Vilcabamba Makes it’s Case
Welcome to the Rodeo. It’s been over a year since I’ve visited this travel experience on this blog. This past year was the most profound year of my life; it was the most transformative, the most painful, the most hopeful, the most frustrating, the most difficult, the most challenging, the most faithful, the most fostering, the most beautiful, the scariest, and the most rewarding all bundled up together via one trip around the sun. There’s a whole story of this past year that is worthy of it’s own book yet to be written, a heavy one at that. I’m not sure it’s worth a read, or if it would be meant for my eyes and ears only. For those that have followed this journey and saw it drop off a cliff, I wanted to send out a precursor statement to this entry letting you know I’m trying to commitment more time and energy to riding this wave until it breaks back at the beach. I’m doing this for me first though, I’ve been trying to keep the focus on that to make sure it’s for the right reasons. I originally set the intention to create a trip from start to finish, and although it’s long been finished as an adventure, it still has some pages that my heart needs to revisit and express into written words with images of moments frozen in time. I want to get all the way back to home plate with this at bat, to see the sunset we’ve been headed towards for so long. Precursor over.
Leaving Cuenca felt like the right thing to do. We didn’t even have a thought that would hold us there or any more curiosity lingering for another evening spent feeling the curve of the cobblestones on our feet. We’d sat at it’s table with a sizeable feast in front of us, indulged ourselves, and left no room for even the smallest morsel to land. We took a look at the map ahead of us and let our thumbs drift towards the border of Ecuador, eventually pausing at Vilcabamba. This was a place we heard about from a few travelers we met back in Colombia in El Cucoy, which seemed like ages ago at that point. The time warp of constantly wandering is palpable, weeks can feel like months, so on and so forth. Vilcabamba also carried a theme related to time and it’s curious storytelling ways. It was nicknamed the valley of longevity for it’s notoriety from many of it’s elderly population claiming to be 100+ years young, by their own accords. As legend has it, the rich, fertile mountain valley provides a peaceful, hearty way of life that is abundant in quality food, fresh air, lots of exercise, and something in the water of course. This was enough to steer us in that direction for a nice layover while we kept Peru in our sights. The town did seem a bit out of the way and doesn’t have a great direct route to cross the border into Peru so it had been kept low key in a good way from what we had gleaned. We also had high hopes of donating our soccer balls amassed at an earlier adventure in Salinas in Vilcabamba as it seemed to be a more remote kind of setting on the surface. At this point they were dead weight in our bags, and we were starting to get anxious to find a permanent home for them. We grabbed another 6-ish hour bus ride and beat feat for the lush valley we’d been waiting for.
Our arrival in Vilcabamba was perfectly timed with a nice, soaking rainstorm. Through the foggy windows I could make out a lot of green, lush vegetation both in the town & in the distant horizon. It was easy to see that rain was an integral part of this valley’s existence and must be a frequent visitor. We were dropped off in a small plaza and quickly found a hostel a stones throw away from the bus depot. It wasn’t the best place I’ve seen, but it would be shelter for the evening. We conceded and spent the night there, with the sound of rain and the cool breeze blowing through a visible gap between the roof and the walls of our bedroom. We woke up to see the clouds starting to clear up and the entire valley shaking off what was left from the torrent the night before. We thumbed through our guidebook to find what sounded like a better long term place to hang our bags a little outside of town in an eco hostel run by a biologist & his wife. It was noted that if you helped with some eco related activities and did some grunt work some discounts were offered on your nightly rate. We didn’t mind getting our hands dirty and felt like helping to preserve a little bit of this land wouldn’t be a bad thing either, so we put on our packs and started to walk through the sleepy village.
The town itself seemed to be very quiet, and left me with the impression that there were a lot of buildings sitting empty and waiting for some life to be breathed back into them. It was as if part of the lifeblood of the village missing. The beautiful cobble streets and plazas let us in on their modest activities, the occasional villager milling around, a trio of women catching up on a crisp morning stroll, and a few open doors for restaurants created the hum of this community. But just around the corner and onto smaller, more modest streets the town seemed pretty bare and noticeably quiet. Oversized vacant soccer fields, seemingly abandoned rodeo grandstands, and empty playgrounds added to the theory that everyone was on vacation and out of town. We kept marching down calles and past silent homes & hotels of yesteryear until we left the last few buildings behind us. Up ahead we came across a swift, muddy river that was carrying all the riches from the mountains over boulders & cobbles and past the floodplains below. A small bridge made of wood & steel carried us to over to the driveway that would lead us to our host’s house. With a knock & a hearty hello, we met Orlando, who was an eccentric character passionate about ecology, knowledge, and health. His hand built cabin was stilted & very comfortable to raise a small family along the river valley. We asked lots of questions I’m sure he’s answered a hundred times before, but his answers were earnest and not contrived in the lease bit. As he spoke I glanced around his home, noticing the hundreds of books that lined the walls and spoke of his passions in life without uttering a word. He lived & studied in the Galapagos islands years ago, one of the few that devoted a better part of their lives to studying and observing the natural world that is fading slowly from existence with the interference of humanity. It was easy to see that he carried his passions for nature into his home setting, as his hosting environment was heavily based on ecological impact, interaction with nature, and a sense of peace & tranquility that comes along with those intentions in mind. We inquired about some information we read somewhere that he would offer some discounts in exchange for some elbow grease with his land, and made a deal with him to work for a few hours for a reduced rate and agreed to take part in whatever it was that led us there at some point for our stay. Orlando showed us our cabaña and we settled into our new home.
This part of our path coincided with the big election that we had all but forgotten about during our travels. We prepared ourselves by making an on the road version of pad thai in our little commode before heading out into town to watch the presidential election results come in. While we swilled on a few cervezas a TV with English subtitles played silently on the glowing screen in a nearly empty pub. Until then we had only stumbed across a few newspaper clippings on the ground highlighting the differences & anticipating a close race between Obama & Romney. We had been hoping for another 4 years of leadership we could be proud of, and weren’t really interested in seeing what shift in course a 4 year Romney term would have on our country. Being on the go since the early campaign season we were spared virtually all of the election drama that comes with being captured by non-stop media coverage that America thrives on. We’d only get tid bits through international filters, which was plenty. Living through election years in the states has become increasingly cumbersome & feels more and more like a sport as time goes on, one where the winners are feasting on advertisements and the whirlwind of campaign money and the losers are the ones that get completely swept up into the parade. It was pleasant to be unplugged while that has happened, and considering what we’ve been through since I can look back on that time as truly peaceful. This particular race was very close until later in the evening, at least how it was filtered through the media, and we stayed out till around 11 or so, enough where it looked as if we weren’t going to have to live with a Romney/Ryan ticket. That was good enough for us.
The following morning we chose to engage Orlando in his plot to get visitors to donate their labor for his land for a slight cut in the price to hang our backpacks. One thing that I learned that can honestly say I’ve kept with me forever is this guy’s disdain for Hypoestes phyllostachya, commonly known as the polka dot plant. As we learned from our host, this was a highly invasive species of a common household & outdoor plant that was brought to the area most certainly by expats. It is a very easy plant to grow, and spreads like the flu in an elementary school in Vilcabamba’s lush climate. Orlando was hell bent on eradicating these plants from his property, but seemed to be losing the battle. We offered to help him weed these buggers out for about 4 hours in exchange for a discounted nightly rate, which at first glance seemed like an easy task. About an hour into pulling up the tiny, fragile stalks from the earth it became clear that this battle was fruitless, and more of one person’s revenge on an enemy that has unlimited resources to keep coming to the battlefield. We dug, and twisted, and pried these things from the ground and after about 4 hours of work had a few piles and about a 20 foot section cleared out, with thousands of small, pink polkadots staring blankly at us from all directions beyond our graveyard. To this day when I come across one of these things my jaw gets tight and my shoulders lock into place as if I’m still digging in the weeds & hoping for progress that isn’t resulting in a visibly tangible way.
The next day we decided to check out some of the trails Orlando carved out into his wild landscape on the back side of his property. There were a few trail heads that went up and around his land, each with a name tied to poets, philosophers, and thinkers. We chose the Rumi path, which had some pretty tight gains on muddied pathways peppered with roots & branches for traction and overall assistance on the way up. There were a few “contemplative” vistas overlooking the valley & the town that offered some great perspective on the landscape helped shape the community and carried with it the lore of the longevity tied to it’s reputation. The gentle folds of the mountains in the distance provided a barrier around the valley, undoubtedly shaped by the river through millennia of floodwaters breaking apart the land bit by bit. It was indeed a perfect spot for a town to sprout up from the earth and simply exist. After going over several crests the path led us back down towards the river and on the back side of the property. There were a few futuristic looking houses a little further downstream, almost alien like in their appearance and surely built by an expat with a weird dream. Chasing the river lead us to some stilted cabins that we were drooling over, rentable tree house like rooms that were way out of our budget at this hostel and nestled up right near the river bed. We passed the small area we weeded out a few days before and noted the shriveled pile of plants we had uprooted among the rest of the survivors waiting on the edges of the paths.
Vilcabamba showed us a slow, sultry pace of life that being in a remote nook of Ecuador can foster. It definitely felt like an area where you could plant yourself and grow old in an easy going way. The radiant force of the sun was certainly beautiful, clouds were frequent guests, and rain was no stranger to this valley of longevity. We parted this town and took a quick layover in a border town right on the edge of Peru. That same old feeling crept into our veins, being on the edge knowing we were about to leap into a new country with new things to learn, a new beat to feel, a new way of life to observe. The feeling of excitement and the to be determined sat right in front of us, an imaginary line in the sand that we’d sink our shoes into the very next day.