Vilcabamba, Ecuador: The Raw Food Valley of Longevity… or Just Hype?

Ecuador is known as a top retirement destination for Americans due to the low cost of living and ease of getting residency, but did you know that it’s also a place for raw foodists and young international families interested in a more simple, natural way of living? Some raw food friends of mine recently moved to Vilcabamba, known to many as the “Valley of Longevity,” and after years of hearing about the place (especially after Mike Adams, Matt Monarch and Angela Stokes moved there), I decided to finally go for a visit and check it out for myself.

The main road entering Vilcabamba, Ecuador aka The Valley of Longevity

My boyfriend and I spent 2.5 months in Vilcabamba. We stayed at the Meditation Center in town for the first 2 weeks until we found a furnished house available for short-term rent. We found a place with gorgeous mountain views and a lot of space (2 bedrooms, an office loft, 2 full bathrooms, a large living area and kitchen) for $900 USD per month. It was less than a 10-minute walk from the center of town. This was perfect for us because we didn’t want a car and we could easily walk to town and buy whatever we needed.

Our home for 2 months…a gorgeous mountain retreat!

Shared pool for the small gated community…it was right next to our house

Open doors in the morning for an absolutely fantastic view of the mountains…close doors 4pm to minimize mosquitos!

Most of our time in Vilcabamba was spent preparing and focusing on the 21-day water fast that we did while there. This was our main goal in renting a house for 2 months – to take a break from all the traveling we’d done through Costa Rica, Guatemala and South America, and to have some quiet time surrounded by nature to fast and rest. What better place to do a detox than in the Valley of Longevity itself?

My first meal (pureed cucumber) after water fasting for 21 days…and NO worms! 🙂

Not to start things on the wrong side, but it has to be said: there are a lot of strange expats in Vilcabamba. You will definitely notice a weird vibe when you arrive to town. It’s a small place, everyone knows each other, and clearly you are the newcomer when you get there. We experienced a lot of long uncomfortable stares from the local “gringos”, to the point where we even googled something like “why is everyone so weird in Vilcabamba” and we actually had a good laugh when we read several travel blogs that reported having the same experience as us. There is definitely a lot of conspiracy theory talk going around about…well, just about everything. It’s almost impossible not to overhear at least one major conspiracy theory conversation per day, especially if you go the the Juice Factory, the main hang-out in the town square where all the gringos converge for a juice, smoothie, salad or the ongoing end-of-the-word discussion. I even heard a story about how the Jesus on the cross was fake, and that the real Jesus was hiding under a pyramid in Egypt… Well, who knows? It could be true!

Odd conversations aside, the Juice Factory has an awesome juice, wheatgrass and smoothie menu!

Admittedly we were a bit disappointed over the lack of normalcy in the people we met. It didn’t take us long to start keeping to ourselves, putting our energy into our preparations for fasting and trying to be friendly as much as we could. Over the course of 2.5 months, we slowly started to meet more gringos who lived further outside of town or who simply kept more to themselves as well, and by the time we were ready to leave, we did actually make some really nice and interesting friends. My best advice in experiencing Vilca is to have an open mind and be patient. There are some really cool people living there; it just might take a bit of time to find them.

People aside, there are a few key practical things that bring expats to Vilcabamba to live. One is the cheap cost of living. Most people are renting houses for about $300 per month. Our house was considered to be very expensive, but we wanted to be in a gated community for safety and security. The other main attraction is the ability to grow your own organic food because there is plenty of land and plenty of water. There are also some people looking to live in a healthy and natural healing environment with a strong sense of community, and although it’s not fully there yet, this movement in Vilcabamba is definitely growing. And many people just want to be “away from it all,” living as far away as possible from the television, media, and “Big Brother” feeling in the Western world.

A 5-star view from our veranda, in Vilcabamba Ecuador

That’s the short of it. Here’s my full list of the Pros and Cons of Vilcabamba:

Vilcabamba, Ecuador: Pros

1. Affordable Organic Food. This was a main attraction for me. Every Saturday there is a great organic market run by Kitzia Kokopelmana where you can find all kinds of fruits, veggies and greens at fantastic prices. Of course, if you stay longer, you would have the option to grow your own. There are many expats selling non-GMO seeds and swapping crops with each other.

Organic produce from Kitzia’s weekly market in Vilcabamba, Ecuador

2. Affordable Housing. There are many options available. Check the notice board at the Juice Factory for postings. We also really enjoyed staying at the Meditation Center in town; it has a great outdoor kitchen and very clean rooms. Bernie, the owner, is a really nice guy and he also happens to be a real estate agent in case you are looking for a home to buy!

3. Nice locals. The Ecuadorian people are very sweet and we really enjoyed speaking our broken Spanish when we could.

4. International delivery is ok. I met some people who ordered supplements from Vitacost and everything seemed to arrive ok. I had a few packages sent from USA that arrived safely (it does take longer than other places, up to 3 weeks for airmail). This becomes very important when you actually decide to live in a place.

5. Relatively Safe. More on this below, but for the most part when comparing to Central America or Colombia, I would consider Ecuador to be much more politically stable and crime-wise a safer choice.

6. Mountain views, rainbows, peaceful feeling. Aren’t we all hoping for more of that in life?

Nice rainbow view from our house in Vilcabamba Ecuador

7. Good climate. It’s not too hot or too cold year-round. You don’t need air-conditioning or heat and that means more fresh mountain air and negative ions for your health!

8. Easy to Get Residency. If you have $25,000 USD in an Ecuadorian bank or the equivalent value in property in Ecuador, you can apply for a resident visa and stay permanently. There seems to be a lots of hoops and paperwork to make this happen, but many people succeed and it’s certainly a reason why a lot of expats move to Ecuador.

9. Many Interesting Activities. Check the notice boards and ask around; you’ll quickly see that there are a lot of good workshops and activities being offered on everything from energy healing to women’s circles to essential oil lessons and much more.

Vilcabamba, Ecuador: Cons

1. Slow internet. This is true for all of Vilcabamba and can really be a problem if you work online (like me!).

2. Expensive Internet. We were shocked how much we paid for a few mice to spin us a connection….it was $84 USD per month!

3. Household items are Very Expensive. Things like pillows, sheets, kitchenware, plastic bins, shower curtains, etc. are extremely expensive in Ecuador. We were really shocked to see this because everyone told us how cheap it was! A plastic bucket could easily cost $5 or $6. That really adds up when you are buying for an entire home!

4. Superfoods and Supplements are Extremely Expensive. So much for the cheap cost of living! Once you get outside of the inexpensive rent, things can start to become expensive in Ecuador. While some superfoods and herbal supplements are available at the Juice Factory, they are really expensive, up to 3x the normal price. Your best bargain at the Juice Factory is the green juice shot made from wheatgrass, kale, parsley, fennel, celery and whatever other local organic greens are in season. Dennis, the owner of the Juice Factory, is a super-nice guy and very helpful by the way. It’s simply difficult to find a good source of organic raw nuts, seeds and dried basic raw food essentials.

5. Difficult to Find Work/Make Money. This is really a problem for a lot of gringos that don’t have an outside source of income. We saw many people trying to sell homemade raw food cookies, cakes and chocolates and hippie jewelry as a way to make money. The high cost of raw food ingredients makes the profit margin for food very low. Your best bet is to arrive with money or have a way to make money outside of Ecuador.

The town’s main square in Vilcabamba, Ecuador

6. Isolated. That can be a pro or a con depending on the individual! It’s a 1-hour drive to the nearest town, Loja, where you can find a large supermarket and the bigger shops. In Vilcabamba itself, there is really nothing but a few cafes and small shops selling essential items.

Not much to do in downtown Vilcabamba…it can be good but definitely isolating

7. Weird-vibes from certain Expat Locals can bring you down. As with any small town, there is a lot of gossip, rumors and even jealousy between gringos. This has a lot to do with #6 (isolated). If you’re prepared for this, you will be fine!

8. Increase in local crime, break-ins and robberies. This goes slightly against #5 of the Pros, but there I compare Ecuador to other countries in Central and South America. You are not likely to get robbed at gunpoint in Vilcabamba, and that is re-assuring. But, burglaries are on the rise. We heard of many break-ins while we were there; most occured while the residents were out to dinner and usually laptops, electronics and cash were stolen. Just before we arrived, there were at least 2 Western women who had been raped (in different incidents). It’s important to be careful. This is one of the main reasons why we chose to pay more money to live in a gated community. Definitely look at the security of your house before you decide to rent.

Vilcabamba can still be a great place to live and a positive experience as long as you stay street-smart and take advantage of all the good things it has to offer.

A lot of people ask me what I thought about Vilcabamba. Many young raw food, vegan and vegetarian couples and families consider moving there because of the ability to live relatively cheaply and still have access to organic food (most of the health-oriented people in Vilcabamba grow their own vegetables, fruits and greens). It’s not easy to describe my experience to others because everyone has different expectations when they travel to a new country to start a new life.

The house had a main living area, 2 separate bedrooms and an upstairs office/loft

Quiet bedroom and lots of nature, ideal for a long water fast…this place was really a perfect detox retreat!

This was the upstairs loft which I used as an office. Great place for meditation or yoga as well!

I really liked Vilcabamba for the few months that I was there, but long-term, I don’t think it’s the place for me, at least not at this stage in my life. I feel a very strong need and pull to be in the mainstream still, to help people understand how to read food labels and look for hidden additives in food, to teach more about raw food and detox, and to show that you don’t need to live in the faraway mountains in order to be healthy. Maybe in a few more years this will change, maybe not. Stayed tuned for more updates, because you will know when I know!

One thing I would definitely recommend is to visit a place first and try to live there for at least 6 months before you seriously considering moving there permanently. Not everyone is able to handle the “mañana” approach in Ecuador (also known as the “mai pen rai” style in Thailand). When we take our Western mind with us, even when we want to “get away,” we may still expect the post office to deliver on time or for the store to open when it says it should or for the correct item to be ordered and delivered. Well, things just don’t happen like that in more relaxed places in the world.

If you decide to go, join the Vilcabamba Facebook page to search for houses to rent and ask any questions to the local expat community.

Top Pick for Vilcabamba

Be sure to check out Elena’s Raw Food Lunch in her private home, a monthly event offered directly from Elena and her husband Vladamir, 2 of the nicest people you will meet in all of Ecuador, and even in the world! Elena has a passion for raw food recipes like no other and every month she offers a new and unique raw food menu for lunch. It’s well worth it to enjoy her creations, and a great way to meet other local raw food people too.

Elena’s Raw Food Lunch is amazing!! Here is her raw pizza with cashew “cheese”

Elena’s raw cacao and coconut cake…this cake alone is a reason to visit Vilca!!

So is Vilcabamba a real Valley of Longevity? Well, maybe yes and maybe no. According to the book The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer by Dan Buettner, Vilcabamba did not make the cut for having a high number of centenarians (people who live over 100) because they don’t have the proper documentation to verify birth records for age verification. Personally, I didn’t see that many healthy old Ecuadorians. Sadly, many of the locals appeared to be overweight and more on the unhealthy side of life.

Beautiful mountains and vistas in Vilcabamba, Ecuador

A word of warning about the salt in Vilcabamba and all of Ecuador/South America for that matter: There is a non-caking agent in the salt called Yellow Prussiate of Soda (YPS) or E535 or 535. This chemical additive can cause an allergic reaction in people resulting in an extremely itchy rash, restless sleep, hot flashes and irritability. I saw many expats in Vilcabamba suffering, especially with rashes. Salt is used in all restaurants (including “healthy” restaurants) contains this additive. I found people very unaware and even ran into problems with one local expat who was selling his own “higher quality” salt that caused a terrible reaction for me; still he swore it was clean. Upon further questioning, he revealed that his product has never actually been tested. In short, do not trust homemade expat labels and check the ingredient list on all other salt. Fluoride is also added to salt in South America so most people do try to avoid buying it, but I did not meet one person who knew the dangers associated with YPS, in my opinion, the much more dangerous ingredient. Stick with Himalayan salt or buy the equivalent large pink salt from Bolivia which can be found in supermarkets in La Paz for $2 per kilo.

We have nice memories of Vilcabamba….thank you!!

Vilcabamba is definitely not for everyone, but it’s still be a good place for a raw food community, and I hope to see it thrive!

More on Traveling Raw:

Top 10 Secrets for Good Health and Longevity: How to Create Your Personal ‘Blue Zone’

If you want to know the best way to do something, you find a successful person and ask them how they did it, right?

That’s exactly what researchers have done in search of the healthiest places in the world to live, also known as ‘Blue Zones,’ a term coined by demographers who started mapping out areas of the world where people live measurably longer lives. Two noteworthy books of interest have been written on the subject: The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer by Dan Buettner and Healthy at 100 by John Robbins. I’ve recently found myself drawn more and more to explore what secrets our elders hold in finding the real truth to an anti-aging diet, or a longevity diet or a ‘youthgevity’ diet…probably terms that our elders at 90 years of age and older have never even heard of!

Healthy at 100 by John Robbins

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer

Especially in answering countless questions from workshops and talks around the world, a large portion which involve questions such as ‘what’s the BEST food for (insert dis-ease name here)’ or ‘what’s the BEST supplement I need to take’ or ‘what food will help me (insert goal here: lose weight, be happy, feel great, clear skin, gain energy, cure constipation, improve eyesight, increase fertility, reduce anxiety, etc. etc. etc.),’ I can see from a wider perspective that, well, basically, people are just not getting it! No one food creates disease and no one food cures it either! We have to start looking at the diet and lifestyle as a whole to start getting the results we want.

We all know that no one can eat a handful of watercress and become instantly cured!

I hope you can agree with me there. People don’t want to hear that they may have to make long-term changes to their diet and lifestyle in order to get long-term results, especially in this fast-fix world that’s programmed to appease all instant gratification requests. And, if you try the ‘magic pill method’ by taking every new Dr. Oz must-have supplement, after one year of watching Dr. Oz every day you will need to take 365 supplements per day in order to keep up! Clearly, that doesn’t seem like the best approach to real health!

So, what is it? How do we find the key to Longevity and Happiness?

Healthy at 100 by John Robbins

Healthy at 100 discusses several of the more known but perhaps under-documented world Blue Zones such as the Hunza Valley in Pakistan and Vilcabamba, Ecuador (where I am currently staying for 2 months by the way!) and also discusses more well-documented Blue Zones such as Okinawa, Japan. When I say ‘documented,’ that means being able to prove the person’s identity and being able to verify their date of birth with local birth records, so we can say with absolutely certainty that the centenarian (a person who lives over 100) who lives there is really a centenarian.

Blue Zone vs. SAD Diet

The main difference between a Blue Zone diet and a Standard American Diet (SAD) is that the Blue Zone cultures eat no refined sugar and no refined carbohydrates; and instead eat plenty of whole grains and many vegetables grown locally and in season, and they incorporate healing foods and superfoods into their diet naturally. According to John Robbins, the author of Heathy at 100, “Vegetables play a prominent role in the Hunzan diet, particularly greens, including mustard greens, spinach and lettuce, root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, potatoes, and radishes, an assortment of beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and other sprouted legumes. They cultivate many kinds of herbs for both culinary and medicinal purposes, including mint and thyme. They grow flaxseeds, and rare is the meal that does not contain freshly ground flaxmeal in one form or another. In Hunza, a large part of the diet is eaten uncooked.”

He goes on to explain, “In the summer, as much as 80% of the food is eaten in its natural state. Vegetables in season are picked just prior to consumption and almost always eaten raw. Fresh corn on the bob, for example, is never cooked. In the winter, Hunzans soak lentils, beans and peas in water for several days, then lay them out on wet cloths in the sun. They are eaten raw when they begin to sprout.”

The view from my house in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, an ‘unofficial’ Blue Zone

Exercise also plays a huge role in the anti-aging process. Every area that was researched highlighted daily exercise as an integral part of life, and the people know that this is one of their secrets to vibrant health. “So great is the recognition of the healing power of walking to visit a friend that there is a saying in Vilcabamba that each of us has two ‘doctors’ – the left leg and the right leg,” writes John Robbins.

What’s happening in the good ‘ol USA

  • How many of us numb ourselves with cigarettes, tranquilizers, drugs, alcohol, or unhealthful diets in an effort to escape how isolated we feel?
  • How many of us become chronic workaholics or become preoccupied by other unhealthy obsessions in an attempt to avoid the inner barrenness caused by the breakdown of relationships, family and community?

He adds, “Many of the traditional Okinawan proverbs about eating sound like phrases you might find on the wall of a health food stores in the West. One such proverb translates as “Food should nourish life – this is the best medicine.” And another: “One who eats whole food will be strong and healthy.” If North Americans lived more like the elder Okinawans, we would have to close 80% of the coronary care units and 1/3 of the cancer wards in the United States, and a lot of nursing homes would also be out of business.”

Hmmm, that sounds pretty good to me!

Top 5 Secrets for Longevity and Anti-Aging from Healthy at 100

    1. Eat many colors. Foods’ natural colors are not just treats for the eye but also signs of important nutrients such as antioxidants.

    2. When you crave something crunchy, try raw vegetables or nuts instead of salty chips.

    3. Avoid heating oils to the smoking point. For the fat in your diet, eat walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, avocados and other nuts and seeds.

    4. Shun trans-fatty acids. Stay away from margarine, vegetable shortening, commercial pastries, deep-fried food, and most prepared snacks and convenience foods.

    5. Don’t pollute your body. Don’t eat junk food. Go to your kitchen cupboard and get rid of any food products that no longer serve your potential to be radiantly fit and healthy.

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer

Now, let’s look at the Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer, and see what Dan Buettner, the author, discovered after traveling to 5 current and documented world Blue Zones: Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, the Seventh-Day Adventists community in Southern California USA, and Ikaria in Greece.

“Good Years” is a Very Important Concept

In the book, Robert Kane point out that, “there are two issues here. How long can I live? The other is: How well can I live? And those are different questions. Living an extra two years on life support may not necessarily be your goal. Yes, “Good Years” is a very important concept.”

“You’ve got a bunch of people who are professing to be physicians or scientists, who are saying that they can stop or reverse the aging process. I will tell you that real scientists cannot do such a thing, so what makes the public think that these people can?” asks Tom Perls.

Things that Successful Centenarians Don’t Do

They don’t get plastic surgery or botox i.e. get unnecessary surgeries which can weaken their immune system; They don’t watch excessive amounts of television; They don’t complain, gossip or criticize others; They don’t worry or stress about the small things; They don’t overeat. In Japan, they say “Hara hachi bu” before each meal. This is a Confucian-inspired saying that means “Eat until your are 80 percent full.”

Things that Successful Centenarians Do

They eat natural, whole and pure foods high in flavonoids and natural anti-oxidants; They eat simple, non-processed local foods; They exercise as part of their daily routine, usually walking long distances (more than 2 miles and up to 6 miles) every day; They incorporate healing foods like turmeric, ginger and mugwort into their daily diet; They maintain a sense of purpose, keep a sense of humor and they have a positive outlook on life; They keep the family unit together, taking care of elders within the family even at the later stages in life (that’s the power of love!).

Top 5 Secrets for Longevity and Anti-Aging from The Blue Zones Book

    1. Eat more plants (i.e. leafy greens)! While not all centenarians are vegetarians, they all eat a very high vegetable and fruit-based diet with variety in whole nuts, seeds and grains. If they eat meat or fish, it’s only on occasion and not in the daily diet. They also eat simple meals with only whole, natural ingredients.

    2. Stay active. Get outside and walk every day. Work on a small outdoor garden. Getting regular, low-intensity exercise like daily walks appears to help reduce your chances of having heart disease and certain cancers.

    3. Have a sense of purpose and keep hard at work. Successful centenarians feel needed and want to contribute to a greater good. They enjoy physical work all of their lives (i.e. no couch potatoes!!).

    4. Drink fresh herbal teas made from peppermint, oregano, rosemary, chamomile or sage on a daily basis. Add healing foods like fresh turmeric and ginger to your diet. This helps your body detoxify on a regular basis, naturally!

    5. Take time to rest and fast occasionally. The Seventh-Day Adventists practice a weekly Sabbath or day of rest to spend time with the family and re-connect with nature. In Greece, The Ikarians traditionally follow the Greek Orthodox Christian calendar which calls for periodic fasting throughout the year.

Caloric restriction -a type of fasting that cuts about 30 percent of calories out of the normal diet -is the only proven way to slow the aging process in mammals.

How to Create your ‘Personal Blue Zone’

    1. Eat a high-raw food organic and nutrient-dense diet.
    2. Minimize stress. Laugh More. Enjoy each day!
    3. Exercise daily – get out and move.
    4. Form friendships and meaningful relationships.
    5. Have a sense of purpose with your life.

Or, as Michael Pollan said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Your Happiness and Longevity Matters!

So there you have it! Everything this website and my life’s work is all about will help you to lead a healthy happy, long enjoyable disease-free life! Let’s keep supporting each other on our journeys enjoying good health and a happy life!

More on Longevity: