Gringo Monologues: Conspiracy Theories in the Valley of Longevity

“All the best stories are but one story in reality – the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.” — A. C. Benson

It had never occurred to us to ask, “Where do conspiracy theorists go for early retirement?”

Then we visited Vilcabamba, a little town in southern Ecuador.

Across the developed world, there’s a rich business in convincing prospective retirees to up stakes and retire overseas. The concepts of lifestyle arbitrage and starting over are compelling to many: a retirement savings account might buy a better lifestyle abroad than it could back home while the economic hatch provides an escape into a new life.

Rainbow on the Way to Vilcabamba, Ecuador
Vilcabamba’s Pot of Gold?

Throughout our travels in Asia and Europe, we’ve met many people doing just this. Then in Latin America, the deluge: from sun-baked houseboat retirees in Rio Dulce, Guatemala to middle-aged real estate flippers on Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua, retirement south of the border is de rigeur.

On the surface, Vilcabamba seemed to fit the same retirement-ideal profile. Its aesthetic recalled the desert southwest: red rocks, blue skies, dry air. Its moniker, The Valley of Longevity, suggested it might just be a good place to grow old. And the whole package – we’re told — is relatively low cost.

But there was something different about Vilcabamba. Something – let’s say a la Roswell, New Mexico.

We couldn’t sit down for a meal without being cornered by a stranger hoping to inform our understanding of the world with an unsolicited dump of the world’s latest conspiracy theories. In a few days, our education included everything from the illuminati and their plans to cull the human race by propagating tainted H1N1 flu vaccines to a 1950s U.S. government cover-up of the orgone accumulator.

We even learned about the fascism of the pelvis.

Add to this the widely circulated 9//11 and UFO theories, and you’ve got yourself a night on the town.

It’s all true. You can look it up on the internet,” we were told repeatedly.

Oh, the irony of selective skepticism.

The whole experience fired our curiosity. Why might those prone to conspiracy theorizing seek utopia in this far off land? To find out, we buttonholed one of Vilcabamba’s foreigners as he was making plans to set down roots in the area and we asked him a few questions.

Note: The internet is a tiny place. Names have been changed to protect both the guilty and the innocent.

—————–

Uncornered Market (UCM): In our travels so far in South America, Vilcabamba appears to be home to a very high concentration of recently arrived expatriates.

Pat X: In fact, the ex-pat community amounts to less than 300–maybe less than 250.

UCM: Out of a local population of 4000, that sounds like a lot.

UCM: What is it that attracts so many foreigners to Vilcabamba? How do people hear of Vilcabamba in the first place?

Pat X: A rumor’s going around that Mandango, the sandstone formation above the village, contains a crackpot magnet. If that’s not provable, then you’d have to look to International Living and other real-estate promotions, equally over-romanticized personal blogs, and word of mouth among the disaffected types that seek refuge in remote places presumed capable of supplying real and abstract amenities.

UCM: How did you find out about Vilcabamba and why did you choose it?

Pat X: I wandered through and was appalled. In fact, I’d never consider living on this ship of fools.

UCM: In the short time we stayed in Vilcabamba, we met a variety of characters. How would you characterize the expats who have chosen to live there?

Pat X: Exactly as you have: as characters–many of whom seem paranoid, or xenophobic, or deluded, or unprepared for foreign life, or on the run from personal inadequacies that they blame on something or somewhere else. Mix and match as you care to. A few exceptions exist: some learn Spanish, integrate into the outlying communities, and, usually, avoid the village whenever they can.

UCM: At a local restaurant, we noticed a sign in English asking people to stop gossiping about each other. We thought that was a rather adult way to diffuse a situation. What is the story there?

Pat X: To call it “adult” would be to idealize the population it was addressing. The notice came and went–the gossip stayed.

Think of it as a permutation of “nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here”: the Ecuadorian locals are left out, for the most part–they’re deprived of land because it’s either sold or too expensive to buy, and except for those in tourist-related niches, they’re out of the rich life. In fact, they generally can’t even graze their cattle on unused land because the foreign buyers won’t go for it. So, if you put aside the few foreigners who have managed to join the community (and by that, I mean participate in and even properly benefit it), then what’s left is the sort of person who chooses to live permanently in a place that’s really meant to be temporary.

UCM: Are there different “camps” of expatriates?

Pat X: Of course. Most are divided by the conspiracy theories they espouse; and these groups, if advanced, may have subdivided into sects. For example, there are divisions among the UFO believers, and those espousing miracle solutions (e.g., to medical or energy problems), and those believing in separate agencies that are planning the conquest/destruction of–again, feel free to mix and match–humankind, good people (i.e., themselves), the poor, the rich, the whatever.

UCM: What are the top conspiracy theories circulating in Vilcabamba these days?

Pat X: “They” are conspiring to keep “Them” from giving us X or to deprive/hurt/kill “Them” with Y. “They” are any group to which power may be assigned (including aliens and other-dimensionals; and “Them” are everyone championed by whoever’s espousing the theory. “X” might be free clean energy, miracle cures and whatever other utopian benefit the theorists believe in but don’t in fact work to create or even know much about. “Y” is any substance or system deemed deleterious.

For example, the World Health Organization is using airliners (alleged by some to be only the white ones–though when sunlit at a height of seven miles, all look white) to spray humans with (poisons, mutagens, nanobots, additives, etc.), and that this explains the contrails that planes emit. And let’s not forget world-wide fascism, economic collapse, anarchy, and various other doomsday scenarios, from all of which their evangelists think Vilcabamba will provide refuge.

Recently it was averred that Michael Jackson was murdered because he was going to denounce the H1N1 vaccine–but if, as some allege, he was an extraterrestrial, how could that be?

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Comments

  1. says

    Wow, this is pretty wild. My notion of expats has always been a lot more of a higher-level expectation that they move into these places to more assimilate with the cultures and gain some sort of benefit they didn’t feel they had when they were in their own countries – and then there’s this town.

    The mystery still stands though – why did all of these paranoid expats all choose *this* same tiny community?! I am fascinated, simply fascinated.

  2. says

    There are definitely some interesting cats in Vilcabamba, but that’s what made the place interesting for me (well, that and the hiking). I think that like minded people attract each other…as soon as there were a couple, word spread and people started flocking.

  3. says

    Fascinating! As I read along, my question was, “Why are these types of folks attracted to Vilcabamba?? Poof! The interview appeared. I play with interviews on my site as well, and quite love them. Could be because focusing on someone else is the lure, but mainly it’s about gaining insight into that person or a place. To answer your question about Uncornered Market guides, I wouldn’t change a thing. Many other sites offer basic tips, etc. What yours does is offer a holistic view of a destination, wrapped up in stunning photos and tips that reconfigure how we travel. Keep it up!

  4. says

    We stayed a couple of nights in Vilcabamba and definitely noticed there were a lot of strange ex-pats living there. We tried to enjoy the hiking, but it had been so rainy that the mud was inches deep and literally sucked off my shoes. We did get a bit of sun though and had some great views…and managed to find a few locals. Also the bus station in Loja had these excellent fried pastries that were very reminiscent of malasadas. Mmmm. I enjoyed the interview. Funny stuff.

  5. says

    Shannon: From our experiences living in Prague for five years and then meeting all sorts of expats on the road, we’ve seen that they do run the spectrum, from the fully funded corporate expat to the entrepreneur expat who wants to experience something new to retirees and lifestyle arbitrage expats. There’s probably a whole book waiting to be written on it!

    As for how so many ended up in this tiny community, it probably started with a few moving there and telling their friends. Then publications/newsletters like Escape from America and International Living started to publicize it as a pleasant, inexpensive place to retire – we met a few people who ended up in Vilcabamba through these newsletters. It’s still fascinating though.

    @Kyle: Each time we went out in Vilcabamba was like a new adventure because of the people we met. Everyone was really eager to share his/her story and views on life (i.e., conspiracy theories). The setting there is also beautiful – we thought we’d stay three days and stayed a week.

    @Nomadic Chick: What better way to share a story than ask a person who knows it better than you? We’re going to have a few more interviews in the next few weeks with people/experts we’ve met on the road. Thanks for the feedback on the Uncornered Market guides – glad our photos and info help inspire travel and are useful practically!

    @Theresa: We were fortunately with the weather during most of our visit and tried to do some biking around. But, we ended up not doing as much hiking around because the terrace of RendezVous guest house with a view of the red rocks around was one of the best places in the world to write. We’d return for a writing retreat :)

  6. says

    Sounds like a great place to visit. I can get my fill of all the conspiracy theories of the world in one place. I am a little behind lately. I used to work with a cameraman that was up on all the theories and he would tell me all about them. As I take them with a grain of salt, I still love hearing the stories and ideas and seeing the passion in their beliefs. Love the Michael Jackson theory at the end. HN1N Crusador and Alien combined. I didn’t know he was so busy:-)

  7. says

    @Dave and Deb: Some of the conspiracy theories we’ve come across truly fall into the category of “truth is stranger than fiction.” If you decide you want to get updated on all the conspiracy theories at once, stop by Vilcabamba on your journey!

  8. says

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for ages now, although this is the first time I’ve been moved to leave a comment.
    I’m on a long-term (2-yr?) journey through Latin America, and got stuck in Vilcabamba for 2 1/2 months.. after only planning on being there for a few days! The scenery is superb, the hiking and horseback riding are wonderful, the living is cheap and easy.. but mostly it was the cast of characters you mention that drew me in. They’re fascinating folks.. some crackpots, some not, but approached from an anthropological point of view, they’re all worth getting to know. Some of the most fascinating conversations of my entire trip thus far were with these cats.
    I wrote some long blog posts about my experiences, including an in-depth analysis of the various conspiracy theories I heard discussed, on my travel blog. Check it out here:
    http://thetechtable.net/blog/tag/vilcabamba/

    Buen viaje!

  9. says

    @Josh: Great to see you here and glad that you are enjoying our site. Vilcabamba is definitely an attractive place, a point we probably don’t sufficiently elaborate on in this post. After all, it’s the beauty and atmosphere that attract so many short- and long-term visitors. We too spent more time there than we had expected. Glad you are enjoying your time and conversations there. It’s easy to do.

  10. says

    I gotta say-I spent some time in Vilcabamba and fell in love with it. Although, I did not meet any weird ex-pats or conspiracy theorists. Perhaps if I had, I would not have such glowing reviews of it ;) At any rate, when I left, I was convinced that I wanted to spend my honeymoon there (and I wasn’t even engaged OR dating anyone for that matter!)

  11. says

    @Claire: I suppose we should have begun this piece by mentioning that we spent a week in Vilcabamba (more time than expected) and really enjoyed ourselves, in particular in the company of the folks who run Le Rendez-Vous. (I believe we mention that in another piece or somewhere else on our site). We would recommend a visit to Vilcabamba, independent of the likelihood of meeting a conspiracy theorist.

    But we tend to talk to a lot of people wherever we go and those conversations expose the nature and character of the places we visit. People say a lot about a place — and Vilcabamba is no exception. Although this piece may not capture the entirety of what Vilcabamba is (it’s not intended to), it accurately represents our experience. And it’s apparently resonant, at least based on a number of follow-on conversations we’ve had with others about the town.

  12. says

    isn’t it funny how people’s experiences can vary so differently in the same location? good post-going to send the link to the friends who were also on that trip. while i can chuckle at some of the weird theories you encountered, the saddest part is that the Ecuadorian locals appear to be barred from enjoying the same types of lives as ex-pats in their own village, their own country, and their own land. We did see several amazing houses while we were there and wondered just who they belonged to.

    PS-we stayed at Hosteria Izhcayluma. did you run into it while you were there? awesome spot.

  13. says

    @Claire: So true: it’s possible to walk the same path and experience an entirely different world. About the Ecuadorian locals, that’s the bit in this piece that I hoped more people might respond to, so I’m glad that you did. There’s nothing wrong with moving around and into various communities, but as our interviewee Pat X points out rather accurately: some people do it rather heavy-handedly. This not only does a disservice to locals, but also rather ironically to the expats themselves.
    Regarding the place we stayed, we took a glowing recommendation from a Sicilian couple that we met at the fish market cafeteria in Puerto Lopez. And we ended up staying a few days longer in Vilcabamba than we had planned.

  14. says

    This is a great article about Vilcabamba.. I first went there in 2004 and have been back only to see more and more expats.. Not the greatest but glad that the spirit of those who came before is still there. Loved the part about the sign in the restaurant asking people to stop gossiping about each other..

  15. Oscar says

    Sorry to hear about the “Conspiracy Theories” in Vilcabamba. We have enough of that in our politics. I have been looking for a place to spend my “Retirement Years”. I am sixty-eight and plan to find ” my place” by my Dec 8th 2012, my birthday. I have traveled to Costa Rica five times and Ecuador is next on my list. Thank all of you for your comments

  16. says

    @Oscar: Conspiracy theories in politics only seem to be getting worse everywhere. Vilcabamba is a really beautiful place, but as the population is so small it would be hard to stay away from town/people politics if that’s what you’d like (as I would). If you like cities, Cuenca is a really nice town not too far away from Vilcabamba. Otherwise, just travel around Ecuador until you find someplace you really enjoy – it’s a beautiful country. Good luck finding your place!

  17. Oscar says

    Audrey, thanks for the responce. There is no substitute for gathering info like visiting a place. I will be in touch. Thanks again !

  18. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    I am surprised by this, but this article was a very interesting read. I thought older expats were people from the US who did want to arbitrage their lifestyle for a better one somewhere else; but they also wanted to mingle as well with the local population.

    But I find it believable that there would be a lot of crazy conspiracy theorists among them. Is there something in the soil in Villacamba or is this a universal phenomenon to be found in other expat communities as well?

  19. says

    @Sutapa: I think there might be a difference between what you think you want to do before you move and what happens when you are in your new location. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision not to mingle with the local population. Many people get afraid of learning a new language and when the surroundings are new and different, people look for familiarity in community.

    Vilcabamba is unique in that it is very concentrated into a small community (town is 4,000 people) so you see the conspiracy theories a lot. However, we’ve also come across this in pockets of expats in Nicaragua, Thailand and other popular places.

  20. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Audrey, why do you call this a Valley of Longevity? Are older people living longer in Vilcabamba? Or is there an influx of older, healthier Americans?

  21. says

    @Sutapa: Vilcabamba has been known locally as the Valley of Longevity for a long time because people usually live to a late age there. Whether this has to do with the minerals in the water or something special in the mountains, no one knows exactly.

  22. Jennifer says

    refreshing to see that there are some level-headed people passing through Gringobamba. You only missed the group of very newly arrived Gringos who complain that town is too full of Gringos and whom are looking for land near but outside of the town because they want to get away from (as in live on a mountain close to) the gringos ;-)

  23. says

    @Jennifer: That is fabulously rich, and a sidesplittingly funny description to boot. Sounds like you have the making of a skit. Actually, I sort of always thought Vilcabamba would be ripe for shooting a movie, on location. Reality TV, even. Reality Vilcabamba TV.

    OK, now I’m getting ahead of myself.

    Thank you for your comment, reaffirming what we thought we saw and heard and for giving us a good laugh!

  24. 10hawks says

    This is cute, but actually the spraying of toxins is real and is called Operation Cloverleaf. It is primarily a CIA/Pentagon-run program, begun in the late
    90s, funded by the banking Cartel. I don’t believe the WHO or UN is involved on any pragmatic level.

  25. Cody says

    Yeah come on I mean we have to be the only intelligent life out of billions and billions of solar systems that our highly intelligent population does not have technology to explore.

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