In the forests of Ecuador, there’s a place where the soil is rich and the food is plentiful. Steep mountains collide with handsome trails, the aged are stout and smiley and the views are a tonic for the eyeballs. Word has since spread of this place – Vilcabamba, Ecuador’s forest celebrity, has steadily grown into a popular retreat for wanderers and expats seeking Shangri-La, or the good life.
Beside its Goldilocks climate and good looks, Vilcabamba is a place harbouring many stories. Hundreds of years ago Incan royalty used Vilcabamba as their forest getaway when things got a bit stale, and the place has since been referred to as ‘the playground of the Inca’. Its name, however, derives from the Quichua word “huilco pamba”, which translates to sacred trees.
Many a wanderer has come to sup the local san pedro, to make communion with the forest and dance amongst the steep mountains. Vilcabamba has also had a reputation as the land of longevity, as its residents were thought to live up to 130 years old, due, ostensibly, to the rich nutrients in the plants and water. While this turned out to be a tall tale, the lifestyle of the locals is undoubtedly healthy.
On many occasions did I see aged people striding along the steep and sublime countryside, carrying inordinate amounts of wood on their backs and smiles across their wrinkled faces. For me, I felt more invigorated in Vilcabamba than I had elsewhere. It’s as if the mountains, rivers and trees are humming together in concinnity, inviting all who live there into their intimate circle.
Things to do
If you’re at all into horse riding, here’s the place to do it. I went on a marvellous three day ride over the mountains, traversing some steep ridges which the horses felt their way across. At one point we had to slide down a mud-covered hill on horseback just to continue. In the evening, we would retire to rudimentary huts on the hillside, where we would unsaddle our horses and brew tea like forest mountaineers.
Returning from our adventure, my friends and I raced each other along the town street, back to our accommodation. Speaking of which, if you’re in town, stay at Madre Tierra, which is a thoughtfully designed hostel which blends with its environment. This holistic retreat will reinvigorate your being, with its pools, spas, shady hammocks and aesthetics. If you’re feeling even slightly battered, look no further.
The walks in and around Vilcabamba are also truly magnificent. Head to Mandango, ‘the sleeping Inca’, a mountain which looms over town and is thought to protect it. The walk is steep, challenging and sensational. Or you could just wander in the valley along any number of trails.
Here I went exploring with friends, took off my shoes and darted through the trees up the mountainside. Armed with my trusty pen knife I returned with fresh papaya, and fond memories.