I stood atop a boulder at the edge of the emerald tinted Bombuscara River. Petite, violet flowers sprouted from the veil of moss covering the massive stone, and I undressed, carefully laying out my clothes to avoid smothering any of the blooms. The translucent waters rushed by with the soothing roar of a continuous wave, so I stretched my arms over my head, expanded my rib cage and bellowed back. Once completely naked I jumped in, and the cool water sent a burst of energy through my body. My splash must have caused a brief shower for the column of leaf-cutter ants marching along the shore conveniently carrying bits of leaf over their heads like tiny parasols.
I escaped the river shivering with laughter. I put on my underwear, socks and hiking boots and stuffed my shirt and pants into my bloated backpack. I looked ridiculous, but that didn’t really matter to me. I’d been hiking for five hours without encountering another person. Fortunately I wasn’t lost. Not this time. A distinct path led me up a muddy ridge past a railing of slender trees that tilted over the edge as if contemplating a final leap while others wrapped their tendrils around larger and more grounded trees. I’m sure I still had a euphoric grin when I rounded a corner and came face to face with a man wielding a shiny machete. `
He looked me over. “Are you alone?”
I nodded, uncertain as whether I had trampled onto private land or possibly violated an Ecuadorian public indecency law. My appearance was more perplexing than comical to the man, and while still trying to figure me out he asked, “Did you register in the office when you arrived?”
“Nobody was there.”
He conceded this was probably true. “Stop by before you leave so you can pay. I’ll be there.” I read his badge and saw that he was Manuel, the park ranger. As promised, he was there when I stopped by on my way out, but unable to break my twenty, he let me leave without paying. My stroll through the park had surprised him, as evidently I was the only person to have visited Podocarpus since a couple of Israeli tourists thirty days before. This rarely visited area of South America is famous for having more varieties of birds and trees than anywhere in the world, but I wasn’t there to look for birds. Those days were behind me. I had come to dip myself in the healing waters of the Bombuscara. “It is not safe to walk in the rainforest alone,” he added before going on his way clearing paths for the eventual hiker.
I couldn’t help but laugh. If only he had any idea of what I had been through in the previous weeks. I imagine he turned to give me another look—a crazy American man walking in his underwear and hiking boots—but I kept my eyes forward on the path ahead.
After the encounter with the park ranger at Podocarpus, I caught a bus to the village of Vilcabamba. My cousin Ana had told me that once you set foot in Vilcabamba you will feel immediate peace. I didn’t believe her. My mistake. The moment you step off the bus in that town, it hits you. The calm. Your heart will slow to a languid beat, an unconscious smile will drift onto your face, and you will have the curious sensation you are home. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. It could be the perfectly moderate climate with a perpetual breeze sweeping down the mountains into the valley. The landscape is idyllic as if you were thrust onto the set of a fantasy world that exists only in movies. There is little traffic unless you count residents taking their livestock on a stroll through the town. Few cars line the dirt roads as most people walk or ride bicycles. There is never a need to hurry. As I sat cross-legged on the speckled shore of the Vilcabamba River, several locals ambled by, stripped off their clothes and dipped themselves in the sparkling water, known throughout the region to have its own mystical properties. It was absolute serenity.
The name Vilcabamba translates to “valley of the gods,” and surely this would be their majestic retreat. The region is also known as the “valley of longevity” as the people here are world famous for living well past a hundred years, and many work in the fields into their nineties. Doctors, scientists, and hippies have descended into the valley to discover the secret of Vilcabamba’s eternal youth. Some say it’s the special herbal tea they drink, although this is now available in supermarkets in Quito. Others say it’s their avoidance of Western medicine. A stress-free lifestyle is another explanation. Anybody who has been there knows it’s the whole package. I should have stayed, but I have a plane to catch.