Boarding a bus to Latacunga around 5:30pm we left Quito behind, passing the forest covered slopes of Cerro Pasochoa, a 4,200m extinct volcano which erupted and partially collapsed 100,000 years ago, and distant views of the snow-capped cone of famously active stratovolcano Cotopaxi in the distance.
The traditional dress here consists mainly of brightly coloured shawls, knee high socks and velvet skirts in nuetrals, bright turquoise and orange hues for the women, while the men wear thick woolen ponchos, some in a fantastic ruby red, while both men and women don fedora style felt hats.
After our usual tag team of minding bags vs searching for a hotel, we made our way from the plaza to Hostal Central just around the corner. For $20 (cheaper than two dorm beds at nearby Hostel Cafe Tiana), staff were lovely, allowed us to store our bags for free whilst we were hiking and we were given the option of a huge plaza side room or a smaller quieter room. Opting for the former we spent the night sorting our gear for tomorrow’s start on the Quilatoa Loop before taking a brief stroll around the brightly lit churches, plazas and purple glow of the government building.
We then stumbled upon El Templario a few steps from the hostel (good at this aren’t we?), a dark candle lit bar where funky music and serving up proper sized pints of Ale’s Art beer at only USD$4. The locally brewed Upstart Stout will warm you up on a chilly night, and when you’ve had your fill wander over to Calle Guayaquil and see if you can find the little old woman selling ‘shit on a stick’ as we like to call it, a cheap selection of random meat on a stick.
Heading out in the morning we found a cheap breakfast of scrambled eggs, instant coffee and bread roll with cheese. When Matt asked for a side of rice we were instead given the other option for breakfast, a full plate of chicken, rice and potatoes, which we politely managed to stuff our faces with so as not to offend. Washing it down with nasty coffee, we handed over our $2.50 each (yes $2.50 each…for two breakfasts each) and struggled back to the hostel.
Ecuador is fantastic for buses and today didn’t disappoint when the next bus to our starting destination of Zumbahua was leaving in just five minutes (get a seat on the right for the best views). Two hours later we were dropped at the top of a set of concrete stairs, where a grumpy old lady took our money for two corn on the cobs and a slab of local cheese and shuffled off without giving us any change. Heading down the stairs, we took a left at the bottom where the road curved to the right, followed by the first road on the left and we’d begun the 12.5km walk along the tarmacked road to Quilatoa.
Not long into the 3.5hr hike it became obvious that the locals don’t understand why they hell you’d want to walk. We were constantly offered a lift (for USD$1.50 – $2 per person) with looks of surprise when we declined, locals working their fields often asked us why we were walking as we passed and trucks almost always beeped to offer a ride. Most of the hike was spent with GoPro pole in hand to keep the local dogs at bay whilst making our way up to the town of Quilatoa itself, perched upon the rim of a 250m deep volcanic crater lagoon 3,914m above sea level.
At around 2pm the cloud we’d been watching dumped a 15 minute rain storm on us and we took shelter under a tree outside Hostel Sisa (Flower Hostel) by the roadside, where a small boy let us inside to shelter until it passed. Arriving in Quilatoa we paid the small fee to enter the village, before checking out a couple of hostels and settling on Hostel Chukirawa (double room, private bathroom, wood heater, dinner and breakfast for $16 – you can easily bargain your room down in the off season).
Making the most of the daylight hours, we took a stroll through the village and followed a revolving crowd of locals eating ‘fast food’, which was cooked out the front of a womans house. Waiting until after we’d finished, a quick translation on the phone educated us that we’d eaten our first ever chicken gizzards, served over a bed of freshly cooked fries. Not something we’re in a rush to repeat, yet for USD$1 each it was a steal. There’s a few artisanal stores in town, where masks and paintings are authentic handmade as is some crochet, while the rest is debatable.
We spent the evening chatting with retired Canadian couple Bob and Sue, watching a wedding photo shoot take place on the nearby lookout and waiting for dinner which finally arrived some time after 8:30pm and repeatedly closing the front door when the locals continuously left it wide open to let all the heat out. The rain had returned at around 3pm and didn’t let up for hours, but eventually we got some sunset pics before retiring to bed.
Attempting to light a fire consisted of a tuna can full of burning kerosene placed beneath a pile of wood. This resulted in nothing more than smoking out the room and burning our eyes when the wood refused to light. With enough blankets to keep anybody warm we drifted off easily.
The next days hike was a little tougher. It’s easy to get lost walking from the crater to the town of Chigchulan, 22km to the north, and unlike yesterday the way wasn’t tarmac or clear. Two young American girls who’d spent the previous day hiking 14 hours instead of the usual five attested to that.
Hiking from Chugchilan to Quilatoa, they reached the crater rim as cloud set in and took a wrong turn. Ending up on an animal track descending steeply into the crater itself, they finally arrived shaken at the bottom to be told people had died walking the way they’d just come.
As we were heading the other way with an early start, we managed to catch the clear weather with Chigchulan clearly visible in the distance most of the day. What wasn’t clear were the directions from the crater rim, most of which said to take a left at the second sandy patch.
We’re sure there’s probably debate about what constitutes a sandy patch, but the two that we passed were most definitely large patches of sand, which one would assume would make them sandy patches. Wrong. After we’d descended too far down to turn back, we spotted Bob and Sue with their guide continuing along the rim past where we’d turned. Not to be perturbed, we continued to traverse the slope of the crater, surrounded by swaying yellow, purple, white and red wildflowers amidst the low scrub and moss.
After walking a little longer it became obvious why people easily got lost here. The slopes of the crater are a mess of valleys, ridges and pathways, and it’s difficult to tell which one you should be on. Running into a woman on her precariously situated farm, she attempted to send us one way, while our gut instinct told us we should be heading the other way. She then tried to convince us we should pay her to help us or we’ll get lost and die. Eventually we ignored her and headed the way our gut told us and sure enough soon spotted Bob and Sue in the distance with their guide.
Finally rejoining the ‘correct’ path, we passed through the small Quichua village of Guayama San Pedro to a small mirador before starting the long, steep hike down Canyon Toachi to the river. The already narrow path gets narrower and the dirt walls get higher, making you feel trapped and helpless if something came running the other way. Crossing a simple wooden bridge at the bottom, it was a steep slog back up the other side for a great view of the canyon we’d just hiked across.
Our advice if doing this hike at this time of year? Leave early! We left at Quilatoa at 9am, arriving just in time to beat the rain which started around 2pm and didn’t stop all night. Trying to spread the wealth, we ate a hearty lunch complete with pastry dessert at Cloud Forest Hostel before spending the night at super chilled Hostal Mama Hilda.
Built by the current owners grandfather and operated by his father before him (as we learnt during a chilled conversation held entirely in Spanish, yay!), the wooden beams, white walls, potted ferns and retro couches make you immediately at ease. The heat from the wood burning stove below ensures you’re nothing but relaxed as you look back at the Quilatoa crater in the distance, when it’s not obscured by cloud or rain storms, thinking
‘Did we really just walk from there?’
Putting our feet up we enjoyed the WiFi free environment, with Matt catching up on some blog while Sarah caught up on her first English language fashion magazine for months and debated trying out the antique record player in a wooden cabinet with built in radio. From the comfort of our blissful lounge room viewpoint, we spotted two Belgian girls who’d left a few hours after us arrive in town soaked. As we said, leave early.
The feeling of being removed from the world continued when an afternoon power outage continued into the evening, and we joined the only other guests, Candian’s Bob and Sue and a lovely Dutch family with their three blonde children, for a candlelit dinner. Power or no power, these guys can put together a spread – creamy potato soup, spaghetti bolognaise (carb heaven after five hours of tough hiking) and watermelon for dessert. Breakfast was equally as gratifying and one of the first times there’s been food left on the table. Fruit, yoghurt, cheese, bread, and two choices of chocolate cereal which we spent the morning fighting the Dutch kids for.
Matt’s mid breakfast comment of
‘I was kind of hoping for eggs this morning’
was met with a chica emerging from the kitchen with, voila, a huge plate of scrambled eggs. Whilst Hostel Mama Hilda is a little more expensive than the more backpacker orientated Cloud Forest Hostel down the road, this is one of the best places we’ve stayed on this entire trip and we wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again.
Pouring these through a muslin cloth strainer they were added to the large metal milk vats tied down by ropes. The takings were recorded by the driver, a shout of !Vamos! would emanate from the rear and it would be on to the next farm. On a busy day the back of the truck can be rammed, we got lucky, only being joined by three women and a gentleman the entire time.
Rolling green hills and snow capped peaks in the distance ensured we were not disappointed with the views, and being able to stand up with the wind in your hair and an unobstructed 180 degree view made the slow journey totally worthwhile (as long as you’re not too touchy about the occasional whiff of stale milk).
Arriving in the small town of Sigchos around midday, we booked a bus back to Latacunga (the first one doesn’t leave until 2:30pm) then put together a picnic lunch with a huge wheel of cheese from the local cheese farm at Chigchulan, some biscuits and a bag of seven ripe avocados for only $1.
With time to waste and in need of a shave after losing his beard trimmer back in Colombia, Matt scored a $1 trim at a local barber, before the mandatory afternoon rain arrived. You’re almost guaranteed to spend the windy bus trip back down the valley pretending local kids and adults alike are not continuously spewing into plastic bags (which they will be).
Back in town we headed out to try a local dish of Chugchucara, or what we like to call ‘the pork fat feast’. Starving we ordered two, and were then forced to sit through an entire plate of fried products including pork, pork fat, shredded pork over popcorn, more corn, empanadas, fried plantain and we feel physically ill just writing about it so we’ll stop. You get the point. It was gross.
Luckily our breakfast place was open in the morning where we ordered just eggs, and got served two breakfasts again anyway. Needless to say we weren’t hungry when we boarded our morning bus to next stop, Banos!
For more Quilatoa Loop pics check out Flickr.