March 15, 2013
Few people anywhere begin the day without a hot drink. Chocolate and tea are popular morning jump-starters. Yerba maté, famously Argentinean, is gaining a reputation globally. Some people contrive creative blends of apple cider vinegar, herbs and honey. But coffee dominates the morning hour in every time zone. While the plant that produces the beans is native to tropical east Africa, two main species of coffee—Coffea arabica and C. canephora, or C. robusta—are now grown in nearly every tropical region. Brazil and Vietnam lead production, which amounts globally to more than 150 million 132-pound bags per year (PDF). Consumption is rising, and though coffee is far from being the world’s largest crop, it is now the second most demanded commodity after oil.
But for its simplicity in its raw state and its ubiquity in almost every culture, coffee takes a wide and unpredictable range of forms throughout the world. Here is a sampling, both bitter and sweet, of some of the regional renditions of the world’s favorite hot drink.
Italy. Perhaps nobody does coffee better than Italy. Though located many lines of latitude north of muggy coffee country, Italy has somehow attained the position of coffee lord and master. It’s here that the espresso machine had its birth, and it’s here that a coffee lover can enter nearly any establishment, whether a slick Neapolitan bar or a small nameless café in the remote Abruggio, and expect no less than the brown-black best. Never fear of instant coffee, for “cafe” in Italy is synonymous with “espresso.” Add milk, and the door to the frothy, creamy world of Italian coffee drinks opens wide. No doubt, we all owe our finest a.m. pleasures to Italy. Trivia: Espresso is big business and espresso machines serious investments—costing as much as $40,000.
Ethiopia. This is where it all began. Ethiopia is the heart of coffee country, native homeland to the Coffea genus, and people here have been drinking coffee for more then 1,000 years. Today, coffee—called buna—is still made and served in a traditional table-side ritual that transforms the beans from raw red cherries into toasty, steaming drink, often all before the guest’s eyes. The process can last more than an hour, as the host toasts, grinds and boils the coffee before serving.
Spain. The wayfarer in Spain, rising from his bedroll on a frosty September morning and eager for warmth and company, must look no farther than the nearest church steeple. For that cross indicates that a café dwells at ground level in the plaza. There, the old men are already gathering, whether Monday or Sunday, and the silvery, steel machine is already hissing away. Go! The establishment, almost always, is called “Cafe Bar” and by 6 a.m. is buzzing with caffeine and activity. Many take their their coffee standing at the bar with a hand in their pocket. If you want milk, please don’t order a latte. Cafe con leche is your ticket. Be warned: Long sit-ins at coffee bars may still be a foreign idea in parts of rural Spain. Several years ago, in the Picos de Europa, I ordered a second coffee while letting my camera battery charge in a small café. The place was nearly empty, yet the barkeeper decided she’d had enough of me after 40 minutes. She unplugged my device, slid it across the table and pointed to the door. She all but kicked me in the rear as I hobbled out. I didn’t even have time to leave a tip.
United States. America has gained an irrepressible taste for the inky black juice of the espresso machine. But “gas station coffee,” the type that one may spot in the roadside diner by the register, ominously tea-colored and brewed hours before, is still a symbol of Americana and proudly drips from Mr. Coffee lookalikes everywhere. At the other end of the spectrum are the massive high-calorie coffee drinks innovated by Starbucks, containing varying mixes of espresso, caramel, whipped cream, chocolate, eggnog and other ingredients. The presence of such milkshake-like drinks seems to have even spurred a reaction in places. So we see, in the occasional bakery café, a note on the menu reading, “Just good, old-fashioned drip coffee,” as though we ought to be relieved.
Turkey. Turkey’s favorite drink is tea, called “chai,” yet coffee is available here. In Istanbul, espresso and the associated lattes and cappuccinos are commonplace, while in the countryside, Nescafé rules—usually poured from 3 in 1 packets of instant coffee, sugar and artificial dried milk. True Turkish coffee, served in espresso-like cups, can be surprisingly hard to find. Note that what the Turks call “Turkish coffee,” the Greeks call “Greek coffee” and the Georgians “Georgian coffee.” But it’s all the same stuff—thick, gritty, tar-black juice like the emissions of a malfunctioning espresso machine. It is almost always served sweet.
Greece. The favorite coffee drink in Greece is the frappe. Made using Nescafé, a frappe is a frothed-up blend of milk, sugar and Nescafé, served over ice. The drink can be had with or without sugar, but on a warm summer day in the islands, the ice is the essence of a frappe. This is at least one instant coffee rendition that’s easy to love.
Baja California. In Baja, “coffee” seems almost to mean “hello.” Nearly every other day, during my years of Baja wandering with spear and backpack a decade ago, some strange man or woman would appear out of a shack on the dirt road ahead, wave to me and call out, “Cafe?!” Thus, I often found myself seated on a broken plastic chair or an upturned fishing bucket under a tree while my host boiled water on a mesquite fire and spooned out the Nescafé. That’s right: The drink is almost always instant coffee granules, and while the coffee itself is nothing to write home about, it’s the gesture that counts in the sparsely peopled cowboy country of Baja.
Ireland. It’s little surprise that Ireland, land of cheery pubs and frosty nights, is where coffee first got really fun. The Irish coffee was invented in the 1940s and is now a cocktail served in bars worldwide. It contains hot coffee, whiskey, sugar and whipped cream, and, while traditionally an after-dinner drink, Irish coffee may be hard to argue with on a chilly morning. But Irish coffee may not suit all tastes. Years ago, a friend of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s former travel writer Stanton Delaplane reportedly said that Irish coffee ruins three good drinks—whiskey, coffee and cream.
Vietnam. Many of us aren’t fans of sweet coffee, but Vietnamese iced coffee is delicious. Coffee drinking arrived in Vietnam with the French in the 1800s, and the local palates quickly shaped their own interpretation of the drink. Fresh milk in Vietnam was not as available as it is in the pasture lands of France, and so the cafe au lait took a sharp evolutionary turn: The Vietnamese poured their coffee over sweetened condensed milk—from a can—and served the drink over ice.
Ecuador. All bets are off when ordering coffee in Ecuador. Unless you request otherwise, they may pre-sweeten the drink for you. And if you ask for a cafe con leche, what you’ll get is a mug filled entirely with steaming hot milk, served beside a jar of instant coffee granules. And if you ask your host whether they’re serving Nescafé, they may say no—but not because they’re making coffee in a French press but simply because they are serving some other brand of instant coffee, like Buendia or PresCafe. And even in a swanky countryside bed and breakfast fitted with a dazzling espresso machine, if you order a cappuccino, they might reach for the sweetened mocha packets in the cupboard. Stay vigilant. Still other times, real coffee is available in Ecuador (they grow the stuff; why shouldn’t they serve it?) offered as cafe filtrado. Pounce on it while you can!
March 12, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at email@example.com.
It’s healthy. It smells and tastes like sweet tropical butter. It can be used hot or cold, on food, in your hair and on your skin. And it’s readily available throughout the coastal tropics.
Yet almost nobody in Ecuador uses coconut oil.
Instead, vegetable oil saturates the local culture as the cooking grease of choice. It is sold in giant bottles for several dollars and used by the pint for frying plantains, potatoes and meats, and Ecuadorian kitchens and street food stalls sometimes reek of stale, burned oil. But one American man is striving to invent a new culinary tradition here. Carl Nordeng has lived in Ecuador for several years and for the past 18 months has been doing something industrious and novel: He’s making and selling coconut oil in the little, picturesque village of Vilcabamba. Nordeng uses wild coconuts harvested from trees near the northern town of Esmeraldas, and his facility, consisting of a small collection of equipment, is situated in a grove of mango and avocado trees that provide shade in the early and late hours of the day.
Nordeng first visited Vilcabamba about five years ago. In his early 30s at the time, he was a health aficionado interested in natural healing and cleansing methods. He met a woman here whom he would eventually marry, and he began returning regularly, from his home in Washington State. Nordeng wasn’t infatuated with local cuisine. He found it bland and too greasy, and he also felt sure that refined vegetable oil—a staple component in Ecuadorian pantries—was having negative effects on the nation’s health. Diabetes is a leading killer and crippler of Ecuadorians, and Nordeng blamed the prevalent fried foods. In the interest of maintaining his own health during his sojourns to Ecuador, Nordeng cooked frequently—and he rarely returned from the United States without a few jars of coconut oil, which has shown effective as an antifungal agent, strengthens the immune system and can help the body positively manage its insulin levels—a point relevant to a diabetes-stricken nation like Ecuador.
“It was the foundation of my diet,” Nordeng says, adding that he could not find the product in Ecuador and that he was not willing to give it up.
After only several trips with an extra-heavy suitcase, Nordeng began to research the possibilities of making coconut oil himself in Ecuador. Upon learning that it wasn’t particularly challenging—the trick is simply to eliminate the water from the flesh and then squeeze out the oil—he soon went the next step and began to make the fragrant white coagulate in his kitchen in home-sized batches. He tried several methods until settling on his current system—a simple three-step process of grinding, toasting and pressing. He built his own equipment and, 18 months ago, sold his first bottle under the label “Oro Blanco.” Today, Nordeng grinds out 20 liters of coconut oil daily. All is sold within Vilcabamba, mostly to North American and European tourists but also to a growing number of locals.
Nordeng says he hopes to expand sales to Ecuadorians, but at $15 a jar, Oro Blanco oil is currently far too expensive to be a household staple in Ecuador, where the average salary is $7,500 per year, according to Average Salary Survey. Nordeng is now paying more than $1 per coconut and splits and scrapes clean as many as 250 per day. He says he is trying to secure a source of quality fruits from Peru, where the cost may be less than 20 cents per coconut.
Even if he can reduce the retail price of his product to just several dollars, Nordeng wonders how easy it will be to convince locals born and raised on foods fried in pans of vegetable oil to make the transition from one oil to the other.
“It would be hard to instill coconut oil into centuries of tradition here, but based purely on the flavor, it seems like it shouldn’t be a deterrent to people,” Nordeng says. “It’s not like we’re trying to sell them something gross.”
Nordeng labels his coconut oil “cold-pressed extra virgin.” This means that the oil is extracted without the use of heat, which can damage some of an oil’s natural compounds. The label also specifically guarantees that the oil is from fresh coconut flesh—not derived from secondary coconut byproducts, like the compressed “cakes” of coconut shavings that come from Nordeng’s press by the dozen each day. He may eventually provide these for bakers or granola bar producers, but for now his neighbors use the gritty—and, frankly, delicious—waste material to feed to their animals.
Coconuts, of which there are hundreds of varieties in the species Cocos nucifera, occur throughout the earth’s tropics. Coconut oil is commonly used in Pacific island communities, as well as in southern Asia. In Ecuador, coconut palms grow from the coast all the way to a mile or more of elevation in the Andes, as well as in the Amazon basin. The fruits are very popular as snacks; street vendors nick a hole at one end, insert a straw and sell the fruits for a dollar to customers who drink the water and, occasionally, take the trouble to crack open the coconuts and access the rich flesh that clings to each shell’s interior. But coconuts rarely get as far as the kitchen here.
In the United States, too, where coconut oil sales are booming, the product had to overcome a negative reputation, for it had been pinned as a culprit in widespread health problems—a reputation that still persists. The major argument against coconut oil has been its saturated fat content—though this particular fat is lauric acid, said by many to be one of the “good” saturated fats. This food blog, Organic Facts, discusses coconut oil’s effects on levels of cholesterol, of which some are considered “good” and others “bad.” Coconut oil, according to nutritionists, increases the good cholesterol and decreases the bad.
Nordeng notes that the legend of longevity in the valley that he has called home for five years is “a myth,” as discussed in “Off the Road” in February. Nordeng says many people leave the village before they reach old age, while others die young.
“People are literally killing themselves here by using tons of this rancid vegetable oil,” Nordeng says. “I’m providing an alternative.”
March 4, 2013
Ecuador has done a tremendous job of preserving its wild places. More than 20 percent of the country is protected within more than 30 parks and reserves, some of them quite vast. In a nation as compact as Ecuador, what this translates into for travelers is beautiful national parks, one after another, like stepping stones through some of the world’s most astounding scenery.
In the Andes, many of the giant volcanoes have their own namesake national park, and from south to north one finds Sangay, Chimborazo, Llanganates, Iliniza, Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe-Coca, to name several. These protected areas essentially demarcate what is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, or Volcano Alley—and it’s this route that I followed on my final march northward, toward Quito and the finish line of the international airport.
Here, my adventure finally came alive. I had spent weeks floundering—either resting my injured Achilles tendon or, later, undergoing anti-rabies treatment at a hospital following an unpleasant dog encounter. During this time, I often lay in bed, read books, iced my heel and wished for the freedom of the hills. But I finally fell into the familiar rhythm of bicycle touring as I pedaled uphill from Puyo to Baños, a 3,500-foot climb that leads from the Amazon basin to one of the most esteemed tourist towns in Ecuador—and, even better, to the foot of Tungurahua, the three-mile-high mountain that has been spewing smoke and ash for several months. Like most of the peaks along Volcano Alley at this time of year, Tungurahua hid within a ceiling of clouds, and I only caught a glimpse of the triangular peak one night in the light of the half moon when I peeked out my tent.
Though the Panamerican Highway bisects the Avenue of the Volcanoes, contriving routes to avoid this congested, smoggy artery brings one, as a matter of course, into some of the finest hiking, cycling and adventuring country anywhere. The land is hilly and green, and in places rugged and dangerous. I spent one afternoon ascending from the town of Pillaro into Llanganates National Park, home to the 10,792-foot Cerro Hermoso and, at the end of the long and difficult road, Laguna Pisayambo. The asphalt turns to dirt as the road steepens near the park entrance. The wind wails here, across treeless slopes, and cyclists and backpackers will find a cozy surprise—a refuge free for public use at the park entrance, at nearly 13,000 feet. I arrived at dusk, and two employees welcomed me, fed me and offered me the use of the hot water, the stove and a bed. But I chose to camp outside, and as the cold night came on, the lights of the city of Ambato 4,000 feet below flickered and shined like a million stars. Hidden in the darkness across the valley was Chimborazo’s 20,564-foot summit—often advertised as “the closest point to the Sun”—but I couldn’t see it, and never did, for it remained buried in clouds.
The next day I crossed the Panamerican Highway and headed west, for the much-loved but little-known Quilotoa-Sigchos basin, where I would spend a week exploring what might be the best cycling region in Ecuador. Right out of the town of Latacunga, the road goes up. To non-cyclists, this may sound like the worst of possibilities, but for me and many of my fellow cyclists, climbing is the reason we own bicycles at all. It’s on those uphill grades that we feel the heat of our own blood and the pace of our hearts. Climbing, perhaps, reminds us we’re alive, while million-dollar views take shape behind us. The road out of Latacunga ascends to some 13,000 feet before leveling off on a broad plateau of Andean tundra, then descends into a beautiful valley peppered with farmhouses and tiny villages, and a camping site called Posada de La Tigua. Here, the owners may try and talk you into taking a room for $35. Just camp. It’s $3.50, and you can watch the stars of the southern sky.
Onward, and the dramatic ups and downs, the friendly people, and the green hills make smiling out here as natural as breathing. In Zumbahua, a pair of video-journalists with a Quito-based cycling club, BiciEcuador, interviewed me and asked how I liked this area.
“The best of Ecuador,” I said.
The pride and joy of this region is Lake Quilotoa. There is an adjacent town of the same name—a little community of indigenous people fortunate enough to be located on the edge of a dramatic crater. Here, travelers find a vista that makes the jaw drop and clunk against the sternum. Lake Quilotoa lies almost 2,000 feet below, and from these heights one can see the wind ripping the jade-green surface. Hikers popularly walk around the crater’s rim and may follow a trail down to the water’s edge. Here, some people camp, and I saw tents pitched on a beach straight below me. The quiet, dusty village of Quilotoa will probably become either one of the hottest, or one of the most underrated, tourist destinations in Ecuador. But in February it is a strange place. It is the slow season, and there are more hostels than tourists. Nearly every building, in fact, is a hostel—perhaps 15 of them—and more are being built. The town is clearly still developing its tourist infrastructure, for among all the hostels, and even in the large visitor’s center, there is no internet—no WiFi, and no plug-in connections. Several other establishments in Quilotoa, meanwhile, sell artisanal crafts and woven items of alpaca wool. Chilly gusts of wind sweep through the quiet streets and remind one that the elevation here is almost 13,000 feet. A pair of locally made alpaca gloves for $5 are a worthy buy.
Travelers who continue north from Quilotoa will find a downhill run to the friendly little village of Chugchilan, set on the slope of a steep and forested canyon. I took note of several hostels here, then continued through the village and took a side road uphill, following signs to a nearby cheese factory about 2,000 feet straight up, on a foggy mountaintop. The sign at the gate advertises the fact that this little operation uses Swiss technology. What? Flavorless Andean queso fresco isn’t good enough? (I actually quite enjoy the local mountain cheese.) I took away a pound of mozzarella and continued on a scenic loop that would bring me back to the village. “Did you manage to find the cheese factory?” a rusty red-faced man with a wide smile and a huge machete asked me. I had never seen him before, but he knew why I was here. He spoke with a strange accent, for he was among many folks here whose native language is the indigenous Quechua.
The people in these mountains were some of the politest I’ve ever met. Turkish hospitality is famous but can be overwhelming with insistent offers of tea and food. In the Andes, it’s all smiles and hellos and respectful distances. The children, especially, are marvels of manners and courtesy. They almost never fail to call out a friendly greeting, and they have several times proven incredibly articulate and thoughtful in helping me find my way through a complicated road network to my destination.
“It is 40 kilometers to Isinlivi,” a boy said to me one afternoon on a dirt road circling through the high hills. “On a bicycle, that means you’ll be arriving after dark. You must find a place to camp before then.” He was no more than 8 years old.
I stayed in Chugchilan at the Cloud Forest Hostel (reviewed here by Globe Trotter). They offered dinner of fried plantains, chicken and rice, but I cooked quinoa and eggs in my room and studied my map, mesmerized by its language of dots, lines and triangles. There were so many route options, so many villages, so many valleys—so much to see. I was only 60 kilometers from Quito as the condor flies, but I saw that I could have spent weeks traveling the dirt roads that crisscrossed this tiny region. I had only a week left, however. Where would I go? Was there time?
Ecuador may seem little, but it’s bigger even than the imagination.
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February 26, 2013
Long before there was guacamole, California rolls or the Super Bowl, there were avocados. The species–Persea americana–is native to Mexico and Central America and has been widely planted and naturalized in the Caribbean and South America. While vast orchards of trees–most of them genetic duplicates of the Hass variety and several others–grow in the world’s main regions of production, like California, in places less affected by the homogenous sprawl of commercial agriculture, hundreds of different varieties exist. In Ecuador, avocados of endless shapes, colors and sizes are sold in the central town markets. Certain varieties are favored and cultivated widely, but the spectrum of avocados here is almost as varied as the people who grow them. For avo advocates, such a selection of varieties makes touring the local markets a source of intrigue and offers a fine opportunity for a varietal tasting of the fruit that was once called “poor man’s butter.”
But the systematic food scientist hoping to set the table for an organized tasting also must know the names of his samples–and, unfortunately, the avocados of Ecuador elude such labeling. That’s because different varieties of avocado either don’t have names or because the vendors simply don’t know what they’re selling.
“This is just an avocado,” the vendor tells me carelessly at a market in Loja.
“But look,” I counter. “Those over there are different, and those, too, are black, not green. And some are tiny, like limes. There are many, many types, and they have names. So, what is this one called?”
She shrugs and laughs at her friends, who seem amused by my insistence and the pen and paper in my hands.
“Green avocado,” she says.
Other vendors commonly name their avocados as “Guatemalteca”–meaning Guatemalan. This, however, is not a variety name but a broad category of avocados that includes many varieties. Vendors have shown me Guatemalteca avocados with green pebbled skin, shiny, black, smooth skin and polished lime-green skin. I have seen Guatemalteca avocados both big and small, and I have tasted ones with watery, fruity flesh and fatty, thick, rich flesh.
I have pointed out these differences to fruit dealers who give this simple label to all their avocados, and they have answered, “Oh, that is Guate-negro, and that is Guate-verde, and that is Guate-pequeno. But that’s not important. Four for one dollar!”
Actually, it is important to get variety names straight before a tasting–and only occasionally are vendors helpful. In the town of Paute, about 30 kilometers northeast of Cuenca, I stopped in at the central market, having been told that some very fine avocados are grown here. I saw nothing especially remarkable–mostly just small to tiny avocados, both green and black, with thin, brittle skins and oily flesh. But one saleslady named her avocados as “Pautena.” Fresh data! I hungrily scribbled down this name–probably given to a local variety, born in this region and named for the town. Problem was, her avocados were all different sizes, colors and shapes, yet she insisted they had come from the same tree.
So, with proper names on them or not, here are some avocados you may taste in Ecuador.
Guatemalteca A word commonly heard in avocado conversations in Ecuador, Guatemalteca is the name applied to numerous avocado varieties by the vendors who sell them. This becomes a point of frustration for one trying to differentiate the varieties by actual name, yet to avocado experts the label carries a seed of truth. For the Guatemalan avocado is one of three subspecies of P. americana (the other two are the Mexican and the West Indian). Guatemalan avocado trees generally produce large fruits with pebbly, thick skins and fatty flesh. But there are hundreds of varieties of this subspecies, but never did I get much past the blanket term “Guatemalteca.” The avocados I found carrying this label had skins ranging from thin, shiny and black to thick, pebbly and green. Flesh was usually on the delicious and creamy, though a few Guatemalteca avocados were of the watery sort. I licked my spoon clean, confused every time.
Costeno An elongate, smooth, light green skinned avocado, the Costeno–if it really is the Costeno–has light, low-fat flesh that is fruity and mild. Such avocados are often reserved in Ecuador for use in sweeter preparations–such as blended with milk and sugar–but for many tasters, avocados like the Costeno will lose out when compared to the rich, fatty avocados of a proper Californian guacamole pot.
“Negro” With no given name beyond its color, this small, shiny fruit has skin that appears almost like asphalt–a mottled, blackish-brown. The flesh is nutty but plain, slightly bitter, and just a little watery. Be warned that the same avocado may be called a Guatemalteca.
Lojano I found this avocado in Cuenca, at a fruit stall on the east side of town. A very large and elongated avocado, with smooth shiny green skin, its flesh was a unique yellowish-orange and of buttery, fatty consistency. The Lojano was one of the very best I tasted–and four of these giants cost only a dollar. Praise Ecuador!
Criollo Another smooth-skinned, lime-green avocado like the Lojano and Costeno, the Criollo was found in the basket of a street vendor in Loja. The pit is huge and the meat lacking both in quantity and oil.
Pautena The town of Paute, in the mountains east of Cuenca, is renowned by some locals for its avocados, which may be grown nowhere else. The leading form seems to be a small, shiny black avocado not much larger than a golf ball and with dense, sticky flesh.
Other avocado names you may hear in Ecuador:
Mantequillo, nacional, paisano.
Peru–Another Place to Hunt:
The markets of Peru yielded some spectacular finds, of avocados both strangely shaped and of tremendous size. In the northern towns, one may find avocados weighing about four pounds and the size of footballs. In Huarmey, watch for a vendor in the central marketplace with a basket full of avocados shaped like cashew nuts.
Almost an avocado: The coyo is a green, pear-shaped fruit that hangs from large tree that belongs in the same genus as the avocado. The fruit is not commercially cultivated, but the intrepid searcher who asks questions and knocks on doors may find their way to a coyo tree. I, for one, did not. Good luck.
February 20, 2013
In the Valley of Longevity, in southern Ecuador, visitors find the quiet and legendary town that has inspired travelers for decades—Vilcabamba. Once just another of a thousand beautiful Andean villages, this community of about 4,000 people is today one of the hottest destinations for outsiders seeking their own little piece of Shangri-La. The town, of affordable goods and productive soils, promises new life—not to mention long life—for both vacationers and expats, and in the past two decades Vilcabamba has become an uncanny magnet and New Age watering hole for soul-searchers dabbling in everything from agriculture to shamanism to hallucinogens.
But as one nears the village center along a cobblestone road that diverges from the highway, the legendary Vilcabamba seems too quiet for its reputation. Dozens of people sit idly in the square—well-to-do tourists, hippies with dreadlocks and bead necklaces, a few locals, men with week-old scruff and worn sandals—all of them waiting, it seems, for things to happen. As I cycled into the plaza, a friend of mine from Cuenca, Mick Hennessey, from Utah, was seated on a plaza bench, alertly watching the slow activity. He saw me and waved. “There’s nothing much going on here,” he said, seemingly reluctant to make such a decree so early. He had arrived only three hours before me by bus. “Sure is pretty up there, though,” I said, pointing at the mountain ridges surrounding this Valley of Longevity, so named for its supposedly high concentration of centenarians.
Another tourist, Nathan Resnick—an American currently living in Cuenca—spent several days in Cuenca hiking in the hills between nights at the Rendezvous guesthouse. He was glad with what he found.
“I was expecting a lot more and was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t exist,” Resnick said.
The town is surrounded by fantastic green ridges on the skyline and lush woods that make a paradise for backpackers, botanists and bird watchers. It is also the last chance for food and gear before entering Podocarpus National Park just to the east—home to bears and wild cats and countless bird species.
But according to some locals, Vilcabamba is unable to meet the needs or hopes of many who visit each year.
“People come here to solve their problems, but they never actually leave anything behind and so they bring all their baggage with them,” one man—a Canadian who has lived in Vilcabamba part time for a decade—told me about a block from the plaza, after we met and shook hands in the empty street. And so, he went on, health problems and mental maladies accumulate here with the immigrants. In particular, he said, conspiracy theories and UFO reports saturate local gossip. This interview by Uncornered Market of a resident Vilcabamban reads almost like a transcript of our conversation.
I quickly detected a very dark shadow hanging over the town. Only three days earlier, a woman had been raped on a trail in the woods just northeast of the town—the third such incident in just weeks. The alleged assailant was reportedly still at large. This January 25 blog post on Passionfruitcowgirl describes a dramatic attempted rape in what the author calls “Evilcabamba.” Another blog, Patryantravels, published a post last August titled “Paradise Lost,” which dwells on the steady rising tide of crime, both petty theft and physical assaults, that have damaged the pretty face of Vilcabamba. Among these recent events is the dramatic kidnapping for ransom that occurred in September on a nearby mountain trail, where a honeymooning couple was assaulted by three armed men wearing masks. The man was ordered to return to the town, retrieve several thousand dollars and deliver it back to the bandits, who said they would otherwise kill his wife. The couple survived the encounter—though the town’s reputation has taken a blow, and attentive eavesdroppers here can pick up on conversations in every direction about robbery, rape and the absence of the police.
Even as long ago as the 1970s, things seemed too good to be true in Vilcabamba. National Geographic, among other publications, had reported an unusually high number of centenarians in the village, but Dr. Alexander Leaf, of Harvard Medical School, was growing skeptical of villagers’ claims to be well over 100—and in one case as old as 134. He called upon two American professors to come help determine the truth. They did, and in 1978, after pressing villagers for information and facts, Richard Mazess of the University of Wisconsin and Sylvia Forman of U.C. Berkeley released their findings. The entire legend of long life was no better than myth—and as bad as outright lies. There was not, they reported, a single person over 100 in the Valley of Longevity. The average age of supposed centenarians was actually 86 years old, and one man who claimed to be 127 years old in 1974 was actually 91 at the time.
The blur between fact and fiction in Vilcabamba may—or may not—have something to do with a local hallucinogen called aguacolla, made from mescaline extracted from several dozen species of cacti in the genus Trichocereus, collectively referred to as the San Pedro cactus. T. pachanoi is the most commonly used for medicine and (let’s be honest) sport. Shamans and village doctors have used the cactus for ages, and the drug today, though illegal in many countries, is provided by licensed shamans and in the Andes is a popular draw for tourists seeking the journey—trip, that is—of a lifetime.
“What was it like?” I asked an American man on the plaza who had partaken in a group experience the night before at $70 a head. He was waiting for a cab, planning to head back to the camp for anther go. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said, seemingly thrilled as he hoisted his suitcase to the curb and waved to a taxi. “All I know is there was a whole lot of vomiting.”
“That sounds amazing,” I said.
As the website for Sacred Medicine Journey, a local shaman service, advises its prospective participants, “You may feel some discomfort, but the benefits are worthwhile. Remember that this is not recreational.”
The floodgates to weirdness seem to have opened wide in the 1960s with the arrival of the late Johnny Lovewisdom and his followers. Lovewisdom was an off-kilter spiritual guru and leader who was drawn to Vilcabamba by the “longevity” legend. Born as John Wierlo, Lovewisdom practiced a variety of unusual lifestyle diets throughout his life. Among his lasting legacies was his advocacy of a raw, fruit-only diet, though he eventually allowed yogurt and other fermented items into his body. Lovewisdom, who reportedly struggled with a number of uncommon health problems, also advocated water-fasting, sun diets and breathanarianism, which holds that humans can subsist on spiritual energy alone.
“A woman told me in town to be careful here because there is so much negative ‘energy’ in the air,” laughed a young German man as we ate breakfast at the campground kitchen of Rumi Wilco Eco Lodge, the cheapest place in town at $3.50 for a tent site. He was leaving that day for Peru via the Zumba border crossing just 80 miles south. The man was a skeptic of the Vilcabamba lore, and unlike thousands before him, he was not seduced by the village’s call.
Though the continuing crime wave and growing insider disenchantment with Vilcabamba have darkened the village, the innocent weirdness introduced by Lovewisdom remains. One morning in the driving rain at Rumi Wilco, a tall and lanky Dutchman—a raw foods fruitarian, it happened—undressed to his underwear on the lawn between the kitchen and the guest cabins and began a bizarre and comical calisthenics routine, punctuated by clumsy overhead jabs of the arms and poorly postured yoga stretches. He finished his workout with several minutes of running ten-foot-wide circles through the mud—one more eccentric seeking grace and happiness in the Valley of Longevity.
The sky remained gray for several days, and if there were people here who really could subsist on sunshine, as the eccentric Lovewisdom believed possible, they were probably thinking about a sandwich. And if they believed everything that the local mythology promised, they would almost certainly die younger than they hoped to, in the beautiful little village of Vilcabamba.