The Valley of Longevity

After 8 days of solid riding through the mountains of Ecuador, I’m pretty tired and looking to put the feet up. Vilcabamba seems like the perfect place then for more than just one reason.

A few decades ago, some French and US scientists came down to southern Ecuador to study the people of the Vilcabamba valley as it was reported that more than just a handful were living past the unusually healthy age of 100. After a while prodding and poking it was confirmed that folk here had an extended life span and were slightly averse to kicking the bucket at the average age of most Ecuadorians. Everything from the climate, to food to mineral rich drinking water has been posited as the explanation and so on the approach here I viewed every old-timer as some sort of magical Disney like character or descendent of Methuselah himself.

Since these studies concluded, many sceptics have now engaged in the debate and put forward the case that the locals were in fact lying about their age and are no more likely to live longer than others on the continent. Whether that’s the case or not, it hasn’t stopped every elixir-seeking hippy from making the trek here and planting themselves in this unique environment. It’s another regular scene on the travel circuit too as every now and again a tiny, quaint town becomes transformed into a ex-pat haven where donkey and cart are as likely to been seen in the local square as much as a linen clad, dreadlock styled backpacker in charge of an Iphone.

To make it here, I pedalled down the Pan-Americana and through Volcano Alley where 8 of Ecuador’s 10 highest peaks are to be found. Sighting the majestic Cotopaxi on the southern edges of sprawling Quito was quite the sight, snow-capped and shining brightly in the distance on a crisp June morning. Since I was a child, the name has always encouraged my mind to wander and think of travel. Although not considering the climb, I instead opted to cycle the slopes of Volcan Chimborazo which is the highest mountain in the world if measured directly from the centre of the earth, as opposed to sea level which is usual. Heavy cloud and passing rain showers limited my view and in the end I never saw the glaciated mountain that would surely have been a true sight to behold. On the western slope, I settled for the trip altitude record at a hefty 3900m (12,800ft) and was happy to be descending to thicker air near Ríobamba.

That was to mark the beginning of a twisting, highland road that meandered continually from valley bottom to mountaintop. Just outside the town of Alausí, I was treated to a view anyone would be happy to receive at breakfast as I looked down on a settlement that had just rid itself of early morning fog from a perch high on Ruta 35. Switchbacks made progress slow but the sight of a tienda or small restaurant around a bend made it easier, knowing that I could soon rest a while and take a coffee mixed with hot chocolate which has become my new favourite concoction. These small things can never be undervalued on days where flat ground is minimal and you spend most of your time looking up a hillside for the pass.

I also had my first night, in quite a while, cycling by dark. Spending the morning in Cuenca looking for stickers for my bike may not have been such a good idea on a 120km day with a sharp drop and rise from the Rio Léon valley. As light faded and shadows grew long on the road, the natural impulse is to pedal harder and with a fury to reach destination. With my stove in need of repair, I couldn’t camp and so bound myself south for Ona which was reached with the constellation Ursa Major overhead and a sky littered with stars. Had it not been for the huge shoulder, I would have been more nervous but there was no need to panic on a road devoid of traffic and its accompanying noise. Instead, I just looked up into the quietness of the night and was thankful to be out here in southern Ecuador.

The night before in Cuenca was also a special occasion too. On the street in mid-afternoon I spotted a face and bicycle I last laid eyes on in Whitehorse, the Yukon, Canada. Markus from Austria left Alaska roughly the same time as myself and Lee and has made roughly the same time on his journey south. In Whitehorse, we had some brief chats and some food together and left on different days with emails passed between. But as we both agreed, it is a great and special thing to be in the same place at the same time almost 10months and 17,000kms later with the same enthusiasm as before but altogether different beard lengths! We spent a little more time telling travel stories and naming other cyclists we both met on the road plus Markus offered some advice for my impending route ahead which he has cycled previous.

And so I find myself in Vilcabamba with an afternoon to kill and nothing in particular to do. Just the way I like it. Tomorrow I set forward for Los Chontas, a sleepy border crossing where cyclists have before needed to wake the patrol guard up to lift the barrier – it’s just that sleepy. A rough, dirt track will lead me there and into northern Peru where I yet again live in naivety but the highest hope that chicken and rice will not be the sole item on the menu. I would really love some potatoes.

Total mi/km: 11,830mi/19,040km

Current location: Vilcabamba, Ecuador

4 Responses to “The Valley of Longevity”

  1. Hi Ian, congratulations on your excellent website! It was really nice meeting you – and it was such a coincidence meeting Markus on the very same day.
    Good luck for the rest of your travel, Wolfgang

  2. Filipa says:

    test

  3. Ian says:

    Testing comments

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