Our first pass through Ecuador was pretty quick. As we had taken our time getting through Central America, we were making up time in order to get to Ushuaia in time to meet our friends for the summer. We stayed primarily in the eastern ridge of the Andes on our way through, and passed through Vilcabamba without stopping the day before crossing the border into Peru.
|Looking across the Valley of Longevity|
That was five months ago. On our way back north, we decided we would stop. For some reason, I remembered thinking I wished we had stopped, and then I thought I recently had read it was a major Incan site. Josh reminded me it is what is known as the Valley of Longevity.
Oh, right! Where the people who lived there lived well into their 100s. Cool! We searched iOverlander for a spot to stay, and there was a campground listed that people loved, including an Australian couple we had spent a few days riding with in Chile. At $5 a person per night, with great hot showers, wi-fi, and an available kitchen, we headed right for it when we got into town.
|There was a parade as we rolled into town! I think all the drivers were in their 90s--just ask National Geographic...|
We found the Tierra Madre Hotel, then another 50 meters down the road, the black iron gates that opened to the driveway to the campground. It was actually just a piece of property with a number of buildings and some lovely grass area where people could park rigs or throw tents.
We were greeted by Mohan and asked if we were there to camp. Upon hearing him speak (in completely unaccented English) I asked where he was from. Texas. He and his wife Nina had been in Vilcabamba for seven years. She is a life coach, and they were hoping to pick up two or three clients per week and move back to the states. He remarked on how strange it would be to teach his son to drive, when he himself hadn't driven in so long. (Seriously all this in the first two minutes)
Mohan quickly showed us around--the place was really nicely designed, and we knew we'd be comfortable there for a couple nights. While we started unpacking the bikes, we chatted with him.
And that's when things started to get a little weird....
He asked if we went to any of the Incan sites, such as Machu Picchu. We said we had done, as well as a number of sites in Mexico and Central America. Totally normal conversation.
Then he mentioned that there were some weird things there in Vilcabamba. He told us a story of how a local woman, who had walked the same path every day for thirty years, recently found a sinkhole which had opened after a big storm. I waited for him to tell me that buried beneath were some Incan ruins.
Nope. He told me his buddy Bill--described as a really nice, big tall, totally normal guy--went down into the hole with one or two other guys. They found one large, round cavern-like room, with two other smaller round rooms branching off. On the walls were "scoop" marks, as though they had been made by someone scooping the earth away.
I thought, "Huh, maybe pre-Incan. Maybe the people who lived there hundreds of years before made rooms below ground by scooping away material with a tool."
The thoughts of the local Americans who were sharing this news? They were made by humanoid creatures that resemble Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, using their scoop-like claws.
Then he told us the story of how someone else was walking with his girlfriend one night when they saw a group of people off in the distance with flashlights on. They soon realized the lights weren't bouncing around like flashlights do when someone is walking and carrying one, but moving smoothly over the ground. When they got closer, they could see through a fence and some bushes, five "beings" floating above the ground. In the center of each of their chests, a light glowed from within.
And this was seen by not one person, but also verified by his girlfriend. TWO people witnessed this.
At this point, I'm pretty sure I was staring at him in disbelief. Not necessarily disbelief this could have happened, but disbelief that seemingly educated, well-spoken people bought into this stuff!
I said the only thing I could. "Well, if we consider how huge the universe is--how many stars and galaxies exist out there--and we believe we are the only possible intelligent life, we are pretty full of ourselves."
He then reminded me how John Kerry was in Antarctica on the night of the last presidential election. Quite honestly, I can't blame him and I wish I had been there...no electoral college amongst the penguins. Many "people" have theories as to why he was there, but Mohan informed us it was to see the underground civilization.
50,000 years ago (geologists and climatologists of the world, feel free to corroborate this story...) Antarctica had a warm climate. Apparently, there was an incredible freeze--which happened in a matter of seconds--that froze all the animals where they stood. We know this because woolly mammoths were found with "warm climate food" still in their mouths. This tells us there used to be a warm climate, and that the deep freeze happened in seconds. Had it happened in hours or even minutes, the animals would have spit the food out and gone to find a warm place to be....
How the mammoths and an underground civilization are connected, I don't know. We never got there. I just said that we didn't get to see any of that on our trip to Antarctica, and now I wanted my money back.
We finished unpacking, Mohan wandered off, we put up the tent, and I hit the wifi. Why had I wanted to stop in Vilcabamba?? What had seemed so interesting? I googled the town, and instead of finding Incan ruins, I found weirdos. I don't mean strange, eccentric people. I mean conspiracy theorists and the sheep who follow their spouting of "facts."
In the 1960s Johnny Lovewisdom (not his real name, shocker!) arrived in Vilcabamba with his cultish followers. Lovewisdom was a "spiritual guide" and leader of some interesting lifestyles while there. He believed in a raw, fruit-only diet (though he ate yogurt and some other fermented items later in life), water fasting, sun diets (wtf?), and breathanarianism--surviving on nothing but breath and spiritual energy. I'm pretty sure this guy is the reason the face-palm was invented.
In the 1970s, National Geographic, along with a couple other respected sources reported that Vilcabamba had an unusually high number of centenarians, one who was upwards of 134 years old. By 1978, this misinformation was debunked by scientists from Harvard--finding most people thought to be in their 100s were really in their 80s.
But, it seems people (a whole lot from the United States and European countries) still flock there. Despite the truth of the matter, people read what they want and believe what they want. They still search for the Valley of Longevity, long life, and answers to poor health and life's questions. Visitors and tourists come from all over, sometimes paying upwards of $70 a person to participate in a partaking of a hallucinogenic drink, made from a species of local cactus. It typically includes hallucinating and puking--sounds fun! Hmmmm...people were seeing floating beings with lights emanating from their chests....
NONE of this was our reason for being there. In fact, I couldn't even remember why I wanted to be there. Nevertheless, we were, so we made the best of it. Our second day, we caught a cab to a nearby town and did a hike to the local water fall. It was a tough-ish hike of a narrow trail. At one point, we pulled off the trail to allow a large group of European teenagers on horseback with two guides go past us. One of the kids was annoyingly playing music from his phone, loudly enough that everyone had to listen to it. As I huffed and puffed up the trail behind them, I decided I hated those kids, and at the same time wished I had their horses.
|On the 7.6 km hike up to the Cascada El Palto there were loads of spiders!|
|Cascada El Palto--a 30 meter waterfall at the end of a moderate hike. If this 134 year old can do it, so can you!|
|I think this butterfly was 121 years old!|
It was a long walk back down the trail, and we were ready for dinner and a drink when we got back to town. As we walked through town on that Sunday afternoon, I mostly heard English spoken. White people abounded, speaking nothing but English. When I googled the town, I read one traveler's report of talking to an American who had moved there because it was cheap to live there, and he didn't have to learn to speak Spanish.
It is a divided town--local Ecuadorians and the Americans who have moved there for some reason, but don't mix with the long-time residents. Speaking with the owner of the restaurant where we had dinner that evening (in Spanish...) he said a lot of people move there with health problems that they think will be fixed or cured by living in The Valley of Longevity. Students at the local college study why the local inhabitants live happy, healthy lives into their 80s. So far, it seems to boil down to drinking good water from the mountains, eating healthy food, and living lives like most other small-town South Americans.
Many of the stores in town cater to the hippy or hipster clientele by stocking many foods one would find in the United States in health food stores. Many signs state "non-gmo", "no chemicals", etc., and they're stocked right next to the packages of Oreos and off-brand syrup. The whole thing made me roll my eyes.
It also made me angry as I learned more about how violent crime has been on the increase. Americans have bought property, then begun selling it at inflated prices when they either got bored of the place or just wanted something different. Locals can't afford to buy anything anymore, and Americans show up and flaunt their money. We never felt threatened in anyway, but we don't run around flaunting our money. We also speak, or at least attempt to speak, the local language, and get to know the locals.
The second night we were in Vilcabamba, we spent the evening with Mario and Cecilia, two other travelers from Argentina. They had a small truck and and even smaller camper. They had been on the road for almost two years traveling around South America. They were young, interesting, and fun to be around. The town and English-speaking residents there had put me on edge--I was quite happy to not feel like I had to be on my guard while talking with Mario and Cecilia. We spoke mostly Spanish, except when I didn't understand something. Then, Cecilia, in her English (probably on par with my Spanish) would help me out. It was fun. It was the same way I felt with the restaurant owner and cab drivers--they weren't going to bring up aliens and conspiracy theories.
The last morning we were there, we chatted a bit more with Mohan. Honestly, he is a very nice person, as is his wife, Nina. Josh asked Mohan why, after seven years, they had decided to return to the states. He said they were bored. I was floored when I heard this. Of course, it seemed they hadn't tried to do much--earlier in the morning he mentioned they hadn't been to Peru (which is only about 100 miles away) or even to the coast of Ecuador. They don't seem to have a car, but in this part of the world you can get a bus just about anywhere pretty cheaply. He didn't seem to speak any Spanish, and it seemed the only work he did was tidying around the "campground" daily. Ok, I can see why he was bored.
I was packing my bike when the owner of the property, Nathan, came to "settle up." He is an American who seems to be trying to pass himself off as Swiss--the posting he listed on iOverlander states "Swiss designed" and he said he spent some time there as an exchange student and such. It felt like a very awkward conversation. I made a few jokes, and I was really happy when we finally pulled out of that place. I kept going over everything--did I get all my things out of the shower, did I grab everything from the kitchen? I kept feeling like I had left something behind. I told Josh I thought it was a piece of my soul, and he answered it might have been some of my sanity.
One other little interesting thing about how awful this place was. When we walked past the Madre Tierra Hotel on the second day, I said it HAD to be American owned. No Ecuadorian would call a place "Madre Tierra"--it is a very clumsy (literal) translation of "Mother Earth" that would only have been used by an English speaker, for other English speakers. There is a very lovely name which captures the idea of Mother Earth/Mother Nature in South America, and you learn it quickly if you spend any time down here. It is Pachamamá. Sure enough, when I was talking with the owner and paying for our nights, he mentioned that his brother owned it. I'm not certain why, but this cemented my dislike of the place.
I am sure the people who have decided to live there are very nice. I am sure they have lovely intentions of living a happy last thirty years of their lives in a beautiful place. And it is a beautiful place. I just can't help but think they're ruining something beautiful, and that I wish I had just given this place a miss. Then again, if I had, I would never have known why John Kerry was in Antarctica!