The country for old men

In South America there are to valleys, where grow closely related species of trees which have hallucinogenic properties. Both species are called the same in quichua – huilco. In both valleys there are the towns called Vilcabamba. Bamba is cognate with pampa and means plain.

When I first arrived to Vilcabamba, I was quite shocked by the number of gringos. In Quito’s down town I saw few bright coloured faces. Here it was uncommon to see a Latino. Well, there are some of them. They work. And gringos sit in pubs, walk around the square, sell some beads. Lot of them look like hippies. The percentage of the women with small children is surely higher than in Europe.


Vie, a French living in Vilcabamba. Her name means life. On the photo with her horse Huckleberry. Not everyone here has a car.

Expats’ exodus

‘You’ve many gringos here’ I told the taxi driver.

‘It’s nothing now. A year ago there were many more of them, but they’ve left.’

My Spanish wasn’t good enough to inquire. For a simple ‘why?’ the taxi driver had no answer. I needed to speak to the gringos themselves to find out the reasons.

From one person I heard that the last year there were few murders, kidnappings and robberies on the expats. He wasn’t able, though, to tell me more. Someone else to whom I spoke suggested, that the victims weren’t random – he insinuated gang wars. Finally Joy, an American living near Vilcabamba for forty years shed light on the subject.


Reflected rays of the sunset over Vilcabamba, the sacred valley of the Incas.


In fact, some time ago few such cases occurred. An American couple was kidnapped by people working for them. They were released and made go to the bank to get money for their own ransom. The bandits menaced them and forbid any contact with the police. Of course the victims ignored the threats and went directly to a police station. The force of order acted very professionally. They caught the criminals when they came to get the ransom and registered phone calls let the court send them to prison quickly.

A man got murdered. He was told to have fled the coast, where he had had some suspicious businesses. Two other people have been killed when they got in a conflict with a man searched for a murder in Amazonia. The case would finish in court, and the man would go to jail. In the Ecuadorian law, the sentence for a homicide is fifteen years, regardless of a number of victims. The killer had nothing to loose.

The last case was a strange one. An Italian couple was attacked in their house. The man was seriously beaten while his wife’s wounds were rather symbolic. The case seemed to be unclear. The victims didn’t talk much about it, neither did they try to perform any legal action.

However, all those cases made many gringos who had come to Vilcabamba looking to prolonge their lives flee.


An Ecuadorian cargo.


The valley of longevity

Vilcabamba advertises as a valley of longevity. Newcomers are welcomed by a photograph of smiling wrinkled old man and a slogan: “Add years to your life, add life to your years”. Some people are said to live up to hundred twenty years, many of them to a hundred. Well, at least they’re said to. Few decades ago that was the case. Now this view is rare. For few years the interviews with old people were forbidden without special permission. Of course a paid one. All the money went to a pocket of someone from the government.

Katarzyna, a Polish living in Ecuador for four years, told me that he health was the main cause for moving here. She feels better eating local food, drinking source water and breathing Andean air than she felt living in the US. She sais that the food here is more natural, more satiating, more real. Her opinion is not the only one. The main event in the town’s life is the organic market in the weekend mornings. Next to local farmers one can meet Adriana from the US who sells goat cheese she makes with her Polish husband or a Hare Krishna couple from Kazachstan who gives away vegan food served in a banana leaf for a small donation.


Bananas on the organic market.


Many people firmly believe in healing power of Vilcabamba. Many terminally ill people, with the last stadium of cancer come here as well as people with some minor conditions. Demand drives supply – it easy here to find an acupuncturist, a diet expert, a shaman, chiropractic or a power healer.


The colourful crowd

Hippies, Hare Krishna followers, vegans, raw food eaters, goat raisers, organic coffee cultivators, yogis and shamans, drunkards and ayahuasca users – all of them can be met in Vilcabamba. Everyone is interesting. Everone has his own story to tell. There are Americans, there are French people owning a French bakery, there is an Argentinian café, Mexican restaurant run by Julio from Mexico City, there are Germans, Russians, Poles, Australians and Dutch. Under six thousand population of Vilcabamba is a real mosaic of nations and cultures. Everyone add something else, creating together a really unique place.

I met Nicolas on the main square of Vilcabamca. He’s Argentinian. For the last few years he’s been travelling. He’s riding on a bike from Columbia back home. He tries to sell in Vilcabamba some handmade wooden spoons and bracelets and bags from palm fiber, because it would be more difficult in Peru. He told me, that sometimes he manages to get a free accommodation – or just in return of a small favour – as in Vilcabamba. He gave me a Columbian cigarette. I decided to help him in his travel and I invited him to hae a diner with me. He repaid me by a wooden spoon.


Nicolas and his spoons.


There is a danger in the town – it sucks one in. I planned to spend the two days, I’ve spent to weeks. I could stay even longer, although it still wouldn’t be enough time to write down all the stories.


On the streets many dogs walk. ‘None of them is masterless’, someone told me. ‘Each one of them has an owner and everyone know which one is whose’.

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