We had read about a village, Vilcabamba, and the surrounding area south of Loja that is often called the Valley of Longevity because its inhabitants are reputed to live for 100 to 130 years. Unfortunately, foreigners and other tourists are increasingly buying property in the region for spa and vacation homes. Tourists have created problems for the locals, including rising prices as well as increasing drug and alcohol use. Some locals say that the peace and simplicity of their lives, to which they attributed their longevity, has been lost.
On Tuesday March 6th we decided to take a day trip to see Vilcabamba and the Valley of the Longevity. We hailed a cab in front of our hotel, negotiated a price for the 40 km trip ($12), and set off. Vilcabamba is a small village at an elevation of about 1500 m so it is warmer than Loja (2000 m) or Cuenca (2500 m). The pleasant climate has made this a popular vacation destination and a retirement haven for expats.
The road to Vilcabamba travels through a sparsely populated area. The land on the hillsides is good only as pasture for livestock. As you get closer to Vilcabamba you start to see well-built, expensive homes alongside the highway. Eventually you get to see the valley and the village of Vilcabamba in the distance.
The taxi dropped us off at the the central plaza. The plaza has a large fountain in the center. Since it was still early in the morning, not many people were around and so the restaurant across the street from the plaza was empty.
Even thought it was early in the day, school was in session. These school children were on a class outing. This real estate agency was only one of several that are located directly across from the central plaza. It is right next to the large Catholic church that faces the plaza.
Although the exterior of the church is quite traditional, it is the interior decoration that is typically Latin-American. The cross above the main altar is surrounded by neon lights. The side altars are much more elaborate and well used than in North American Catholic churches.
Sambuca Cafe is a popular restaurant – but not this early in the morning. However, the real estate agents are up and ready for business. Two expat retirees stop to chat and exchange the latest news and gossip.
This area for a few blocks around the central plaza is geared for tourists and expats. Local would never eat at these restaurants or make use of the services offered. This central core is expanding as more and more expats arrive and buy up property in the village. Locals can’t afford to compete with foreigners who are willing to pay $60-$80 per square meter for land in the village. The last photo shows a restaurant that has been set up recently a block or two from the central plaza but caters exclusively to tourists and expats.
The first photo shows the interior of the restaurant. The second photo shows the restaurant’s bulletin board. There are notices about yoga classes, creative dance workshops, alternative medicine treatments, meditation sessions, and birdwatching. Things of interest to expats but not locals. The last photo shows one of the companies that offers trail rides that explore the nearby national park.
This is a series of interesting signs. The first offers a variety of services at an ecolodge. The second offers rooms for rent. The third is an ad for the art show of the works of Alann de Vuyst, the shorts-wearing artist we met in Loja.
This is one of the hostals in Vilcabamba that provide rooms for visitors. Later in the morning, more people appeared on the streets, but it was never congested.
There is a local hospital but it only provides basic services. Anything serious requires a 45 minute taxi ride into Loja.
Across the street from the hospital is the medical lab and pharmacy. There only seemed to be one dental clinic in town. The parts of town where the locals lived tended to be more run down. The demand for property created by the expats has driven prices up so much that the local people can’t afford to buy an existing home or a piece of property to build a new one. As a result, the children of the locals have to move away from the area.
It seems that the aboriginals in this area are from the same group that we saw in Saraguro because the men here wore their hair in a single braid and wore the characteristic dark colored 3/4 length pants.
The local restaurants were busy at lunch time as the visitors and expats gathered to chat over a leisurely lunch. Later in the afternoon it was time to head for the highway and board the bus for the trip back to Loja.
There are many attractive homes scattered throughout the valley that have been built by expats. However, the dwellings of the locals tend to be much more modest and run down. Although homes are scattered throughout the valley, not all of them are accessible by road or have any electricity or other services.
There are many beautiful homes and small gated communities along the highway to Loja. They are often in sharp contrast to the homes and farms of local residents who are engaged in subsistence agriculture.
Many North Americans are choosing to retire in Latin America because of the lower cost of living and the temperate climate. As a result there is a strong demand for new houses and property to build them on. The price of land that is accessible by road and has services such as electricity has been bid up so the cost is comparable to North American prices. As a result, real estate agents are selling land that has no services, and no hope of getting services for years, and no road access. We saw several acreages advertised that were a mile or two hike from the nearest road. I’d hate to have any sort of medical emergency in a home located like the one shown in the second photo. Before too long the bus had reached the outskirts of Loja.