Horses Made Us Happy in Vilcabamba Ecuador

Horses make you happy.

– Gavin Moor

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Ivo, Mira and Maya in Vilcabamaba

In the greenest part of the Mandango mountains, where the sky meets the forest and the clouds crawl down the rolling hills to spread their mist over the valleys below, we reach a small refuge. A tiny log cabin with a pointy tin roof- perfect for amplifying the inevitable raindrop songs at night. It rains a lot in the end of February in this part of Ecuador, so we know we will get some wet weather for sure. We are OK with it. Rain is part of Nature; it’s good for the land, for the green stuff. Plus, we have jackets, we have hats (not some regular hats, but real leather cowboy hats) and we have a tin roof. And fire under the tin roof. Burritos made on the fire, sweet lemonade, which Gavin prepares with lemons, passion fruit and a hard brown block of cane sugar- the one the horses really love. He grinds the cane sugar and mixes everything with water. We can add rum.

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Hotel-Restaurant International GAVILAN

Gavin is our guide, the guy who organizes horseback riding adventures in the mountains of Vilcabamba. A skinny serious looking cowboy, he doesn’t talk much but listens a lot- the Ecuadorian Clint Eastwood, we call him.

Always a cowboy, Gavin Moore has not always been Ecuadorian. Born in New Zealand, he traveled all over the world and lived in a bunch of different countries, before he moved to Vilcabamba for good, I am not sure how many years ago. And here, in the greenest part of the Mandango mountains, where the sky meets the forest and the clouds crawl down the rolling hills to spread their mist over the valley below, he built the small refuge right at the edge of a National Park, in the heart of a lush cloud forest, where he is taking tourists on a two- or three-day horseback riding trips.

This time, we are the tourists. With us is also a young backpacker from Belgium and Gavin’s 12-year-old daughter Isabel, who came especially to spend time with Maya. They became instant good friends and still keep in touch.

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Gavin and his daughter Isabel

Our horse adventure- the highlight of our travels in Ecuador, started in the village of Vilcabamba early one morning.

Vilcabamba

Vilcabamba, a village in the southern region of Ecuador in the province of Loja, is a popular tourist destination as well as a popular retreat for retired ex-pats looking for peaceful life in a healthy evergreen scenic countryside. It is most popular with the extreme longevity of its inhabitants, where it is said that many have reached 120, even up to 135 years of age thanks to the remarkable medicinal qualities of the local plants, the mineral rich water, the steady mountain climate (eternal spring) and the healthy lifestyle of the locals in general. A few clever people have become billionaires selling healthy products all over the world made with plants, fruits and water from Vilcabamaba. The area is known as ‘The Valley of Longevity’, with the oldest inhabitants in the world.

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Tobacco – probably one of the ‘medicinal plants’

This sounds very interesting and hopeful, but is totally not true. In 1971 a Harvard Medical School researcher went to investigate the longevity rumors. He met a local guy, who told him he was 122-years-old. Three years later, the same guy told him, he was 134. In fact he was not even 100. Scientists then determined that the average age of those Vilcabamabans claiming to be over 100 years was actually 86, and the oldest person was 96. “Individual longevity in Vilcabamba is little, if any, different from that found throughout the rest of the world. Life expectancy at all ages in Vilcabamba is in fact less than in the U.S.”, the researchers concluded.

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The Valley of Longevity

The brightest example of age exaggeration in Vilcabamaba is that of Miguel Carpio Mendieta. In 1944 he was 61, but told everyone he was 70. Five years later he said he was 80 and at the age of 87, he had a reputation of a 121-year-old man. In 1974, at age 91, he was “127”! But why are the Vilcabamaba’s elderly lying about their age? Turned out, some of the old folks of Vilcabamaba are tricksters who love to gain prestige in the local community as well as international publicity, which still attracts not only many visitors, but also rich retired foreigners who come here to buy property and hopefully live longer in the miracle ‘Valley of Longevity’.

House in Vilcabamba

Anyway. We love the place, longevity or no longevity. It’s a beautiful clean village surrounded by green mountains, with colorful old and new houses, balconies, a nice little town square with a fountain and the inevitable church. Lots of hostels, shops and restaurants where we see as many gringos as locals, if not more, and there is no telling if the gringos are visitors or locals themselves.  Very relaxed atmosphere mixed with fresh mountain air and the smell of empanadas.

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Street in Vilcabamaba

Caballos Gavilan

Here, we ask a random person for ‘the New Zealander cowboy’ and are immediately referred to a small shop- Caballos Gavilan. Everyone knows him. There we meet our Ecuadorian Clint Eastwood. In fact, he really acted in a film- a Bulgarian production- something about the conquistadors, filmed a few years ago around his hut. So we are not the first Bulgarians he takes there.

Gavin is also a poet and a publish author of 10 books. You can check him out on Amazon @Gavin Moore.

The next day, we are each assigned a horse. Ivo gets an old black stallion named Tornado who will be the leader, Maya’s horse is gentle grey and as big and experienced as Ivo’s horse. Mine is a small black-and-white young and very stubborn creature, named Apache who has been up the mountain only one time and has to stay at the back of the line and keep up. I can tell he doesn’t like me much, even though I try to be gentle and loving with him. It just doesn’t click. But we manage to stick together with no incidents the entire time.

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Maya and her horse

We ride. Slowly, the horses walk on a narrow path through the forest, always up, across a shallow river and then up a steep muddy hill, always up. At places we walk next to the horses- it’s too vertical, to muddy and too heavy for the animals to carry us and all our bags with food and stuff for two days.

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The green valley of Vilcabamba is now lying at our feet surrounded by forested mountains under blue skies.

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We start at 1,480 meters. We ride and hike for about 4-5 hours before we reach the refuge at 2,500 meters. After a quick belated lunch, we leave the girls to play with their little plastic toy-animals in the hut and we start on foot for the cloud forest, Gavin, the Belgian girl, Ivo and I. But the cloud forest soon turns to a rain forest and we hurry back down, wet and cold. We surround the fireplace with our soaked shoes, socks and clothes and we spend the rest of the afternoon preparing our sleeping quarters, which are in another wooden tin-roofed building next door, and watching Gavin making burritos and guacamole. He wouldn’t let us help with the cooking no matter what. We eat dinner on candle light.

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The horses are peacefully grazing outside the hut. We can hear them in the dark, walking, eating grass, snorting, neighing. We realize with amazement that this is a completely different world away from civilization and technology, a world of hundreds of years ago, where we can be really close to nature. With sweet nostalgia, we share the immense beauty and tranquility of these fleeting moments with our gentle companions- the horses.

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 Horse Facts

  • Horses make you happy
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  • Horses can sleep standing up
  • Horses live 20-25 years
  • Horses have the biggest eyes of any other land mammal
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  • Horses can see almost 360 degrees
  • Most of the time, wherever a horse’s ear is pointing is where the horse is looking with the eye on the same side. If the ears are pointing in different directions, the horse is looking at two different things at the same time
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  • Horses make you happy
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  • Horses use their ears, eyes and nostrils to express their mood. They also communicate their feelings through facial expressions .
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  • Horses can not vomit.
  • Horses produce approximately 10 gallons of saliva a day
  • Horses drink at least 25 gallons of water a day
  • Horses are social animals and will get lonely if kept alone, and they will mourn the passing of a companion
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  • Horses are undeniably clever animals. Beyond being proficient at relatively simple learning tasks, they are also recognized as having the capacity to solve advanced cognitive challenges involving categorization learning and a degree of concept formation.
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  • The horse is one of the 12 Chinese signs of the zodiac. Anyone born in the year of the horse is seen to embody the characteristics of the animal, namely intelligence, independence and a free-spirit.
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  • Horses can fly without wings

Caballos Gavilan @Calle Sucre 10-30 C, Vilcabamba, (593) 07 0981332806

Facebook @ Caballos Gavilan

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Watch our short YouTube video- Two Months in the Andes With Maya

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Watch us on YouTube @Fata Morgana

 

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