Within the village of Vilcabamba, apart from the tiny zoo (Centro Recreacional Yamburara, daily 8am-5pm, $0.50), there is little to keep you occupied for more than an afternoon, unless you have some sort of strange addiction to cheap massages, found all over the village for no more than $8 an hour. Even the food, which seems to be always of a high quality, and which was perfect for my vegetarian loving girlfriend where healthy, home-grown recipes are found in all restaurants. Today saw an activity participated in, that many people come to the area for (not including the relaxed atmosphere, hallucinogenic cactus powder and the gateway to Peru), the harsh activity of hiking.
Today was going to be the first I hoped of many hiking trips, with a trip to the nearby Cerro Mandango, the face like rock that looms over the south western side of Vilcabamba. From the leaflet received at the tourist information office (Parque Central, daily except Tuesday and Friday 8am-Noon and 2pm-6pm), this seemed to be one of the easiest and most frequented hikes around Vilcabamba and indeed the first part of the route was very easy to follow, passing the entrance and paying the $1.50, which granted you access to the main hiking trail plus a bottle of water and a packet of brown sugar, which I’m sure would provide useful nutrition if you somehow managed to get lost. I wasn't quite happy that the attendant asked a number of questions regarding the amount of money we were carrying, I presume due to some robberies on the trail in the near past, but luckily no such thugs frequented the paths during my visit.
After an hours worth of walking and struggling up the steep rocky paths, passing ridiculous numbers of colourful butterflies, feeding on the flowers of the highland shrubs, the first summit was made, a hill a few hundred metres short of Cerro Mandango, which overlooks the village. A cross marks the highest point, protecting the town from bad and evil spirits. From my pin-point observations it seemed the cross performed little than the noble act of allowing hikers to scribble their names into the fading and peeling white paint.
Upon reaching the top a fellow hiker who had been attempting to carry on to the top of Cerro Mandango, accosted my girlfriend and I, and explained she had tried to no avail to reach the top. Hearing this news made us feel a bit sceptical about carrying on, especially with the added threats of mugging, so it was decided that the accomplishment made so far was a good starter and would allow another hike in the afternoon to the Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve, a place that boasts of a birders paradise, with over 150 different species accounted for here. Not being a 'birder' myself, even I was excited at such a statement.
Before the descent could be made a Scottish couple joined us at the top, who judging by their high quality maps and GPS guiding system were true professional hikers. They didn't seem shy of this fact when our new friend told them of her hardships, scoffing at her attempts before carrying on without a care in the world, noses stuck obnoxiously towards the overhead sun, striding quickly towards the upper reaches of Cerro Mandango. Looking back at Cerro Mandango on our descent back to Vilcabamba, the Scottish hikers could be seen happily prancing around the summit, something I have to say I was a tad jealous of.
After eating dinner to recharge low batteries, and listening to a guy on the adjacent table boasting to some study abroad students of his amazing life as an Antarctic researcher, it was time to start the second hike of the day, to the nearby private nature reserve of Rumi Wilco, passing the River Chamba, where half the female population of Vilcabamba had come to wash their weeks laundry, their naked children playing joyfully in the water.
Picking up a guide at the entrance of Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve, which highlighted the different trails on offer, I was determined to reach the highest, furthest point away from where I was standing, which I hoped would not only give great views over the surrounding valley but would also make up for not reaching the summit of Cerro Mandango earlier that day. Sadly this was a huge mistake as little did my girlfriend and I know that most of the trails hadn't seen a slice of maintenance in an ice age, especially the one chosen to venture upon. I'm sorry but walking up a near vertical rock face, fighting against the sharp blades of grass, which after half an hours worth of walking had cut my legs to ribbons, isn't my idea of a fun afternoon. Flowers depositing their clingy, sticky seeds to every part of my body didn't help matters and before long I looked like a homeless beggar.
Although great views were had over the valley and of Vilcabamba, all but two of the 150+ bird species said to frequent here failed to show themselves. All the wildlife seen was a couple of grasshoppers and a slug infestation, that made their slippery trails across the hiking trails and which took a great deal of concentration to avoid from squashing to the bottom of your shoes. Not the nicest sensation in the world. After a couple of hours hiking across the valley and with legs looking like someone had taking a razor to them, I admitted defeat for the second time that day and headed back towards the entrance. What a failure!
Even though targets for the day were not achieved, the day ended in success with a meal at El Jardin (The Hidden Garden, Calle Sucre), one of the best Mexican Restaurants I have eaten at during my time in South America. The food soothed my aching limbs ready for an even more ambitious days worth of hiking the following day, a good six hour round journey into Podocarpus National Park to a set of waterfalls quoted as being one best waterfall walks within the Vilcabamba vicinity. Treating myself to a cone of coconut ice-cream before returning back to Hostal Valle Sagrado, it was amazing the difference a single night can make, now being hard pressed to see a single person out on the main plaza, apart from a rather annoying group of loud, screaming American exchange students who would have been more at home on some Hawaiian Island, their upper bodies covered in freshly picked flowers. I suppose they just add to the strange mix of people found here.