Vilcabamba, Ecuador: good food, fireworks and horseback riding

Vilcabamba is in the southern part of Ecuador, and though it’s considered a standard stop on the gringo circuit, we figured we’d stop by to see what it was all about on our way south to Peru. Just as with Cuenca, Vilcabamba is attracting a lot of folks from the U.S. and other wealthy first world countries looking to relocate and potentially retire outside of their home countries (they’re attracted by a lower cost of living, the fact that Ecuador uses U.S. currency and potentially a more relaxed and slower pace of life). Knowing this ahead of time we assumed that Vilcabamba would have the same vibe and be of a similar scale to Cuenca. Suffice to say, our assumptions were wrong. It’s a much smaller town and not nearly as developed as Cuenca. That’s not a bad thing at all, just not what we expected.

We arrived late in the day and didn’t have much time to search for a hostel before sunset. We don’t like walking around a city we don’t know in the dark. So we typically try to arrive early enough as to give ourselves time to find an affordable place to stay. Given that it was late and darkness was quickly approaching, we stuck closely to the guidebook’s recommendations and only checked out three hostels. The first was all booked up; the second was nice but a little pricey; and the third was weird, i.e. no one was staying there and there was at least one room that looked like a sketchy operating room. So we settled on the second hostel, prearranging to switch to a less expensive room the next day. The hostel was called “ Rendezvous” and was appropriately owned and operated by a French man in his forties. One thing that made paying a little more than usual for our room was that breakfast was included. That was a first for us during our travels. Though this seems to be commonplace for hostels in Vilcabamba we definitely saw it as a treat. It was a quality meal on top of that, including fresh fruit or eggs, homemade bread with butter and jam, fresh squeezed juice, and coffee or hot chocolate.

The hostel we stayed at in Vilcabamba.

Being that it’s a popular place for wealthy U.S. citizens to relocate, things are a bit more expensive in Vilcabamba. So for dinner the first night we went to a place close to the hostel and each got the soup of the day and shared a plate of delicious nachos. After a little exploring the next day we were able to find a great restaurant with very good prices. The tactic for finding decent food at a good price is to walk around town looking for the place that the locals eat. Since they’re most likely earning wages that are more in line with the cost of living, the chance is good that wherever they choose to eat is more affordable. And affordable for them usually means affordable for us.

Great restaurant in Vilcabamba serving Ecuadorian food at an affordable price.

The place we found was called “Katherine’s” and surprisingly it was located right outside of the main square where many of the most expensive restaurants were located. They had several lunch plates to choose from all costing $2.50 each. That’s a great price considering that lunch in Ecuador almost always consists of a bowl of soup, a main dish with rice, meat and sometimes veggies, and a juice. Being such a great deal we decided we could afford a lunch for each of us, as opposed to sharing a plate like the night before. To our surprise the lunch combo was more than enough food for one person. With the price, the portions and the quality food, we decide to eat lunch there the next day, but this time splitting the meal. That came out to $1.25 per person. That’s definitely our style.

Katherine’s restaurant soup. It’s more like a stew being that there’s a good food to broth ratio.

This was the second half of the meal, including rice, chicken, veggies and pasta, and a drink.

It’s also worth mentioning that part of the reason we like to save money on meals is so that we can enjoy some of the local sweets. I use the term “local” pretty loosely since many of the desserts we choose are things we can get back home. Either way it’s a nice indulgence. My favorite dessert yet has been the Tres Leches (Three Milks) cake we had in Vilcabamba. It was recommended by a fella from New York that’s been living in Vilcabamba for several months trying to decide whether to completely relocate and settle down. He was a wealthy businessman who grew tired of the corporate rat race, as he put it. Anyway, back to the cake. It was delicious, especially with a cup of quality coffee. What’s interesting is that though much of the quality coffee consumed in the U.S. might be grown in places like Ecuador, most of what’s served at restaurants is instant dissolvable coffee. This has been our experience thus far. So to get a good cup of joe is something to be excited about.

Tres Leches cake and a good cup of coffee for dessert.

One of the days we were exploring Vilcabamba we saw a handful of guys constructing some sort of bamboo structure in the main square. We’d seen a similar structure in one of the other towns we’d visited but didn’t know what it was. After closer inspection we discovered that it was covered in fireworks. Seeing this we decide we had to be around for the show later that night. With a little questioning we figured out what time the show would start. So we made sure to arrive a little early to secure a good spot to observe. As with finding a good place to eat, we settled into a spot near where the locals were standing. Being the observant people that we are, we saw that the spot we chose was a little close to the bamboo tower of fireworks but decided to stay put anyway. This was partly due to the fact that it was raining and the spot was under cover, but also because standing so close to a burning tower of fireworks would never be allowed in the U.S. So this was our chance to live on the edge.

Bamboo tower strapped with fireworks, pre-show.

The tower seemed to be a pretty solid structure. And to verify this, the engineer in the foreground of the above photo, as well as some random old dudes from the town, gave it a shake test several times before the show. We thought for sure that the tower was going to crumble under the force with which these guys were shaking it. But I guess it’s better to have it fall apart at that time than when the fireworks are ignited and the whole town is standing within feet of the structure. This picture also shows how close we were to the structure. We soon found out just how bad of an idea that was.

The bamboo fireworks show in action.

The fireworks show from a safer vantage point.

The start of the fireworks show coincided with the end of an evening church service right next door. There was some sort of the connection between the show and the church service. We think having something to do with the celebration of a Saint. As soon as the first fireworks ignited, being the intelligent people that we are, we decided to relocate. I just remember Sarah squeezing my arm and nervously moving away from the tower. The photos above show our starting point and subsequent new location, behind the churchgoers.  Surprisingly, none of the nearby buildings that were showered with sparks during the show caught on fire. Sadly though, the grand finale, i.e. biggest fireworks spinney wheel at the top of the tower, did not ignite, likely due to the rain. Regardless of that, it was a pretty exciting show. Catholics in Ecuador know how to celebrate.

The next day, and our final full day in Vilcabamba, we decided to take a guided horseback riding trip with a company called Horses of Holger. Based on our past experiences with horseback riding in the U.S., neither of us was very excited about horseback riding. It typically involves walking on a horse in a line of horses and is usually a pretty tame experience. After doing a bit of research about trips in this area, particularly with Horses of Holger, we were enticed by exciting trails and great views in the Andes Mountains.

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The office of Horses of Holger. It was two blocks from our hostel.

The trip we chose involved riding horses from the town of Vilcabamba to the home of Holger and his family high in the Andes Mountains. The first leg of trip was about 1.5 to 2 hours climbing the steep and narrow trails to his house. Once there, we took about a 15 minute walk to the highest point of the property where we had a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. Much of the family land is used as pasture for cows and horses with some land devoted to farming crops like bananas and yuca. In total the family has 200 hectares of land. The time of year that we were there was pretty dry, with the rainy season about to start. So much of the land had a golden color but would soon change to a lush green.

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The horses lined up and ready to go.

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On our way up. Sarah’s second in line wearing the orange shirt.

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This is my second horseback riding trip in Latin America. Both times I was way too big for my horse. The horses are much bigger in the U.S. My pony’s name was Alta-ir, which literally translates to High-to go. Something to do with the stars.

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Sarah was a much better fit for her horse Hidalgo.

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Getting ready to start our hike up to the lookout.

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The view gets better as we climb higher. The air also gets thinner and breathing harder.

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This little guy followed us all the way up, sometimes catching a ride along the way.

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Sarah proudly standing at the summit.

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Sarah and I with our host Holger.

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Panoramic from the lookout on Holger’s property. (click to enlarge)

After returning from the hike, Holger brewed the group some coffee from beans he’d grown on the farm. I spent a little time relaxing in his hammock in the front yard taking in the fresh crisp air while observing some of the animals living on the farm. His home and the land around it is a pretty amazing place. There’s no road to the house and the only way to get there is on foot or by horse.

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Holger lighting a fire to brew coffee for the riders. What a nice guy.

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There’s our friend again.

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Roosters sure are pretty. It’s that redeeming quality that allows us to put up with all of their cocka-doodle-doodling. It’s a rare day that we don’t hear a rooster in South America.

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Relaxing at Holger’s house with his friendly animal neighbors.

The last leg of the trip we retraced our path back to Vilcabamba. My favorite part of any horseback riding trip is getting the horses to run. Most of the time you’re on a narrow trail and so it’s difficult to find room to run. So I would make my horse stop long enough to put a gap between me in the horse in front of me. Once there was enough room I would signal the horse to run until we caught up with the other horses. The best opportunity to run came in the last 10 minutes of the ride. We took a slight detour at the end of the trip down a road under construction, providing a little more room for the horses to spread out. I took this as an opportunity to push my horse a little more and pass some of the other more timid horses and riders. Up until this point the fastest the horse would go was at a trot, which isn’t that fast and involves a lot of bouncing, and isn’t a full out run. After a bit of encouragement—tapping the horse on his side with the short length of rope attached to the reins—I was able to get the horse to run. Running with a horse is so much smoother of a ride than trotting. The horse glides with only a slight jolt when his feet touch the ground. Being that we were so close to home the horses were more than willing to run because it meant getting us amateur riders off of their backs.

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Headed back down the mountain on the narrow trails.

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Almost home. I’m not sure what path the trip takes in the rainy season. This river bed was pretty wide in spots, indicating that it can get pretty full.

The horseback riding was definitely the highlight of our visit to Vilcabamba. I don’t think we were there long enough to see what some of the folks who decided to resettle there see in the town. For us, a few days was plenty enough.

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Categories: Nature, South America, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Vilcabamba, Ecuador: good food, fireworks and horseback riding

  1. Evan D

    Dave- you look skinny! Eat some more cui! Sounds like a blast…..
    -Ev

  2. I’m on the Montezuma’s Revenge diet. It’s all about eating local foods and drinking lots of tap water. That’s how I keep my amazing physique. We’ve yet to try guinea pig but it’s definitely on the agenda.

  3. Matt

    Very pretty! I couldn’t stop laughing, though, when I saw you on yer horse, Dave! That is hilarious! Looks like you guys are havin a great time!

    -Matt

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