I write from the ‘Valley of Longevity’ – marketing hype if ever there was. Truth be told most of the, supposedly, old timers round here in Vilcabamba, Ecuador cannot remember their exact date of birth with great accuracy and therefore claims that the climate, soil and way of life will put off the inevitable are a little stretched. From beneath the shade of a glorious Calendula tree I can see on the mountainside opposite the expansive ‘Casas’ of the numerous expats who have flocked here to enjoy the quality of life advertised by the Real Estate brokers. Property and land prices have risen, arable land taken out of production: the locals are understandably peeved and resentment simmers. And yet it all looks so perfect.
This morning at breakfast I listened while a man with one arm in a cast and an unplaceable Central European accent discoursed on the subject of Kundalini. My oatmeal was sprinkled with cinnamon, plump pre-soaked raisins and banana pieces: the wholemeal bread was still warm; my fruit bowl a riot of tropical colours; with every mouthful I felt 5-minutes younger. Hummingbirds feasted on flowers the size of dinner plates, there were no mobile devices on view and people were actually talking and smiling, the sun shone off the green slopes of Cerro Mandango and a deep peace reigned supreme. Until recently even an ex-Apollo astronaut was a resident but he transitioned in 2011 to become ‘free energy’. Maybe there is something going on around here after all?
Expat communities are to be found in all manner of nooks and crannies around the world and I’ve come across quite a few in my time. From sad old soaks propping up bars in the Philippines while their 20-year old girlfriends chat away to each other in a language their aged husbands will never learn, to eager and earnest zealots with some sort of personal or ideological agenda to push. Here in Ecuador the average expat shelf life is around the 3.5-year mark with most coming from North America or Europe. According to Cuenca High Life, the city’s English expat online bulletin, most return to their home countries citing reasons a little removed from the truth: “my father is ill’ or “I miss the grandchildren”. When pressed further it emerges that the real reasons are more along the lines of missing a culture they understand, a language they can speak fluently and all the little things that made up their old lives such as good golf courses, favourite shops and their extended circle of friends and family.
Vilcabamba is set in a valley at 1,500-metres, surrounded by glorious mountains and with a year round spring-like climate. A small town of only 4,000-people the main square is a veritable Gringo cornucopia, mostly of the mature variety but a sprinkling of dreadlocked bongo players fit in well and provide a gentle soundtrack to this otherwise sleepy little haven. There have been break-ins to some Gringo houses while they are away and even a mugging or two of hikers out in the mountains. But surely that happens everywhere?
And this promise of good living in beautiful surroundings is what drew us here. Not as a place to live but because it seemed like the perfect place to recharge and recover – a stiff neck has plagued my trusty travel companion for a fortnight – before we head over a particularly remote border crossing into Peru for what looks like being some challenging travelling. Thus, we have feasted on Falafel and Hummus, Beet soup, Green salads and wholemeal bread. Yoga twice a day, mindful meditation and writing, and an intense massage-cum-reflexology treatment that left us both zinging. One needs these sorts of MOT stops when on the road and in life in general. But could we live in a place like this? For most of the reasons listed above I suspect not. It is a lovely place to pass through and on the face of it does appear to have many of the pre-requisites those in search of an alternative existence might require. Writing this has made me feel a little homesick but I’m not quite sure for where.