Tag Archives: valley of eternal youth

Walks and warnings in Vilcabamba

Tourists are drawn to Vilcabamba for the hiking and the laid back atmosphere. At Hostería Las Ruinas de Quinara I was provided with a map detailing five different routes, ranging from an easy stroll to Agua Hierro to a full day bus out and trek to the Solanda Waterfall.

Mandango Peak, a four hour looped hike up to an altitude of 2,050 metres sounded like a great option for some activity after a few city stops and long bus journeys. I arrived at the starting point on the outskirts of Vilcabamba with another traveller to a sign that read:

WARNING!

Before you climb the Mandango Mountain be advised.

The last reported violent robbery on this mountain took place in in broad daylight at midday on Thursday the 21th of July 2011 on the top of the mountain.

Five tourists were robbed by three men with machetes. They received light injuries and lost all of their valuables, including cameras, money, I-pod, cell phones, backpack and more…

The information went on to recommend that ‘you do not climb Mandango’ or, if  determined to do the trek, do it with a group of at least four people and carry absolutely no valuables (‘it is forbidden to take anything with you’).

In a place known for it’s safe, tranquil atmosphere, this was somewhat of a surprise and disappointment. We could go back, dump any valuables and try again, but it still remained that there were only two of us and the likelihood of recruiting two others was slim: there didn’t appear to be any other gringos in town. That, and the fact that the offenders were still on the loose. Great.

The next option that would work time-wise was a relaxed three to four hour walk to Cascada del Salado via the village of San Pedro, home of the notorious and intense hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus, something the locals aren’t keen to promote to travellers.

Unsigned, this route took us down through the village and out on to a dusty dirt track alongside a gentle river. The sun shone, the water sparkled, and we hit a dead end. Wrong way. Butterflies and bees flitted about and occasional gusts of wind made the heat bearable. On the other side of the river, four young men lounged in the shade, machetes placed to the side as they took a siesta. We paddled, and picnicked on empañadas and then retraced our steps to another potential route.

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The path took us away from the river and along a more established road. We were on the right track, assured a weathered rider on horseback, just another hour to the waterfall. Turning back down towards the river, we followed a stream past fields of giant cacti and into the forest, eventually reaching a house.

Buenos tardes’, said a guy who was tilling the soil as we trudged by. I’m not sure whether I imagined it, but I picked up on some warm amusement and wandered if we were in fact trespassing on private land. He didn’t object as we followed a path up and out the back of the garden, past a mini waterfall and water collection system, and onwards along a narrow, overgrown track with a steep drop down to the river below.

The flow of water was intensifying; surely the waterfall was close. But again, the path reached an end. No waterfall.

Dusk arrived bringing with it some drizzle and a sense of defeat. It wasn’t meant to be. Not this time.

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Why are there so many Americans in Vilcabamba?

Why are the so many Americans in Vilcabamba?’ I asked Tracy, a Kiwi traveller stopping off to do some waitressing and WWOOFing in the valley of eternal youth.

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.

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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?!

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