(June 20 – written by Dave)
Riding into Vilcabamba yesterday we saw number of signs featuring photos of older folks, along with nice sayings about how Vilcabamba was the place to be if you wanted to live longer.
The longevity story all started back in January 1973, when Dr. Alexander Leaf of Harvard Medical School wrote the cover story article for National Geographic. His article talked about the old people living here and how some had lived to the ripe old age of 135 years. The town and valley was instantly famous, gaining the moniker “Valley of Longevity”
With clearly not enough research having been done, the longevity in Vilcabamba was attributed to nothing more special than the benefits of exercise, a healthy diet and good treatment of the elderly by the community. There were some that suggested that special local water contributed but this was never verified. Of course, this international coverage brought tourists and more old folks to the region.
With “nothing special” happening, some of the early researchers started to question their hypothesis. In one case, a man who claimed to be 122 years old one year then claimed to be 134 years old when surveyed only three years later. More digging by Leaf and others lead to the conclusion in 1978 that the oldest person in the village was “only” 96. And that the average age of people claiming to be over 100 was actually 86 years. In their final result, they agreed that the average age in the town was higher but they concluded that the aged population was caused in large part by younger people leaving for jobs in the cities.
It turns out that villagers exaggerated their ages as they grew older long before the researchers arrived. They did this often to gain standing in the community. Researchers found one chap who was actually 61 in 1944 but he reported being 70. Five years later he reported being 80 and in 1970, when he was 87, he reported being 121 years old.
Some of this was hard to decipher as many people in the valley shared first and last names. Birth records were often confusing and church records not much better. It was hard to get to the truth and the fame that came with the National Geographic article didn’t help matters. People liked the tourism bump created by the story.
In the end, researchers concluded that while the average age in the valley was higher than in other locations, people here did not actually live longer here. Still, a good story is hard to give up. So we find ourselves almost 50 years after the original story broke with signs welcoming us to a place where people live longer.
Nancy and I are both over 50 but today when we ate lunch in one of the town’s cafes, we clearly brought the average age down by a good number of years. Sandals, braided grey hair, tie-dyed shirts, loose yoga pants and floppy sun hats are all you need to blend in here. People may come for the story but it is easy to see why they might stay – nice weather, good food, low cost of living, good coffee and more folks like you looking to get more from their later years. What’s not to like?
And maybe, just maybe, there actually is something in the water – you’ll never know if you don’t come try it for yourself…
And speaking of old folks pushing the limits, Nancy has mapped out a breezy 75k ride for us tomorrow. I say breezy because there is reportedly 2,200 meters (over 7,000 feet) of climbing (Senior Editor’s note – actually is was not me that mapped it out, it was the other member of this touring party and I have already noted my concern about being able to accomplish it, but we will see…). But good news, sunshine is forecast and we may even have a mini heatwave starting. Temping as it is to stay here another day, moving on while we have sunshine is also attractive. Naturally, we will be filling our water bottles with some of that magical Vilcabamba water – it may not help, but it sure can’t hurt.