A Budget-Friendly Wellness Retreat In Ecuador’s ‘Valley of Longevity’

vilcabambaAs soon as you step off the bus into Vilcabamba in Ecuador, you’ll be amazed at how rural and small the town feels. Surrounded by the Andes Mountains and lush valleys, Vilcabamba is a tranquil place where you go to clear your mind and get away. Upon closer inspection, however, you’ll realize that many others had the same idea – but never left.

Valley Of Longevity

Vilcabamba is known as the “Valley of Longevity.” It is said that it’s common for residents to live past 100 years old, sometimes even over 120. That’s why, while the town may seem like an off-the-beaten-path locale where nobody would speak English, a lot do. In fact, many people who live in Vilcabamba are backpackers and senior citizens who’ve come to reap the benefits of the healthy region. And for travelers who enjoy nature and holistic healing but don’t want to spend a lot of money on a retreat, Vilcabamba can provide a worthwhile experience for even the most frugal visitor.

fruit There are various theories as to why people in Vilcabamba live so long. One thought is the lifestyle of the people. Locals in Vilcabamba stay active until they die, as they live off the land. Moreover, the fruits and vegetables from the area are high in anti-oxidants, and all foods are eaten fresh. Walking through the region, you’ll find an abundance of berries, apples, oranges, avocados, potatoes, rice and other nutritious foods. There is also the drinkable mineral water that flows from up in the mountains, and contains curative properties like preventing clogged arteries. Other factors like a laid-back culture, pure air, easy access to natural medicines and consistently good weather that doesn’t stress the body are also said to help people live a long life of wellness.vilcabamba No matter what the reason, the area is a great place to take a healthy and budget-friendly retreat.

Hosteria Izhcayluma

Most travelers, both young and old, stay at Hosteria Izhcayluma. It offers rustic, incense-scented dorms for $10 a night for backpackers, as well as cabanas and private rooms from $25 to $56 for more upscale travelers. Furthermore, the property is set among colorful gardens and lush vegetation, even providing leisurely hikes onsite. An inclusive and nutritious breakfast buffet, expansive pool and luxurious, yet affordable, spa add to the feeling you’re doing something good for yourself. For example, I purchased a 90-minute spa package that included a hair treatment, facial and reiki session for $24. Moreover, I loved enjoying fresh fruit and whole-grain bread in the morning in the hotel’s mountainside restaurant, which provided excellent Andes and cloud forest views. Cabs from here into the town center are $1.

hiking Hiking

Vilcabamba has numerous options for hiking, and visitors will be able to do short two-hour hikes or full-day excursions for eight hours. One easy but beautiful trek you can try is the “Chaupi Loop,” which provides sweeping views of the Vilcabamba River and Chaupi Valley. Likewise, halfway through the hike you pass through the Chaupi Village where you’ll get the chance to interact with locals.

You can access the trailhead a mile downhill from Hosteria Izhcayluma, right after you pass the small village of Los Huilcos. Veer left on the dirt road to follow a small canal of water. You’ll take this for a while, and when the dirt road ends, continue following the canal until you get to an iron gate on your left. Here, you’ll turn right down a wide path. Pass a dirt road and small bus station on your left, cross the dirt road and continue straight down to cross a footbridge over the river. After you pass Chaupi Village, follow the dirt road back to the paved road. Then turn right, over a concrete bridge and through the “entrance gate of Vilcabamba” to end in the town center.

hikingThere’s also a really interesting “Forgotten Road Trail.” This hike lasts about eight hours and takes you through the once-main road connecting two villages. The road collapsed over a decade ago, and is now only accessible by walking. It begins in a riverbed, ascending after one hour to offer excellent views of the Quinara Valley. The highlight of the trek, however, is passing through Tumianuma Village, an area rarely visited by tourists. Here, you’ll also be able to swim in the Piscobamba River. You can access the riverbed trailhead by veering left before the rock quarry, located downhill from Hosteria Izhcayluma.

For those who love bird watching and are interested in exploring the cloud forest, Podocarpus National Park offers numerous hikes, from 30-minutes to longer two-day treks. It’s $10 to enter, and costs $15 each way by taxi.

Other hikes include the Mandango Loop, the San Jose Trail, the Waterfall Hike and the Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve. The hotel can give you maps and instructions for each. All are worthwhile; however, proceed with caution during the Mandango Loop and try to go with a big group or guide. There have been incidents of robbery in this area.

By Horse And Bike

Horseback riding is extremely popular here, as is riding bikes. Walking around the town center, you’ll see numerous agencies offering rides and grooming their horses. You’ll be able to ride over cliffs, through valleys and to majestic waterfalls. Basically any destination you have in mind will be possible to visit on horseback or bike.

yoga Meditation, Yoga And Beauty

Walk around the town center, and you’ll see numerous message boards advertising yoga, meditation and other holistic experiences. Along with Hosteria Izhcayluma for spa treatments and reiki, there’s a place in the town square right next to the popular Natural Yogurt Cafe that offers very cheap beauty and spa treatments, mostly for under $7. Moreover, Madre Tierra Resort and Spa offers an eco-friendly approach to wellness and often advertises specials and events on the town’s message boards.

For Yoga, head to the Community Cultural Center on the corner of Agua de Hierro and La Paz streets. Here you’ll be able to choose from an array of levels, and take a two-hour class for just $3. Furthermore, the Lunar Loft, also known as Acahai’s Place, offers yoga classes for $5. And if you’re in town this August, there will be a yoga retreat with hiking and other wellness activities.

If you’re looking to enjoy some meditation, there is a center on the edge of town called the Centro de Meditacion (CMV). It’s a bi-lingual Buddhist meditation center, and most classes are in English unless someone needs help in Spanish. Moreover, Chakana Gallery often hosts meditation workshops for a small fee. You can email greenberg.cj@gmail.com to find out more information.

soup Food

Even around the main square of town, much of the food in Vilcabamba is cheap. I ate at a place right in the square called “La Esquina,” and for $2 at lunchtime you can get a tall glass of pineapple juice, a hearty bowl of chicken and bean soup and a heaping plate of rice and chicken, among other entree options. There are also some excellent organic and juice bar options, such as Natural Yogurt Cafe. While you can get yogurt and refreshing treats here, they also sell meal-type food. I recommend trying one of their sweet or savory crepes, most for under $3. For a truly healthy dining experience, you should also checkout Madre Tierra Eco Resort, where you can eat gourmet organic meals while lounging among fruit trees and staring off into the Andes.

vilcabamba Andean Medicine

As Vilcabamba was once thought to be a place where Incan royalty went to relax, one unique activity you may be interested in trying is being lead into the mountains to participate in an Andean medicine ceremony. There is a local named Santiago, who has studied the topic and takes people up into the mountains for spiritual, holistic healing. You can go to him if you’re sick, or simply if there’s something in your life you wish to make better. To find him, visit the turquoise “joyeria” in the main square (shown right), next to Sambuca Cafe. Just note that many times when “Andean” or “traditional” medicine ceremonies are offered, there is often Peyote-like cactus concoctions involved. This is definitely not for everyone, and if you try it, be prepared for intense and often undesirable reactions and hallucinations.

US retirees changing the face of Central and South American communities

In warm-weather locales all over the Americas, the same scene is unfolding: US retirees, marching in lock-step in their all-white orthopedic shoes, are ditching traditional retirement communities and spending their golden years in destinations both less expensive and more exotic. And who can blame them? Prime real estate in these beautiful warm-weather countries– places like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Ecuador– costs a fraction of what similar land goes for in Florida and Arizona. And we all know the elderly have never been ones to pass up a good bargain.

As legions of retirees decide to retire in countries south of the border, they bring with them an economic boom for places that sorely need it. In recent years, Costa Rica has seen property values skyrocket, greater foreign investment, and a surging economy– much of it due to the migration of the gray-haired masses.

So we know about the benefits. But what about the drawbacks? Indeed, not everything is hunky-dory in these new retirement hot spots. When large numbers of relatively wealthy folks, whether backpackers or retirees, descend upon a previously “undiscovered” paradise, they’re almost always a mixed blessing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of South America’s newest retirement meccas, Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

First a little background: Vilcabamba is not your ordinary retirement community. Thirty-five years ago, National Geographic famously described the small town as the “Valley of Longevity” because of its supposedly long-lived inhabitants. Since that time, seekers and searchers from around the world have visited the town hoping to discover the secrets of these modern-day Methuselahs.

While many visitors still pass through the town– it’s now solidly part of Ecuador’s “backpacker circuit”– the past five to ten years have seen an increasing number of older people choosing to make Vilcabamba their home. Because of the town’s unique reputation as the “Valley of Longevity,” these adopted residents lean decidedly towards the mystical, the metaphysical, and the organic. Simply put, these are not people who you’d want to tell about your most recent trip to Wal-Mart.

Last year, I visited Vilcabamba and wrote about it in a journal entry:

“Oh, this town is weird, weird, weird. Or at least the old gringo hippies who moved here are. Carol, the gregarious owner of the Madre Tierra spa/hotel, invited me to sit with her four 60-something friends for dinner. I felt like their son or something. After the where-are-you-from formalities were out of the way, they resumed their conversation about homeopathic medicine, which they were all wildly in favor of (of course).

“The lady next to me, Norie, said, “I went to the doctor for the first time in 30 years because I wasn’t feeling well.” I felt like pointing out a possible cause-and-effect relationship there but bit my tongue. “The doctor said that I was basically healthy,” she continued, “but that I had Epstein Barr, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, nephritis, pesticide poisoning…” and a host of other ailments and maladies, none of which lent support to the doc’s original “basically healthy” diagnosis.

“Later, Walter mentioned that he would soon be having a metal bar rolled over his back to try to alleviate his back pain. Carol mentioned that just having someone do that alone would be unlikely to help. They must first put their energy into the bar, and then roll it across his back. The four others nodded in agreement.

“Then Walter mentioned that he wanted to meet with a local businessman to make sure they were on the same wavelength, and I’m pretty sure he meant an actual wavelength– he wasn’t speaking metaphorically.

“Then the five of them sat around discussing how to change the town in any way they possibly could, implying and even stating flatly that the local folks weren’t intelligent enough to effect change themselves. One could reasonably infer that the citizens of Vilcabamba were waiting patiently in their cribs until their five gringo leaders returned and told them what to do, and breast-fed them, and rocked them to sleep.”

Yes, as I wrote back then, and as I still feel now, the ol’ gringos are slowly taking over. That sounds bleak, but certainly it’s not all bad. They’ll undoubtedly create jobs for the locals, spur further investment, and eventually bring something approaching prosperity to the “Valley of Longevity.” Indeed, there are a lot worse things for poor people than having rich Westerners move to town.

But let’s at least recognize that the town is losing something too– namely its own character and autonomy. These days, Vilcabamba is more likely to be featured in AARP Magazine than in National Geographic– and surely there’s at least something depressing about that.

I guess for every thing a town gains, it loses something.