Bookshelves or backpack stuffed with papers, notes and guidebooks? Whether planning to run away or currently in flight, the convenience of the guidebook is sometimes hard to ignore. Guides no doubt take the strain off facts-gathering, but when using them traveling can all too easily become a question of putting the pieces of a puzzle in their logical, time-proven place: First visit Village A, then Town B, then Ruins C and Beach D…tadah! You’ve done Country E!
I try to move as much as possible without consulting guidebooks. I use people instead, be them locals, other travelers, friends or those on forums who I’ll never meet. Very often my sieve-like mind will immediately forget what I was told – but not to worry; there’ll be someone else not far down the road whose ideas and tips will refresh my memory and colour in the sketch of my trip.
Sometimes I realise that a whole new country is about to open up and -uh oh! – I’m going in tipsless, completely cold. But these moments that catch you off guard without any idea what to expect from your new destination can be where you let go, and magic happens…
In this way, traveling cold and without knowing anything of its fame, I went on a whim to Vilcabamba; a chokingly famous little mountain town sometimes nicknamed “The Valley of Longevity” for the so-called health benefits of its waters.
Ecuador had greeted us with a marketplace functioning as its border with Peru: a screaming, messy, colourful street where soles and dollars exchanged hands, and chocolate bars and underwear shared store space under the watchful eye of rotund mamachas. We had come from Peru’s beaches and were ushered into Ecuador by this people-drenched marketplace atop mototaxis and the vans of robbing salesmen. During these hectic hours, we realised how much we wanted to see hills again. Somewhere green and mountainous just seemed right for the soul, only we weren’t sure where to find it.
So we left the squabbling chickens and ripped off watch salesmen behind and took a late night bus to Loja, a bumpy ride which dropped us at our destination at 5am. There, we stayed for a while, pondering the rainy night outside and wondering where we might go come daybreak. I was left to nurse a drip coffee below the fluorescent lights of a 24 hour greasy spoon while Pablo went downstairs to ask what towns and regions close by might fit our need for green. He returned, announcing that we were going to Vilcabamba.
Vilcabamba is by no means an undiscovered corner. Among the U.S. Baby Boomers and worldwide pseudo hippie communities it’s a well trodden path to affordable land ownership, small town relaxation – and oddities such as life-giving water, UFO sightings, and general alternative woo-hoo.
In the cocktail that is long-term travel I try to stay clear of towns better described as tourist magnets, or at least shake them in with ample mixer by pointing my toes in the direction of wanderings through lesser known corners. Truly, had I known how insanely famous Vilcabamba had become since its “fountain of youth waters” were brought to Western light a few decades ago, I wouldn’t have gone. This is not to say that I don’t possess a shred of hippie-esque curiosity, but I admit to becoming hugely skeptical when entire groups of people congregate singing the alternative praises of one area. To me, it just screams bullshit.
But we had gone off a bus station cleaner’s tip and caught a bus to this town not knowing what to expect. We arrived at 8am, found a place to stay and set about exploring – and found ourselves five days later, transported to a state of needing to tear ourselves away from this town where time no longer meant anything and the lazy roll of the hills kept us wanting to explore more.
Honestly, we spent very little time in the town centre itself, but were always out hiking, or cooking, writing and visiting neighbouring towns. Only in our wanderings and moments spent eavesdropping on the conversations of the expat community between hikes and meals did we realise how Vilcabamba had gathered its fame. And it didn’t ring very true with me.
The reason we stayed happily those few days in Vilcabamba had nothing to do with its reputation, nor the wave of expats and retirees who call it home (in fact, the snippets of greyhaired gringo conversation I caught in the main plaza seemed very self-interested – supposedly the locals and spiritual-enlightenment seeking foreigners do not mix all that much). It had nothing to do with the waters or promises of valley-living paradise…but it had everything to do with arriving in a place entirely without a plan, not expecting anything special, and then exploring our version, on our own two feet.
Looking back, it seems sort of sweetly innocent that we had simply followed our feet to Vilcabamba and arrived without knowing anything of its fame. But sometimes, non-research is a blessing that will take you to places you would have otherwise avoided based on paragraphs read in guide books or in knowing “why” people visit them. In our case, by the time we found out about Vilcabamba’s slightly claustrophobic alternative veil, we no longer cared.
We had already formed another story for the town.