Vilcabamba is a small town in the South of Ecuador. Coming from the La Balsa border crossing it’s the most popular first stop to shake off the long ride from Peru. I didn’t really know what to expect arriving to The Valley of Longevity. The place gets its nickname from the unusually high number of centurions they have had in their history.
Asking around to fellow travelers the consensus seems to be spilt. People either love the valley or think it has lost its soul to the gringo trail. Both opinions have some truth behind them. But neither can deny the beauty found in the nature of this place.I spent five nights in the town. But if you’re on a tighter schedule you can get a good feel in less or stay the rest of your life if you’d like! Here are a few suggestions to help you develop your own opinion. Enjoy!
Relaxation & Rejuvenation
At first I found it a bit weird that everytime you mention Vilcabamba there is a 99% chance that you’ll get the single phrase response Hosteria Izhcayluma. It doesn’t matter if you’re asking another traveler, Google or TripAdvisor for that matter. All roads point in one direction. It’s not so often that the top recommendation would be such a place. But after searching the town for a budget friendly accommodation and finding next to nothing I decided to head over to Izhcayluma for one of their $9.50 dorm beds to see what all the raving had been about.
After the first night I already knew what everyone was talking about! Sure this town is a bit of a tourist trap but it has its charm. Hosteria Izhcayluma is a huge part of that charm. More of a mountain resort than anything else. Owned by a pair of Germans (unfortunately not too many places appear to be locally owned here). It’s much more luxurious than anything else the average backpacker has probably been able to afford in South America. Lets face it, sometimes we all need a little TLC! Izhcayluma offers a great place to relax and recharge. Free morning yoga and free mineral water tapped straight from the mountain below (one of the reasons some believe life lasts longer here). There’s no guest kitchen but the restaurant has fairly priced meals compared to the eateries in town ($6-$10). You can go for a 90 minute massage ($22) or take a dip in the pool. There are also a series of trails leading out the back of Izhcayluma. Take the red trail for an hour circuit to a perfect sunset. Needless to say after months of living in tents and whichever hostels could be found for bottom dollar Izhcayluma has won me over.
There are a handful of beautiful hikes in the area. The hardest part will be deciding which you would like to take on. After my German roommates recommended against The Forgotten Trail I decided on The Chaupi Loop to start things out. A very easy circuit of 3.5 to 4 hours with excellent views of the valley and some time in the smaller areas surrounding Vilcabamba. Followed by the most popular circuit Cerro Mandango the next day.
- Start out just five minutes walk south of the town. Take the road that forks up above the main road.
- Follow this gravel road winding around the side of the mountain along side the water canal. You can’t get lost.
- The tricky part. After a while you’ll run into a small fence. Not wanting to trespass we turned back having noticed a small side path 100 meters before the fence. This path is not marked but you can distinctly see the break in the shrubs. We took this path down the mountain and reached the road shortly after. Later on we were told that the true path requires passing the fence, but we didn’t miss anything by skipping that section. Shortly after passing the fence we would have circled down to the same road.
- Once on the road follow it to the left until you see the Chaupi bus stop (a small brick covering with a bench). Make a right here and pass through the village crossing the river by bridge.
- On the other side of the bridge continue straight ahead until you reach the road and make a right turn.
- Follow this gravel road along side the opposite side of the valley. Soon you’ll reach the large main road.
- Make a right onto the main road to head back to Vilcabamba. Be careful here because some sections do not have a sidewalk. Or take a passing cab for $1.50.
Cerro MandangoCerro Mandango is the most popular hike in the area. Most commonly done as a one way trail. But there is a circuit or as we found out multiple circuit options as well.
- Head south of the town until you see the new Mandago sign on the left of the road & the old stone wall sign on the right.
- There is supposedly an entrance fee to be paid at the information center here but a nearby local tells us the office hasn’t been open for as long as they can remember.
- Take a right turn off the main road and follow until you reach the trail head.
- From here it’s a direct route up the mountain. A bit steep at times. Just before you arrive at the first cross the trail turns to gravel in a slippery uphill section. If it wasn’t for the arm rails this part might be a bit scary. Arriving at the cross take some time to enjoy the best view of the town offered.
- Continue 50 meters forward and walk right up to the base of the highest peak. This is where most people will end the trail and head back the way they came. But there are two other options.
- If you decide to continue onward you’ll walk alongside the base of the peak on a slanted path until you come to another fork.
- Continue forward and the path will take you up on top of the flat peak along an extremely thin path. Keep in mind that this path is unserviced, the dirt is not very stable and if you fall from this ridge you will with 99% certainty die. A local hiker on the ridge with his nephew and girlfriend urged us not to continue that some years ago a hiker died and it’s largely uncommon for anyone to go atop anymore. He claims part of the path is so skinny that you must put one foot in front of the other in a line to walk. With his advice and the fact that the rain had started to set in with opted for the second path.
- Just before the path leading upwards there is a path leading down the side of the ridge. It starts out parallel to the path you arrived on. This path also looks unmaintained. Now hiking down as a group we are glad our new friend brought along his machete to hack away the overgrown thorn bushes. Follow this path down until it hooks right and leads you onto the same road from start of The Chaupi Loop. You’ll be back down to Vilcabamba in no time.
Sunday Market & Main Square
Sunday largely seems to be family day in town. A lot of Ecuadorians come here for the weekend to relax. If you find yourself in Vilcabamba on a Sunday head over to the plaza on the other side of the bus station. Here you’ll find local vendors selling fruits, vegetables and other cool stuff. It’s a small market but worth a visit if already in town. Try some of the kale chips, one of my favorites.
Then head over to the main square where the town always seems to be having something going on. During our visit there was a charity run and dance show. Different groups came out and performed all day. From children to centurions everyone danced.
Where To Eat
There really aren’t too many budget eats in Vilcabamba. It’s a tourist town so prices are a bit higher as you can image. You can always find someone walking around selling homemade empanadas for $1.
- Hosteria Izhcayluma
German owned restaurant/lodge. Your best option for quality vs pricing. $6-10 for lunch & dinner.
- La Baquette Boulangerie
The best croissants I’ve ever eaten. This is my top pick for breakfast. The cinnamon and the cheese croissants were amazing. But my favorite was the plain. Try one ! You won’t regret it. Sit down with the owner and hear about the town when him & his wife first arrived 20 years ago. It’s amazing to hear how different it was at that time. I can’t imagine this town with only two cars and no paved roads. Everyone traveling by horseback.
I really enjoyed Vilcabamba. Like I mentioned before it’s a bit of a tourist trap destination but for good reason. The trails are fairly non demanding, the people are wonderful and most of all the nature in the valley is gorgeous. It’s a good place to recharge your batteries.
North connections leave towards Loja every hour or so throughout the day from 5:40am to 8:40pm. Loja has a major terminal with routes toward Quito, Cuenca & Guayaquil.