The village of eternal youth

Tales of an Ecuadorian community where age does not wither prove a challenge for a sceptical Simon Calder. He goes in search of Vilcabamba - and finds a place that's hard to leave
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The Independent Travel

Cliff Richard, where are you? I have spent two days travelling the length of Ecuador on a succession of increasingly geriatric buses. My mission: to find the village where everyone shares DNA with the Peter Pan of pop, or so it is said. Yet outside the church in Vilcabamba ("sacred valley" in the indigenous Quechua language), the first person I meet is Julio. When he smiles, which disconcertingly he does quite a lot, he displays precisely two teeth. Beneath his broad-brimmed hat Julio looks slim and fit, but his face is as lined as a contour map of the Andes, and his once-thick black hair is now thin and grey. Late sixties, I'd say. Julio turns out to be 68. The Young Ones? Sir Cliff, in his 64th year but looking a generation younger, would surely disagree.

An enormous billboard on the way into town carries a boast that is extravagant even by the normal standards of South American civic pride: "The only place on earth where years are added to your life, and life is added to your years."

Whatever the truth of these claims, Vilcabamba is a pretty sight. This is where the high sierra of the Andes begins to melt into the Amazon basin. A sleepy Ecuadorian village has been decanted into a luxuriant valley ringed by modest mountains and riven with streams. Most of the houses are low adobe dwellings with tiled colonnades to protect against the rain and sun - both profuse. The rutted streets are arranged loosely on a grid pattern. At the centre is the traditional Parque Central, or main square. It has the standard profusion of trees interrupted by diagonal paths that meet at a non-functioning fountain. But arrayed around the square are enterprises rarely found in the foothills of the Andes: a crêperie, a massage parlour and an internet café.

"It is where backpackers come to take a holiday from their holidays," says Peter Schramm, who runs one of dozens of hostals aimed at independent travellers. For £6 a night, you get bed, breakfast and the use of a mountain bike and swimming pool. Backpacking around South America, he argues, is stressful: everything from finding a new hostel every night to arguing with taxi drivers and border officials takes its toll on the traveller.

Peter arrived six years ago and loved the place so much he stayed. "It reminds me of Bavaria," says the man from Munich. Certainly, beer abounds, and at 50p a pint it's considerably cheaper than in the Hofbrauhaus: Peter complains of a hangover from the previous night and draws deeply on his cigarette. In the Valley of Eternal Youth, you can apparently smoke and drink with no adverse effect on longevity.

Who says? Jose David, or at least he did in an interview shortly before he died in 1975 at the age of 144. He attributed his remarkable survival on "pure tobacco, pure alcohol and pure sex". One of the travel agencies dotted around the square has a photograph of Jose standing beside one Miguel Carpio, a positive youngster who made it only to 129.

Corroboration for these claims of Biblical longevity is hard to find. Travel guides and history books give conflicting accounts, but it seems that 30, 40 or 50 years ago an anthropologist found himself in a village that was then almost disconnected from the rest of the country. In what a cynic might see as a municipal wind-up exercise, many village elders asserted that they were over 100 years old. Indeed, some were well on the way to going round the clock a second time. Local records were sketchy, and the anthropologist did not investigate them with forensic rigour. For the purposes of sustaining their claims, it is supposed that these centenarians took on the identities of their parents or grandparents.

Yet could South America, a continent with a deserved reputation for shortening life, really have a location where life expectancy is extended? I had to undertake some primary research. I tried the local funeral parlour, but it was locked shut; presumably business is slow. So I headed south along the highway, which is called the Avenue of Eternal Youth. It heads in the general direction of Peru (or, if you believe every Ecuadorian map, more of Ecuador; the government has a long-standing territorial claim for much of northern Peru). Despite the road's name, it hosts the village cemetery.

The graveyard stands on a hillside with a grand view of the valley and the serrated skyline that protects it. Each tombstone carries meticulous details of when each resident passed away. Yet, with one exception, they omit the year of birth. The odd one out is Luis Bernardo Carpio. He died in 1998 at the tender age of 85. By the standards of the Carpio family this may be classed as premature death, but becoming an octogenarian in Ecuador is an achievement in itself, as the average campesino endures a tough, short life.

Perhaps there is something in the water after all. Indeed, a soft-drinks company has set up a plant opposite the cemetery to bottle the local water. "Two rivers meet at Vilcabamba," says Gavin Moore, a New Zealander who arrived in 1983 and has yet to tear himself away. "One carries organic matter, the other carries minerals." At least one of them also carries a rusting car and fridge. Yet Vilcabamba certainly lends itself to an invigorating lifestyle.

The valley floor is at an elevation of 1,500 metres, about the height of the summit of Ben Nevis. In north-west Scotland, that altitude would not be comfortable, but just a nudge away from the equator the effect is to bestow a benign average temperature of 23C. Bananas and oranges grow in profusion, and the terrain ensures everyone gets plenty of exercise.

Ecuador is a nation based on seismically shaky foundations, with earthquakes frequent further north. Yet here in the deep south, the earth (and the air, water and sky) is tranquil. The average citizen looks a picture of radiant good health. The Quechua people, who claim ancestry with the Incas, have strong facial features attenuated by soft skin the colour of café con leche.

At Madre Tierra ("Mother Earth"), a backpacker resort that overlooks the village, you can play pool and undergo colonic irrigation, though presumably not at the same time. Visitor numbers to the valley have fallen drastically since 2001, so every enterprise competes fiercely for custom.

The soul is as well tended as the body: the Paradise Hotel includes a meditation pyramid. I peeped inside to find a doctor's couch surrounded by four stools made from tree trunks. More adventurous travellers embark on horse treks with Moore. The New Zealander takes them on "Exclusive Excursions to the Edge of the Earth", riding up to a cloud forest where man is a rare species.

You need not stray far from the Parque Central to get back to nature, though. On the far side of the valley, Alicia Falco, her husband Orlando and their three children have run away from their native Argentina to run an eco-lodge that genuinely does what it says on the recycled brochure. "This is real eco-tourism," she says as we sit on the verandah of her timber family home. However many millions of pixels your digital camera boasts, it cannot hope to capture the dazzling colours of flowers, butterflies and birds in this part of Ecuador.

Visitors are housed in adobe bungalows that were once abandoned, or in a log cabin on stilts by the river. Many guests are ornithologists "They can sit on the balcony and spot birds," says Alicia, a young-looking 43-year-old naturalist. She and her husband have persuaded the regional government to grant protected status to their 40 hectares of land, and they are creating a nature reserve away from the "banana pancake" trail beloved of backpackers. Mind you, guests enjoy unlimited free home-grown organic coffee and marmalade, and at harvest time oranges and bananas by the rucksack-full.

As the sun sinks behind Mandango mountain, and the sky acquires a rosy glow, you can understand why independent travellers encounter sudden inertia here. Back at the Parque Central, a French traveller is selling handmade charms with Viking designs (or so he says) at £4.50 a go; he needs to make only one sale a day to sustain himself. "It's backpacker heaven," says Schramm, a youthful 32 despite his penchant for beer and cigarettes, "the best place on earth that I know."

Reaching this earthly paradise was gruelling and alarming. Because the Ecuadorian air force (which runs the domestic airline) is much faster and marginally less dangerous than the nation's bus service I chose the easy way out of paradise, and booked a flight for the following day back to Quito.

The taxi driver who took me to the airport asked if I was a student. Perhaps even a casual visitor can benefit from a visit to the Valley of Eternal Youth? But it was dark, and he was probably just after a big tip. As I told him to keep the change, I muttered under my breath, "Sure, and my name's Cliff Richard, Bachelor of Arts Boy."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE: The easiest route to Quito from most UK airports is on KLM via Amsterdam, for about £600 return through discount agents. From London, the fastest way is on Iberia via Madrid; American Airlines from Heathrow via Miami and Continental from Gatwick via Houston are possibilities. Try Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) and South American Experience (020-7976 5511, www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) for flights and packages.

TOURS These two agencies can organise bespoke itineraries. Many other companies offer packages, including Bales Worldwide (0870 241 3208; www.balesworldwide.com) and Explore Worldwide (01252 760300; www.exploreworldwide.com).

MONEY: The Ecuadorian sucre is now a museum piece (you can see them at the Numismatic Museum in Quito). For five years the national currency has been the US dollar. American money is accepted interchangeably with locally minted coins, but Ecuadorian coins are worthless abroad.

GETTING AROUND: Buses are cheap (about £2 for every 100 miles). A 400-mile flight costs only about £40.

ACCOMMODATION: A base price of $6 or $7 a night prevails at most budget places, although there are plenty of opportunities to pay a lot more.

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