Vilcabamba is set in a “magical” valley and is famous for its long-living residents and is known locally as the “Valley of Eternal Youth”.
Not sure about the eternal youth thing, but the first thing we notice on arrival is the abundance of gringo hippies in the town. The place seems packed with 60-80 year olds apparently still hankering after their 1960s heydays of peace, hash and free love. We lost count of the number of balding men with long grey ponytails or pigtails just hanging around. I am half expecting The Grateful Dead to be playing a reunion gig in one of the bars! On arrival at our hostal I immediately change out of my retro tee shirt with “Woodstock” and psychedelic logos emblazoned across the chest lest I get mistaken for one. Sadly my hippie days are long gone!
At the bus station we switch to a camionetta, a communal taxi/pick up truck and get a ride up the valley to Hostal Izhcayluma our home for the next few days. More expensive than our norm, but a nice treat for our last few days in the country. By far, the nicest place we have stayed at in Ecuador.
As I sit here on the terrace writing this, the sun is rising over the mountains, the birds are singing and the butterflies are starting to come out. The peace and tranquility is broken only by cocks crowing and donkeys braying but even that is seems quite musical. I get why the hippies have settled here!
The Hostal sells itself on its hiking right from the front door so we pick up one of their hand drawn map and off we go on a loop around the valley to a village called Chaupi.
The walk follows narrow path along the sides of the valley where our only company is the occasional herd of cows blocking the path. The bird life is incredible but even more impressive are the thousands of brightly coloured butterflies that surround us everywhere.
According to the map the walk should take 4 hours but we have only reached the halfway point! Either the map is wrong or we have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Either way, we concede defeat and hitch a ride back to the town. Even though we got lost, it has been a great day.
Podocarpus National Park
Another day, another beautiful morning. Time for another hike . Ee grab a ride in a pick-up truck to the Refugio in the nearby Podocarpus National Park. The drive takes us along some very rough tracks through some amazing forest scenery to the park entrance where check in with the ranger who explains the hiking options to us.
It was hot when we left the hostal and, foolishly, we forgot we were in the Andes and didn’t appreciate the increase in altitude! We were totally unprepared for the fact that it was now drizzling and cold . No doubt thinking “stupid gringos” the ranger pointed out to us, we were dressed in tee shirts!
The drizzle didn’t last for long and once we got walking we were warm enough. The trail was well marked but very steep in places and led us up through the Podocarpus cloud forest and into the high páramo.
The trail gets steeper and steeper and more muddy as we ascend. Keeping our footing is difficult but by hanging on to vines, roots, branches or anything else within reach, we manage to stay upright most of the time. Despite all this we stop frequently to admire the views and the vegetation which changes constantly as we ascend.
Eventually the cloud forest thins out into rocky páramo (moorland) and we reach the mirador at the peak where we admire the views to Loja in the distance.
A few minutes on the peak and the winds begins to howl and the clouds start rolling in very quickly. Not relishing a mudslide all the way back down we quickly return from whence we came back to the refuge to await a pick truck to take us back to Vilcabamba.
Whilst sitting on the steps we are joined by an inquisitive Andean Fox who kindly poses for a few photos before, exhausted, we jump into the pick up and head back to the hostal for probably our last night before heading to the border and into Peru.
Eternal Youth – Fact or Fiction?
After researching the claims to longevity in the valley we discover that after years of research by many university professors from far and wide. It turns out that it is not the water, not the climate but simply that the people in the town had been lying about their ages to the researchers that have investigated the claims! Maybe the herbal viagra being sold on the bus into the valley had something to do with it?