Vilcabamba, Ecuador – The most beautiful place on Earth?

Happy New Year from the most beautiful place on earth! Well, one of the top 5 at least. We celebrated the New Year in Vilcabamba, Ecuador at the resort-like hostel Izhcayluma. We found the brochure for Izhcayluma at several other hostels throughout Ecuador and heard amazing things, so we decided we needed to include it in our Ecuador travels. It boasts fresh mineral water,organic locally-grown food and free daily yoga. Plus, they couldn’t make it easier to get there from Cuenca – a shuttle leaves Cuenca every day at 1:30pm and costs only $15.00 per person. You are dropped off at the front door of the hostel. How could we go wrong? 

And we didn’t go wrong. We opted to stay in the dorm instead of getting a private room. Our double bed in the dorm cost $9.50 per person. Breakfast in the morning of coffee, fruit, yogurt, granola, bread, jam, butter and juice was a whopping $3.90. You could get eggs or a pancake or other breakfast things for an additional $1.00. Of course Cory was too cheap to buy himself breakfast, so I would wrap a few slices of hearty German bread in a napkin and bring it to him to eat with his can of tuna. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner with prices ranging from $1.50 – $9.00. You could also opt to walk the 1.5 miles to town for a variety of restaurants and markets.

Beyond the need-to-know information, there is not too much to worry about when visiting Izhcayluma. The resort-style hostel has everything you would ever need and more with a spa, pool, bar, trails, yoga, hammocks and bird watching tree house. We ventured into town a couple of times for snacks and cheap wine, we did some hiking in the mountains and Cory took advantage of the on-property trails daily.  And of course we were here over New Year’s, which required that we observe the festivities Vilcabamba offered – and boy were there festivities! 

In Ecuador there are a few traditions for New Year’s. First, they create effigies of men that they set fire to at midnight, this is to burn all the bad from the previous year and go into the New Year fresh. With the burned up men you are left with “widows,” so the men will dress as women, the widows of the old men they burned, and seek out beer money during the day by simply asking for it or by setting up road blocks on the highway – we saw this first hand and contributed $.25. Third, fireworks, fireworks, fireworks – young kids throw firecrackers at each other and clueless bystanders for hours – beware. Fourth, they apparently eat 12 grapes at midnight for good luck. And finally, they run around the center plaza (every town has a “center”) with luggage to bring them travel and adventure in the new year.

Beyond these somewhat odd traditions, the festivities were what you might expect in Latin America – lots of people dancing to live Latin music performed by a live band. All four band leaders were perfectly choreographed in their white tuxedos. Couples danced and drank in the streets. Gringo expats danced around in their long skirts and Panama hats. 

We really tried to make it to Midnight to see the old men burning in the streets. But, we opted to hop in a $2.00 taxi back to the hostel. The stars amazed. Orion’s Belt nearly shot out of the sky – no pun intended. We recognized the Milky Way, but need to familiarize ourselves with the sky in the southern hemisphere. No more familiar Big Dipper (well, we recently learned that the Big Dipper is actually upside down here) or Northern star.

Vilcabamba really is a special place. Lots of hippies and healers and shaman are attracted to this area, called the valley of longevity. Apparently there was a feature done on the town several years ago and it was noted how many centenarians there were, causing people to speculate about its healing powers. But, it was later disproven because many of the locals didn’t know what year they were really born as records aren’t always kept. I’m not sure about any magic possessed by the area itself other than the mineral water produced in the national park and the abundance of organic food and fresh air. However, there were opportunities for us to explore other kinds of healing with local shaman. These are advertised as spiritual journeys using San Pedro or Ayahuasca.

Being the inquisitive person that I am, I of course had lots of questions. There were other travelers who had participated in a ceremony and I asked what it was all about. When I heard that the ceremony started at 10pm and continued all night until 1pm the next day, I said, “you have to stay up all night long?” Apparently, the “medicine” and the ceremony keeps you “busy” all night so that you don’t really notice it. I thought sleeping sounded like a better idea. 

Cory and I did partake in the spa and both signed up for 2 hours of massage and Reiki. Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by “laying on hands” and apparently can work wonders if you’re tuned in with your practitioner. My massage was amazing, but I can’t say that I felt any healing from the Reiki. Cory had a different experience however, that I will let him share if he wants.  (This is Cory, it was an unexpected game changing “religious” experience.)

I know that I could use some healing and I’m definitely open to it. This journey has opened up a lot of questions and emotions – more than I anticipated. The time was not right for me in Vilcabambe, but perhaps later on the journey I will be ready to open up even more. It is a New Year after all.

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