The Valley of the Ancients: Loja, Vilcabamba, and Izhcayluma

“I woke up in paradise. The sun was shining, a German Shepherd came to say good morning, the scent of trees and farmland filled the air, and the only sounds in the distance came from the birds and horses. No wonder people in this area lived to be so old. Who would want to leave?”

After my plan to return to Colombia for a week went awry due to a friend canceling our meet up, I changed my flight to return to Quito. Before leaving the States, I headed to Miami for the day. Sometimes things that seem like unfortunate events are for the best, and I was able to meet a great friend from Miami, Priscilla. She took me to the beach and showed me around for the day. It felt similar to the Colombian coast. The music was the same, there was a mix of Latin Americans, there were empanadas and Cuban sandwiches (my favorite), but it wasn’t South America. It was just different. After an awesome day with Priscilla, I flew out of Fort Lauderdale at 8:00 pm and landed in Quito after midnight.

It felt good to be back to life on the move south. Customs was a breeze, and on my fourth visit to Quito things were familiar. I knew exactly where I was going in the 30 minute cab ride on dark mountain roads. The cab driver, who couldn’t have been more than 19, and I talked as I switched gears back to Spanish. He was curious where I learned Spanish, and where I was headed. The answer: south to the end of the world, Tierra del Fuego.

After a quick nap at Masaya Hostel Quito, my second stay at the great converted Colonial mansion, I got life in order and walked the city for what I figured would be the last time. There was an afternoon bus to a city in central Ecuador, called Loja, which was a necessary connection for my last Ecuadorian destination: Vilcabamba. The 13 hour ride would put me in Loja at 4:00am. The seat on the bus to Loja was comfortable and much better than my last ride south. I have lost track of how many days and nights I have spent on buses the last six months. As long as there is sufficient leg room, no one is vomiting on me, it’s not below 55 degrees, and no action movies are blasting on full volume past midnight I’m happy. Small asks, but rare to achieve.

4:00am came too soon as I groggily walked down the aisle and slightly slipped on the stairs off the bus. There isn’t a ton to do at the odd damp hour of 4:00am. With no busses to Vilcabamba until later that morning, I did the one thing I know is always open: walked. My map showed the central market a couple of miles away. I hit the dark misty pavement and arrived at the market around 5:00am. Of course it was closed, so I took a seat on a step and read until a caretaker came to the gate at 6:00am on the dot. He looked me up and down and asked, “where are you from and why are you out here so early?” Valid questions which brought a smile to my face. He smiled back with his bottom front teeth missing. We talked, and he guided me around the bottom floor of the massive market to find open vegetable and fruit vendors. The one open fruit vendor was a lovely woman who had the same questions as the caretaker. She thanked me for travelling to Ecuador and “seeing how people in the rest of the world live and how important it is to understand.” These types of interactions are why I love markets. With a hefty supply of bananas and mandarins, she tossed me a soft sweet bright yellow fruit as a llapa (top off) and wished me safe travels.

With more time to kill, I headed upstairs to where the comedors (eateries) were. The counters were packed with locals, and of course all heads turned as I passed with my life on my back complete with a poncho and cowboy hat. I took a seat at a tightly packed counter and had boiled corn, a slice of cheese, and a cup of coffee. Not my normal breakfast, but everyone was eating it. By the time I finished, and finished entertaining the same questions from some people eating next to me, it was time to walk back and catch a bus.

It was a little over an hour to Vilcabamba, and I immediately passed out as the buses only rider. Vilcabamba is known as the valley of the ancients due to the rather large number of centenarians who make up the population. While staying at The Secret Garden Cotopaxi, I met a German man, Peter, who owned a hostel named Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba. He was excited I was attempting Cotopaxi and invited me down. He was a great guy and the hostel looked amazing so I decided it would be worth the stop.

After sleeping 20 minutes, I woke up to a completely full bus, rolling green mountains with chateaus and farms, and blue skies. These were some of the nicest homes I’d seen in Ecuador. Vilcabamba was a small charming Pueblo, and when I got off the bus I walked about two miles out of town to Izhcayluma. There was a nicely marked trail system off the main road that brought me to Izhcayluma’s front door. With a 50lb bag I was a little warm, but the day was beautiful. I passed a small Pueblo named Cuba and an elderly man digging through the garbage said “buenos días.” I stopped to ask how he was doing to which he replied, “mas o menos (more or less).” I gave him a dollar and told him to have more más. He thanked me and pointed up the hill to Izhcayluma with a smile.

When I arrived at the hostel, the normal accommodations were completely booked, and to my pleasure they put me down the hill on their farm by myself. Izhcayluma was absolutely incredible. There was a waterfall pool, yoga shala with free morning yoga, a great restaurant, tons of private cabanas and dorms, serious mapped out hikes of the area, and they brewed their own beer. An absolute traveler’s paradise. What else could one want? In conversations with the blond dreadlocked owner, Peter, who was just as pleasant as the first time we met, I found out that he had turned what was previously farmland into a mystical retreat over the last 20 years. He and his business partner, Dieter (who was also a great guy), had planted thousands of trees to create paradise. With a goal of a million trees, these guys were building paradise from the ground up.

My first day in the secluded farm room was great. After putting down my things, I laid by the pool, went for a run to town to buy groceries, was chased by a puppy on the road while running back, and relaxed in the hammocks outside my room during the afternoon rains while waiting for yoga. The 4:00pm afternoon yoga class was in the shala a 10 minute walk to the back of the property. Words couldn’t do justice of the wooden structure overlooking the mountains. Birds chirped and raindrops fell as our instructor guided us through flows. Not having done yoga in a while, and with thousands of miles south to go, stretching, meditating, and patience would be necessary. After class I showered, cooked dinner, and wrote before heading up to the main restaurant where most of the guests were. I sat with a couple of Canadians and a guy from the Netherlands. A Canadian woman, Heather, and I clicked and talked about our South American adventures and future plans.

I woke up in paradise. The sun was shining, a German Shepherd came to say good morning, the scent of trees and farmland filled the air, and the only sounds in the distance came from the birds and horses. No wonder people in this area lived to be so old. Who would want to leave?

Free yoga was a great way to get the morning started, Heather joined me for breakfast down at the farm, and we took off for one of the hikes named the Izhcayluma loop. A French teacher and yoga instructor, from the second we began hiking I knew Heather was going to push me. She was in amazing shape. We found the trailhead, an opening to the river, and walked up. After a while, we realized we missed the real trailhead and were doing the trail backwards. The trail which started low and flat quickly began ascending. After another look at the map, it was obvious we had meandered off trail. It wouldn’t have been an adventure otherwise.

(Photo cred Heather R)
With a call at 4:00pm, I figured 3.5 hours was enough time to backtrack, finish the Izhcayluma loop, and get back to the hostel. I was wrong. After a snack on the mountainside, we found the fork where we missed the reverse Izhcayluma trail. The trail was not well maintained and went straight up river, through brush, trees and rocks. After an hour up river, we spotted an arrow pointed our way from a trail sharply turning right.

The trail was nice and visible straight up to a ridge that encircled a steep valley below. As the rains began, we came across beautiful horses and reached a high point with many paths coming off the peak. Numerous cow and horse paths led us astray once again, and we descended the mountain too quickly on the wrong side. After a couple hours of backtracking and reascending, we found the real trail that went up another ridge and circled back to the main road. By the time we reached the main road, we were soaked and it was just after 4:20PM. The Izhcayluma loop headed back on the other side of the road, and we decided to skip it due to my call. We walked along the main road until a gas truck came along, and we hitched a ride the 5km back to the hostel.

Another awesome day at Izhcayluma, I had planned to leave the following day, but wasn’t finished yet. I extended one more day. The next day wasn’t nearly as filled with activities: just a walk to town, hanging with the hostel cat and chatting with my new friend Heather.

My last day at Izhcayluma was more like the first two. It was warmer than the previous wet cool nights, and morning yoga was perfect. The sun came out mid class over the beautiful shala, and energized the room. After class, Heather decided she was going to make the journey to Lima with me before heading off on her own adventure to the jungle. We cooked breakfast, packed, hiked to town and through a preserve named Rumi Wilco. The sun was baking. The heat combined with the humidity completely contrasted the 14 to 20,000 foot cool peaks I was intimate with in Ecuador. Other than the heat, the trail up the mountain to a crest overlooking Vilcabamba was maintained and beautiful. There wouldn’t be any getting lost today.

After an amazing ice cream in town, by far the best I’ve had in South America, we went back to the hostel, relaxed, thanked Peter, and headed back to town for our overnight bus adventure across the Ecuador-Peru border. Lima was over a thousand miles south, and the Chilean border was another thousand beyond that. The next two thousand miles by bus would be a long two thousand over a span of a few days. My time at Izhcayluma was great preparation for the journey, and I was happy to have company for the next leg of the journey.


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