VILCABAMBA, Ecuador - For centuries Vilcabamba was a South American idyll. The valley boasted a lush and tranquil setting in remotest Ecuador, a year-round balmy climate, pristine mountain water, abundant fruits and grains. The inhabitants lived long and healthy lives.
So long and so healthy that from the 1950s scientists have flocked here to study the hardy mountain farmers as astonishing specimens of longevity. The publicity gave Vilcabamba a nickname, the Valley of the Immortals, and put it on the map. Backpackers visited and so tourism wound its way into the valley, bringing paved roads, vehicles, hotels, restaurants and internet cafes.
And then something else happened. The famed elders, the longevos whose vitality defied the ravages of time and inspired scientific papers and dreams of eternal youth, began to drop dead. All of those who were said to be over 110 have succumbed and there are few making it past 100. "We're dying younger," said Maria Cabrera, 91. "It's not like before. We feel we're getting weaker."
A census is expected to confirm the widespread impression that there are far fewer centenarians. Levin Perez, said to be 105, died five months ago. "They're disappearing," said Franklin Carrion, the district coordinator. "The new generation isn't lasting as long."
A melancholy entourage at the cemetery, a silent hillside where stone crosses vanish under weeds, bolstered that view. It was the family of Vicente Pilco, who at 107 is probably the oldest inhabitant, laying flowers on the grave of his daughter, Soyla Pilco, who died from a blood clot two months ago, at 72.
"I don't think any of us will live as long as my great-granduncle," said Jorge Carpio, 22, of Vicente. "He is still fit but he is the last of that generation."
The cause of the longevity was never pinned down. Some scientists credited genes, others the hard labour and vegetable and fruit diet. Sceptics said the elders exaggerated their age.
There is wide agreement, however, on why the phenomenon seems to be ending: modernity and its sins - noise, chemicals, pollution and stress. Nelson Jurado, a gerontologist in the capital, Quito, said a "tsunami of development" had damaged Vilcabamba's fragile ecosystem. "Now these people live at a faster pace and that has affected their quality of life and longevity."
What was a sleepy hamlet has in less than a generation become a tourist centre. Just a 45-minute drive from an airport, the permanent population has almost doubled to 4,200 and is swollen by hundreds of tourists who pack the more than 30 hotels and hostels.
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Mules wander the streets but they are outnumbered by 4x4s, taxis and young people drinking beer. There are dozens of restaurants and bars, two nightclubs, and a shopping centre is due to be built. Few places serve guarapo, sugar cane juice, but most serve Coca-Cola.
Nestor Carpio, 89, sits on the porch of his adobe home wincing from the rumble and dust of the lorry delivering cement and bricks to the house opposite, just one of dozens being rebuilt with modern materials. "Not so quiet any more," he sighs.
Outsiders have long been drawn by the valley's natural splendour - it was known as the "playground of the Inca" for hosting royalty of the former empire.
The Moon travel guide has a plaintive plea for visitors: "You have a beautiful place balanced on the edge. It's one of those places travel writers hesitate to describe too lovingly, lest it become loved to death. By all means come, inhale the air, ride a horse, leave a little healthier - just please, tread lightly."
Signs in English for spas, yoga, treks, massages and colonic irrigation testify to visitors' health quests but their very presence puts strain on the ecosystem, said Mr Carrion. "When there is more people there is more contamination."
He stressed that outsiders were appreciated for bringing money, jobs and opportunities. But in making life easier they had also made it shorter.
To meet growing demand farmers are now using pesticides and other chemicals, and some of the mineral-rich streams have become so polluted that the longevos hesitate to bathe in them, let alone drink the water. There are no studies to verify it but locals cite food "contaminated" by chemicals as causing deaths earlier. "Everything used to be fresh but now children are eating and drinking badly," said Augustin Jaramillo, 98. By keeping to an organic diet he hoped to make it to 150, he added.
Another concern is that foreigners are pricing locals out of the housing market, with even the Cerro Mandando, a sacred Inca mountain, being snapped up for holiday homes. It also has a mobile telephone mast. "Some people call this development, I call it destruction," said Carol Rosin, president of the Association for the Defence of Vilcabamba's Elderly. A 63-year-old American aerospace executive, she is a passionate if unlikely protector since she runs a 30-room hotel, one of the biggest developments. Using mules to build it and serving only organic food, among other measures, puts her on the locals side, she believes.
Guests seemed unaware that the famed elders were dying off. New age Americans, Britons and Spaniards attending a workshop on "physical immortality" hailed Vilcabamba's sense of physical and spiritual nourishment. "I can feel the energy," beamed workshop leader Sondra Ray.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007