SYLVAN HARDY
Vilcabamba: Are the ‘ugly Americans’ ruining an Ecuadorian paradise?

June 15, 2009 10:16 by Sylvan Hardy

Since I moved to Ecuador a dozen years ago, I’ve made a point of visiting my friends in Vilcabamba at least once a year. I was enchanted with this peaceful, isolated valley the first time I saw it in 1998 and even considered settling there until business considerations – I need to be close to city infrastructure and a good airport -- and personal temperament – which requires a minimal level of culture and nightlife – convinced me to live elsewhere. Even so, the Vilcabamba attraction remains and I look forward to my visits.

In the past two or three years, my friends tell me that things in Vilcabamba are changing for the worst. There is a growing number of gringo real estate scams, they say, and the in-your-face conspiracy theorists and back-to-nature zealots in the expat community are becoming more obnoxious. It’s the invasion of the “ugly Americans,” they say, although I must admit I wasn’t seeing much difference from one visit to the next.

I don’t know the details of the bad real estate deals but I have great tolerance, even appreciation, for the odd balls among us. For years, Vilcabamba has had the reputation for attracting old hippies and other counter-culturists who subscribe to a variety of bizarre ideas. Maybe it's my bent for black humor, but I enjoy hearing the stories of invisible space aliens walking the village streets, lizard people who reveal themselves only after dark, the life-changing benefits of drinking carrot and broccoli smoothies, poisonous chemical clouds sprayed into the sky by a secret world government, and various other delusions popular with old folks with time on their hands.

I have learned to nod politely when I’m told about Vilcabamba’s magical air, water and soil, negative ions, and claims of longevity. Several years ago I tried to direct the proponents of such beliefs to books and websites proving that the air, water, soil and ions are the same in other southern Ecuador valleys as in Vilcabamba or, that Vilcabamba's 'valley of longevity' claim was based on a misreading of the indigenous Quechuan language, and that the original reference is to "valleys [plural] of long life" that stretch from Riobamba to Northern Peru. I have, however, given up on pedantry, accepting Eric Hoffer’s assertion that it’s futile to argue with true believers. 

On my latest trip to Vilcabamba, in May, it was the cab driver who drove me from Loja who made me think that my friends may be right. He told me about a gringa real estate agent who was forced out of the country because she inflated prices, pocketed the difference and then perjured herself in court. He also told me of other gringos who were suing each other for character assassination. And then, there are cases of gringos suing locals and vice versa. (Lots of anger in this little valley, it sounded like to me.) What the expats did among themselves, the cab driver told me, was really no concern to him or most other locals. What was a problem, he said, was that land prices in the valley have tripled in recent years due to the gringo presence – and gringo greed.  The locals, he said, can no longer afford to buy the land they grew up on.

Almost as bad, he said, was the “new attitude” he noticed among many gringo newcomers. “They show no respect for the local people. They don’t even bother to learn the language and they expect us to be their servants,” he said. The attitude is partly responsible for the rapidly rising crime rate in the valley, he said. “I can never say that thieves are justified in what they do but I also hear the anti-gringo talk among the regular citizens of Vilcabamba. The natives are getting restless.”

In the Vilcabamba village center, before meeting my friends, I witnessed evidence of what my driver told me. Within less than an hour, I was approached by two elderly gringa ladies pushing real estate. One, a stylish matron with what sounded like an Australian accent, told me that I could trust her to find the best deal in town. Another, who I took to be the owner or manager of the café where I ate, told me not to listen to anyone else, that the other agents were all crooks.

There was, of course, elements of the old Vilcabamba that I love and remember. In the café run by the real estate saleslady, I sat next to a man who waved what looked like a laser light over his and his companion’s food, cleansing it, I suppose, of evil spirits and impurities. I was tempted to lean over and say, “Dr. Merlin, I presume.”

I am not sure about the invasion of Vilcabamba by the “ugly Americans.” I have seen this species in Mexico, Indonesia, Trinidad, Malta and Panama, among other places, and know it all too well. What I can say, however, is that life is not as simple as it used to be in the sacred valley. The gringos who live there today seem more serious, more eager to push their points of view or sell their products, and, perhaps, more desperate. And, from what my friends tell me, most foreign newcomers seem to burn out more quickly and are gone within a year, two years tops.

I come back, though, to my conversation with the cab driver to put my finger on the real problem. Foreigners are doing something in Vilcabamba that, as far as I know, they are doing no where else in Ecuador: forcing up the price of real estate. It’s a situation that has turned out badly in Mexico and several Central American countries. Let’s hope the situation turns around in Vilcabamba. Let’s keep the place safe for the odd balls.

Sylvan Hardy vacillates between Ecuador and other flights of fancy. He can be reached at sylvanhardy@gmail.com.