We found the tiny village of Vilcabamba, the Valley of Longevity, at the end of a 28-mile bus ride from Loja, a large city in southern Ecuador.
Vilcabamba has also been called the, "Playground of the Inca" because it was an Inca retreat. It's called the Valley of Longevity because some locals are reputed to live into their one-hundredth year and longer. Some have even called it "Shangri La".
The church on the main square.
The town gets its name from a Quichua word, "huilco pamba". Huilco means the region's sacred trees, Anadenanthera colubrine. Pampa means "valley".
Gary and I first journeyed to Vilcabamba in 2002 with our meditation students. We'd been with them in Peru for the first 5 months of their teacher training program. Somewhat on the spur of the moment we decided that Vilcabamba would be the perfect place to chill and finish the training.
It had been a long bus trip from the Sacred Valley of Peru to the Valley of Longevity. Our group arrived from Lima, Peru. Driving into Vilcabamba we discovered a tiny village so remote that its streets had only been paved about ten years before.
Horses still clopped along the streets and the pastel-colored buildings retained their antique charm. The foreign influence had been felt but not too strongly. There were only a few permanent expats, some rustic bungalows and hostels and a few hotels and restaurants.
There was never any electronic music blaring and we could hang out for hours in the outdoor cafes that lined the main square.
Once I entered this sacred valley, I immediately noticed a special quality of peace and tranquility that permeates everything. Returning to Vilcabamba since that first trip, I still find that the soft green hills welcome me, warm breezes blow and the light has a special glow.
And over all, the guardian mountain Mandango, called the Sleeping Inca, protects against natural disasters.
Scientific studies indicate that the colloidal mineral-rich water, healthy diet and lifestyle is a contributing factor to the long lives of the natives. Dr. Richard Laurence Millington Synge believes that medicinal plants are the leading cause. Chemical assays show that the fruit, roots and herbs in the Vilcabamba area have some of the world's strongest anti-oxidant qualities.
Others think the locals both exaggerate their age or don't really know how old they are because they have no birth certificates or written record of their births. However, medical researchers proved that the retinas of 100-year-old residents are often equal to a 45-year-olds. The mild climate may be the reason or perhaps the lack of stress, plus years of exercise and hard work. Probably a combination of all these factors are responsible.
The pure rainforests of Podocarpus National Park, with its pre-Ice Age microorganisms, circles Vilcabamba. Deep vegetation in the form of ancient tundra that has remained uncontaminated over unknown millennia, filters the glacial milk, or glacial run-off from the mountain lakes. This water also contains dissolved rock dust that is full of colloidal minerals.
Next the water makes its way into countless mountain pools, waterfalls, streams and then into the rivers that feed Vilcabamba. This water is high in negatively-charged ions.
Our group settled into Madre Tierra, which at the time was owned by Jaime and Durga, meditators like ourselves. They had just built a simple meditation hut in the middle of their banana grove.
The silence and beauty was the perfect backdrop for our training.
Madre Tierra has since been sold several times, remodeled and upgraded, but nothing can change the timeless splendor of the view from there.
After our training ended, Gary and I rented a house on the other side of Vilcabamba, with another banana grove and 2 brick houses. We settled in for some R&R and got to know the local and expat community.
Gary and I spent our time riding horses along the rivers that pierce the steep gorges around Vilcabamba. We swam in mountain pools, meditated in grassy glens and spent the night in isolated rustic cabins. It's easy to commune with Mother Nature in Vilcabamba.
Vilcabamba seems little different now that almost a decade has passed since I lived there. More expats have moved in, there are more organic farms and gardens, more artistic endeavors going on, more hotels and restaurants.
But the flavor, the vibe of the place remains the same to me. It is so strong and so nurturing that little can seriously affect it.
There are many factors that foster longevity in Vilcabamba, but I personally believe it's a combination of near-perfect elements, including the water and air quality, the purity of the soil and food grown there and the low levels of stress experienced by the hard-working people who till the soil on the sloping hillsides.
More elusive is the invisible vortex of energy that embraces the valley, as if some benevolent guardian spirit watches over all beings that dwell there with love and protection. Perhaps it comes from the spirit of Mandango, strengthened by centuries of belief and legend.
Or perhaps it derives from Pacha Mama herself who brings extra attention to this tiny town and thus empowers and blesses the inhabitants with greater vitality. Wherever the magic and strength of Vilcabamba comes from, it must be honored reciprocally in order to hold the remarkable web of life there in balance and health.