The Valley of Eden
The German who told us about Vilcabamba was not young. Nor would she be considered old anywhere but a college campus or youth hostel, but we were in the latter. In a youth hostel I’m positively paternal, so in her mid-40s, she was verging on grandmotherly.
It’s a weird world, that of the backpacker.
But it’s also a serendipitous and miraculous one, and here we were, a few hours into our months in Ecuador, and a lady who looked like she had the experience to know what she was talking about was telling us about the semi-mystical land of Vilcabamba.
“It’s the Valley of Eternal Life, people there live to be 140 years old, and that’s the average.”
“Well…my visa doesn’t last that long…but tell me more.”
“I stayed at this place” grabbing one of the flyers for Hostel Izhcayluma that would prove ubiquitous in Ecuador “it is beautiful, with great views, friendly people, and delicious food.”
Ears perk up. “Food?”
“Yes. Very good food. And cheap. I had a whole dorm to myself for $10, and when I came back the dorm was full, but they gave me a private for that price, just because they’re nice.”
She waxed on, teutonic poetic, and K and I were both convinced by the time we stood up from the dingy common room couches. We finally made it after five months, and found Vilcabamba and the hilltop Izhcayluma to be even better than she’d said.
The view of the valley was incredible, the fruit salad fresh, and the granola homemade. The overheard language was German, but hey, you can’t win ’em all. Just kidding mein freund. (The Izhcayluma is German-owned. And the name means “between two hills” in Quichua, which is apparently different from Quechua.)
The town is the perfect size and tourist exposure. They have restaurants but no chains, enough streets to wander but not nearly enough to get lost, and the locals neither stared at us as aliens nor despised us as invaders.
Fine lines to tread, one and all, and I fear all lines are crossed eventually, often tragically quickly.
Already Vilcabamba is edging towards becoming a retirement community for Americans. From the heights we would have a burgeoning town pointed out, described as “puro American, todos…todos. They’re building a shopping center.”
The central plaza with its chipped fountain, shady benches, and sonorous church bells (god I love Latin America!) was host to ancient locals in cowboy hats, giggling schoolkids in uniforms, and gringo hippies saying namaste to each other and selling handmade soap (which they apparently don’t use).
After the beloved almuerzo lunch special, we went looking for the book exchange. Books are a treasured luxury for us, but their weight was proving problematic, and we’d somehow built up a positively expansive backpacker library of four books. Four! What are we, the Library of Congress?
There was the epic thunder one only finds in the mountains as we started off, and halfway there the promise was fulfilled as rain started, a deluge from the start. The streets ran with rivers, and our sandaled feet were rasped with gravel grit under the straps, under the increased friction of wet rubber.
But we found the exchange, dripping on the carpet as we traded three Pulitzer books and a Tom Robbins for old Paolo Coehlo and Zora Neale Hurston. Quite the celebrity transaction, and we dropped a few pounds.
The torrent was unrepentant and determined when we were ready to go, so we nestled our books in my mostly-waterproof bag and run-hobbled downhill, hoping for a taxi. One of the yellow pickup trucks finally pulled up, but the driver took one look at us and said “but you’re wet.”
I looked back. “Yes.”
He grimaced. “The back?”
We climbed in back, arms held tightly to sides and faces squinting in endurance. He took off through town and up the hill to our hostel, the rain like needles on any exposed skin, and our grimaces gave ground to grins as we watched ourselves flying through town in the back of a pickup truck, utterly drenched, in an Andean mountain valley, with a beautiful room and a hot shower waiting for us.
Thank you, German lady. You were right.