Just over 40km south of Loja, sitting in a beautiful valley enfolded by crumpled, sunburnt hills, VILCABAMBA is a small agricultural village that’s become something of a tourist magnet over the last couple of decades. It first caught the attention of the outside world back in 1955, when Reader’s Digest published an article claiming Vilcabambans enjoyed a considerably higher than average life expectancy, with a very low incidence of cardiovascular health problems. Soon Vilcabamba was being touted as “the valley of eternal youth” and the “valley of longevity”, as international investigators unearthed a string of sprightly old people claiming to be up to 120 or 130 years old. More rigorous studies revealed these claims to be wildly exaggerated, and to date no hard evidence has been produced to support theories of an abnormally long-living population in Vilcabamba – though scientists acknowledge villagers in their 70s and 80s tend to be extremely fit and healthy for their age.
These days Vilcabamba feels like a place not quite grounded in reality – partly because of the myths associated with it, partly because of the high proportion of resident gringos who’ve come here in search of the simple life (and, inevitably, have ended up competing vigorously with each other for business), and partly because of the conspicuous presence of foreign tourists. People head here for a variety of reasons. Some come for the hallucinogenic cactus juice, San Pedro, the village has become famous for, even though this is illegal and heavily frowned on by locals. Others come for the hiking and birding in the nearby hills of Parque Nacional Podocarpus, but most come just to relax, enjoy the warm climate and nice views, or maybe take a horse ride or indulge in a massage or steam bath. The best months to be here are June to September, while October to May can often be rainy. Daytime temperatures usually fluctuate between 18°C and 28°C.
There’s not a great deal to do in the village itself. The focal point is the leafy Parque Central, surrounded by the main cornerstones of village life: the church, the municipio and the telephone office. The church is quite a grand affair, with its large, white Neoclassical facade sporting a row of apricot-coloured pillars. It’s worth wandering down to the square around 6 or 7am – you’ll catch a beautiful dawn chorus, and the early-morning light is gorgeous. A short walk southeast of town down Calle Diego de Vaca de la Vega for 1.5km will bring you to the Centro Recreacional Yamburara, the site of a swimming pool ($0.50), a small zoo and an impressive orchid garden (closed at lunchtime).
Striking a little further afield, you could hike up Cerro Mandango for fabulous, panoramic views over the valley. The hill resembles a person lying down – with the forehead, nose and chin quite distinct from certain angles – and rises over the village’s southeastern side. The tourist office can give you a map with instructions on finding the path, which can be tricky. It’s best to set out before 7am to avoid walking during the hottest part of the day; take plenty of sunscreen and water with you.