Vilcabamba is a small valley in Southern Ecuador. Vilcabamba, from the quechua Huilcopamba means Valley of the Huilcos – after the huilco trees that are very common in this valley, is well known for its longevos or centenarians. Vilcabamba is also called the Valley of the Eternal Youth or the Valley of Longevity. It is a resort like town that has a great warm spring like climate year-round, but can also have a brutal rainy season. This small town is part of the province of Loja and is about a 45 minute drive away from the city of Loja. Vilcabamba, and nearby towns of San Pedro, Malacatos and Landangui, has always been a weekend getaway for people living in Loja, most wealthy lojanos have fincas or vacations homes in these small towns. Vilcabamba is also a popular gringo or foreigner destination. It used to be that most foreigners were backpackers passing through on their way to Peru and only a few would end up of staying as long term residents. But as the years have gone by, more and more foreigners are finding it a great place to retire or settle down.
My parents moved to Vilcabamba in the 70’s, they wanted a calm and peaceful place to raise a family. At that time there were only a handful of gringos or foreigners living there – and yes, in Ecuador most foreigners are called gringos – even if they aren’t from the US. I was born in Vilcabamba, in an old adobe house in the middle of nowhere, and was probably the first Vilcabambeña born gringuita. I spent my childhood years there on our small farm, which was about an hour’s walk away from the town. Our remote barrio, Capamaco or Yamburara Alto, didn’t get electricity until I was about 8 or 9 years old. I still remember how excited we were when they installed it – we still didn’t get a TV for a few years after that because it was too remote to get any signal. Luckily our friends in town had a Betamax, so it always a special occasion when we got to go over to their place to watch cartoons (that were sent from their family in Canada). The lack of modern (or what was modern for that time) technology didn’t really matter much. We kids had a wonderful childhood full of freedom. I have great memories of climbing trees, picking fruit, building dams and swimming in the river, going on hikes, riding burros and horses, playing soccer, spending time in our tree house, etc.
Of course, Vilcabamba has changed a lot since then. It’s still a beautiful place, but everyone has cell phones and Wi-Fi. There are shops and restaurants on all the town’s streets. And, of course, there are a lot more foreigners living there than when I grew up – to the point that they don’t even know each other and don’t always integrate into the local community, but I don’t want to get into that hornet’s nest right now. It’s also not as safe as it was when I grew up, and there have been some crime problems recently – when I was growing up, the crime was limited to thieves stealing your chickens at night (and everyone knew who the chicken thief was).
My parents and siblings still live in Vilcabamba, and I try to visit as much as possible. We spent 3 months there last summer and it was a really fun experience for my boys, ages 9 and 6 at the time. They especially loved spending time with my mom on the farm, swimming in the perfectly clear (and cold) small river, climbing trees, picking fruit, and playing with the animals (puppies, baby goats). They also enjoyed hanging out in the town with newly made friends, eating helados or ice cream, freshly made chocolate bread from the local bakeries, drinking fresh fruit juices, eating pizza at Charlito’s restaurant o Shanta’s restaurant, riding in the back of pickup trucks, playing futbol with my brother, and as my oldest put it “enjoying real freedom for once”. My husband, Nicolas, didn’t spend the entire summer there, but he loves it there. The first time we visited Ecuador, for a short 2 week trip, we had also planned to go to the coast and other parts of Ecuador. However, he liked it so much that we ended up spending almost the entire time in Vilcabamba. This last time I made sure he at least saw Quito and Cuenca, and he also really enjoyed Cuenca.
There are many things to do in Vilcabamba, you can go hiking, horseriding, camping, swimming in the cold and refreshing river, rent a bike, visit a local farm, get a massage, and more. But the real reason most people visit people is to relax and unwind, sit in hammock, read a book, enjoy the gorgeous sunsets and double rainbows, have a cold Pilsener or Club at one of the restaurants on the plaza, sit on a bench in the park in front of the church and enjoy some people watching, talk to the locals and to the local gringos – there are some really really really interesting characters in Vilcabamba.
Vilcabamba is located at an altitude of 1500 meters above sea level (about 5000ft), and is surrounded by beautiful mountains. The most well-known mountain is called Mandango, and has the shape of a profile of a person lying down. The mountains above my parents’ farm lead to Podocarpus National Park, a large natural reserve. The town of Vilcabamba is relatively small and walkable; the main plaza is where most of the shops and restaurants are located. When I was growing up, there were a few shops and restaurants in the plaza, but most were also family homes. During the last visit I’m pretty sure that almost every single one is now some sort of shop or restaurant. There are also a large number of hotels and hostels in Vilcabamba, some are located in the town itself and other are spread through-out the valley.
This was a brief overview of my hometown of Vilcabamba, Ecuador. I will post more specifics about things to do, places to eat, and more photos in separate posts. Feel free to leave any comments and suggestions!