NASA program to settle in none other than Vilcabamba. His books are showcased in the library, along with Miller’s esoteric orange and turquoise artworks. After discovering the rooms, each one more Gaudiesque than the next, we climb to the viewpoint to observe Mandango hill… The double shape accentuated by the sunset in fact reveals not only a god, but a goddess as well, lying down over the mountain, watching over the valley of eternal youth….
Discover United Falafel Org. aka UFO’s magic garden.
The town, hemmed by velvet mountains during dry season, is concentrated around its beautiful square, opposite a discreet church (do check out the colorful altar), surrounded by restaurants, most of which are surprisingly good, and grocery that, apart from the basic products most village stores carry, showcase artisanal preparations from other lands, including gluten-free cookies, or the local salts and mineral soaps extracted from the sacred Agua del Hierro (Iron Water). One can visit this Vilcabamba highlight by taking the street called “Agua del Hierro” (to the north of the square) towards the mountain, heading east. At a detour left, the road twists and turns into the property of Vilma Cruz, a therapist that offers healing massages with the mountain’s earth. You advance to the miniscule creek climbing an improvised staircase and with a bottle in hand, you can pick up drops that fall from the hillside, carrying high percentages of magnesium, potassium, iron, sodium… Vilma assures us that her massages heal everything from arthritis to depression (do not hesitate to request a session calling +593 98 566 5559).
Longevity: reality or myth
Alfonso Carpio remembers his grandfather on horses, walking without a cane, working the land. In fact, he only remembers him in his golden years. That would be because his golden years seemed eternal. He died at 127. How did he make it? “He was a balanced man,” says Alfonso. “He drank a glass of aguardiente every day.” “Perhaps it was his good humor and belief that time heals everything.” Miguel Carpio Mendieta, one of the longest living humans the world has seen, was always receiving guests from around the world that came to study him. Some found the answer to his longevity in the quality of Vilcabamba’s mineral water or in the temperance and climate… Researchers soon found other long-lived people here… But many also questioned the exact age of some of them. They found that, unlike in other latitudes where people vainly knock off years from their age, there was a tendency in Vilcabamba to add years instead. Still, even the most skeptical researchers agreed on a curious singularity: none showed diseases like osteoporosis. There is something in the air (or the water) here in Vilcabamba that, like all myths, is part fiction… and part reality.
A fork to the left before going up to Agua del Hierro takes us to the protected forests of Rumiwilco, a sustainable eco-project in the middle of the green mountain with the same name, where you can overnight as well… and if you continue on the main road to Yamburara, passing the bridges over the beautiful Yambala River, you’ll find villagers hanging out on hot days and, surely, one of the great reasons why so many foreigners from the north fell in love with this place. From here trails into the southern tip of the Podacarpus National Park begin… and you can also seek out the “Estoraques”, bizarre rock formations that inspire conspiracy theories galore, including that they were created by underground societies. Between these three options you certainly have at least two full days of exploration.
The town is a refuge to which one always returns. A sheltered hideaway blessed by a perfect climate, a place that exudes a certain kind of systemic equilibrium. One of indelible smiles of those who arrived fifteen years ago (and are happy as can be here), like Mexican-born Raúl Hernández. We share a coffee at his excellent Murano restaurant and he tells us stories of characters who have taken refuge here. George Cook, for example, a Silicon Valley tech-fiend, who experiments with virtual reality; or The Alan Parsons Project’s saxophonist, he also lives in town. And there is, of course, Cantinflas, the Mexican comedian who sought refuge in Vilcabamba in the 1970s… some say he would have survived his fatal illness had he stayed.
El Chino, as he is called by friends, has no brakes on his imagination… On damaged microwaves he imagines vases. Bicycle wheels can easily become a chair (yes, the ones you might have seen in La Cleta in Quito are his). He had his fifteen minutes of fame on television showing a stationary bicycle that was also a juice maker (and he says he also invented one that washed clothes). Apart from showing his recycled artwork, he offers bike tours (and bicycles to rent) for all levels of ability. Don’t miss out on the easy Los Huilcos route that offers a panoramic view of the town, or other routes that head into the Podacarpus National Park, in addition to hiking up the number one attraction of Vilcabamba: the Mandango. You’re in good hands with El Chino!
More interesting conversations ensue across the street at Alfonso Reyes’ Vinos y Licores Vilcabamba, who makes and sells organic wines, such as blackberry and rose-apple, as well as coffee and cacao liquor (ask to have a taste of his delicious papaya variety, which he perfected from his parent’s original recipe). We speak of his time in France becoming a sommelier and his early childhood in Amazonian Zamora, where papaya was the fruit of choice to make alcoholic beverages.
After wine, why not take on the subject of fine dark chocolate from romantic places like Palanda (where the earliest cacao vestiges in the world were discovered)? Just before closing, we have a look at José de Saeger’s Del Páramo chocolate boutique (where we also snatched some excellent Santa Gertrudis coffee). After tasting delicious single-origin bars, his friend Werner shows us pictures on his iPhone of trash he found on the road to town, inciting us to criticize the lack of environmental awareness in humanity. We sigh at the state of the world as the Vilcabamba eco-spirit rises, and only cool off with a lick or three of naranjilla ice-cream from Koneto next door.
Chamico (rolled tobacco).
Elvia, who has been faithfully showing us around all day, is ready to turn in. She meets a “kid” of about 80, a friend of hers, and says her goodbyes. Of course, there is so much more to explore, from peace-and-love communes and abandoned houses purportedly built by Silvester Stallone to the sacred waterfall of Palto in the heart of the Podocarpus reserve. For now, we’ll have to add them to a long list of visits for our next journey south. Under the light of the Vilcabamba lampposts, Elvia helps her elderly friend into the night and we head off to bed, an easy affair in a paradise like this.