Vilcabamba, the pueblo where immortality is a dead art

I’d like to think that the two days I spent in Vilcabamba added two years to my life, but that’s probably not the case.

Part 1

Reader’s Digest was the first to expose the sacredness of Vilcabamba, a town nestled in the mountains of Ecuador, about 1,500 metres above sea level. In the 1950s, the magazine published a story about “islands of immunity.” It was written by Dr. Eugene H. Payne, a clinical investigator who spent nearly a quarter-century in South America and wrote about disease-free villages. In it, Payne reported that a British engineer, who had developed high blood pressure and severe heart damage, and who was apparently beyond the help of medical care, travelled to the province of Loja, where the pueblo is located, to spend his remaining years. After some time, he was miraculously well. “His heart was in good shape and his blood pressure was normal.” Sure enough, upon leaving the area, “his blood pressure zoomed and his heart gave him trouble.” Payne argued that it wasn’t an isolated case, writing that outsiders with poor hearts who went to Loja “often report within six months that they are well,” and pointing to the “water, soil, food, perhaps even in the minds and bodies of the inhabitants” as the cause of the phenomenon. His words were supported one year later by Albert Krammer, an American doctor who suffered a heart attack, travelled to Vilcabamba, and returned home feeling better than ever.

Payne and Krammer opened the floodgates.

In 1969, Miguel Salvador, a heart specialist, brought a medical team to Vilcabamba to undertake one of the first major studies of the town’s inhabitants. He examined 338 people at random and discovered that they were free of arteriosclerosis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, rheumatism, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s. Not only did the pueblo possess healing powers, but it was immune to disease. Salvador also noted that one in six inhabitants was at least 65 years old, and, most astonishingly, counted nine centenarians in a population of 819 people. At the time, the United States of America only had three centenarians per 100,000 people.

It didn’t take long for gerontologists to catch wind of the longevity of Vilcabamba’s inhabitants, and, by the 1970s, the town was flooded with scientists looking for answers, conducting examinations and interviews. Salvador suggested that the long lives were due to the physical exertion required to live in the mountainous terrain, which strengthened bones and the heart. Others weren’t convinced. Alexander Leaf, the chief of medical services at Massachusetts General Hospital, believed that the longevity had to do with a unique gene pool created by the marriage of Spanish survivors from the Battle of Pichincha in 1822 to Indians. University College London’s David Davies claimed that the longevity was caused by the climate, the mineral-rich water, the fruit, the diet, and the environment. Grace Halsell, an American journalist who spent two years in Vilcabamba and worked as an interpreter and assistant for Leaf, theorised that the longevity was the result of the inhabitants’ acceptance of life and death.

There was, unsurprisingly, an element of exaggeration. For example, in 1976, a man named Miguel Carpio Mendietta claimed to be both 126 years old and 141 years old. He died that year, and the death record put him at 112 years old. None of those ages turned out to be correct. In 1978, Richard Mazess, a specialist in osteoporosis from the University of Wisconsin who conducted a detailed census in Vilcabamba, discovered that Miguel had in fact passed away at 93 years old and owned a baptismal certificate belonging to an older relative with an identical name, a common occurrence in the valley. It’s just one of many stories in which a Vilcabamban’s age was exaggerated.

But, regardless of age inflation – which does nothing to explain the lack of disease – Mazess was impressed with musculoskeletal health of Vilcabamba’s inhabitants and acknowledged that, given the town’s small population, the presence of one centenarian would be “exceptional.” Two centenarians would be remarkable. Furthermore, of 10 self-proclaimed centenarians that Mazess believed to be between 85 years old and 95 years old, two were remarkably still alive in 1994, at which point they would have been centenarians based on Mazess’ estimates from the 1970s.

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It’s clear that Vilcabamba holds a secret to living a long life, whether it be a 130-year life, 100-year life, or 90-year life.

The cause of the longevity is still debated, but what’s not debated is that the town’s inhabitants aren’t living as long as they used to. There are no centenarians to be found in the streets of Vilcabamba, and, amid a wave of tourism that is a consequence of being put on the map in the 1970s, explanations are being sought. Some blame the influx of foreigners. Some blame the food. Some blame both. If you walk through the town, you’ll find a wide range of answers.

Part 2

On my second day in Vilcabamba, I meet Bolivar Leon, a 54-year-old taxi driver from the valley.  The locals have gathered to watch a game of ecuavoley, an Ecuadorian variant of volleyball which involves teams of three and a high net that doesn’t allow for spiking. Teammates yell at each other, onlookers drink beer, and bets are placed. It’s a common scene in the town, particularly in the evening, when most people are done working for the day. When the match ends, I enjoy a beer with Bolivar and a man who I believe to be the owner of the ecuavoley court, and I pick their brains in an attempt to better understand why the inhabitants are dropping dead before hitting the century mark.

Bolivar, the grandson of a former centenarian, blames the food.

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“The truth is that now there are no people who live more than 100 years,” Bolivar explains. “There aren’t any. There aren’t people here in Vilcabamba. Here, I think it’s been about five years, 10 years, honestly, that there haven’t been any. They reach 90, 95 years … Those who have died at that age are from here. I think it’s because of the food.”

“The quality of the food,” I interject.

“That, the food,” Bolivar continues. “Because before, before people lived longer, passed 100 years … they walked, everything. They walked, worked, everything after 100 years. They were walking, 102 years old. I remember my grandmother, our grandmothers, died at 102 years old, but like that, they had to go to mass, everything all alone. Alone. Both of them. Not now. Because of the food. The food was previously always organic, but now, there are lots of chemicals. Everybody sells you chemicals. In other words … you go to a restaurant, you don’t eat anything organic. You’re eating chemicals. A chicken? Chemicals.”

The apparent owner of the ecuavoley courts chimes in: “Four weeks and it’s already pure growth hormones. The people from before said that they fattened a pig, pure maize, pumpkin, of what they spoke about in the chagras.”

“They don’t say so, but it’s like that because the truth is that I know,” Bolivar interrupts. “I’m 54 years old and, when I was 10 years old, my parents told me the pigs, to take care of a pig so that it fattens up, you have to give it maize until it falls asleep. ” We all burst out laughing. “The pig ate all day. In other words, in the afternoon, until it falls asleep, it has to eat and eat, and when it doesn’t want to, save the food for another day. When it ate it was very big. Every day.  The hens, the hens wanted to eat corn. There was no balance. There was nothing. But now, everything’s balanced. The hens’ eggs are with balance. Before there was nothing. What the lands and farms produced was pure maize. Maize was for the pigs, hens, everything, and everything was organic. Only maize. Nobody forced anything.”

Before I can finish asking whether tourism is at all to blame for the change in life span, Bolivar and the other man are already shaking their heads. “No no no no no no,” Bolivar says. They think it’s ridiculous to suggest that foreigners are at fault, and say that Vilcabamba’s inhabitants were leading shorter lives by the time they arrived. “They’re not to blame at all.”

I mention that some people have told me that foreigners are to blame, but they remain firm. “Vilcabamba lives on tourism,” Bolivar says. “Vilcabamba, if there wasn’t tourism, dead. Dead for nothing. We live off that.” He continues: “We live off them. If it wasn’t for the tourism that came … ”

“Yes there are people who say ‘the foreigners fucked us,'” the other man adds. “It’s not like that. What I mean is that there are people who say it.”

“They talk, they talk. But the truth is it’s not true,” Bolivar says.

There is at least one centenarian in Loja. A 105-year-old man lives in Tumianuma, a town one hour away from Vilcabamba by bus. They claim he’s the oldest person in the area. “He’s always walking to his farm,” Bolivar explains. “He’s still walking.” Of importance, the centenarian carries a cedula, a government-issued document that proves a citizen’s age. Whether it’s the cedula of a dead relative who shared his name, I have no way of knowing.

Part 3

The decrease in centenarians is undeniable. In 2010, the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Censos, which conducts Ecuador’s census, counted 519 people in Loja who were at least 95 years old, comprising 0.1 percent of the province’s population. In 2001, there were 1,208 people, comprising 0.3 percent. It’s a noticeable change. Many Ecuadorians are emigrating from Loja in search of work, abandoning rural areas for cities. But, for the most part, they’re young people who have their lives ahead of them. Emigration isn’t to blame for the evaporation of centenarians, although it should be noted that Vilcabamba’s elders are leaving the town and moving higher up the hills to escape modernisation.

As I wait for the bus to wheel me away from Vilcabamba, I take comfort in Bolivar’s words, feeling less guilty about passing through the town, about stepping on a fragile ecosystem. I then wonder if I acquired any healing powers, or benefits from the mineral-rich water.

I’d like to think that the two days I spent in Vilcabamba added two years to my life, but that’s probably not the case.

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