Discovering the Ideal Wellness Retreat in Ecuador

Rated #3 on International Living’s 10 Best Places to Retire around the World in 2017, Ecuador is a wellness destination and idyllic tropical paradise, all rolled into one. For those of you not quite ready to quit your day jobs and relocate to the Southern Hemisphere, vacationing at a wellness retreat in Ecuador is the next best thing.

Where Can I Go for a Wellness Retreat in Ecuador?

The first step in deciding to vacation in Ecuador is finding the right tropical paradise to call home so you can escape for a while. You can opt for urban tourism in the two biggest cities—Quito, the capital, or Guayaquil, the jumping-off base to the Galápagos. However, if you prefer to explore the rainforest and don't mind the hot, steamy weather, you can bask in the pristine jungles of Oriente, Spanish moniker for the 2% of Ecuadorean Amazon River Basin.

My husband Gustavo and I opted for the rainforest and decided to seek out wellness and ‘green’ eco-travel. Follow us to an Andean valley in the southernmost province of the country, about five hours from the Peruvian border to a town blessed by delightfully cool, crisp climate (with year-round spring-like temperatures ranging between 65-82°F) and amazing bio-diversity. We discovered Vilcabamba, where we found the perfect spot for a wellness retreat in Ecuador.

Discovering Hostería Izhcayluma

I am lounging in a hammock on the patio of my hotel, Hostería Izhcayluma, enjoying a siesta after an authentic Bavarian lunch, goulash in a spicy sauce with homemade dumplings, staring out across the verdant fields.

Papaya, banana and plantain trees dapple the landscape, interspersed with clingy mora (blackberry) vines. I am surrounded by bright-colored flowers – translucent lavender-and-seafoam blooms (penicillin plant), yellow cactus flowers, and fiery red portotillos that attract the local colibris (hummingbirds). Along with the ferns and palm fronds, a pair of intricate spider webs dangling between two orange-thistle stalks sway in the breeze. A delicious zephyr of wind. I watch it stir the cinnamon back-feathers and buff-colored belly of a Pacific Hornero. Unperturbed, the ovenbird struts across the lawn, stopping to strike at microscopic insects in the grass. With a bug in its beak, it ‘runs’ on pallid legs and disappears in the underbrush.

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To the ancients, Vilcabamba was considered the ‘playground of the Inca’, being hailed as the perfect retreat for the indigenous royals. I feel like nobility myself, here at Izhcayluma, languishing in the shade, sipping a deliciously-crisp glass of anti-oxidant rich ‘horchata lojana’ tea, and daydreaming of a couple of afternoons getting pummeled and pampered at the spa. With facials, mud treatments, massages, manicures, and pedis.

I promise myself I’ll follow a stricter food regimen at dinnertime. Indeed, I opt for lighter fare, tempeh ‘a la francesa’ (soy-beans in a mushroom sauce). Besides, I can work off those calories with a brisk hike around the property grounds or swim some laps in the crystal-clear swimming pool nestled amongst the foliage.

Hostería Izhcayluma during a wellness retreat in Ecuador

View of pool and spa at Hostería Izhcayluma in Ecuador. Photo by Vickie Lillo.

And then there’s the 7:30 a.m. classes of Hatha yoga at the open-air shala, included in the room rate, that offer me my first taste of this meditative and spiritual Hindu mystique. “These morning ‘practices’ are for alignment,” our Argentinian instructor, Diego Romano, notates. Body alignment. By 9:00, my mind has been freed from stress, I can chant my mantra – my own personal ‘uhmmmm’—and my limbs have been amply stretched beyond their normal limits. So has my capacity to laugh at myself.

Yoga Classes at Hostería Izhcayluma during a wellness retreat in Ecuador.

Yoga Classes at Hostería Izhcayluma during a wellness retreat in Ecuador. Photo by Vickie Lillo

Wandering Vilcabamba

Now, I understand the ‘draw’ that Vilcabamba has. Even the Incas realized it. And today, this tiny town of 4,000 inhabitants has become a mecca for the genuinely health-conscious. For fitness fanatics…for backpackers…for those whom ‘well-being’ is a way of life. They come for the clean air, untainted by multitudes of car exhausts. Sure, there are cars and buses in Vilcabamba… but they fight for street space with the bicycles and the horses. Donkey-driven carts, too.

They come to drink the cold spring water, burbling down from the mountain-tops, filtered through the waterfalls and river rocks. Chock full of minerals. They come to savor the organic foods, cultivated in some of the richest soil in the world. Vilcabamba’s year-round growing season fosters nutrition-rich fruits and vegetables summer, winter, spring, and fall.

Town of Vilcabamba near Hostería Izhcayluma—a wellness retreat in Ecuador. Photo courtesy Vickie Lillo

Town of Vilcabamba near Hostería Izhcayluma—a wellness retreat in Ecuador. Photo by Vickie Lillo

Upon arrival to the ‘square’ (one-hour bus ride from Loja), we are eager to hit the outdoor marketplace before heading to our hostel. Open only on Sundays, el Mercado bustles with activity. A Quechuan Indian woman, with shimmery-black braided hair down to the small of her back and traditional Panama hat, instantly accosts us, selling naranjillas. We buy an entire bagful, but they turn out to be nothing akin to small oranges; they are rather caustic and definitely not citrus.

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In one stall after another, vendors are hawking everything from dry beans and spices and unfamiliar fruits – tomates de arbol (tree tomatoes), tuna (cactus fruit) and papaya-like babacos, perfect for smoothies – to main dishes – grilled cuy (guinea pig). Years ago, in Cusco, I’d wanted to try this delicacy, but now that we own one of these ‘balls of fur’ for a pet, I really can’t commit to that. Not that the skinned-out, reddish-brown meat looks anything like the domestic guinea pig I know – stacked in a pan beside the BBQ hearth, the flattened-out seared animal approximates a fatter-than-normal squirrel body with a rat’s head.   I chat a few moments with the pit master, but ultimately tell him that, for now anyway, I’ll have to pass. I don’t think I can go home to my son and tell him I ate ‘Mr. Nibbles’ vacationing in Ecuador.

Vilcabamba near Hostería Izhcayluma—a wellness retreat in Ecuador

Man grilling cuy (guinea pig) in Vilcabamba near Hostería Izhcayluma—a wellness retreat in Ecuador. Photo by Vickie Lillo

Hiking and Birding in Ecuador

Our stay in Vilcabamba has been exactly what the doctor ordered – the consummate balance of five days of relaxation, living ‘on Latin American time’, mingled with moments of high-octane adventure and the thrill of observing splendid nature. We leave Hostería Izhcayluma via the PEDESTRIAN entrance – ‘la entrada peatonal’, according to the sign: a flower-adorned stone walkway that leads to the highway.

With hiking map in hand, compliments of the hostel, we head towards the outer fringes of town. We cut across the main carretera to the opposite walkway and soon find ourselves on a well-maintained gravel-and-dirt road flanked on both sides by blankets of green foliage and fluorescence of all colors, native to this montane forest of Ecuador’s southern Andes.

Orange and yellow-tipped pitcairnia dendroideas waggle in the constant breeze. Pink and yellow ‘daisies’ (mutisia magnificas), endemic only to the Loja province, sprout in abundance, dwarfed by aloe vera plants and agave succulents. Around the bend, there’s a breach in the vegetation; we can see the quaint red clay-tiled houses of Vilcabamba in the distance. “Look, el toro,” my Chilean-born husband points to the rather imposing bull grazing in the pasture.

Hiking near Hostería Izhcayluma—a wellness retreat in Ecuador. Photo courtesy Vickie Lillo

Hiking near Hostería Izhcayluma—a wellness retreat in Ecuador. Photo by Vickie Lillo

“And look what’s next to him…a cowbird,” I remark. A shiny cowbird, to be exact. As a ‘new’ birder, I notice that these two seem to go hand in hand – ruminating bovines and their feathered friends who enjoy pecking at the parasites flushed out of the grass.

Our trail continues for another mile or so, skirting the pueblo, and running through a canopied jungle of rare colubrina trees. To the Rumi-Wilco Reserve, a ‘donations-only’ nature reserve running alongside the Chamba River. Barely 40 hectares of land, replete with over 140 birds and innumerable butterflies, have been set aside for the enjoyment of eco-travelers who can access its dozen trailheads on foot or on horseback.

This wilderness is dedicated to the preservation of the rich diversity of organisms in this fragile ecosystem, here in the ‘Valley of Longevity’, Vilcabamba’s nickname. The name celebrates the centenarians that supposedly live in the village. Whether this is fact or fiction, the town does maintain a large population of viejos (old ones). More than likely this is the result of a lifetime of hard honest labor, clean air, crystalline-pure water and mostly-vegetarian eating habits. No wonder tourism to this off-the-beaten-path little patch of South American heaven is gaining momentum.

For the fitness junkies, there’s endless trekking, especially at the nearby Podocarpus National Park, plus mountain biking, and you can even try your equine skills. You might find yourself clip-clopping down the asphalt, alongside automobiles and local workers pedaling wobbly bicycles.

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Amateur birders need only to step outside their room at Hostería Izhcayluma for glimpses of Yellow-bellied Grosbeaks and Blue-grey Tanagers, right on the property grounds. For the sophisticated appreciators of avian life, a bird-watching trip with Pablo Andrade of ExplorAves, an ornithologist from Loja, is just the ticket.

He’ll pick you up at the hotel at the crack of dawn, before sunrise, and escort you to the Tapichalaca Reserve, where you can help support the foundation built specifically to protect a newly discovered species, the Jocotoco Antpitta. With skinny legs and a plump body, it sports a unique cottony ‘fluff’ of white feathers under both eyes. Seeing the jocotoco lift its head, with a couple of worm ‘bites’ dangling from its bill, and rubberneck the surroundings before scurrying off into the weeds is quite entertaining—almost as much as watching the dozens of hummingbirds vying for the same spot on the feeder. The constant whirring of hummingbird wings, like tiny motors, creates a melody in the morning’s quiet.

The Jocotoco Antpitta spotted on a wellness retreat in Ecuador

The Jocotoco Antpitta spotted at the Tapichalaca Reserve in Ecuador. Photo by Vickie Lillo

Such is the glamour and the mystery that abounds in Vilcabamba and its nearby communities. Becoming one with the Earth, spiritually, is yet another part of the charisma of this sleepy little town where Mandango Mountain appears to be the face of a ‘Sleeping Inca’ god, and according to legend, safeguards the entire valley from earthquakes and volcanoes, all of Mother Nature’s wrath.

It's a place where shamans offer residents and visitors alike to partake in ‘higher consciousness’ ceremonies…to drink the tea brewed from the San Pedro cactus, a type of mescaline, and undergo its psychotropic effects. For those who prefer communing with their inner self, minus the out-of-body experience, I recommend the yoga class at the hostel. If that doesn’t work, try ‘Reiki’, a spa treatment that uses ‘the laying on of the hands’ to get your chakras in balance and your life-energy forces flowing. I guarantee, in Ecuador, you’ll find your inner Zen.

Andean Mountains peeking through the fog in Tapichalaca Reserve near Hostería Izhcayluma—a wellness retreat in Ecuador. Photo by Vickie Lillo

Andean Mountains peeking through the fog in Tapichalaca Reserve near Hostería Izhcayluma—a wellness retreat in Ecuador. Photo by Vickie Lillo

If You Go for a Wellness Retreat in Ecuador

Where to Stay: Hostería Izhcayluma is 1.25 miles south of Vilcabamba in Ecuador.Call 593 7 3025162. You can visit the hotel online. Their motto: “The elegance of a resort priced for Backpackers.”

Touring with a Guide: Pablo Andrade, a local ornithologist with 20 years’ experience, offers tours throughout Ecuador, including the Pacific Coast, Highlands, Amazon basin and Galapagos Islands. Contact ExplorAves, at Lourdes 14-80 (between Sucre & Bolívar), Loja, Ecuador. Call 593 7 2582434 or 0985152239. Visit ExplorAves online.

A wellness retreat in Ecuador will be a health-enriching experience you'll not forget. Be sure to check out Wander for more about traveling in South America here. You can also find more articles about spa and wellness travel here

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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Written by Vickie Lillo

Vickie Lillo is a Florida-based freelance travel and birding writer and stringer for the local Gadsden County newspaper. She enjoys globetrotting with her husband Gustavo and son Nicolas to meet new people, learn about new cultures, and appreciate the beauty of the world around us.

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