advertisement

The most popular activity here is horseback riding. Horses, with riders and without, are common in the streets. Various individuals and small tour companies offer guided horseback tours around the area, and most hotels here either have their own horses and guides or can set you up. If you want to do it on your own, check in with Centro Equestre (tel. 07/2673-151) or Gavilan Tours (tel. 07/2640-281). Rides run around $15 to $20 (£10-£13) for a half-day tour, to $30 to $50 (£20-£33) for a full-day tour, including lunch.

The same terrain that makes horseback riding so rewarding is also perfect for mountain biking. If you prefer pedal power to horse power, ask at your hotel, or contact the information office.

There's plenty of good hiking all around the Vilcabamba valley. Perhaps the most popular hike is to the top of the Mandango rock formation. From the town and several vantage points around the valley, this rock formation looks quite a bit like a face staring up toward the sky, and locals call it "The Sleeping Giant" or "The Sleeping God." It's a sometimes-steep and -strenuous 2-hour hike to the top, but the views are worth it. Another popular hiking destination is Podocarpus National Park . If you want to do any guided hiking, a longer trek, or some serious bird-watching, contact Jorge Luis at Caminatas Andes Sureños (tel. 07/2673-147; jorgeluis222@latinmail.com). Jorge Luis is an extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.

If you're sore from hiking, biking, or horseback riding, consider heading to Hostería Izhcayluma or Madre Tierra for a massage or spa treatment. Individual treatments begin at around $9 (£6), for a short session, to $30 (£20), for a 90-minute massage. Other options range from hot mud treatments to facials to Reiki sessions.

For some reason, people from across Ecuador flock to Vilcabamba in late February for the annual Carnaval celebrations. During this period, the sleepy and peaceful little town becomes a major party destination, with bands and parades and street vendors and pretty much nonstop partying.

Long Strange Tripping -- It's a long way to Vilcabamba, but for many visitors here, this is where their tripping begins. The San Pedro cactus grows heartily here. Known as the Holy Cactus, San Pedro is a bucket term given to some 30 different species of Andean Trichocereus cacti. All are tall and columnar and contain the psychotropic alkaloids used to make mescaline. Its ritual and shamanic use in Ecuador and Peru dates to at least 1400 B.C. Locals and expatriates around Vilcabamba often offer to guide travelers on a San Pedro cactus trip. These trips run the gamut from very conscientious and well-guided ritual experiences to bonfire party scenes. In most cases, it is illegal, and considered a jailable offense, to take San Pedro cactus. However, apparently some shamans are licensed to provide the experience. I cannot advocate or recommend any specific guides or shamans, but only caution you that if you do decide to venture into this realm, be forewarned that this is a very strong psychedelic substance, and you should be very sure you trust and feel comfortable with whomever you choose to guide you.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.