Vilcabamba, the valley of eternal spring

Hello again! Haven’t written in a while because I’ve spent the past few weeks blissfully hanging out in the tiny outpost of Vilcabamba. It’s a small town (only 6,000 souls in the entire valley) located in the far south of Ecuador. It’s the kind of town where you could lie down in the street for half an hour before being run over.. by a horse. Unusual for such a small town, there is a strong community of expats and tourists – which results in a variety of dining options, massage, internet, and other amenities. The climate is perfect – as high as 90° (32C) on hot days, dipping to the 50’s (13C) on cool nights; but generally the temperature hovers in the 60’s to 70’s (18-24C). We’re currently in the dry season, so the surrounding hills and mountains are fairly brown, looking a lot like Montana or Mediterranean Greece or Italy. But I’m told the rainy season turns everything lush and verdant, akin to Ireland. The hiking is superb – I keep discovering new trails leading to stunning vistas. Incredible sunsets every night and five rivers criss-crossing the valley add to the feeling of paradise.

Unfortunately, all is not well in paradise. Occasional xenophobia towards foreigners. Armed robberies on the sacred mountain of Mandango, which used to be the prime hiking spot. There was a town rapist until he was finally run out of town by Gavin the Kiwi. [An awful saga – the former owner of a hostel in town, he would prey on blond-haired blue-eyed women tourists arriving on the bus and convince them to stay at his place; later that night he would slip horse tranquilizers into their drinks, use his master key to get into their rooms after they passed out, then rape them. Incredibly, the whole town knew what was going on for years. It even made the Lonely Planet guidebook, and still he was not prosecuted. The problem with small towns in corrupt countries is the police will just as often cover up problems, or be on the side of powerful and/or rich people, as actually meting out justice.]
And of course, real estate prices are skyrocketing thanks to exposure in magazines like International Living (which ranked Ecuador the second-best country to retire to, after New Zealand), thereby pricing out the locals. 20 years ago one could buy 100 hectares for $3,000; now, 5 acres is going for $300,000 and up. [The rapist’s hotel has been court-ordered to be sold, and is currently listing for $650k. That’s quite a deal, actually – it has a pool, spa, jacuzzis, pool table, disco, bars, the works.] A lot of the local kids move away after growing up leaving no one to work the land, thus accelerating further change to the way of life here.

Vilcabamba was put first put on the gringo map in the 1960’s by Johnny Lovewisdom, a somewhat troubled spiritual seeker who promoted vitarianism and breatharianism (the incredible belief that one can live on air alone. Is it any wonder he died of malnutrition?) For a while Johnny lived up at Lake Quilotoa and Cotopaxi Volcano where he did a series of seven-month fasts. Johnny founded his churches with creative names, my favorite being the Pristine Order of Paradisian Perfection (POOPP). A lot of hippies and followers of Johnny arrived in the ensuing years, some drawn by the legendary shamanic use of the San Pedro cactus. I’ve recently met some of his disciples who are still here.

Many people have come for health reasons – the valley has long been known for the longevity of it’s residents. Although it’s difficult to prove since birth records were not common until recently, many of the residents claim to be centenarians. In a 1970 interview for a British television programme, a man who purported to be 123 at the time was asked what his secret to a long life was. He replied that it was due to his continuing to work in the fields, smoking natural tobacco, drinking aguadiente (pure cane alcohol), and lots of good sex. When this man died a few years later he was survived by 14 children, 90 grandchildren, and 56 great-grandchildren. Another man supposedly fathered children at age 105. In 1992, Wellbeing magazine wrote that only two other places in the world had residents with such longevity – the Abkhazia of Russia and the Hunzas of Pakistan.

Various scientists have investigated over the years and conclude the residents’ longevity to be a combination of factors: the chelating effect of the negative ions produced by the charged air; an ideal balance of minerals found in the water (including magnesium, selenium, zinc, manganese, and calcium which helps bone calcification preventing osteoporosis as well as prevents hardening of the arteries by breaking up saturated fats. Manganese is also a chelating agent – it chemically binds with metals, including toxic heavy metals such as lead and mercury, so that they are neutralized and are more easily flushed from the body); as well as basic clean living with a good diet. The average daily caloric intake here has traditionally been 1200, compared to the 2400 daily calories recommended in the U.S. for persons over 55. Locals traditionally eat half the meat that Americans do. One Japanese doctor who recuperated from his longer-suffering heart condition simply by living here for a few months was so grateful that he donated all new cardiac equipment to the hospital. It’s interesting to note that residents are not living nearly as long nowadays as they were 50 years ago. Some say this is due to the introduction of modern chemicals (such as fertilizers and chlorine) into the formerly pristine environment.

The town modernized surprisingly recently – only 20 years ago, all of the streets were dirt, there was one telephone for the entire town, and driving to Loja (the closest city) took six to eight hours on a bumpy old road – a trip that now takes 45 minutes along a well-paved highway. Most of the houses back then were built out of rammed earth, a fascinating building style that is still being used in modern construction. You build a mold, pack wet soil and stones into it while tamping it down, remove the mold, and wait. When finally dry, the walls are as strong as concrete. Easy, simple, and cheap. Most of the rest of the construction around here is adobe (there is even an adobe brick maker down the street from me), cob (less common), and of course, all the recent houses are concrete.

As you would expect in such an expat haven, there are a number of interesting characters around – they all have a story, and most of them love to tell it to you until the wee hours. I’m realizing that most people who leave the States to live in a hide-out like this have interesting reasons for doing so. Nearly all of them are running away from something, rather than towards something. The Y2K panic brought many people who built bunkers and havens, convinced that the world was about to end. Many of the expat escapees are alcoholics, burying their troubles in the bottle. Or celebrating every day and night – one guy’s mother won the lottery back in the U.K. and gave him 2 million pounds. So he spends it down here where one can live on $10/day? Personally, I’d live somewhere expensive if money were no object.

One of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters ended up down here after riding around on the Magic Bus watching Timothy Leary jump out of helicopters in a Batman costume while spraying the love-ins with blotter acid. This man, The Digger (his character name in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) ended up marrying a local woman and starting a book exchange. Sadly, he died a few years ago under questionable circumstances. Interestingly, his widow later married the man who built the band characters (Floyd, Zoot, Animal, etc) for the Muppet Show. Funny that this local woman would be married to two counter-cultural heroes in her life. And she probably has no idea of the impact her husbands had on zillions of people in the States.

One of the local bars’ specialties is “snake juice” – two coral snakes preserved with pure cane alcohol in a five-gallon jar. Even ingesting only a bit is meant to get one quite messy – probably due to the traces of venom entering one’s bloodstream! Three nights a week, in rotating bars, expats play a friendly game of poker. The stakes are low ($5 buy-in), but money can be made. A young American couple I befriended were only going to stay here a week, but they’ve been making so much money from the poker games that they’re actually earning more than they’re spending every week!

The first night I was in town happened to be Ecuador’s independence celebration. People came from all over the region to party – a stage was set up in the central square where musicians and magicians performed, fire jugglers entertained the kids (why are the fire jugglers always white hippies with dreads, never locals??), and fireworks set off right in the middle of the crowd. Sitting behind the stage (where I feel most comfortable, naturally) I noticed that the electricity for the lighting and sound system was coming from a bare wire haphazardly hanging down from a utility pole. Naturally, children were running around playing right next to this deathtrap (no wonder the mortality rate is so high here). I also watched a family of vendors working the crowd. While his classmates were playing, the son (about five years old) was peddling popcorn. Later the kid had an argument with dad over how much he had sold – dad thought he had sold more, and expected more change coming back.

I don’t know what it is about this place, but I’m the happiest and most at peace I’ve been for a long time. It’s quiet and tranquil, you can walk from one end of town to the other in five minutes – yet it has all the amenities one needs. I’m usually more of a big-city person, but there is something magical about knowing people on every corner you walk by – stopping to chat for five minutes and before you know it five hours have gone by. The late afternoon light is gorgeous, rainbows are common, and the stars are spectacular – on clear nights you can easily see the band of the Milky Way. I’m learning new stars (like the Southern Cross), since none of the stars I know are down here. Some people say this place is a “vortex of energy”, similar to Taos or Mount Shasta. Many UFO’s have been spotted over Mandango, the mountain hanging over the town.

I’ve slowly been meeting some of the wacky expat characters – David Lynch himself could not invent stranger people. Many of them are conspiracy theorists to varying degrees. Errol Morris really needs to come down and document some of these folks. One wonderful old cranky character I’ve gotten to be friends with is an iconoclastic Kiwi cowboy named Gavin. He plays the part to a T – tall and skinny, leather for skin, mustache, perpetual leather cowboy hat, western shirt open to the sternum, dirty jeans, cowboy boots. Constantly smoking and drinking, he’s clearly depressed and needs help, but refuses to accept it when offered. Gavin leads horseback trips and writes poetry that’s actually quite good. He’s also written a book on the history of gringos in Vilcabamba that is in dire need of judicious editing, but was an interesting read nonetheless. Gavin lead quite the life prior to landing here 25 years ago – stints in India, Nepal, hitching around Europe, married a Peruvian princess. Since settling here, Gavin has sired several children. Raised two of them by himself for nine years up in the mountains with no electricity or gas. Homework by candlelight, cooking over wood fire.

A random encounter from Gavin (on 8/16):
“One of my oldest pals died today. She’d been sick, was weak, fell into a canal and drowned.” Turns out he was talking about a horse. I asked what one does with the body of a dead horse. “Normally you let the dogs take care of it – inside of a week nothing will be left but the bones. But since this is within the town limits, I have to burn her. But I’m thinking of cutting off some meat for myself first.” I told him not to think too long, or that meat’s going to spoil! Sure enough, the next day he poured gasoline on the poor thing and lit her up. It ended up taking a couple of days, actually – he had to keep going back with more fuel. Followed by more heavy drinking and moping. He didn’t end up getting any meat, but he did remember to salvage the horse shoes. I wouldn’t have thought of that. But then, I’m not a cowboy.

A few years ago Gavin was bitten through a hole in his boot by a scorpion. They say the venom from a scorpion sting stays in one’s bloodstream until the day you die. Sure enough, Gavin’s foot is often numb and his leg still gives him trouble. One night we ran out of alcohol and he jokingly suggested we drink the alcohol the scorpion was preserved in. Gavin has been kicked by horses too many times to count – and proved that tale by pulling out his dentures to demonstrate how his front teeth were knocked out. One morning he set the dentures down while brushing his remaining teeth when a dog came wandering up and ran off with his teeth! Reminds me of the French truck driver we had on one tour who told me the fantastic tale of losing his dentures after I saw him gumming carrots backstage. Apparently he was sleeping with a hooker in his truck down by the docks and woke up in the morning to find the girl gone, along with his dentures. I guess she just wanted a souvenir.

A complex system of aqueducts and canals built for irrigation runs through the hills surrounding the village. It’s quite impressive, I’ve never seen anything like it – sluice gates, overflow channels, reinforced concrete shafts running for miles. Many of them are broken down by landslides and have yet to be repaired. Each province in Ecuador receives a certain amount from the government each year (here it’s $333,000) which has to pay for the infrastructure for all the towns and cities in that province for the entire year. With that small budget stretching so far, one can understand why so much is broken down.

One of the prettiest hostels I’ve ever seen lies 2km out of town on a hill overlooking the valley. It’s built like a resort, with massage and spa, outdoor natural pool, an excellent restaurant with a million-dollar view, a fun bar with table tennis and billiards, the works – but all priced for backpackers. Owned by two German brothers, the place was built by journeymen (and yes, they dress just like the article says). That’s a program of German carpentry apprentices – they spend two years overseas working for free – all you have to supply them with is room, board, and beer – and they will build you the most wonderful house imaginable. I’ve seen other examples of their work around town, and their engineering and construction is far superior to anything else I’ve seen in Latin America.

Next post: detailed descriptions of all my activities this past month…


Lunatic fringe:

LLC.. violence & coercion by state to enforce laws.

says most of us equate capitalism with corporatism, the way it’s practised in the U.S.

I agree that the economy based on perpetual war is no good..


Written by in: Ecuador | Tags: , ,


  • Marissa says:

    Josh it’s so good to read you again! I’m having a good time imagining you in this lovely place, taking photos of the sky and riding horses and playing poker.

  • judith Johnson says:

    Glad to have you back to your blog. Great pictures of the sunset. Why do you call this Aug 30?It is very confusing. I think I’ve read it. Why don’t you date them the date you write it? miss you. J

    • Josh says:

      Because as I’ve said before, it takes me a while to write up my experiences.. it’s often weeks after the actual events occurred that the post goes up. I’d prefer have an actual record of when I did things rather than (for example) three different cities appearing on the same day. Not sure why you think you would have read it, since you receive an email every time a new post is published.

  • christine says:

    Yay! The links are back! Wow, this does look like a beautiful valley. I can see why you have stayed so long. Are you still there? I can’t wait to hear more about your hikes. Speaking of rammed earth construction, did Chloe tell you the theater she worked in with Tere O’Connor in Oaxaca was built of rammed earth? Very interesting, but hard to keep clean (especially because the dancers kept throwing themselves at the wall.)

  • Gavin Moore says:

    Josh just found your blog that someone suggested I read. I liked that you mentioned my book Vilcaflor and that it needed editing. I think I told you that. You didn’t mention the mtn trip on horse nor the fact that you got sticky feet. Everyone missed you tho’ when you finally left. Thankyou for your friendship.
    Gavino the kiwi cowboy.

  • Gavin Moore says:

    Oh by the way the photo you posted as the fabled San Pedro cactus is not.

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