Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Scouting Trip: Loja and Vilcabamba

Ecuador is a only the size of Colorado, but it probably has the surface area of Texas. Here’s what you do: take Texas and squoosh it into the space of Colorado, heaving all the land up into dramatic folds called mountains. Then, wouldn’t it be fun to put winding, narrow roads all over that sharp topography and drive big buses over them really, really fast?

The trip from anywhere to anywhere in Ecuador is pretty short as the condor flies, but when taking a bus be sure to pack like you’re going away for a weekend: two meals, lots of water, empty bladder, pillow, and earplugs (unless you like Steven Seagal movies in Spanish at Space Shuttle launch decibels)

All of which has nothing to do with Loja and Vilcabamba, which we rode five hours on a bus to reach. I’m just sayin’.

I was interested in Vilcabamba and not Loja before we arrived in Ecaudor. Talking with people here, though, we were now going to look at Loja as a possible home (clean, environmental, musically inclined) and not Vilcabamba (small cow town with nothing really going on). But a day in Loja was enough to tell us that we weren’t interested. In short, just not the right vibe for us, though maybe our outlook was tainted by having spent several days in beautiful Cuenca.

We had half a day to kill before flying out to Quito, then, so scurried up to Vilcabamba, about 45 minutes away. Do you have to hear more than “Vilcabamba - Valley of Longevity” to have your interest piqued? Do you have to say more than Vilcabamba, for that matter? Besides ranking as the funnest name on our list (Jipijapa, said “hippy hoppa,” was not on the list), Vilcabamba has been a magnet to California hippies and Florida retirees for over three decades since Reader’s Digest did a piece on its mythical reputation for having the highest percentage of centenarians of any town in the world. Something about the water, fresh air, and trashcan diet.

Could be, but what we found was a delightful and much appreciated respite from the sensory assault provided by the horns, car alarms, exhaust...all right, I won’t go there again. We could call it the Boulder, Colorado of Ecuador (1970s or earlier)--a beautiful natural setting already protected by the government and the community’s own sensibilities, a slow pace in which legs or horses are used as much for transportation as cars, a decent music scene, and California-style offerings like yoga, organic local food, and meditation courses.

What doesn’t it have? Good schools. Or any good school for the kids, actually. We walked by the only public school we could find, which looked like the recreation yard at Attica--cement buildings and grounds, wired in windows with broken glass, and security walls lacking only a turret and gunner (and again, to protect against what in this quiet, idyllic town?)

So Loja’s out, and if we can figure out schooling, Vilcabamba’s top of the list.

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