Vilcabamba: Shangri-la? No, Shangri-lost

Vilcabamba: Shangri-la? No, Shangri-lost

Vilcabamba, Ecuador, known internationally as the valley of Eternal youth, gained popularity as such nearly 50 years ago. It achieved it’s fame through the discovery of a disproportionate number of centenarians in this remote mountain valley. But why? Why did they live so long?And why only here?

Many teams of scientists from many parts of the world, Japanese, Swedish, and American among them, came to find out. The Japanese said it was the ionized air. The American scientists, led by Dr. Morton Walker, concluded that it was the chelation of minerals found in the river water. Others believed it was the austere lifestyle and minimalist diet forced upon its inhabitants by nature, or the temperate climate which seldom departs more than 10 degrees from 60 at night and 80 in the day year-round. I came to find out, if I could, which of these answers was valid, if any, and if the Valley of Eternal Youth still existed, or had already passed into the pages of history.

So the last week has been spent trekking the valley, testing the produce, talking to locals and expats from all over the world, asking dozens of questions. It turns out that I am just about three decades too late. The famed centenarians, so prevalent half a century ago, are now extinct. They were here once, everyone attests. But they’ve died out and none have aged to replace them – all dying themselves before attaining the coveted three-digit mark. In a town of approximately 1000 people where once illness was reportedly unheard of, there are now no less than eight pharmacies.

According to American Ex-pats and local celebrities Glen and his wife Martha, who have been in the valley since 1974, it’s all changed just in the last thirty years, and the worst of it just in the last fifteen. Martha learned to make bread, now her Vilcabamba-based business, from a lady who was over 100 years at the time – and whose fingers were nimble and her eyes sharp, a rare thing in our society for anyone over 40, much less someone who would have had children of her own when the Titanic sank!

They remember the first time they saw canned food in Vilcabamba – until the seventies, when the first road connecting to the outside world was built, all food consumed in the valley had to be grown in the valley or carted over the hills by Burro – and until you have walked those hills as I now have, you can’t really appreciate the effort required for such a journey.

But with the appearance of the road came trade, and the coming of trade heralded the loss of self-sufficiency and the first signs of the disappearance of the Shangri-la of the West. Still, <obnoxious German guy> said, you didn’t see the real problems show up until in 1994 Ecuador and Peru fought a war. Vilcabamba, located in what is now the southernmost province of Ecuador, was occupied by the Military who brought with them their rations, French fries, hot dogs, and colas. And a taste for typical Ecuadorian food, which consists of a plate of white rice with a small portion of meat, beans, and a bowl of soup, served with only minuscule variation for every meal.

As one walks the streets of modern Vilcabamba, one sees people who not two decades past were munching locally grown bananas, now wolfing down French fries and ice cream; the feed stores are packed with herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizer, and the pharmacies are doing a booming business. The “old” people are 60 now, not 120. And except for the words “eternal youth” and “longevity” plastered on water bottles, billboards, and mini-markets, nothing remains of what was once a very special place.

And back to my reason for coming to Ecuador, what made these people live so long? And why do I think that this place was special, once upon a time? I don’t think it was. Not that I don’t believe the claims of longevity and extreme age – I think those have been substantiated by enough people to be reliable, for the most part. But if you’ll poke around the old records even in our country, you’ll find that just 75 years ago, centenarians were significantly more common than they are now. Particularly in rural areas, where food was locally grown and the land was kept healthy year by year. Of course, I’ve never met one. You probably haven’t either. But if you talk to your grandparents, or anyone who is in their seventies, odds are they’ll remember a few. Just a few.

This valley was isolated until relatively recently. Protected from the ravages of civilization, the pollution, degeneration, stress, bad eating habits, bad farming practices, and most importantly, deficient, refined food. This was not the case for most of the world in 1950. And so when it was discovered, it was “special”, because it was already rare. The same things that made this valley healthy – the water, the air, the workload, the climate – would have affected neighbouring valleys in exactly the same way. Most valleys in the area are fed from the same high mountain lakes, have the same presence of negative ions in the air, and all other factors that have been touted as the key to “Eternal Youth”. But they chanced to be exposed to modern civilization a century or so sooner, and so already had a centuries’ worth of head start on becoming what we see in modern Vilcabamba today.

Vilcabamba was Shangri-la because it grew its own food, cared for its own soil, ate a simpler, lighter diet, and didn’t eat white rice and French fries at every meal; or ever, actually. That is no longer the case, and now Vilcabamba is just another Latin American town, the only difference being that it is overflowing with hippies and ex-pats and faded delusions that it still is the valley of Eternal Youth. So it has now become  Shangri…Lost.

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Posted on April 22nd, 2008 by Natnee and filed under Mexico |

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