The small town seemed to have an unusually high presence of older North Americans running small business, such as the Juice Factory, a little place with a wide array of nourishing juice blends and health food products on sale. ‘Maybe it’s to do with the whole end of the world idea’, said Tracy, ‘or the longevity theory, or the fact that the US dollar goes a lot further here’. The amount of big moustaches and Stetsons and smiles about the town is bizarre. A number of real estate companies are dotted along the streets and although there’s still evidence of an Ecuadorian population, it does feel the least Ecuadorian of all the places I’ve visited thus far.
So what makes this place so appealing? It’s not just the Americans who have put down roots in this place, but also the English and Germans have been drawn to Vilcabamba’s balanced climate and environment. The chatter of English is audible, the default language among an international mix of residents. The days are warm – enjoyably so – and the nights can get crisp and fresh. The mountains are lower here – they don’t hit the clouds in the same way as the higher ranges further north of the country. Predominantly covered in thick bushes and trees, they mix up the rolling hill feeling with jagged peaks and chunks of rock that look ideal for a spot of climbing.
The small, green town plaza is surrounded by little cafés and shops and internet facilities and a church. Artisans set up camp on the benches facing out of the park and old boys with wide Stetsons stand and chat and smoke in the shade of the palm trees. Sitting in the Sambuca Café (linked to a local organic farm – there’s lots of good food and produce in this town) you can watch the world go by or take in the views: mountain slopes, pretty pink and yellow buildings, uniformed school kids getting a lunchtime ice-cream.
Some of Vilcabamba’s treats are less easy to find, for example the pan de chocolate or the banana cake available from an unnamed restaurant a few doors down from The Juice Factory. Natural Yogurt is a bit misleading in its name – yes, its menu does start with yoghurt options but it also does amazingly tasty and generous size crepes (savoury and sweet) for a really good price. It is also the first place in Ecuador that I’ve found an affordable and drinkable glass of wine ($1.50).
The main tourist hub for food seems to be across the road at La Terraza which has a really varied menu and although more pricy than some, it’s still on par or below that of other parts of Ecuador. The portions are also plentiful and the quality of the food is great, for example the guacamole that came with my burrito was wholesome and full of chunky, avocado goodness.
Whilst walking the ten minutes back up the hill to the hostel, I’m stopped by a slim, fit American in his 50s who is working the cowboy look to perfection. ‘Are you looking for horses?’ he asks, which anywhere else might seem like an odd question, particularly at night. ‘No, not this time’, I tell him, slightly regretting that I was about to leave without having done some horseback exploration of this place. Another time.
Maybe if I start to fear the end of the world, I’ll come back to the safety of Vilcabamba and its supposed immunity from the apocalypse, and I’ll live out the rest of my days in this pleasant, healthy, happy place. Who knows. Failing that, I’ll just go along to The End of the World Party at the Secret Garden this Friday. Surely they’re not mocking their own legend?!