The longer I spent in Ecuador, the less I felt I had actually seen. I tacked on Cuenca, initially planning for it to be my final stop in Ecuador. A week later, I tacked on Loja, and naturally, I found myself in the small village of Vilcabamba. Despite its small size, Vilcabamba is rich in outdoor activities and adventures. For such a small town, the five days I spent in Vilcabamba did not even feel like close to enough time. A few hikes, a horseback ride, and lots of aimless wandering led me to fall in love with this village in the mountains.
The beauty of Vilcabamba can’t be overstated. It is something you truly have to see for yourself. For most people traveling through Ecuador, it might feel a bit out of the way. For the rare traveler who finds themselves in Vilcabamba, they are treated to indescribable treasures off the beaten path.
Backpacking in Vilcabamba felt like finding a tranquil oasis hidden away in the endless mountains of Ecuador. It was a peaceful few days where you could feel at one with nature.
How To Get To Vilcabamba
If you’re coming from the northern parts of Ecuador, you’ll have to make a pit stop in Loja first. From Cuenca, it is about four hours to Loja then an additional 45 minutes to get to Vilcabamba. The winding mountain roads add a lot of time to the seemingly short distance. If it’s any consolation, the views are incredible.
If you are coming from Peru, the journey might be pretty treacherous. You can take a bus from Chachapoyas or if you are driving yourself, you’ll have to deal with one hell of a journey. The border crossing is pretty desolate and pretty simple, so you don’t have to worry too much about that, though. Vilcabamba is about four hours from the border, despite looking much closer.
Where To Stay in Vilcabamba
Hosteria Izhcayluma has no business being only $9.50 a night for a bed. The cabin is spacious, cozy, and more luxurious than any hostel room needs to be. Throw in free yoga classes, a swimming pool, and a large property to roam around in and you’ve got one of the best values for a hostel I’ve ever encountered. It is within walking distance to many of Vilcabamba’s best trails, including the Izhcayluma Loop, San Jose trail, and more.
The Top Things To Do In Vilcabamba
This was one of the most beautiful hikes I did in all of Ecuador. After eating three desserts the night before, I decided I needed to do something physically tasking. Despite the brutal midday heat and the pool at Izhcayluma calling my name, I decided to tag along with Josh on what he claimed would be a simple two-hour hike. Walking through some overgrown brush, a dry riverbed, and hopping or ducking under a dozen barbed wire fences, we made it the bottom of ridge.
We hiked upwards towards a seemingly endless goal. The higher we got, the higher it seemed we had to go. Eventually, the views started becoming worth it. The heat was brutal and I would absolutely recommend starting a bit earlier. However, with every peak and dip of the ridge, the views grew more and more stunning. I had never seen such endless views of mountains in every direction. Layer after layer of sierras revealed themselves the higher up we got. With the sun beginning to set, the rays shining through whatever crag it could sneak past made for an ever-changing view.
Despite not knowing what I was getting into, it turned out to be one of my favorite hikes in all of Ecuador. It was a challenge but it was absolutely worth it.
Horseback riding really isn’t my thing. Or at least, I thought it wasn’t until I got to Vilcabamba. I jokingly brought up the idea to my friend Melvin who took it and ran with it. A few days later, we found ourselves galloping on the road.
Four hours of this? I thought to myself miserably as I bounced up and down focused solely on not falling off. Eventually, we found ourselves at a trailhead that ran along the mountains. The pace slowed down and the higher we got, the more incredible the views became. It was a calming experience where I couldn’t wipe the cheeky grin off my face no matter how many times the horses in front of me dropped a dookie.
Podocarpus National Park
This is a massive national park bordering Vilcabamba and boasting incredible forests along the mountains. It has tons of amazing hikes and scenery that you can enjoy. I only went once while horseback riding but it was absolutely beautiful views throughout. Many of the hikes in Vilcabamba also give you scenic views of this huge national reserve.
Have A Coffee At The Main Plaza
Vilcabamba’s main square is a bit weird, I’ll admit. My friend had warned me prior to my arrival that Vilcabamba could feel like a cult town due to the dozens and dozens of elderly American expats that now call the town home. We sat down at a cafe for brunch and were surrounded by all sorts of Americans. It was weird to say the least.
However, the many restaurants lining the plaza boast some amazing food and drinks. It is a perfect place to watch life go by and people-watch the many interesting characters that have found themselves in Vilcabamba. It is a tranquil spot filled with greenery and highlighted by the colorful church.
Hike Along The River to Rumi Wilco
We were looking for a local market but got lost because we had no idea where it was. Luckily, it led us to this riverside trail that took us through bamboo forests and some beautiful local scenes. If you follow the trail all the way, you can end up at Rumi Wilco, a beautiful forest reserve where you can find all sorts of unique wildlife and gorgeous scenery.
The Mandango Trail
This is the most popular trail in Vilcabamba although I didn’t actually do it myself. The hostel recommended doing other trails as there had been some robberies reported on this trail. Despite having a relatively large group of about five people, we opted to use our time for more relaxing activities. Hiking the Mandango Trail was at the top of my list when I arrived in Vilcabamba but sometimes plans change. I’m happy with everything else we were able to do and don’t feel like I missed out on too much. If you are dead set on hiking the Mandango Trail, make sure to go with a big group and try to go early before the blazing sun kicks in.
Visit The Waterfalls At Podocarpus National Park
At the halfway point of our horseback riding adventure, we ended up at these beautiful and refreshing waterfalls. The locals believe it provides eternal youth, which might not be true but it does feel good either way. This is one of the most popular trails for travelers in Vilcabamba so you shouldn’t have any problem finding it. It is a long trail with a lot of uphill and downhill stretches but once you make it to the waterfalls, nothing will feel more refreshing.
Where To Eat in Vilcabamba
The strange thing about Vilcabamba is that for how small it is, there is a large presence of expats and retirees. Because of this, there are quite a few restaurants and cafes that are way nicer than they should be in rural Ecuador. A lot of these boast modern features and beautifully decorated properties, from the interior design to their large gardens. And of course, delicious food.
United Falafel Organization
Its location right next to the church and its name was an immediate draw for us. I mean, who doesn’t love falafel? The first time we stumbled into this place, a couple of us were very high so an exotic garden, comfortable couches, and incredible food made for the ultimate combination.
For incredible views right from your table, Izhcayluma is it, fam. The food is amazing and they boast a variety of vegetarian dishes. I didn’t think I would find tempe in rural Ecuador but they’ve got it in abundance. Treat yourself to a crepe filled with ice cream because why not.
This place has super cheap breakfast options and a beautifully designed large garden. It has everything ranging from Western to more local dishes. It is also right on the square so the location is prime.
For something more local but not entirely local, Katerina offers almuerzos and cheap Ecuadorian dishes in a more modern setting.
Get an Oreo ice cream and get it draped in the white chocolate with rice krispies sauce. You won’t regret it.
This place was my favorite cheap spot in Vilcabamba. You could lunch for about $2-3 here and it always came in generous proportions. It was also my last llapingacho of Ecuador, sadly.
Where To Go After Vilcabamba
Vilcabamba is a good ending or starting point for travelers in Ecuador. For travelers coming north from Peru, it is a great first spot. Likewise, it can be a perfect ending point for someone moving down to Peru. However, Vilcabamba is kind of inconveniently tucked away in the mountains. You’ll have to drive north to Loja or even Cuenca if you want to head west. If you want to head south, the mountain roads will add several hours to your perceived travel time.
If you want to work your way down from Ecuador down to Peru, Vilcabamba puts you in a bit of an awkward position. Most backpackers cross the Peruvian border through Tumbes. However, the quickest way to the Peruvian border from Vilcabamba is going south through the mountains until you find yourself at the desolate border crossing of La Balsa. From here, you can continue down through San Ignacio and Jaen until you make it to northern Peru’s gateway to adventure of Chachapoyas. You can split up the lengthy journey with pit stops in Jaen or San Ignacio, or just ride it out the whole way until you get to Chachapoyas.
If Chachapoyas doesn’t fit your taste, you can head to the coast of Peru instead. However, this will require a lot of backtracking, either back up north through Ecuador and then towards the Peruvian border or down through Jaen and then back west towards the coast.
At only about 45 minutes away, Loja is a good stop if you want a bit more civilization than Vilcabamba. It is considered one of Ecuador’s cultural capitals. Its colonial architecture, colorful buildings, and lush, mountainous surroundings make it a beautiful stop that isn’t on the typical backpacker itinerary.
My favorite city in Ecuador. From Vilcabamba, it is about 5 hours north to Cuenca. Here’s everything you need to know about this incredibly beautifuly city tucked away in the mountains.