As you can see, the view from the straw palapa I’m staying in here is beautiful. I’ve just been watching a condor circle high above the peaks. We’re in the foothills of the Andes in Southern Ecuador in a place called Madre Tierra near the small town of Vilcabamba.
The journey took seven hours by bus from Cuenca to the north, which is much higher up, and colder. The bus was crammed with passengers and belongings and I thought at one point I’d be driven mad by the 24-hour salsa music the driver had on full blast. Then we started to descend. Banana and papaya trees began appearing. They became more and more abundant. I felt my body unwind with the warmth.
But it’s not really the view or the bus ride I’m writing to you about. Nor the fact that Vilcabamba is famous for people who live to be a hundred years old, and for the San Pedro cactus said to hold the keys to eternity.
It’s this place. Madre Tierra. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere like it. You can’t book in advance, so the bus drops you off and you walk up the hill in the warm dark past the sugar cane field twinkling with glow worms under a sky full of stars. I was nervous about finding the place packed. Where else would we go in the middle of nowhere? What if we have to SHARE with PEOPLE WE DON’T KNOW? Kitty, the Australian girl who told us about Madre Tierra in a cafe in Quito, told me “no worries, Mark, it’ll be fine.” (How come Australians are always so laid back?)
We arrived to a friendly welcome and were given a bamboo hut to stay in. Very elementary, a couple of beds, a rickety table, a ceiling light – with a wasp’s nest built around it. WASPS! I’ve had a phobia of wasps since childhood. It took me a VERY long time to get to sleep.
Next morning I saw the other huts dotted about the hillside. On the balcony outside our hut there are coffee beans drying in the sun.
Loos and showers are communal and the water is solar-heated. It took me some time to get used to the low pressure (I’ve always loved a bit of a power shower!), but I’m slowly tuning in to the place. It’s lovely to shower outside with my bare feet on the earth.
Every day at breakfast and dinner, everybody converges upon the communal ‘dining room’, a huge table set under a verandah, overlooking the valley. There you meet fellow travellers on the South American trail from all over the world, and watch rainbows dance between the mountains. The owners are Jaime from Ecuador and Durga from Canada, who live in a small house on site and come and talk with the guests at mealtimes. The wasps won’t hurt you, they told me. And the coffee is seriously local. As are the awesome fruit salads of papaya, mango and banana, and the flowers in the huge pot of afterdinner tea.
Most of the food is grown here in the gardens at Madre Tierra. It’s all vegetarian, the cooks prepare it fresh every day (and eat what the guests eat) and any waste goes to feed the very free-range chickens and turkeys. The latter are glorious fowl who let you know audibly and with a proud display of tailfeathers just who has the right of way when you meet them on the path.
Last night we had a steam bath heated from wood gathered within walking distance. Several of us sat pressed together naked in the warm darkness of a small hut. We threw water on hot stones with a scented eucalyptus branch, breathed… and sweated! And got to know each other.
We’re probably leaving tomorrow or the day after. But we’ll come back whilst we’re still in Ecuador. There’s something about this place that tastes of the future.
Suffolk, England 2011
PS: On that visit to Madre Tierra I got over my fear of wasps. It has never returned. You could call it sleeping with the enemy that turned out not to be the enemy.
PPS: Coming to think of it, I’m not addicted to power showers anymore either.
PPPS: I have not been to Vilcabamba since 1993. I’m not addicted to flying now, either. But I do love communal eating, flower tea, rainbows, cactus, condors, turkeys and Madre Tierra wherever I go.
Post first published on 29th January 2011 on This Low Carbon Life; pics and painting: Madre Tierra, Vilcabamba, early 90s, Visions in Ecuador 1993, all by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license.