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vilcabamba/gringolandia

I am first alerted to something a little peculiar about Vilcabamba when I search for a place to stay in Loja via CouchSurfing or a WarmShowers host, mostly so that I have somewhere safe to leave my bike while I make the tedious journey north to pick up my tardy VISA card. Nothing surfaces in Loja itself but in Vilcabamba, a small village a short distance to the south, there are a surprising number of Couch Surfers and they are quite clearly not Ecuadorean.

Skillfully evading contact with the type of Couch Surfer whose profile features a photo of a leering (male) individual suspended in a yoga sling, who prefers his guests to be female for some unstated reason, I contact the only person who appears of potential interest – a retired photo-journalist and current musician and art photographer, called Tom. Cycling always means that it can be hard to precisely predict travel times but Tom is reasonably relaxed about it and over the course of a few days eventually we narrow my potential arrival down to sometime on Sunday morning.

However, as serendipity would have it and despite driving rain and hundred kilometre an hour winds, I arrive on Saturday afternoon and rather than attempt a last minute reorganisation with Tom I check into a hostel.

Photo duel! Another cyclist is already in residence at the hostel - Ted is heading north and we swap notes on roads and routes and then, making the most of our (largely) unexpected arrival in Gringolandia, go out for a pizza. Saturday night at Charlito's pizza joint is something of a culture shock: Vilcabamba's expats - a community apparently predominantly comprised of conspiracy theorists, new age mystics, property speculators, wannabe gurus and spiritual healers, raw foodarians and anti-GSM crusaders, as well as the simply lost, lonely and drug-addled - are a tangible force, milling about the streets and square, audibly expounding their decided viewpoints, lubricated by ample quantities of alcohol.

The following morning I beat a retreat to Tom's house, which is a little out of town, beside the river, and proves to be a welcome island of calm. Tom, luckily, doesn't appear to be either a conspiracy theorist, a new age mystic, a property speculator, a wannabe guru or spiritual healer, a raw foodarian or anti-GSM crusader, or even particularly lost, lonely and drug-addled. In fact, he is charming and gracious, well-travelled and well-informed, entertaining and generous, a talented photographer, an enthusiastic musician and a fine cook. Phew!

We pass the day snapping photos, eating, relaxing, chatting... (Photo: Tom Ives)

... and strolling...

...by the roaring, rushing, river.

Despite enjoying my stay with Tom, I have to say that I find the phenomenon of largely unassimilated expat enclaves extremely weird and disturbing. My short time in Vilcabamba reminds me of all the less savoury aspects of life in Santa Catalina, in Panama, with rampant racism (on the part of many of the gringos) and xenophobia (on the part of many of the locals) feeding a mutual cultural incomprehension that, combined with unequal distribution of wealth, privilege (think access to information, education, health care, legal services, etc.) and material resources, as well as a startling lack of understanding of, and sensitivity to, local traditions and customs, creates a highly volatile and mostly dysfunctional ‘community’.

I met a guy in Cuenca, during my brief stay there, who was doing a research project on expats in Ecuador and I wish I had had the chance to talk to him a little longer to see if there is any intelligent insight to be gained into the situation, which is clearly not innocuous, as evidenced by – amongst many other things –  the recent murder of a Canadian real estate agent in Vilcabamba. Santa Catalina has, to the best of my knowledge, yet to host a successful murder but arson, violence and the threat of murder were all par for the course there.

It not all bad, of course. You can buy a fine chocolate croissant made by a real Frenchman in Vilcabamba and organic fruit and vegetables. And there is no difficulty in finding a decent espresso to accompany your croissant. There are people, too, like Tom, who rather than pushing their particular barrow of assumptions and beliefs, uninvited, onto a community that has got along just fine until now without them, chooses to provide a service that actually is welcome in the form of free weekly film nights – showing non-violent films for kids – in a community where there is no cinema.

Although it is mostly members of the expat community that are visibly inebriated, a local, too, enjoys a little afternoon siesta in the Vilcabamba plaza.

Trying to find a suitable person to give my old Ortleib panniers to on the streets of Vilcabamba. I went to a expat 'yard sale' where items on sale included old tins of tomato paste and half a bag a beans. Weird people. (Photo: Tom Ives)

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