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.

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Photos from Loja

UPDATE 10/21/09: Added a few more photos, taken on my way out of Ecuador.

Lest you think I’ve fallen off the face of the Earth:

I’ve been hanging out for the past two weeks in the lovely little town of Vilcabamba, in the south of Ecuador. It’s tranquil and pretty here with great hikes and walks into the countryside. The town is home to dozens of ex-pats I’ve been getting to know, most of whom are paranoid conspiracy theorists. I’m working on a long blog post with lots of photos about this strange and wonderful place.

In the meantime, here are a few photos from Loja, the closest city. There is not much to say about Loja – it has a scattering of Colonial architecture and some nice parks, but I found the people to be not altogether friendly nor helpful.


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Cuenca and surroundings

Fri 7/24: Arrived in Cuenca last night, Ecuador’s 3rd-largest city. As one would expect of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s pretty – a mix of colonial and other interesting architectural styles. There are even a few art deco buildings, one of my all-time favorite styles. I wonder how Cuenca ended up with all the varied architecture, but Quito and Guayaquil with just a bit of the colonial style? The weather is crazy variable here – sunny and warm one minute, cloudy and chilly the next.

There are a lot of students about, I’m guessing a big university is near. I’ve seen a number of new hospitals as well. There is also a lovely modern art museum set within a pretty old building containing a lovely courtyard. I’m sick of being sick. I want to run around and live the nightlife, instead of blowing my nose every minute and huddling under the covers. I’m thinking about buying a portable DVD player to make the evenings a bit less lonely. I saw one today for $50 and most of the hotel rooms I stay in have a TV I could jack into. I’m not sure whether Peru will be the same, but here in Ecuador you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a shop selling hundreds of pirated DVDs – 3 or more for $1. Cheaper than renting movies in the States!

Sun 7/26: Today I went to three small towns near here to visit their markets and just to have a walk around. The markets were OK, but I have to say that for sheer humanity, nothing so far compares to the ones in Guatemala. First I visited Gualaceo which has a beautiful tranquil river running through it.. people picnicking and flying kites, and an interesting covered wooden bridge. Then I walked a couple of hours (largely uphill!) to Chordeleg, a pre-Incan town now known for it’s artisans selling handcrafted ponchos, ceramics, embroidery, pottery, but most famously for its gold and silver filigree. There are dozens of such shops set around the pleasant central park/square.

Finally, I caught a bus further up into the mountains to the tiny town of Sigsig, most famous as the epicenter for craftspeople making so-called “Panama” hats. The iconic panama hat originates from this area of Ecuador, however it was exported by the Spanish through Panama. Workers on the Panama canal also wore them, further cementing that name in people’s minds. The hats are made from fronds grown near Montecristi and Jipijapa (pronounced “hippy-happa”, what a wonderful name for a town.) The weaving process is numbing, as you can imagine. I don’t know if this is actually true, but lore has it that weavers mostly work at night (under a full moon) so their hands sweat and swell less. The best hats are comprised of thousands of weaves per square inch, and are actually watertight.

Tonight I looked out my window to the sight of fireworks and dozens of beautiful paper lanterns rising slowly into the sky. Must be some commemoration of the city’s founding or something.

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Déjà vu all over again

Normally I avoid night buses since they’re meant to be dangerous, I enjoy watching the scenery, and I have trouble sleeping on them. But I had no choice in going from Puerto Lopez to Quito in order to meet Eloisa on time. This one was well organized – we boarded the bus in front of the police station where they frisked us before boarding. In spite of this, they still gave us stern warnings not to put our day packs under the seats or in the overhead bins – instead, to keep them on our laps the entire time. Besides thieves on the buses, occasionally one will get pulled over by armed robbers. This bus was a direct express, which made that scenario less likely.

I was actually able to sleep on the bus, so I arrived in Quito at 6 am fairly refreshed. It’s rare for me to return to someplace I’ve been, and oh so pleasant – I’ve already done the legwork – I know where the good coffee is, the cheap hotels, the fast internet. After settling on a hotel and having a leisurely brunch, I went to the airport to pick up Elo. A great reunion. We spent that night (Friday) in Quito, meeting up with one of the crazy Couchsurfers I had hung out with before. Saturday we bused up to Otavalo so Elo could see the famous indigenous market there. I took more photos of the beautiful people, which I’ve added to that post. [Incidentally, I’ve also recently added a video and more photos to the beautiful Baños post, after discovering a memory card I’d forgotten about!]

Elo keeps teasing me that I’m destined to marry one of the indigenous women, the way I keep going on about how beautiful they are. It’s true that I do find their natural beauty more attractive than many mestizos or caucasians. Part of it is that androgynous look that I love so much – the men with their gorgeous long hair that I always wanted, the women with their elegant fedoras. You don’t often catch them smiling, but when they do it lights up the square. There are surprisingly few photos on the web of the type of people I mean, but here are a few: One, two, three, four, five, six.

In the few weeks since I was last in Quito, they have opened two new bus stations, one in the north and one in the south of the city. Whereas the old bus station was dingy and dangerous, these new ones are gleaming examples of the future of Ecuador – modern architecture, light and airy, clean, and safe. You can only reach the buses themselves by showing a valid ticket, which should significantly cut down on petty theft.

On Monday morning Elo left for the Oriente (Amazon region) for meetings with the parks department there. I woke up terribly sick (fever, aches, pains, runny nose, all the signs of H1N1!), so I decided to just lay low in Quito for a few days to try to kick this thing. Elo graciously left her MacBook with me for those few days so I could get some work done in the hotel rather than at net cafes. My iPod has been slowly dying (the hard drive keeps crashing, making a wince-inducing clattering noise), and since it’s Mac-formatted, I needed a Mac to be able to work on it, which are non-existent down here. How many commas can I put in a single sentence. I was nervous about losing everything, so I didn’t reformat it which is probably what I should have done to map out the bad blocks, but I did take the opportunity to load it up with a bunch more Spanish language lessons, new music, and a couple of movies. So provided it stays alive, I have all that to look forward to.

A couple of days later I was feeling well enough to travel again so I headed south to pick up again where I had left off (this will all make much more sense as soon as I finish that Google Map showing my route!) Never one for long bus journeys and especially not when sick, I stopped overnight in Friobamba Riobamba (see, that was a Spanish joke – “frio” means cold, and that town is freezing!  I don’t hear you laughing.) The sun made a rare appearance and I saw for a fleeting moment all the volcanoes and mountains surrounding the city. I thought about trying to take the famous steam train again, but pressed on instead to Cuenca, Ecuador’s third-largest city.

Written by in: Ecuador | Tags: ,

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