This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Vilcabamba - Where Have All the Centenarians Gone?

Vilcabamba is famous for it's old people. It is a community with one of the highest rates of longevity in the world. In the 1970's one man lived to be 127. The men in Vilcabamba are possibly the oldest in the world (women in Okinawa, Japan are older) - that is if these old timers are still in Vilcabamba.
Vilcabamba: World Center for Geriatric Research
In recent years there has been an influx of Westerners buying land and building big homes in and around Vilcabamba in part because of the lovely scenery and great weather. Many are older Americans. Like the conquistador, Juan Ponce de Leon, who was searching for the Fountain of Youth, these gringos have come to Vilcabamba to find the Fountain of Really Really Old. Well that and a cheap place to retire.

Unlike Cuenca, Ecuador - which is a large city and can absorb the large number of foreign retirees without altering the city's equilibrium - Vilcabamba is being completely swallowed by foreigners buying up land to build their dream homes or to start their dream businesses. The locals understandably sell their land to developers for high prices and then cannot afford to live in their own village anymore or to have lunch at a restaurant on their plaza.

I heard an unsubstantiated rumor from another traveler that many of the old people have left Vilcabamba to the outlying villages. Essentially priced out of town. True or not, I do not know. But I can tell you that during my time people watching at the plaza we see only one really old looking guy. The rest of them might just be in their homes watching game shows.
For Sale: In a new, posh gated community 
In any Latin American town or city the plazas are a center of activity and a great indicator of the vibe of the place. Included around Vilcabamba's plaza are three real estate offices with signs and listings only in English, a cafe on every corner geared towards foreigners and an Indian restaurant. Most towns of this size in Ecuador will have zero real estate offices, maybe a cafe or two and for sure not an Indian restaurant. Vilcabamba is changing, and if I was a local centenarian holding the secrets to longevity I would probably run away also.

From my people watching I notice there happens to be plenty of older gringos about, but I did not notice as many as I imagined there would be -- maybe they´re in their haciendas watching game shows? I am quite surprised, on the other hand, to see a healthy sized contingent of New Age hippies (read: white people with dreadlocks and/or colorful baggy pants and/or handmade string bracelets). Of course this type of traveler is found everywhere in South America, but there seems to be quite a lot of them here. This could be because Vilcabamba has been deemed "spiritual."

Let me give an example. Besides the ubiquitous ads for tours, hotels and restaurants our hotel message board has the following posts for fee-based spiritual activities: The Center for Meditation; Sacred Valley herbal products; Bioenergist/Massage Therapist; A Sacred Medicine Journey; Yoga with Caroline.

I am not sure if this new found spirituality at Vilcabamba is connected to the indigenous residents' longevity, but I am quite positive that a 100 year old Ecuadorian never went to a bioenergist session or a reiki class.
Mundo Ganesha restaurant
We arrive on a Sunday and the town is quite busy with Ecuadorians enjoying their weekend. During the week it is fairly quiet with foreigners being the majority of people walking around. There are only a few local restaurants found on the main road and some small shops for those who like to self-cater, though I do not think any of the hostels have kitchens for guests. Places to stay are well maintained with nice gardens but cost more than what is in the normal budget for long-term travelers like us.  

In conclusion, I would have to say for a true traveler in Ecuador Vilcabamba is easily miss-able and I am even leaning towards recommending a harsher do not go at all. There are some nice mountain views, but where in the Andes aren't there nice mountain views. There is some hiking, but hiking is everywhere too.

Mountains, Clouds and Vilcabamba
What Vilcabamba is lacking is the Ecuadorian small town charm. It has become a growing enclave for Westerners trying to create a bit of 'home' in a far away land. But whose to blame them?

The Chinese in New York, Indians in Kuala Lumpur and the British in Malaga, Spain are just three examples out of hundreds with immigrants searching for their "promised land" while simultaneously clinging to the bosom of their motherland.  However, for someone like me just rambling through Ecuador to know the country a little bit better, Vilcabamba is pretty much exactly not what I am looking for. And for that matter probably neither is a really, really old Ecuadorian.
No beating around the bush: Typical Gringo Bakery


  1. Nice wrap up Jeff! You described the situation exactly as I see it. Wait till the "objective" town real estate guy reads it - LOL

  2. Fantastic photos and story!

  3. Thanks Jasmine. He´s alright, just having problems accepting that he is implicit in creating a new Costa Rica type place. Maybe a good bioenergist can sort him out.

  4. Thanks for the compliments Margaret.

    Your blog has me really wanting to go to Iceland.

  5. Excellent blog and observations! I am in Vilcabamba at the moment and I coundn't agree more. Overrun with new age hippies and raw food fads. Unlike any small Ecuadorian town I have been to before. Thanks for a good read, I was beginning to think I was the odd one out thinking this place is a little strange.
    Look forward to your next blog, I seem to be following your trip, what boarder crossing have you used into Peru?

  6. Hey Tom,
    Thanks for the nice comments. Not sure how it came about that everyone ends up in Vilcabamba. Zamora is probably better and a cheaper way to go to Podacarpus.
    To answer you question: We took the last evening bus from Vil. to Loja and then the night bus to Piura, Peru crossing the border at like 3 AM. Our goal was to get to Cusco quickly before high season starts at Machu Picchu. Other travelers were crossing through Zumba which sounds more fun and better for exploring northern Peru.
    Happy Travels and let me know which way you end going.

  7. hi,

    just read your blog and am now in loja on my way...what a hole this place is..i have travelled from quito to esmeralda, altacama, san vincente, bahia, manta, mundo, octavalo, cotcachesee, port lopez, guayquill, cuenca, and now here...loja...all by bus..

    i figured your blog was correct as many have told me the same but go i must..

    stay clear of the bonaza hotel, in quito, as the mamager, a gringo, patrick mingus, ripped my partner and i off for $440.00, as we paid for a month and left after 2 weeks becuase he was fucking every woman he could, or trying to, before christmas, and his wife, an ecudorian, just looked the other way. sad scene for a hostel hotel owner that wants to make it here in real estate. what a fake he was!

    we felt it was wrong and we told him but he just got angry and made excuses, so we left.

    i guess he needed the money for his christmas dinner...and so be it for him and his to them.

    sad that an american was the only one that ripped us off in a month...

    thanks brother.


  8. Hey William,
    Thanks for the comment. Sucks you ran into problems in Quito with the greedy and creepy Mr. Mingus. It's good to let others know so they can avoid his place.

    Anyway, let me know what you think about Vilcabamba and enjoy your travels!

  9. I think both have valid points. Having lived in Latin America for over 10 years.Yes we Gringos do tend to flock together but in the states so do Latins.Take a look in Miami at Little Havana. There are always two sides to every story.