“Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway” (John Wayne)
We booked our horseback riding adventure with Caballos Gavilan and went on a 4 1/2-hour trail ride into the mountains close to Vilcabamba, a small town in southern Ecuador, about an hour south of Loja. For the location, click here: Map of Ecuador.
Imagine riding a horse along a narrow, rocky trail, skirting a steep drop-off, hundreds of feet above the valley floor below – in some places, the horse’s hooves just inches from the edge. A scary experience, but we’re glad we did it. Well, not all of us made it – Robin was terrified.
About half-way up, she refused to go any further and walked back to town…I don’t blame her. She was brave to make it as far as she did! I just kept telling myself, “The horse has made this trip a hundred times – he knows what he’s doing. Relax!”.
The ride began not far from downtown Vilcabamba. We walked from the booking office to meet Angelo, where we mounted up and rode along paved streets, cars beeping their horns as they passed. The pavement turned into a dirt road leading to a river crossing, eventually coming to a narrow trail leading up into the mountains.
Used for many years, parts of the trail have been worn down into deep gulleys, some sections barely wide enough for the horses to fit through. As we rode higher, views of the valley below appeared. The scenery was fantastic and the weather was great, with a short rain shower to cool us off on our return trip.
We rode along a fantastically scenic trail overlooking a gorgeous valley – the views were incredible. The trail is narrow, rocky, and crooked, and in some places, it appeared that the horses were going to walk off the edge of the mountain – this trip is not for the faint-hearted! It wasn’t long after this that Robin decided she’d had enough excitement for one day…
A small abandoned adobe farmhouse, surrounded by fields, appeared and we dismounted, allowing the horses to rest and graze while we hiked down a trail to a small waterfall. The trail was steep and ended with a rope to help get to the bottom. A cool mist from the falls was refreshing after bouncing around in a saddle in the hot sun for a couple of hours.
On the way back to Vilcabamba, we rode down ridges that didn’t seem so steep on the way up! Zigzagging along the twisting trail, the horses walked slowly, picking their way. I leaned back as far as possible in my saddle, legs straight, pushing on the stirrups, hanging on for dear life.
My horse was satisfied with bringing up the rear – until we got back to the dirt road. He decided to trot and then gallop past the horse ahead – yeehaw! We parked the horses outside a little store and had cold beers before heading back to town. Another great day in Ecuador!
Shorter, 2-hour rides are available, along with longer, 3-day excursions farther into the mountains. If you’re an inexperienced rider (like me), be sure to let them know ahead of time so they supply you with the calm, gentle horses. Whichever trip you decide on, be sure to wear a hat to protect you from the sun, hiking boots, and take plenty of drinking water.
I’ve seldom been this sore – my calfs ached, my thigh muscles were tender, my back and neck hurt, and my rein arm was bruised from the saddle horn. I felt good just the same – another great memory to talk about down the road…
Vilcabamba, or Sacred Valley, was once a retreat for Incan royalty. At 1500 metres (4400 feet) the weather is perfect all year round. The valley is said to be protected from earthquakes and other natural disasters by the mountain Mandango, or the Sleeping Inca, which overlooks the town.
Vilcabamba is a small town, very relaxed, surrounded by scenic mountains – I love visiting. You can unwind at a sidewalk café and have a meal or just enjoy a coffee or beer and watch the people. Surprisingly, there are a lot of immigrants there, mostly from North America.
Less than an hour south of the city of Loja by bus – which cost us $1.25 each – Vilcabamba generates very laid back vibes, with an attractive central town square, relaxing places to sit outside, and occasional live entertainment. We lucked out with the music and poetry of George Page while we enjoyed our meals and beers.
The “Valley of Longevity” is famous for its old residents, some claiming to be well over 100 years old. Research has been carried out to find the reason for this longevity, with no definite answer…could it be the water?
There are a few downsides to Vilcabamba. With many foreigners moving to the area, buying land and building expensive houses, prices have risen. Some of the locals have benefitted, others don’t like the invasion. Animosity toward outsiders does exist, even though Ecuadorians are a very welcoming people.
There are several great places to stay in Vilcabamba – we chose Izhcayluma. As you enter, you see a sign that says “You are now entering a stress-free zone” – how true. It’s a beautiful place and I highly recommend it. It’s situated on a hill with fantastic views, has a small pool, yoga in the mornings, a restaurant with a view, a bar with pool and ping-pong, massage therapy, and hammocks for total relaxation.
You can walk on the self-guided hiking trails and stone walkways through the gardens within the resort area or venture on overnight backpacking trips leading into the mountains of Podocarpus National Park. There are rooms for every budget, from inexpensive dorms for backpackers, to private cabins with queen-sized beds.
Wi-fi is free, travel and activity information is available at the front desk, you can begin your horseback riding adventure from the parking lot, and taxis to town are readily available – or if you don’t mind a long hike, you can walk down to town.
A few more photos of Vilcabamba and Izhcayluma:
Vilcabamba is a great little town with much to offer. I love the laid-back atmosphere – and the weather is simply perfect. It’s a great place to relax, take a leisurely stroll, hike into the mountains, or enjoy the thrill of a horseback ride along a precarious trail. We’ll be returning soon to enjoy more sidewalk music and another stay at Izhcayluma.