Vilcabamba Vibes

A Workaway host responded to my message and said he would meet me near the Vilcabamba sign at the park. It was about an hour drive from Loja, and after filling up on gas, I was disappointed that I’d be arriving about 20 minutes late… I hate being late. I apologized and sent him my updated ETA and he seemed not to be too annoyed with me. I didn’t actually know which park he meant, he just said it was the one with the big Vilcabamba sign. Andre did some ground control from North Carolina and figured out which park it was while I drove and sent me the location I should head to.

When I pulled up to the sign, Victor, a man from the indigenous Saraguro population (who I had been messaging in Spanish) hopped into Savannah and gave me directions to his store. His profile requested volunteer help on his farm including caring for the animals (pigs, chickens, etc), gardening, and helping him build structures like sheds on his land. It sounded like a good fit for me; I was looking for hard, physical work to use my time here and help with a positive project until the borders opened.

He was patient with me and spoke slowly while I translated in my head. We would be heading up to his farm on the mountain – I had sent him a photo of my van asking if it could make it and he thought it could. Here I found out that Ecuadorians are very optimistic. I followed Victor in his red pick-up truck out of town, then down a narrow, broken pavement, side road. Okay, this isn’t the worst – I thought as I eased Savannah over the bumps. Next, we crossed a gated bridge and Victor motioned with his arm that we would be going uphill now. The next 20 minutes were some of the most harrowing driving I have done thus far on the trip, and perhaps in my life… well at least Savannah’s life (I stalled a manual truck in South Africa going up along a cliff and had to have my friend man the emergency brake while I shifted to a lower gear, so that might top it).

It had been raining on and off and the higher we got up the mountain, the damper and foggier it was. This made the dirt road turn into slick mud. The switchbacks were so tight and steep I had to gain enough speed so Savannah’s back tires wouldn’t spin out but still not fly off the road on the turns. The road continued to get steeper, and rougher, and there were no options to turn around. I got stuck before crossing over a big hump of rocks, but Victor told me told back up and give it some more speed to bounce over. I did… but I didn’t like being so rough with my van/home. Not long after on a long straight away, steeply upwards, Savannah’s weight made it impossible to completely get up the road. Back tires sunken deep into the mud, I wondered how in the world I would back all the way down.

Victor found a rope to tow me… well, worth a shot at least to get off of this spooky, rocky cliffside. The rope snapped twice though with little progress, but his truck could at least get Savannah to budge. He said he had a stronger rope at his house and drove off to get it. The longer he took to get back, the more concerned I was about how much longer this off-road adventure would be. Since the road was only single lane, when a car approached me heading down the hill, he could not get around and had to wait for our shenanigans to be completed. Victor returned with a longer, stronger rope and was able to pull me in Savannah (while I tried to get traction and drive) to the top of this hill section. Here we decided I should not keep trying to get higher.

I parked Sav on the side of the road and rode up in Victor’s truck to the farm. The road did indeed get way worse, but he said he thought once the sun dries up the road, I would be able to do it… I was doubtful. The quant farm sat literally on top of the mountain. He had built a really cool house using a traditional method of what looked like plaster and logs (I tried to decipher as much as I could translate). I met three of his daughters, who were all a bit shy, but curious enough about a new visitor to chat with me and climb up into trees to have me try some new fruits. There were some animals he needed help caring for and a few restoration projects. The family gave me a basket of fresh fruit and veg to take with me. As he drove me back down to the van, I explained how I didn’t think my van would make it up to the farm, though I did think working with his family would be an educational experience. He told me to think and meditate on it for the night and let him know the next day.

It was a hard decision to make, but ultimately, I decided it wasn’t a good fit since I couldn’t have Savannah up on the farm. I contemplated just living on the side of the road and walking the half hour or so to work on the farm every day. But that night with only weak reception, a cold “sun shower” on the side of my van, no bathroom, and the daunting task of getting Savannah back down the mountain, there were too many cons for even a great cultural experience. The next morning, I was able to get a message out to him apologizing that it wouldn’t work out and that I was worried about my van and needed to head down… and was there a code for that gate we crossed?

Savannah and I slid back down the mountain. Nothing like hitting the brakes and still sliding downwards through mud. She became a living thing again in those scary moments since it felt like I could not possibly do it completely alone. I talked out loud and talked through the plan, finally getting us down to the gate. The gate did indeed require a code and now without any reception, even if Victor had sent it to me, I wouldn’t be able to get it. So, I just parked on the bridge and waited for someone else that needed to come or go from the mountain. As I waited, I couldn’t help but notice how thin the concrete was for the road over the river… if it started to crack under Savannah’s weight, what would I do? Luckily this thought experiment was interrupted by a pickup truck needing to cross and he opened the gate for me. We made it!

I drove back into Vilcabamba and relieved, put Savannah in park and shut her off. I looked back up into the mountains, amazed nothing broke and we made it down alright. Now, I needed to figure out what to do next. I didn’t really want to drive all the way back to Loja just to park behind a pool again and wait for the border to open. But I didn’t want to waste travel money paying for somewhere to sit still.

I barely noticed the man approaching Savannah as I was engrossed in my phone looking to see if I had any other Workaway replies and checking what free camping was available nearby. I had the window open a bit and heard him ask, “New York?” Yep! – I’ve gotten used to more comments the farther South I drive. He introduced himself as Alvaro and wanted to know how and why I drove here from New York. We chatted for a bit (easier since he spoke English as well as Spanish) and he explained to me he was traveling on his motorcycle and ended up sticking around Vilcabamba. We talked for maybe 15 minutes or so about traveling, and Vilcabamba, and I mentioned that I was looking for a way to use my time here in exchange for a place to park/sleep. He showed me a Vilcabamba community chat group where I could post my situation. We exchanged numbers since he offered to help if I needed anything.

Pretty strapped from the morning adventure, I decided to first look for a safe place to park and rest before looking for the next volunteer opportunity. I saw a spot on iOverlander that looked good – a parking area of a local home with access to showers/bathroom. When I pulled up it looked a bit different than the photos that I saw, so I decided to wait around and bit until I saw someone before I started to make myself at home. Eventually, a woman in a small Suzuki looking car pulled up with her infant and looked confused as to why a big van was there. I explained I had read it was an overlanding spot and she said it used to be, a couple of years ago, but that now it was all rental properties. I was about to bolt and find another place when she said she’d ask the owners if I could park anyway. They lived just behind a fence in a big house with a cool looking wooden roof.

It ended up working out perfectly, because many of the residents were away on vacation so there was room to park and some vacant showers/restrooms to use. I tucked Savannah under an awning and sought out a much-needed shower. They would only charge me $5 per night, which seemed like a pretty great deal. As I was setting up Savannah, the owners of the property invited me in to have lunch with them and their daughter. I momentarily considered declining because it seemed too generous, but then decided they asked because they wanted to so why not enjoy the company and some fresh food.

We indulged on bolognaise, cooked kale, quinoa with roasted tomatoes, and a tasty salad. I hadn’t eaten such delicious home cooked food in ages. We chatted about everything from the construction of the wooden roof by their son (with a tour of it), what Vilcabamba was like and why they chose to move here from Switzerland, and what my journey has been so far and the job I was heading to. We ended up sitting around the kitchen table for 2 hours just chatting!

After, I told them I wanted to walk into town and wondered if they had any recommendations. Their daughter quickly offered to come along and give me a tour. She first took me to the central park, which Vilcabamba centers around, then to a café where I bought a dessert for us – I got a lemon cheesecake slice (amazing) and she got an apple crumble (which she thought was amazing too). Conversation was easy with her (she was 20 yo) as we drifted around town and she pointed out abandoned houses or places she knew of and where she worked. On the way back, we decided to take an adventurous route along the river on the way back. After losing the sendero (trail), we ended up crossing the river a few times, which was knee deep and got us a bit more soaked than we had planned! It was a fun, unexpected city adventure and I was thankful for running in to this family.

I did end up posting my situation to the group chat Alvaro suggested. Within a few hours I got a response for a potential opportunity if we ended up being a good fit. I went down into town to meet Pearl, who owned an organic farm up the valley with her partner and 2 kids. They have 6 horses and lots of planting/harvesting work. We met for a beer at a local tavern that I could walk to from the Swiss family’s place. We hit it off right away and began chatting like old friends. Her family recently moved from Arizona to Ecuador, so conversation was easy being in my native tongue! After we talked, she drove me to her farm to see if Savannah could make it up. It looked a bit rough, but I thought Sav could do it if I just went slow (it was nothing like the road to Victor’s). I toured the farm and met the horses, it seemed like a great fit. There was a small plot of land at the bottom of the farm where I could set up camp and have an amazing view down the valley.

The next morning, I eased Savannah up the road and we made it no problem! I am now 7 days in to being a part of the farm. I think it’s good to give Sav a break and I’ve been enjoying working harder than I have since I started this trip. To get to work on the farmstead, and whenever I want to have reception, I must walk up a dirt driveway that reminds me of my past grandfather’s driveway in Vermont – a twisty, long, steep driveway to his house. I break a sweat every time I head up, which ends up being 3-4 times per day!

I work 2-3 hours per day in exchange for the place to park, a hand dug toilet (done by yours truly), an occasional hot shower up at the house (other days I use my sun shower), and the WIFI around the home I can use while I work. So far, I’ve planted beds of ginger, yams, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and thimble berries. I’ve also been sticking in some ground cover plants and flowers along the steep slopes of the sides of the valleys so they eventually (hopefully) outcompete the weeds and it doesn’t need to be weed whacked.

I’ve groomed the horses and just hung out around them – they’re mountain horses so not quite tame. Soon, I’ll be working on the horses’ hooves. I learned how to trim hooves as a kid from our blacksmith, so hopefully it comes back to me easily. I feel strong and tired at the end of the day, something that simply driving in a car doesn’t quite give you.

I’ve written about shape shifting before (here) and sometimes I am surprised with how easily I can feel myself change and shift into a new situation. For example, I never wear hats, it makes my head claustrophobic. But here, the sun is so intense, everyone wears hats to protect their skin. So now it seems natural to toss on a woven, straw hat that Pearl gave to me, put on my Carhart’s (that I haven’t worn since making the fire breaks at the Workaway in the Drakensberg), and a ratty t-shirt or long sleeve I have. I enjoy my work in the gardens, something I also haven’t done in quite some time.

The two dogs here have also been fast friends – Frita and Caramella. Pearl warned me that Frita is very protective and would probably try to bite me. The first time I toured their farm, I believed it, as Frita lunged herself against the truck and nearly hopped into my window. But we’ve gotten to know each other over the last week and now she always follows me around while I’m working and hangs with me around Savannah until dark. Caramella sleeps next to the beds I work in, and I think she’s a bit too lazy to make it down to Savannah.

After gardening in the mornings, I either walk the half hour or so up the ridge to the crest of the valley to feel a nice breeze and look down on Vilcabamba. The kids showed me the trail on the first day I was there and had me help collect some old man’s beard (a moss that grows on trees) for an art project. We collected so much we had to get creative about how to bring it back down, so I stuffed some in my boots! Well, not my boots, but a pair of bright, white muck boots that Pearl loaned me and are much appreciated here!

If I don’t head up the ridge, I walk the 45 minutes down to Vilcabamba to make some phone calls back home and talk with Andre, then pick up some fresh fruit/veg. It’s been crazy how the couple of people I’ve met so far, I’ll run into in town, and they’ll recognize me and chat for a bit. I haven’t slowed down enough on this trip yet to build any resemblance of a community, so this is new! Sometimes I can hitch a ride back to the farm – like one day I caught a ride with a New Zealand family and a child stood right next to me in the car like he was a pro at standing in the jeep to ride up these rough dirt roads – he must’ve barely been old enough to learn how to stand!

After my afternoon adventure to the ridge or to town, I’ll spend some time with the horses until I’m hungry enough to cook up some veg stir-fry and enjoy a million-dollar view from Savannah. My best dinner so far has been roasted onion, yellow pepper, habanero, a few small potatoes (from Victor), avocado, a few chunks of cheese, and hot sauce. I’ve got a stove and water tank from the family and built my own little camp down at the bottom of the farm. The dragonfruits have also been an amazing lunch! The family also loaned me quite a few books to get lost in; right now, I’m reading “The Poisonwood Bible.” It’s still lonely now at times, I won’t romanticize it, but all in all I’m pretty happy given this situation of being a bit stuck. There probably isn’t a better place in Ecuador to be forced to spend some more time. Oh, and every night outside of my van, thousands of fireflies show off in the valley. It seems like a magical place.

I have no idea when the border will open up and I feel like my anthem right now is the song, “Should I stay or should I go,” by The Clash. I feel like a broken compass that’s spinning, unsure of which direction to head next until I’m able to make it due South. Until it stops spinning, I guess it makes sense to stay put and enjoy this little valley I ended up in.

One thought on “Vilcabamba Vibes

  1. Kelly, you look so fresh, healthy and beautiful! It must have been disappointing that the first opportunity to work somewhere until the border opened didn’t work out. But then, you find a new opportunity! The last time I talked to your Dad, he said you are like a cat…you always land on your feet. And I certainly agree with that. I hope the border opens in time for you to make it to your final destination and I wish you safe and interesting travels! Love you, Kelly
    Aunt Pat

    Liked by 1 person

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