It's the same old story as outsiders overrun valley of the ancients

April 27, 1994|By Carl Honore | Carl Honore,Special to The Sun

Leave it to modern man to destroy the Garden of Eden.

AIt's been 20 years since researchers discovered that this town in the emerald hills of southern Ecuador was a valley of eternal youth -- a place where it was common to find men over 100 still robust and sexually active.

Before long, everyone from the National Enquirer to National Geographic had come to study the ancients of Vilcabamba, and there was a boom in "How to live to 100" guides. As the town's population has swelled from 819 in 1971 to 5,000, the over-100 club has shrunk from 15 to four.

There are fewer and fewer men like Albertano Roa, a senior citizen pin-up at 119 years old, with liquid brown eyes, rawhide skin and a full head of hair.

When he is not plowing fields, chopping wood or weaving rope, Mr. Roa is smoking, drinking or playing guitar. Apart from weak hearing, he has a bill of health as clean and crisp as his favorite white shirt. In town, they call him Don Juan. "A good bed is the secret of longevity," he says, shooting a roguish grin at his wife.

Anywhere else in the world, Mr. Roa would be a freak, a celebrity, or both. But here he's just one of the gang. "Show me an 80-year-oldand I'll show you a spring chicken," he laughs.

Founded by the Spaniards in 1756, Vilcabamba breathes magical realism. The clocks in the schoolhouse have stopped. Up and down the dusty streets, men 90 and 100 years old carry sacks of grain or guide herds of cattle toward the fields where their great-grandchildren work the land. The grapevine quivers with tales of 85-year-olds seducing teen-age girls.

On the edge of town, 93-year-old Alfonso Ojeda is building a brick house for his grandson. Born before the French Revolution, his grandfather sired 36 children with seven wives, before dying at the ripe old age of 128. Mr. Ojeda dances round the half-finished foundation like a bricklayer on his first job. He is appalled by the notion of retirement. "Is that the waiting room for death?"

Behind his feistiness, however, lies the cold certainty that the gringos are spoiling paradise.

It began when researchers learned in the early '70s that Vilcabamba's ancients were supple, lucid and free of degenerative diseases -- all in a poor country where life expectancy is under 70. When news of their sexual vigor emerged, everything went crazy.

Truckloads of specialists rolled in to take hair, nail, skin, feces, saliva, urine and semen samples from people who had never seen a doctor before. Tobacco companies ran endless tests to learn how the Vilcabambans enjoyed so many years of cancer-free smoking. A Polish woman bedded several male centenarians for a book on geriatric sex.

Once the dust had settled, the pundits hoisted a list of possible explanations: stable temperature; ideal altitude (1,500 meters); abundant negative ions; low stress; tight family ties; physical activity; detoxifying properties of local water; low-fat diet; herbal medicine. Less fanfare is devoted to the damage wrought by foreigners. Shortly after the first antibiotics arrived, five centenarians died. The bustle provoked the unthinkable: stress-related diseases, even suicides.

In 1985, local doctor Guillermo del Pozo and other community leaders launched the Seniors' Defense League in an effort to preserve the way of life in Vilcabamba, but it has been no match for the battering ram of progress.

In 1989, a paved road brought the once-isolated hamlet to within 90 minutes of the regional airport. Along the new artery flow electricity, processed food and backpackers. Fruit juice, homespun clothes and herbal remedies have been swapped for Coca-Cola, Levi's and Tylenol. The silence is shattered by the belching buses and backfiring motorcycles that roar along the ,, Avenue of Eternal Youth. Many young Vilcabambans would now rather watch MTV and eat hamburgers in the nearby city of Quito than live to 100 in a mountain idyll.

Adding to its misfortune, Vilcabamba has become a New Age mecca. Five back-to-nature hotels sprang up in the '80s and California dropouts are a dime a dozen. Unkempt gringos sit for hours at the open-air bars, drinking beer and photographing the locals like game in a safari park.

Just outside town, Canadian expatriate Durga Mendoza runs the Mother Earth cabins, one of the back-to-nature places favored by the backpacking crowd. She remains starry-eyed about Vilcabamba. "You can do and build whatever you want here," she says. "It's paradise."

Anita Erazo, 92, disagrees. She can still tie her own laces with the elasticity of a schoolgirl, but her spirits are low. Her granddaughter has emigrated to America and the paved road cuts a path by her bedroom window.

She misses the forgotten fiestas that used to pull the town together, and she is fed up with the parade of scientists and camera-toting hippies: "We used to have family, peace and simplicity."

There are moves to curb research and squeeze out the NeAgers in favor of "gerontological tourism," but Dr. del Pozo and others expect an uphill battle: the riddle of Vilcabamban longevity still shines like a beacon. Next month, Japanese scientists will make their pilgrimage.

The spanking new Vilcagua water-bottling plant, set in a clearinonthe outskirts of town, is the surest sign that the gringos are here to stay. Swedish manager Eric Fjellstrom is beside himself with news that his water recently won a prestigious taste-off against the likes of Perrier and Evian.

"I can't promise to export the elixir of eternal youth," he says"But I do think this is going to be very big financially."

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