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Living in the Valley of Longevity: Southern Ecuador

We made our way south along the coast, and decided to pull into the tiny town of Ayampe to overnight. Ayampe consists of one main dirt road, about a mile long, from the PanAmerican highway to the beach. Another dirt road runs along the water. Inviting little open air restaurants and hostels are scattered in among the foliage. A smattering of young travellers roam around and there is a low key surfer vibe on the beach. It was very chill compared to Canoa and we liked what we saw. After a typico lunch of chicken, rice and fresh ceviche we found some camping at a hostel called The Coco right on the beach. When the shower we were to use was presented to us, we asked about available rooms - it was that bad. All the cabanas were full but one would be available the next night so we plunked down $20, camped right outside our rented room, and spent the next night as well. Little did we know our extra bedroom would come in handy for more than just a decent shower. Just as we were crawling into bed the next night, the neighbors over the fence decided to burn their garbage. The wind brought putrid smoke and all those lovely carcinogens right into our camper. Every breath became a willful act of survival so I grabbed my pillows and made a run for it. John stayed behind to brave it out, so it was strange the next morning to wake up alone, sweaty, on musty sheets with a rusted fan circulating the warm salty air. I was definitely not out of my funk yet.

We hit the road that morning in the direction of Cuenca which would take us through Ecuador’s biggest city, Guayaquil. On our drive to Guayaquil, we passed one nondescript fishing town after another along the coast. In one of those towns, just before we turned inland, the road through town was blocked. With police lights flashing and black smoke rising up from burning tires in the intersection, we realized we were caught up in a protest. Protests blocking the roads are common in this part of the world, but this was the first one we had to navigate through. As we came upon the blockade we weren't sure how to get around, so we started snaking through the side streets. At every corner a local driver or the taxi drivers would steer us in a direction around the blocked intersections. Each one told us the town hadn’t had water in over 8 days.

Locals scramble behind a water truck to fill buckets.

In Ecuador, the fight for water is a major issue, and the traditionally powerless people have been struggling for this resource for decades. The irony here is that in 2008, a change in the constitution was internationally acclaimed for declaring water as a human right. Yet the government has granted deals to Chinese mining companies and multinational agribusinesses to privatize water. The same businesses that pollute the fresh water in the rivers. The response has involved thousands of people blocking roads, marching in the streets and rioting. There have been violent confrontations that have resulted in arrests and even death. As we weaved our way through their neighborhood, we told them we wished them luck. They shook our hands and wished us a safe journey. How lucky we are in the U.S. to just turn on the tap and get water -- that is clean.

From Guayaquil, we headed back into the mountains toward the colonial city of Cuenca. We planned to spend the day exploring the city but heavy rains kept us cooped up the camper for most of the morning, so we used the time to organize our taxes. In the afternoon it was still pouring, but we braved the weather and made the long walk into the city center for lunch. John was still nursing a bad back when he slipped on a wet cobblestone curb and fell flat in the middle of the street. That was it. We decided we both needed a reset button. The next morning we left for the mountain town of Vilcabamba, dubbed the “Valley of Longevity” to get ourselves healthy and rebalanced.

South of Cuenca, the Panamericana winds into the mountains through remote countryside, and we passed only a few small villages on our way to Vilcabamba. Umberto, the owner of our camp spot in Cuenca, suggested we stop for lunch in one of the villages on the way called Saraguro (“land of corn” in Quichua). As they have for the last 500 years, the Saraguros are set apart by their particularly pure form of Quichua (the language of the Incas) and very distinctive clothing. The men wear black ponchos and black knee-length shorts, often over black wellington boots used for their farm work, while the women wear pleated black skirts and hand-woven black shawls. For some strange reason, this small agricultural town in the middle of the Andes mountains has an amazing restaurant called Shamuico Espai Gastronomic. It is run by a local chef who worked in some of Europe's best restaurants. We decided to stop for lunch there (all part of our new, more civilized driving speed) and we are so glad we did. We’ve our had share of local ingredients in many a typico meal but this was local ingredients used creatively and it was delicious. We also loaded up on fresh bread, wine and cheese in their deli. It was the perfect stop in our 4 hour drive down to Vilcabamba.

We saw different of animals along the side of the road on this drive. These guys were in Caja National Park just north of Cuenca.

Lunch stop in Saraguro

Vilcabamba is a small agricultural town set in a beautiful valley of green, sharp edged mountains, with the ever present Cerro Mandango peak looking down. A 1955 Reader’s Digest article claiming Vilcabambans enjoyed a considerably higher than average life expectancy put it on the international radar. Since then it has been known as the Valley of Longevity, and a small but steady stream of retirees from Canada and the US have relocated here. It feels like a place not quite grounded in reality. People come here for a variety of reasons. Some come looking for the simple life, trying to stretch their retirement dollars farther than they could in their home country, others come as self proclaimed healers, dabbling in crystals and running meditation retreats. Still others are here because they probably aren’t allowed back in their home countries. We definitely met the spectrum. The locals seem to coexist with all the gringos, but who really knows.

The town of Vilcabamba

Our first stop when we got to town was Hostel Izhcayluma - where we took hostel camping to a whole new level. Camping is at the entrance to the property at the bottom of a hill, close to the main road. It’s been made into a camping area but it’s really just a parking lot. The camping fee is $10 a day and includes potable water, electricity, use of the pool, and free yoga in one of the most beautiful places I have ever practiced yoga. There was a trail system on the property that provided steep, heart pumping hikes. Along with decent cheap food and $22 massages we found living in a parking lot to be totally acceptable. It also helps that it is in a beautiful setting with gardens, trails, and the most amazing views of the surrounding mountains. We quickly fell into a comfortable routine. Our days usually started with yoga, followed by breakfast and lunch at “home”, a hike or bike, then dinner in the hostel restaurant or in town. Two fat, sweet house dogs came down to greet us most mornings and followed us around. The town has organic produce, a few decent restaurants and a French bakery. John taught himself how to play chess and and made bread in the camper. We read books with titles like The Surrender Experiment. It was exactly what we needed. So we stayed three weeks.

Hostel Izhcayluma.

Our camp spot at the bottom of the property

Cerro Mandago Peak

Yoga pavilion

Our daily hiking trails

Mother Nature's magic fuchsia.

Birthday dinner at The Lion's Bear restaurant. It was the best in town, owned by an English couple who were traveling around and decided to stop here and open a restaurant for a while. The food was really amazing.

We made new friends as new "neighbours" showed up to camp along side us. Gert and Claudia are from Berlin and also on their way down. They are the same age as us and Gert grew up in East Berlin while Claudia was raised in West Berlin. We were all in our early 20's when the wall came down. We had some very interesting conversations about our perceptions of each other countries during that time - the cold war, the communist Eastern Bloc, and the wall. Gert couldn't travel freely to Claudia's side of the city. And here we were having dinner together in Ecuador. It was great meeting them and we hope to catch up in Peru, but they are moving fast and will be back in Germany by August.

New friends Gert and Claudia from Berlin

We all took an ariel yoga class. Flying yoga...not as easy as you think.

New neighbors Stefaan and Kristin from Germany, and their rig next door.

Naty and Willie. Two adorable artists from Buenos Aires. Traveling in a pink and black van. We practiced our Spanish and they their English. Abrazos!

House dogs at the camper - and no I didn't feed them. ...much

One day we hired a guy to take us on a mountain bike ride in the surrounding hills. His name was Angel (nickname Chino) and he was born and raised in Vilcabamba. I asked him how he had gotten into mountain biking. He told us his family had no money and when he was four years old, his friend's father repaired bikes so he learned along side, and by the age of 8 he could repair any bike. By age 10 he could also repair any motorcycle. When the tourists started coming to Vilcabamba he rented them mountain and motor bikes and took them on tours. He also makes art from bike parts and wants to open a gallery for his bicycle art. He just recently bought a piece of property in town to build a little hotel/gallery space. We really enjoyed hanging out with him and had a great ride.

Chino and his art

One of the towns we rode through. Translation: "you invite a drink...Do not let the vice control you".

Sugar cane is one of the main crops in these mountains. John tries it in the raw form.

This strange fruit is a Zapota. The taste is as if a pumpkin and a mango had a fruit baby.

One of the things I miss most from my old life is my fitness. It's what usually keeps me out of funks. Contrary to what our blog might suggest, we aren’t that active on the road. It’s often difficult to find a way. It’s either too hot, too cold, too wet, too steep, too dangerous, (too awkward!) to work out. Every day is an unknown. We hike or bike occasionally but it’s pretty sporadic. On our drive days we are exhausted by the time we reach our destination and set up camp. At home I had a routine and a lot of stress that pushed me to make sure I worked it into my day. I was consistent but I always felt rushed. So before we left home, I really thought this life would allow me tons of time to stay active. But the opposite is true. Most overlanders we meet say the same thing. These three weeks allowed us to get back in our groove of healthy eating and consistent exercise, and it was a good reset. It was good to be in one place for a while - John healed up and I came out of my funk. Now we just have to find a way to keep a balance as we push into our twelfth country. Next up, Peru!

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