I meet Isaac on the bus from Loja to Vilcabamba, the day before yesterday. He was on the five-hour ride from Cuenca to Loja, too, but we left so early that everyone dozed for the first half of the ride, and watched the featured film, ‘Big Momma,’ for the second half. Still, I eyed Isaac, wondering where he was from, guessing that he was American when he pulled out a thick book with reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle on the back. I didn’t catch the title—he read it for only a moment before tipping his head back and closing his eyes. And so I watched ‘Big Momma’ in Spanish, and I was glad that for once they weren’t playing some gory Italian film, which always fills the bus with sounds of shooting and crying.
Isaac sees me take out my Lonely Planet while we wait for the Vilcabamba bus to leave. The thing weighs a ton, and hasn’t helped me much; still, it's something to look at. Vilcabamba is famous for its residents who just don’t seem to kick the bucket, I read, and then I hear Isaac’s voice. “If you have any questions about Vilcabamba, let me know,” he is saying, leaning across his seat to talk to me. The two young women behind us, both with low-cut shirts and babies on their laps, watch us attentively. “I lived there for a year,” he adds.
Isaac has curly curly hair and wears glasses; definitley Jewish, I remember thinking, maybe unfairly, but turns out he is. I tell him I’d love a hotel recommendation; Isaac knows plenty. As the bus pulls out of the station, I move to the seat beside him, and for the whole ride we talk. He’s a talker. He tells me he taught English in this valley for a year, and it’s been four since he’s returned. He can’t wait, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He points out the little towns that, for some reason, never got famous like Vilcabamba did, even though, he says, they’re just as beautiful. He points out the village with the pretty blue church, and the valley that’s sprung up with houses since he was last hear. And as we reach our destination, he claps his hands. “I love it here,” he admits, unnecessarily.
The hostel Isaac recommends is superb, the cottages designed around a garden. “Anything grows here,” he tells me, and this hostel makes that obvious. They’ve got vegetables, clover instead of grass, and vines of golden trumpets climbing the clay walls. The short Ecuadorian man who answers the door shows me a room with whitewashed walls and a high, angled ceiling, two beds with thick mattresses. “Eleven dollars per night,” he tells me when I ask the price. And then he hastens to add: “including breakfast.”
The Mexican restaurant Isaac tells me to visit is also excellent. I am starving. “I haven’t eaten in days,” I tell Isaac. I admit that the week has been a rough one: a dead man, a car chase, and a bumpy ride out of my relationship stole my appetite. The waitress at the Mexican place serves me sliced chicken, big brown beans, warm tortillas, and a pile of guacamole. That dish, and a cup of strong coffee, cost four dollars. As I sit out on the restaurant’s patio, I watch Isaac climb into a pickup, the vehicle owned by his host father from four years ago. And as he drives out of the main square, perched in the truck’s bed, he catches my eye and flashes a peace sign.
Isaac calls me to hike the next morning. He’s got a few spare hours before he needs to meet another family he lived with, and so we meet at a tiny tienda up the hill from my hostel and walk down the paved road that quickly turns to dirt. This landscape is incredible; the frequent, steep hills form jungled valleys, and a river runs along the road. We pass a house with animal skins tacked to the outside walls; we pass a group of men laying cement for a new house. Isaac notes that many homes have gone up since he was last here. “The gringos love this place,” he says. “For twenty thousand, they can buy a nice piece of land, and for another fifty, they can build their dream house.” He points to the line of homes with red roofs that have gone up on the adjacent hill. Stone gates keep intruders out.
He tells me about the hippies, too, the way they flock from the States and Argentina and Europe to buy up land where they can grow whatever they want. “It’s easy to live off the map,” Isaac says. “But there are a lot of crazies out here, guys who come and live as hermits, or go into the town square to get drunk every day before lunch.” Still, he loves the place; every man who passes us, Isaac knows. His Spanish is still good after four years in Berkeley, and he chats with men who carry machetes strapped to their hips and wear dusty rubber boots. “Sorry,” he apologizes after each eager, lengthy conversation, but I know he really isn’t. He beams.
We climb up out of the valley and traverse the ridge, and you can see that the hills around us have been stripped bare long ago. We can look down to where the river divides the land and see that houses have sprung up, and fresh roads. “Those weren’t there before,” Isaac says many times. He talks steadily as we walk, keeping me entertained, stopping periodically to look around, his hand shading his eyes. “God,” he keeps saying. “Vilcabamba.” We pass an old man with a long, white beard and round spectacles, and his wizened, gray-haired, feisty-looking wife. They’re hiking to visit a friend, they tell us in Spanish, even though their accents beneath are American. We pass a hippie girl with rosaries around her neck and no bra who asks us about the purple flowers we keep passing. We pass two men who are cutting the brush on the sides of the hill with machetes—food for the cows, Isaac says. He cheerily greets them: “How’s it going?” He asks. “Working,” the men grumble, without looking up.
We never end up finding the waterfall Isaac was sure existed down in one of the valleys, but we stumble along the rocky river, stopping once to sit and eat cookies. We get lost, but not very, and eventually clouds come and fill the blue, blue sky. We pass a tree with wide, flat leaves the colors of white stones; “They look like mirrors from far away,” Isaac says. We see birds—little yellow ones, iridescent blue ones, once a toucan sitting perfectly still in a tree, its beak long and curved. It doesn’t stir when we call to it, clap at it, and I wonder aloud whether it’s sleeping. On our walk back towards the village, we pass the same men, hacking at the hillside brush. An orange-brown mutt sits perched above them, looking down, and this time Isaac doesn’t say a word.
You can see why the hippies come. You can see why the old people hold on to their years, and why these little hotels spring up and fill every season. In Cuenca, it rained, and Loja was gray, but nestled in this valley, Vilcabamba boasts an eternal summer. I didn’t imagine rain, hot as the afternoon was, the sun beating down without making shadows, but this afternoon clouds came and spilled over us and then broke open and it poured. The smell of the earth rose up right away as the rain gained strength and then turned to chips of hail. But even as the sky above me darkened, blue sky clung on in the distance. The rain is still falling now, cooling the air and bringing to life all the plants around here that today’s sun dried. And yet the clouds are softening, lightening, and I know that in a moment they’ll turn pink. I’ll sleep one more night in my soft Vilcabamba bed, where outside my window emerald clover grows thick. And then someone else will come, and sleep in this bed, and walk the Vilcabamba mountains to be amazed.