In the country's peaceful southern valleys, Steve McKenna searches for the secrets of a long, healthy life. In the country's peaceful southern valleys, Steve McKenna searches for the secrets of a long, healthy life.
The first thing that hits me as our bus plunges into the valley is a dozen shades of green, streaked across the hillsides. The second thing that catches my eye, amid all the undulating, sun-kissed lushness, is a man in a rainbow-coloured T-shirt. Tall and pale-skinned, with a pony tail, a huge blonde beard, baggy knee-length pants and sandals, he looks vaguely out of place. I soon discover, however, that there are many of his ilk in these parts.
"Sacred Valley" in Quechua, the language of the Incas, Vilcabamba is a tranquil Andean town steeped in myths and legends. In the 1970s, after centuries of relative anonymity, it became, briefly, one of the most talked-about places in the world.
Scientists found t Vilcabambans had ultra-low cholesterol levels, few heart problems and led – or so it appeared – amazingly long lives. In a census, 23 of the town's 800-plus residents claimed to be more than 100 years old.
One claimed he was 123, another 140. It seemed there was something in the water and hippies, artists, retirees and ecologists flocked to the so-called "Shangri-la" of South America (also known as the Valley of Longevity).
The outlandish claims have long been questioned – especially the ages; some say residents were exaggerating and there were actually no centenarians here. Others disagree and Vilcabamba retains an allure, with foreigners and Ecuadorians alike.
Recently, I was stuck in traffic in the capital, Quito, 700 kilometres to the north. When I told the taxi driver where I was heading, he became wistful, dreamy almost.
"Ah, Vilcabamba," he purred, tooting his horn as a bus cut him off. "The people there are very lucky. A nice lifestyle. Good weather. Fresh air. Long lives. Not like here! In Quito, we're lucky if we live to 70."
Set in verdant, mountainous scenery, Vilcabamba looked idyllic from afar. It's not the prettiest close up, with simple adobe buildings and several half-finished, breeze-block affairs, in and around Avenida de Eterna Juventud (Avenue of Eternal Youth).
But the town's plaza is charming. At its leafy heart, a large photograph flaunts the crinkly face of Don Agustin Jaramillo, a bona-fide Vilcabamban centenarian, and there's a sign expounding the town's special qualities. Apparently, there really is something in the water here – an ideal balance of minerals, including magnesium, noted for keeping the ticker healthy. The weather is lovely, too – spring-like all year round.
I glimpse two golden oldies in the flesh. Panama-style hats on, the bronzed duo sit beneath shady palm trees, near a trickling fountain and sweet-swelling floral gardens. Bells chime from the town's peach-shaded church.
Every Sunday, the plaza hosts the Gratiferia – a trade fair with a twist. The motto is: "Give whatever you like (things, fruit, food, hugs, music, poems). Take what you need."
Removed from market fetishes, Gratiferia is, according to organisers, "a place where the community simply shares its own wealth within itself, like a big family. The only mediums of exchange are love and good intention with respect for all".
Despite efforts (like this) to forge closer relations between locals and expats, and general good-willed intermingling, there are underlying tensions. On the bus here from Loja, Vilcabamba's pretty, neighbouring colonial city, a spiky sixtysomething Ecuadorian (at least, he seemed sixtysomething) moaned how cashed-up foreigners wolfed up land and property. Pointing out walled-off resorts with luxury apartments, tennis courts and swimming pools, he roared: "Los Gringos!"
I see plenty of "gringos" (foreigners) around a plaza ringed with fashion, craft and jewellery boutiques, internet shops, real estate agents and pleasant refuelling spots, including a Belgian chocolatier and bakery, which serves organic, locally-grown coffee.
Taking a seat outside the adjacent Vilcabamba Juice Factory (excellent tropical-tinged smoothies), I eavesdrop on greying American expats discussing President Barack Obama's first term, conspiracy theories, how much happier they are out of the rat race – and the dress sense of these damn hippies (dreadlocked Israelis in rainbow T-shirts amble past).
I browse the plaza's noticeboards. They display advertisements for yoga realignment classes, traditional Andean ceremonies ("energetic cleansings to renew your relationship with the creator, spirit and universe") and integrative healing artists (a tanned, smiling young woman called Acaiah Moon "intuitively combines different holistic therapies and techniques to support her clients [sic] health, healing and wellbeing on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions").
Lounging, and cafe hopping, around the plaza is seductive, but to really feel Vilcabamba's magic you must venture into the countryside. Cycling and horse riding are popular pastimes and there are countless hiking opportunities, especially in nearby Podocarpus National Park, a meeting point of Amazonian, Andean and Pacific ecosystems; home to bears, tapirs and jaguars, as well as 500 bird species.
On Vilcabamba's edges, I find Rumi Wilco lodge and nature reserve. Run by an Argentinian couple, it backs on to some weirdly shaped red cliffs and is criss-crossed with trails dotted with trees and plants once revered by the Incas for their spiritual, medicinal and hallucinogenic properties.
From a riverside path, I spy Mandango, the craggy green mountain that looms over Vilcabamba. Nicknamed the Sleeping Inca, its presence is said to protect the town from earthquakes and other natural disasters. You can scale the summit. But at Izhcayluma, a resort and backpackers' accommodation, with a restaurant run by German brothers Peter and Dieter, I hear that trekkers have been robbed. The advice is: head up in a group (or with a guide) and don't take valuables.
After eating a tasty Bavarian stroganoff on Izhcayluma's terrace, I lap up the serene pastoral beauty nearby. There are cows, horses and donkeys aplenty, and patchwork fields of coffee, bamboo, bananas, potatoes and corn. What strikes me is the antiquity of those tilling the land. Back home, they'd be with pipe and slippers.
But this is nothing new. In 1976, the US writer Grace Halsell published Los Viejos: Secrets of Long Life from the Sacred Valley – based on a year living in Vilcabamba.
Highlighting an ancient man (apparently 113) who climbed a mountain daily to cultivate land with his crude hoe, she concluded that the secret to long life – helped by a good diet, air and climate – was to stay active.
"The viejos (oldies)," Halsell wrote, "stay flexible and hardy by a simple rule: Keep moving, don't stop, now or ever."
Weary from my wanderings, I pause at Shantas, a quirky watering hole dotted with cacti, animal hides and cowboy hats. I take a seat – actually a saddle – at the bar and flick through a menu offering trout, tacos, frog's legs and, most intriguingly, snake juice. Lola, wife of owner Shanta, whose family have lived in Vilcabamba for generations, pulls out a jar containing a curled-up coral snake drowned in sugar cane juice.
It has been pickling for 20 days, and is 80 per cent proof alcohol, says Lola, who fills a shot glass, and places a slice of lemon and salt by its side. I take a sip. Boom! It's like tequila on acid. When my throat stops burning, I ask: "Is drinking this the secret to long life?"
"Er, no," Lola chuckles. "Most people are drunk after two. We only serve three per person, maximum. Dangerous, and funny, things can happen after that!"
I take her word for it. I stick with one. The night is still young and I don't want to do anything I'd regret. Heaven knows what I'd look like in a rainbow-coloured T-shirt.
Three places nearby
1 Loja Founded in 1548, Loja is one of Ecuador's oldest, and prettiest, cities. An hour north of Vilcabamba, it's a treat to stroll around, with a grid of attractive colonial-era streets and plazas, which often buzz with festivals and parades.
2 Guayaquil Home to almost 4 million people, Guayaquil is Ecuador's largest metropolis. Despite being the gateway to the country's Pacific coast (and the Galapagos Islands), this steamy tropical port has more of a Caribbean soul, with rum, seafood and sensual music very much part of the city's make-up. Recent years have seen it spruced up, with a smart waterfront.
3 Zamora An increasingly popular launchpad to Podocarpus National Park, the tranquil town lies in the foothills of the Andes at the convergence of three rivers. Occupied by the Spaniards in the 16th century, it was reclaimed by the local indigenous people, whose traditions strongly influence the food, fashion and folkloric celebrations.
LAN has a return fare from Sydney to Guayaquil in Ecuador via Santiago for $3868 (lan.com). The closest airport to Vilcabamba at Loja is presently closed for upgrades. From Guayaquil, TAME (tame.com.ec) fly to Cuenca, a three-hour drive from Loja.
Doubles at Izhcayluma Hotel are priced from $US35 ($34); cabins are also available. izhcayluma.com.
Madre Tierra eco-resort, hotel and spa in Vilcabamba has rooms from about $US80. madretierra.com.ec.