This small town, nestled at 1,500 meters elevation in undulating Andean foothills, is Ecuador ’s southernmost backpacker hub and an ideal stop between Ecuador and Peru. Visitors are drawn here by the town’s idyllic climate, relaxing ambience, and excellent hiking.
Vilcabamba first came to the attention of the rest of the world in 1955 when Reader’s Digest published an article documenting a remarkable healthy elderly population in the area. Rumors abounded that the locals all lived to age 120, but further investigation showed this to be somewhat exaggerated.
However, there was no denying the relative health of the town’s seniors, raised in an agricultural community and drinking the natural mineral water that flows out of the surrounding hills. Scientists have tested the water, and it has even won international competitions, resulting in a growing industry; there are three drinking-water plants in town.
By the 1980s, hippies had started to arrive, attracted not only by the organic existence but also by the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus, which grows locally and has long been prized by indigenous shamans.
As word spread of the newly christened “Valley of Longevity” or “Valley of Eternal Youth,” so did property prices as wealthy foreigners bought up land, and an expat community quickly grew.
These days, Vilcabamba no longer offers a step back in time—cars have replaced horses; Internet cafés, restaurants, and hotels have sprung up; and young Ecuadorians and middle-aged foreigners buying up property have increasingly replaced the original inhabitants. Don’t come here expecting to see octogenarians jogging down the street—the town’s famous elderly population has mainly passed on, while the remaining few spend most of their time at home, tired of being asked how old they are.
Vilcabamba is far from spoiled, however; its relative remoteness means that it is unlikely ever to be overrun with visitors, and it remains one of Ecuador ’s most pleasant tourist towns. The expats know they are on to a good thing—it’s still a great place to relax, whether for a couple of days or decades of retirement.
As for hallucinogen-seeking hippies, the town has far fewer these days, but you may well bump into the odd glazed-eyed traveler. An Austrian expat named Felicia offers shamanic ceremonies, but bear in mind that while many police turn a blind eye, preparing and imbibing the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus remains illegal.
Nightlife is low-key in Vilcabamba, but a new nightclub Sonic (next to the bus terminal, no phone, 8 p.m.–2 a.m. Fri.–Sat., $1) pumps out electronic music on weekends. Otherwise, grab a couple of beers at El Punto (corner of Diego Vaca de Vega and Sucre, no phone, 8 a.m.–midnight daily) overlooking the main square.
For a quieter drink and a wider range of alcohol choices in a rustic setting, head east of town to Shanta’s (Diego Vaca de Vega, tel. 8/562-7802, 1:30–9:30 p.m. daily). The more adventurous can try the snake juice ($2), made from pickled coral snake, sugar cane, and aguardiente.
In late February, Vilcabamba’s annual festival brings visitors from throughout southern Ecuador for a long weekend of music, dancing, horseback riding competitions, and general revelry.
There’s not a huge amount to do in the town of Vilcabamba itself. Once you’ve taken in the ornate main square and pampered yourself in the spas at some of the hotels, it’s time to get out the hiking boots to appreciate the stunning scenery that surrounds the town.
The most spectacular hike is up to the jagged Cerro Mandango peak that looms 500 meters above the town. Walk south along Avenida Eterna Juventud to find the trail entrance and pay the entrance fee ($1.50), which includes a bottle of water. It’s a steep 45-minute climb through forest and cow pastures to the first peak, from which there are breathtaking views over Podocarpus National Park .
Easier trails can be found at the east edge of town at the Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve (www.rumiwilco.com ). It’s an idyllic spot just 10 minutes from town. Give a donation ($2) and make your way along half a dozen short trails through 40 hectares of protected forest that lead up from the river Chamba to a ridge overlooking the valley. Rumi Wilco is run by former Galápagos  guide Orlando Falco, who lives on-site with his family and is a fountain of knowledge about local ecology.
There are several other hikes around town, and many of the hotels as well as the tourist office can provide maps and directions. Popular trails include the Agua de Hierro Springs and viewpoints on the eastern side of the valley. To get into the forest, head to the Cabañas Río Yambala (Charlie’s Cabañas), where you can climb to viewpoints, swimming holes, and waterfalls on your way to Las Palmas Reserve and Podocarpus National Park .
Horseback riding is another popular activity. For short rides, most operators in town charge $30 pp for a day trip. Longer two-day ($80 pp) and three-day ($120 pp) trips combine riding and hiking in Podocarpus National Park , with overnight stays in refuges. There are several operators in town, but the longest operating is Caballos Gavilán (Sucre between Vega and Agua de Hierro, tel. 9/016-1759, gavilanhorse [at] yahoo [dot] com), run by New Zealand expat Gavin Moore, who guides and cooks for you on 2–3-day treks to his cloud forest cabin situated at 2,500 meters elevation. Next door, Swiss-run Monta Tour (Sucre, tel. 8/914-4812) offers a similar itinerary, as does Apaches Tour (Sucre, tel. 7/264-0415), on the northwest edge of the main square, whose tours stay at Solomaco refuge.
Two bus companies go to Loja (75 minutes, $1): Sur Oriente and the slightly faster Vilcabamba Turis leave every half hour from the bus terminal (Jaramillo and Eterna Juventud). For a faster service, Taxi Ruta crams four people into one car to Loja (45 minutes, $1.50). To go to Peru, there are buses passing through Vilcabamba to Zumba. If you want to cross via Macará to Piura, take a bus directly from Loja.