It is Sunday and I have tons of assignments to do in law school, but my mother always insists on doing something together on weekends. I was reluctant about the thought of leaving my homework undone, but the truth was I needed some fresh air. Therefore, my parents and I decided to go on a quick day trip to Vilcabamba, a small town founded back in the mid XV century in a warm green valley lost between big mountains… Yeah, it is our little paradise.
After a 45-minute car ride from Loja, a rainy, but also very beautiful city in the south region of Ecuador, we arrived to the main street of Vilcabamba; which in Quichua, the Inca civilization’s language, means “sacred valley”. The town is known as the valley of longevity because its river contains magnesium and iron and it is considered the fountain of eternal life. According to the legend, the river is the reason behind the high number of elderly population living there, some of them live up to 120 years, but today there are more foreign people than locals. However, I think this is one of the reasons that makes it so special, the mixture of cultures and languages, and the incredibly delicious food from all over the world you will find walking around its streets.
My father always parks the car in front of the two most famous ice cream shops in town, owned by two brothers. You cannot come to Vilcabamba and do not try one of those vanilla and naranjilla cones (naranjilla is a citrus fruit from the northwest region of South America); because, let me tell you, they are amazing! There have been times we have driven all the way there just to eat ice cream sitting on a bench in the main square.
After eating the traditional cones, we went for a walk around the town. The downtown is quite small, it has a population of about 4000 people and is also very easy to get around because its streets are straight and long, there is no chance of getting lost, plus it is very safe. Weather is always good; it is around 24°C throughout the year. I think there is no better way to see Vilcabamba than walking around, you might see the people walking their dogs and doing their grocery shopping at the local farmers’ market and you will definitely enjoy the view of the creative murals scattered around the town. I truly believe this gives you the whole experience.
MUST SEES IN VILCABAMBA
- The main square and the church: The beautiful square is the typical you will find in a Latin American town; it has a fountain in the center painted in bright colors that match with those of the Church. There are benches around the square so people can sit and relax. In front of the church you can see street performers doing tricks and musicians playing their instruments and smiling at the people passing by. Around the square there are most of the craft shops, grocery stores, bakeries, coffee shops serving the most delicious coffee of the region, which is considered one of the highest quality coffees in Ecuador; restaurants, ranging from Japanese cuisine at “Akemi Sushi Bar” to “Mexibamba”, my favorite place with authentic Mexican food, plus English is spoken in most of the places.
- Vilcabamba River: Its crystal waters will invite you to take a bath and although it may be slightly cold, it will do wonders to your body.
- Yamburara Zoo: If you like nature this is your place. The zoo is located 1 ½ km from downtown, it has local species and a greenhouse with a large collection of orchids.
- The craft fair: Every Sunday there is a small craft fair next to the main square. You will find ornaments, jewelry and fabrics, handmade by artisans that live in town or are just passing by.
MY TWO FAVORITE THINGS: EATING AND SHOPPING
All that walking and shopping at the craft fair opened our appetite, we went for lunch at one of my favorite places in town, “Midas Touch”. The food is made from local organic products and what I appreciate the most is that everything is very fresh and their homemade bread is the best I have had in Vilcabamba; the menu offers you food for both, carnivores and excellent vegetarian and vegan options.
In the afternoon it is best to go to cool off in one of the many inns that are in town, most of them have a swimming pool, sauna and steam, green areas and restaurant service. However, if you have an adventurous spirit, you can take a trip to the Mandango hill, which rises imposingly near the town, its summit is shaped like the body of a woman and the view from there is really impressive. There are tourist companies that offer excursions to Mandango hill.
If instead you want to stay in town and do some more shopping, I highly recommend visiting “Del Páramo Belgian Chocolatier”, this Belgian entrepreneur is specialized in making the best chocolate up to 100% Ecuadorian cocoa, besides offering homemade granola, waffles, bread and cookies at his shop (my personal favorite is the cocoa nibs cookies). This a must stop if you like organic food.
THE END OF THE DAY
In Ecuador the sun goes down early all year. Since it is an equatorial country, it does not have four seasons, but only two, the rainy season and the dry season. Around half past six p.m. it was already dark and we were hungry again. While walking down the streets near the main square, we discovered a real Italian pizzeria, “La Casetta”. Owners David and Susanna, a couple of Italians, he is from Lucca and she is from Livorno, heard about Vilcabamba on the internet and decided to move to this hidden valley; they tarred up a small yellow house and turned it into what is now a cozy pizzeria. All their pizzas are delicious and vegetarian, we tried the Napoletana with anchovies and the Caprese with lots of fresh basil. They also have traditional limoncello and tiramisu made by Susanna for those who have a sweet tooth.
We left full and happy, our one-day trip was an excellent idea, not only I felt renewed, but also lucky to have such a beautiful town so close to home. As travelers, we have to master the ability to amaze with the everyday, with the people’s kindness, the green landscapes and the clear skies full of stars.