The Quilotoa Loop is the name Ecuador guide books give to a (usually) self-guided tour circuit through a remote area of the country’s Western cordillera. Earlier this month, we “did” the loop, mostly by foot. Here’s a run-down of our day to day adventures in this breathtaking (literally) corner of the Andes.
Day 1 – Quito to Latacunga via bus.
Hostel Tiana: a great place to store bulky gear and set out upon the loop with only the essentials. Latacunga is very pretty and safe. Cobbled streets and lovely churches. I had to laugh when I ordered chicken soup and found chicken feet at the bottom of the bowl.
Day 2 – Latacunga to Isinliví via bus
Hostel Llulla Llama: delightful communal feeling as everyone gathered around the wood-burning stove in the living area and enjoyed a tasty, family-style meal (the first of several to come). Best deal ever? A $10 liter jug of red wine to share amongst everyone. Lots of little day hikes around to get acquainted with the scenery and appreciate the small town of Isinliví.
Wait, are we in Ireland or Ecuador? I can’t remember.
Isinliví behind me. Also a photobombing little sheep.
We climbed up the hill beside Isinliví for amazing views of the hills, valleys, and canyons around.
Day 3. Isinliví to Chugchalán. Approximately a 15 km hike.
Warm clothes? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Packed lunch? Check. Plenty of Water? Check. Know which way to go? Um…
Simply stellar scenery! Descend into the valley, lose the trail, follow the river, find the log bridge, cross with trepidation, watch a local do it with her eyes closed and carrying 2 gallons of milk and her dog.
Keep up the energy!
Weave flowers into your hair. Revel in the fact that there are few fences or people anywhere. Dance. Catch your breath. Continue to follow the river.
Get back on track. Check out the very cool suspension bridge. Look forward to climbing out of the valley.
Have lunch in a tiny little pueblito. Enjoy your cucumber and mayo sammages to the sounds of chickens clucking and a big black pig “snort snorting” a few feet behind you.
Begin in the steep climb up the path that leads out of the valley. Marvel at a Mother and her five children coming down the opposite way, sure footed. Shake your head at the smallest boy in tow, responsible for getting his three wheeler, almost bigger than he is, down the side of the mountain on his own. Kid can’t be more than 3 1/2.
Going gets easier once you hit the road. Pass Black Sheep Inn. Probably the bomb diggity if you can afford it. Thrifty Drifters can not. Check into Mama Hilda’s. Congratulate yourself on a day well hiked! Mama Hilda herself is awesome. Kindly, generous, and welcoming, her hostel is a charming place to be. Family meal and a wood burning stove are all you need to recharge for the next grueling day of hiking.
Day 4. Chugchalán to Quilotoa. Approximately 12 km hike.
Hostel. Alpaca Hostel. See below.
Mama Hilda made sure we didn’t leave without snacks or a stick “for warding off dogs.” In fact we walked a bit of the way down the valley wall with her husband, as far as his beautiful finca. He was knowledgeable about flora and fauna and sent us off towards the valley floor with a friendly wave. This picture is taken from half-way down the descent into the valley. See the trail zig-zagging up the other side? That’s how we are going to go up!
We stop for a quick picture at the river on the valley bottom. We’re all kitted out and ready for a long uphill slog.
What dramatic scenery!
I shake my stick at thee!!!
The serious climbing begins. Is that a bridge?
eek! That doesn’t look good!
Quads are getting a good workout. Can feel the burn in my butt! My lungs are working double time. But look back behind you and bid farewell to Chugchalán!
Taking pictures is as good an excuse as any to stop and catch one’s breath!
So after 30 minutes of relentlessly steep uphill switchbacks we reach the rim of the valley. Time to drink water, eat an orange, dig out the floss, munch on some plantain chips, and enjoy the view. Then we we face South-West and gaze at what’s to come. Several kilometers of gently but continually ascending uphill until we hit the base of the Quilotoa crater.
We hike through a small Pueblito where everyone is dressed in the handsome Ecuadorian Highland Quetchwa fashion. Girls in white socks to the knee, pleated skirts, ruffled snow white blouses, fuchsia pink shawls, and dark colored fedoras with their hair in wrapped braids. The boys wear dark pleated pants, white shirts, navy blue cardigans, and red shawls, tied with a pin. The people are used to gringos trekking through their town and don’t pay us mind. We try to wish those we pass a good day, but to little effect.
Up past the village. Up to the road. Up past a newly built hostel. Up past potato fields, Up past cattle grazing. The higher we go, the thiner the air. The sun becomes obscured with clouds and soon we can see that the top of the ancient volcano we are about to climb is just touching the bottom of the clouds. We take more breaks. We admit that we probably won’t catch the 1pm bus from Quilotoa to Latacunga. We keep putting one foot on front of the other.
Quilotoa looms just ahead and we ratchet the incline up a few notches. The road begins to switch back, and I doubt any cars can handle this sandy steep road. The sand just kills your momentum. Forward 2 steps, back one. Up, up, up, up….
The top becomes visible. We’re at nearly 12,000 feet. Taking huge exaggerated breaths we draw nearer to the place where the land seems to fall away into nothingness. Finally, finally, finally we reach a narrow space where there is nothing but clouds on either side of us and we know we’ve reach the caldera’s rim. For a moment, a window opens up revealing the mysterious blue-green waters of Laguna Quilotoa far below.
We have to walk now to nearly the opposite side of the Lagoon. So we take the trail leading off to our right. A lot of it rises and falls along the jagged edge of the crater, and sand fights our inertia in many places. Exhausted from nearly 6 hours of uphill hiking, we have to stop frequently to catch our breaths.
The enviornment is quite lovely. Evergreen trees and scrubby desert bushes. Red, green, and orange lichen covering every exposed rock surface. Hardy flowers, red, purple, and yellow growing stubbornly in harsh conditions.
And some lovely animals watching over us.
Suddenly the clouds blanketing everything in a white haze lift for the moment and we can see what we’re hiking around.
And so by now, now matter how fabulous the scenery is, we are just so ready for a hot cup of tea and some food. When the sign below announces that our destination is nigh, I’m struck with a last minute burst of energy.
We arrived at Hostel Alpaca and checked into our room and bee-lined it for one of the two restaurants in town. We gobbled down a fabulous chicken lentil soup and some delicious grilled chicken and rice with the spiciest aji we’ve had yet. Washing it all down with my new favorite juice, maracuyá, we were smacking our lips and patting our bellies in no time.
This hike was a doozy, all uphill and with air so thin you can’t shake a stick at it. I found just doing the smallest tasks had me out of breath, and that my breathing in general was heavier all the time.
There was a great crowd at the hostel including the lovely family who ran it. Dinner, once again was served family style and we shared our long table with Germans and Danes, plus an Irish guy who was riding his motor bike from Alaska to Argentina. Check out his blog. I have to give him credit for undertaking such an ambitious journey! Best of luck Sean!
The next morning we were up before dawn to watch the sunrise of Quilotoa Lagoon. Unfortunately clouds obscured the sky. I did, however, manage this one shot during a break in the cloud-cover.
The next day we got the 1pm bus back to Latacunga. We had a lot of traveling yet to do. With bags full of really dirty laundry we regrouped at Hostal Tiana’s before heading back to Quito the following day. Still far from our final destination we still had an 8 hour over-night bus ride to Guayaquil and still yet another bus to get to the Santa Elena Peninsula.
I believe phase 1 of our trip is over. We’ve traveled 4 months steadily from Nicaragua towards the Ruta del Sol on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. It’s been an amazing experience, but we are entering into a new situation.
This coming Monday my CELTA course begins, so gone are the days of afternoon naps, languid sightseeing, and the occasional hike. While I slave away for 5 weeks, Adam is going to dig his heels in and get some serious client work done.
So the Quilotoa Loop was a fine way to finish up phase one of our trip. And the little taste of trekking we got has given us an appetite for more. I think in the New Year we’ll certainly pursue those inclinations.