Fame Hurts Valley of Eternal Youth in Ecuador
VILCABAMBA, Ecuador -- Nestor Carpio, frail at 89, says he doesn't expect to live as long as his father Miguel, who reached 124 and made this tiny valley famous around the world for the longevity of its inhabitants.
These days, the famous elders of Vilcabamba are dying at a younger age, the result of the stresses of modern life brought by the scores of tourists and health buffs who flock here in search of eternal youth.
"Before life was tranquil, now the town has turned too big," said the bespectacled Carpio, sitting outside his adobe home as cars blasting techno-cumbia cruised nearby. "The really old ones are dying off quickly."
Gangs of youths drinking beer and smoking around the village's main square contrasted sharply with the hardy elders carrying the day's harvest of potatoes, onions and herbs through the steep roads of the Ecuadorean Andes.
Old timers say modern life has encroached on and disrupted the valley's tranquil and carefree lifestyle, which was key to their longevity.
Centenarians used to be seen playing cards at the main square or sitting in church, villagers say, but there are fewer now as many have died in recent years. They cited recent funerals of two elders believed to be 118 and 124.
"We are not eating the natural food we used to," said Ramon Santin, an 89-year-old peasant with thick, dirty hands who has only been in the hospital once because of a stomach ache. "Life is different."
Nelson Jurado, a gerontologist who has studied Vilcabamba's seniors, said that a delicate balance between good genes and a healthy environment has helped prolong lives.
"The fragile ecosystem of Vilcabamba has been affected by this tsunami of development," said Jurado, who is based in Quito, Ecuador's capital. "Now these people live at a faster pace and that has affected their quality of life and longevity."
Foreign scientists have questioned the real age of Vilcabamba's super-centenarians because most lack official documentation such as birth records. But Ecuador was home to the world's verified oldest person, Maria Capovilla, until her death in the port city of Guayaquil in August, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Vilcabamba thrives on tourism and uses its fame to sell everything from "Valley of Eternal Youth" cigarettes to Vilcawater with the face of a white-bearded elder stamped on the bottle.
But local officials said the hamlet struggles to keep a balance between tourism and a healthy way of life.
"We are happy with tourists, but they are changing our culture," said Adalber Gaona, the president of the neighborhood association, who said his grandmother died just short of her 100th birthday. "The young are now drinking sodas, smoking and eating junk food."
"It seems our own longevity fame is hurting us."
Like many other hamlets in rural Ecuador, hundreds of Vilcabamba natives have migrated to the United States and Europe in search of better-paying jobs.
Those who stayed say they doubt they will reach the age of their forefathers.
"Hell no, I'm never going to reach 100," hollered 23-year-old taxi driver Carlos Vera inside his brand new pickup truck. "Those times when people lived that long are gone."