Awakening the Mind, Body, and Soul in Ecuador’s Sacred Valley

My body felt stiff and achy as I stretched my palms to the ceiling and planted the soles of my feet firmly into my mat. It’d been almost a year since I attended a yoga class. Now I’m moving shakily through my first sun salutation and the painting before me of a green and red landscape is real. I’m at an open air yoga studio gazing out at the sacred valley of Vilcabamba, Ecuador. I normally hate waking up early, but I’ve committed to doing it for the three days we are here to attend free yoga classes at the Izhcayluma resort. It’s totally worth it. On this first day, I am reconnecting with this place I once visited, but now has changed in many ways.

Six years ago I completed my Master’s research for Applied Anthropology in Ecuador. Whilst researching for three months, I had the pleasure of taking two weeks to explore this diverse country for fun and discovered a place that has stuck with me ever since. That place was Vilcabamba, the sacred valley of longevity and tranquility, south of Loja. Finally, I’ve returned to this place to see what has changed and if it still holds that same special feeling for me.

Vilcabamba sits nestled in the valley of the Andes mountains and close to the Podacarpus National Park in the cloud forest. The sacred valley is known for the longevity of life of its people, claimed to be due to the minerals in the water flowing from the Andes. People live into their 100s here. You see the locals with their dark leather skin sitting on the benches around the square happily enjoying their town. The nature, peace, and beauty of this area attract people from all over to visit this off-the-beaten-path destination.

A peaceful resort named Izhcayluma sits up on the hill a 5 minute ride from town. It was started by two Germans and provides a retreat from the bustle of the cities. They have a spa with affordable massages and other treatments. You can spend your days laying by their pool, hiking the many trails they map out for you, or dining in the restaurant and watching hummingbirds buzz around in the colorful tropical flowers before the panoramic view of the valley and the mountains. They’ve now opened an open air yoga studio, offering free classes every morning at 7:30am.

When I visited six years ago, not many people knew about Izhcayluma and there were only ten other guests here with me in August 2011. The place provided me a peaceful escape from the stress of my research. I had a massage, made friends by the pool, and daydreamed in the restaurant while staring at the view. I walked into the small town center to find very few shops and a handful of expats, who chose to leave their lives abroad for a new one here. They felt privileged to have found this hidden gem and were just building their houses in the hills.

I have returned to the same resort, Izhcayluma on the hill above Vilcabamba. Both the town and the resort have changed in six years. The secret of this quiet destination has escaped and attracted tons of expats to move here since that first small group in 2011. Now there are at 2,500 expats living here from Europe, United States, and Canada. That’s half the population of Vilcabamba. They fill the square with their non-Spanish speaking and have turned Vilcabamba into their town. This unfortunately changed the atmosphere of the sleepy town into an international attraction for those seeking a piece of its tranquility. The downtown square has more white faces than locals and most of the restaurants and shops are owned by expats. New homes dot the hills owned by these people. Luckily, the rolling green mountains have not been overdeveloped yet.

Even at the resort, with their new yoga studio looking out at the red ridge, it feels overwhelmingly full. You can’t get a seat at dinner. You must make appointments for spa treatments two days in advance, and it no longer feels quiet like before. This is wonderful for the success of the place, but not for the loss of tranquility.

Fortunately, despite all the growth and changes, you can still find peace here. You can do sun salutations as the new day illuminates the mountains before you. Hammocks by each room provide a quiet space for reading and observing the hummingbirds zipping among the bright tropical flowers. You can spend your days rejuvenating with a massage and relaxing by the pool or stretching your limbs and challenging your muscles on one of the seven mapped out trails in the mountains. You can also take a full or half day horseback riding trip instead to the Podocarpus National Park or a 50ft. waterfall. We’ve taken advantage of the trail system and gone on two hikes. The first hike up to the waterfall brought back vivid memories of the horseback riding trip I took through these exact trails six years ago. All those fond connections with this beautiful land came flooding back. I still feel deeply connected to this place and I know that’s why so many people who once visited, return to live. It’s still worth a visit!

Vilcabamba itself still feels relatively small and peaceful. Since the area around the town is very expansive, the new houses aren’t crowded around the downtown, but spread across the hills. The locals and the expats appear to live in harmony with one another. You can hear everyone joyfully greeting each other by name in the square. There are more restaurants to enjoy. I especially enjoyed the extremely delicious Mexican restaurant, Agave Blue, to the right of the bright pink and mint green cathedral. Locals and expats sell homemade jewelry and clothing from their new storefronts. Everyone is coexisting.

My only hope for Vilcabamba and Izhcayluma is that they do not lose their true essence and turn into bustling tourist attractions. If the hills become overdeveloped with luxury homes and more hotels and resorts, the beauty of this hidden gem will be dead. I’ve seen so many places that provided that secret escape, transform into overrun tourist attractions and lose what attracted people to them in the first place. The city where I live, Portland, now feels like that. Hopefully for Vilcabamba their growth doesn’t destroy them. For now, it is still very much worth a visit, but I wouldn’t suggest moving here. Yes, it is cheap to buy or build a home, but remember Vilcabamba belongs to the people of this sacred valley and is not ours to steal. So, please come and reconnect with your mind, body, and soul at Izhcayluma and absorb what makes this place special, just do not move here.


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