A few mornings ago I felt the itch to get out of Loja for a bit and do something different.
“Let’s catch a bus to Vilcabamba,” I suggested to Keith.
We threw a change of clothes into our daypacks and walked the 2 blocks to wait for the bus. Buses travel between Vilcabamba and Loja every 30 minutes. It costs $1.30 each way and takes about an hour–a winding, beautiful ride through a steep and verdant landscape dotted by some lovely properties along the way, many belonging to expats. Close to Vilcabamba is a town called Malacatos with some very wealthy homes–we’ll spend a day exploring it sometime.
Vilcabamba is surreal. It’s a very hippie, New Age-y village. Expats outnumber natives and English is widely spoken. The plaza and buildings in town are Latin American, but the town is more like a miniature Boulder, Colorado. Lots of people walking around in yoga pants (one woman was even carrying a yoga mat) or sporting dreadlocks.
From the bus station we walked down to the beautiful plaza and spotted the tourist office. There they gave us some information about the area and recommended a city park to visit.
Before striking off we found some lunch–fruit juice and soup–then walked to the park, inquiring about rates at hostels along the way. The going rate seems to be $15 per person, per night for a private, double room with an ensuite bathroom, and $7 to $13 per person for dorm beds. Prices are still very reasonable by U.S. standards, but definitely higher than Loja. We also noticed a few more people actively trying to sell us stuff or beg for money; they weren’t persistent but we noticed it more than in Loja and believe it’s influenced by the greater presence of gringos, which is almost nil in Loja.
That said, Vilcabamba is a very safe and peaceful little town–so quiet compared to the bustle of the city. We enjoyed the walk to the park along a quiet street with almost no traffic. The park is pleasant and has a $0.75 entrance fee. There’s a small zoo inside, and an orchid nursery which was closed during our visit. We enjoyed the little zoo which has mostly birds and monkeys. The park also has a swimming pool and water slide, accessible for an additional fee. I might have been tempted if I had brought my swimsuit along. Next time!
Awhile later we continued walking up the road, which looped back into town, and I paused to take a few pictures of the valley. While I took photos, an older white man caught up with us. “You’re looking pretty good,” he said.
I recognized him instantly as the Couchsurfer I’d been corresponding with over the past few days. We would have stayed with him, but he had other obligations and so we had made our own plans. Apparently he had recognized us also. “Are you Bob*?” I asked.
He nodded, smiling. “How did you find me?”
Bob took the time to walk with us and tell us a little about the area. He also recommended a hostel to us, so based on his recommendation we stayed the night at Jardin Escondido, which is the usual $15 each, and includes breakfast. There’s also a Mexican restaurant on-site but we had already decided to have supper at a Persian vegetarian restaurant.
We spent the afternoon exploring the streets of the town and ran into Bob a second time. Again he chatted with us for awhile–he seems to like us. We’ll stay with him in the future when he is less busy. I look forward to getting better acquainted with him–he seems to have had (and still has) a fascinating life.
At the Persian restaurant we sat outside on one of their unique elevated platforms. The meal began with a delicious veggie soup with a lemon-based broth. The main dishes consisted of rice and a soy meat entree (mine) and a potato/mushroom entree (Keith’s), each with some unique and delicious sides. We also had fresh juices, made thick like smoothies the way they are traditionally made around here. Keith had mango; I had strawberry. We had our picture taken and some other outgoing tourists decided to get in on the fun.
After dinner we walked around the plaza a couple of times, then returned to the hostel.
The shower at Jardin Escondido barely got above lukewarm and the bed felt very firm, but I slept quite soundly and awoke refreshed. We decided to go hiking in the morning, so after a typical breakfast consisting of bread with jam and butter, scrambled eggs, coffee with milk and a fresh fruit smoothie, we went back to the tourist office to get directions to the Rumi Wilco reserve.
We walked on some trails to get to the reserve, one of which took us past a quaint looking cabin for sale on a small plot of land. We’re curious about what’s available in the area since we may eventually buy something down here. Vilcabamba would have its pros and cons. The enormous expat community makes it nice for when one longs to have a nice conversation in English, but also it makes it easy for the expats to socialize with each other and not mingle much with the natives, which over time can create a greater rift between cultures if the community is not careful. I grew up in Mexico, and there was a small “gringo” community in town but they mostly only socialized with each other. Our family lived in an average Mexican neighborhood and almost all of our friends were locals, and I was embarrassed to be associated with any of the gringos in town. As an adult perhaps my view would change, but generally I would rather live in a local neighborhood and socialize primarily with locals (though I realize I will always be viewed as a foreigner, and I do enjoy socializing with expats also). Vilcabamba is also inconveniently far from anything else. It’s nice for the quiet and seclusion, but if we want to do much of anything not offered by the small town, or if we wanted to make a quick trip out of the area we’d have to travel at least an hour north to Loja before hitting any roads that go anywhere else in Ecuador.
We had some light sprinkles off and on as we hiked the biggest possible loop through the Rumi Wilco reserve ($2 entry). The views of the valley held us spellbound–steep green hillsides and a lush valley with lots of fruit trees, corn fields, and vegetable gardens all over.
The trail took us past a couple of beehive-shaped homes built of dirt bags (these houses are available for rent and we’re tempted).
Rumi Wilco has some cabins for rent ($28-$40 per night depending on cabin and number of guests), and beds for rent ($8 per night per person) in several adobe houses. We may lodge at Rumi Wilco on a future visit to Vilcabamba. On our way out we met Alicia, one of the owners–a woman from Argentina who has lived in Vilcabamba for 25 years. The income they bring in from the lodging helps to maintain the reserve.
We returned to Jardin Escondido for a lunch at their Mexican restaurant. We each ordered a smoothie (naranjilla for me, blackberry for Keith) and a veggie burrito. The burrito was much smaller than what I am accustomed to at most Mexican restaurants in the U.S. and did not come with any beans and rice on the side, so we weren’t quite satisfied yet by the time we finished even though the food was very good. Bob had recommended a French bakery in town, so we went there and bought some delicious chocolate croissants and another buttery roll with raisins in it and consumed them in the plaza while we watched a cultural mix of people walk by.
Vilcabamba is beautiful town and I absolutely see what attracts so many people to it. It’s a paradise with beautiful warm weather, fertile land for gardening, and a unique population from around the world. It will surely receive some more visits from us in the coming weeks, and perhaps a longer visit in the future. I haven’t ruled it out as a place I might like to live someday!
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- Name changed for privacy.