Twittering birds colored orange and blue. Green mountains all around. A man hauling a giant bucket of strawberries. The smell of wood-shavings–I can hear a carpentry saw buzzing somewhere.
Under the once-sacred Inca mountain of Mandango, Vilcabamba could turn out to be your Ecuadorian Shangri-La. But it’s hardly some remote, hidden valley–not any more.
Gringos, gringos, gringos. Youngsters bowed over with bungalow-sized backpacks; grizzled hippy types who haven’t had a makeover since 1974. As tourism numbers are down, I wonder what it was like here before the recession.
Although Vilcabamba isn’t too overly developed, it seems everyone has something to sell. Trekking and horse-riding excursions…spa treatments…film nights…gated communities.
I’ve day-tripped out here from Loja. Although backpacker hangouts irritate me (why do they all now journey in flocks around the same global circuit?), it’s understandable why many IL readers love this area.
Speckled with small farms, every vista is stunning. I’d have loved to grab some photos along the road, but it was impossible. (You try it when you’re crammed into the middle of a cooperativa taxi’s back seat.)
These communal taxis frequently ply the Loja-Vilcabamba route. As do public buses, so it’s baffling why the valley always gets described as “remote.” But as my taxi journey only cost $1.50, I could put up with feeling like the squashed meat in a sandwich for 40 minutes.
Over a coffee–I do NOT do carrot juice, thank you–I survey the scene from the Sambuca cafe’s terrace. Vilcabamba is undoubtedly peaceful and pretty, but it does feel like a stage-set. Sure, it’s great for expats to have places to meet up, but everywhere around the plaza seems geared for visitors, not local villagers.
Peaceful, did I say? Shrieking like demented six-year-olds, another convoy of excitable Italian twenty-somethings spills from one of the airport pick-up trucks. (Clever! A pick-up truck indicates that Vilcabamba is uncharted pioneer territory instead of Tourist Central.)
In this so-called Valley of Longevity, I expected to have spotted some centenarian oldies by now. Where are they? Well, they’re certainly not plowing through Mexican fajitas at Terrazas restaurant. I suppose a cynic would say they’ve probably all dropped dead from the shock of gringo overload.
Wandering down past where some horses are tied up, I’m digging in my bag for sunscreen–and bad-mouthing colleagues who write about Ecuador’s “year-round spring-like temperatures.” Are they insane? It’s nothing like springtime in northern Europe. Back there, I certainly wouldn’t be sweating like a builder’s laborer.
The hallucinogenic San Pedro Cactus first enticed hippy layabouts to Vilcabamba. Eyeing the roadside plants, I realize I haven’t a clue what one looks like. But as no mumbling shamanic type has offered to take me tripping out my skull, maybe the magic cacti have vanished too.
Roving Travel Writer, International Living
P.S. By now, it’s no real surprise to come across a real estate agency. Buys in the window include a 4,622-square-foot house two blocks from the village center for $95,000. On the road back to Loja, a small 1.8-acre farm with a 1,400 square-foot house is $75,000. See upcoming issues of the IL Magazine for my full reports on Ecuador.
To read more IL articles about Ecuador, see:
Try a New Life in Cuenca, Ecuador – for $300 a Month
Cotacachi: Ecuador’s Perfect Getaway Spot (for Less Than $55,000)
The 4 Cs of Cotacachi, Ecuador
Cheap Ecuador – Travel Well on $43.72 a Day
Vilcabamba, Ecuador: Four Riverfront Lots for Sale