At the time a tiny isolated village, Vilcabamba attracted international attention in the 1960s when researchers announced that it was home to one of the oldest living populations in the world. It was said that people here often lived well over 100 years, some as old as 135.
Although doubt was subsequently cast on some of this data, there is still a high incidence of healthy, active elders in Vilcabamba. It is not unusual to find people in their 70s and 80s working in the fields and covering several miles a day on foot to get there. Such longevity and vitality has been ascribed to the area’s famously healthy climate and excellent drinking water, but other factors must also be involved: perhaps physical activity, diet and lack of stress.
Attracted in part by Vilcabamba’s reputation for nurturing a long and tranquil life, a number of outsiders – both Ecuadoreans and foreigners – settled in the area. Some of the earliest arrivals followed the footsteps of Doctor Johnny Lovewisdom, a California-born ascetic who arrived in 1969 to establish his Pristine Order of Paradisiacal Perfection. Others just came for a few days and never left.
For a time drugs were in vogue in Vilcabamba, especially a hallucinogenic cactus extract called San Pedro, and the flashbacks associated with its use became known as the ‘Vilcabamba syndrome’. Later, the fashion turned to UFO sightings, with plans to build a large observation platform. Then people arrived to escape the impending end of the world when the Mayan calendar expired in 2012. Raw-foodists followed as did many young artisans from all over Latin America.
Through it all, more and more foreign residents, ranging from retirees to young families, have settled in Vilcabamba. Real-estate speculation has been rife and brokers’ offices line the plaza alongside the cafés where the expats congregate. Catering to their needs has become the town’s growth industry while, in a delightfully ironic reversal of roles, urban middle-class Ecuadoreans from Cuenca, Guayaquil and Quito come to spend their holidays and watch the colourful gringos. Today’s Vilcabamba syndrome has more to do with postmodern colonialism than hallucinogenic cactus juice.
Come check it out for yourself and, if you are really interested, read the anonymously authored history: Valley of the Rare Fruits, available at Caballos Gavilán tour agency. Do you think the outsiders will still be able to benefit from the once famous tranquillity and longevity of Vilcabamba? Or have we brought with us the seeds of our own – and Vilcabamba’s – destruction?