What immediately strikes you about Vilcabamba, a small town near Loja, Ecuador, in the southernmost range of the Andes, is the idyllic temperature. It stays between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
The nights are balmy, with playful breezes that tease your hair and make for perfect late afternoon naps in a hammock, strung between two palm trees. The days are never unbearably hot or dry, even when youâ€™re astride a Paso Fino pony, riding trails through water-forged gullies and alongside the plunging rock-faced cliffs of the nearby Parque Nacional Podocarpus. Vilcabamba is truly an oasis, hidden in a patchwork quilt of banana plantations and sugar cane fields.
Formally founded in 1756, Vilcabamba is structured like most small Ecuadorian towns. It has a central square surrounding a small park and several small tourist or food-related businesses. The streets are paved, fading into limestone paths outside town, where they wind up mountains and through dense forests.
Vilcabamba maintains the mystical aura of being a place of earthly longevity: the Latin American Fountain of Youth. The name Vilcabamba translates from the Quichua as "Sacred Valley." According to local legend recently backed by scientific evidence, inhabitants regularly live to be more than one hundred years old. Is it the water, pure mineral water from ancient glacier snows and deep limestone aquifers? Is it the air, free of chemicals, having thousands of acres of rainforest growth to filter out any harmful pollutants? Or, is it the richness and variety of natural organic foods, grown in the volcanic soils of the small valley? Hard, physical work probably plays into the mix as well.
Just outside of Vilcabamba sits Parque Nacional Podocarpus, a safe haven to well over 500 species of birds and several endangered and threatened species of large mammals, such as the giant armadillo and mountain tapir. It also boasts one of the worldâ€™s most diverse habitats, from lower-altitude rainforests to cloud forests to sylvan forests and alpine ecosystems. There are two natural-flowing rivers, the Chamba and Yambala, so naturally hiking and trail riding are just two of many outdoor activities available for visitors in the area.
A great place to stay in Vilcabamba is the Madre Tierra. For a reasonable price, youâ€™re treated to a cottage suite with hot showers (artistically designed in mosaic tiles), romantic atmosphere, colorful patio hammocks, and two delicious gourmet meals per day. Choose between several spa services, such as hot clay baths, colonics, steam and sauna, facials, full-body massages and reiki, for less than $10 per visit. The mineral clays, dug fresh every morning from a "secret" spot, are renowned internationally for their therapeutic qualities. Licensed masseuses knead every square inch of muscle, relaxing you and making the short walk down the winding stone stairway of the garden spa almost impossible. Combine those with a warm, friendly staff that dine with guests outside on a covered lanai with lit aromatherapy candles, native music and a mystifying sense of calm, and you have enough reason to visit Vilcabamba.