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“There’s a lot of that going round – loads of panic attacks,” said the long-haired, wiry Californian.
His wild-eyed companion peered around nervously before speculating: “They must be interfering again.”
I wondered who the ‘they’ were that they referred to – a mysterious force causing endemic panic attacks. It sounded like something out of a sic-fi movie – but instead of some other dimension or imagined future hell-hole, I was in Vilcabamba, a small, and very beautiful, valley town in Southern Ecuador – which has recently become home to a very particular breed of gringo.
The town first became famous back in the sixties when it was said that its inhabitants had one of the world’s longest life-expectancies. The results have since been criticised heavily, but many people hold onto that belief – and there’s no doubting it’s a healthy place to be. The town’s water is supplied by a natural mountain spring, the climate is spring-like year-round, there are spas aplenty, and the air feels clean and free from excessive pollution.
Vilcabamba and the taste of longevity
But Vilcabamba’s life-giving properties aren’t the only thing driving people there today – or at least not in the same way. Many Vilcabamban gringos are fleeing their home countries in fear of the modern world, building bunkers for the day the apocalypse comes. Whether it be because of radiation from Fukushima, the Mayan prophecies, or a megalomaniac ruling elite, Vilcabamba is full of terrified ex-pats. Sit in a gringo hangout and you’ll inevitably hear the words ‘The Illuminati’ peppering conversations on anything from 9/11 to space exploration. The theories range from the plausible to the extraordinary. My favourite being that the Queen of England, among other high-ranking individuals, is a shape-shifting baby-eating reptilian!
Health is also a hot topic, with some of the world’s top raw food advocates residing in town. This was one of the first things that attracted us to Vilcabamba and we enjoyed a plethora of green smoothies and raw energy balls while in town. But beneath the healthy living, there was an undercurrent of paranoia. Some people won’t even speak to you if you have amalgam fillings for fear of being harmed by the mercury.
Of course not everyone in town is like this. It’s also a hotbed for hippies and people simply enjoying the town’s incredible beauty and healthy living. We stayed three weeks and were captivated by the land’s charms. The light there is phenomenal – each day providing a different shade or glow across the valley. There are great hikes, an abundance of vegetarian food and a laid-back pace that’s infectious, much like Capilla del Monte.
We asked one recent ex-pat why he’s living in Vilcabamba and how it’s going. He said he feels healthy there but struggles with one element – the ex-pats. He gives people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their theories but is frustrated by their conviction. “In their minds, they don’t think these things, they know them, and that can be difficult to deal with. You’re on the outside if you don’t agree with what they say – even to play devil’s advocate on GM is sacrilegious in this town. It’s very dogmatic.”
My relationship with Vilcabamba was one of love and hate. I loved its beauty but hated the segregation between locals and ex-pats. I loved many of the people I met but was upset by others. My main struggles came down to the paranoia, grasping self-preservation and lack of personal responsibility that pervades the town. I don’t like to rule anything out, but conspiracy theories don’t engage me.
I think that by getting carried away in fantasy, it’s easy to forget responsibility for oneself. For some people in Vilcabamba, you don’t have a bad day on your own accord, the ruling elite give you a bad mood, and all the bad things that happen in the world are ‘their’ fault. I don’t think we need conspiracy theories to explain the problems of the planet – we simply need to look inside ourselves as a human race. We’ve all had licks of anger or selfishness and can see how emotions grow in crowds. Bad things can happen with or without reptilian tribes. The antidote is to take Gandhi’s words and ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.
Or else panic and blame the reptiles.
Useful information on Vilcabamba
We stayed in Vilcabamba for a month in a hotel called Descanso del Toro. Through a strange loophole, it cost as much to stay there for a month as it did to stay there for a weekend so we got quite the bargain! We also had an incredible room with the biggest bed I’ve ever slept in (emperor size) and a jacuzzi in the room. And to top it all off, our bed looked out onto the mountains. It’s been hard to beat ever since.
It takes around four hours to get there directly from Cuenca, or you can take a bus via Loja.