After our time in the Galapagos, I wasn’t sure that anything we would see would top it. However, we had a wonderful time in southern Ecuador, where we hiked through Cajas National Park, visited the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, and searched for the secret to long life in Vilcabamba.
El Cajas National Park
On our way to Cuenca, we drove through El Cajas National Park. This is a park at high altitude (between 10,000 and 14,500 feet) that is filled with lakes, a tundra-like landscape, and (at least on clear days) spectacular views. It was tough being back at altitude after so much time at sea level, but we decided to stop and hike around Laguna Toreadora. It was pretty crappy weather–cold and rainy, but we still had a good time.
From El Cajas, we rolled down into a valley to Cuenca. From the start of this trip, one of the things I really wanted to do was to buy a Panama hat (they make them in Ecuador — go figure). When in Ecuador, it’s better to call them Ecuador hats! So we entered the city with a mission: explore the city and find Panama Hats!
After Cuenca, we made our way south to Vilcabamba. This city has a reputation as a sort of Shangri-La of the Andes, where the inhabitants supposedly live unnaturally long lives. In the late 1900s, this was been studied in detail, and scientists found that this particular area has fruits and herbs that are loaded with some of the strongest anti-oxident protection in the world. The water in this area is also very mineral-rich, which may have some impact as well. Whatever the case, medical researchers have confirmed that retinas of 100-year-old residents of Vilcabamba are often comparable of those with 45-year-old city dwellers!
However, do the residents of Vilcabamba really live longer? After further scrutiny, it doesn’t appear that there is anything out of the ordinary going on here. While the city does have many older residents, the age expectancy in Vilcabamba isn’t significantly different than other parts of the world. In other words, while this place is stunning and definitely feels like Shangri-La, you probably won’t live to be 130 years old if you move here!
We stayed just outside of Vilcabamba at Hostal lIzhcayluma — a beautiful place to relax for a few days before heading for Peru.
We could have easily spent another month exploring the other parts of Southern Ecuador, but the clock in the back of our minds was ticking. We still have a lot of ground to cover in order to make the summer season in Patagonia, so we pressed on towards Peru.