Hi all, we’re having an amazing time in Ecuador and our Spanish course is fantastic we’ve been really busy but we thought it was time we published the next post. The following is our trip to Quilotoa a lake in a collapsed Volcano high up in the Andes. It’s quite close to the Cotopaxi volcano which is currently closed due to the threat of eruption, however just before we were due to depart we checked with our Spanish school that where we were going was safe (which it was). The story starts on our first morning in Ecuador….
We woke up in Quito and enjoyed a room service breakfast. Alex ordered it on the room phone in English and when she asked for juice they interpreted it as cheese. She corrected them and thought that they understood however 20 minutes later our order of waffles, coffee and two plates of cheese arrived. Since we haven’t had any similar problems when ordering in Spanish I think we’ll be sticking to it from now on!
We spent the morning working out how to get to Latacunga, the day’s destination. The trip involved getting to Quitumbe, Quito’s southern bus terminal, and then finding a bus for the 2 hour trip. We had to decide between a $15 taxi or a 50 cent bus ride (that’s 50 cents between us). We’d heard some bad things about petty crime in Quito, we’d only just arrived in the country and were carrying all of our luggage, so we made quite obvious targets. We’d resigned ourselves to the taxi however when we checked out of then hotel we asked the guy at the front desk what to do. Being an expensive hotel we expected him to tell us to take a taxi, however he told us that the buses were pretty safe as long as we kept an eye on our belongings. With a new sense of confidence we walked to the bus stop and climbed aboard.
The bus was nearly empty and we found a spot at the back. So far so good however 15 minutes later the bus turned around and pulled into a bus station. This was a surprise as we were expecting this bus to take us all the way to Quitumbe bus terminal. We quickly spotted a platform marked Quitumbe and headed over. We didn’t wait long but when the bus arrived it was packed. We pushed our way on and tried to squeeze down the bus. Unfortunately as it was so full there were no seats or anywhere to take off our bags so we ended up standing with nearly 20kg on our backs for the rest of the 40 minute journey. Eventually we reached Quitumbe bus station.
I’ve had some pretty bad experiences of bus stations in the past, however it’s been the best part of 10 years since I last did any serious backpacking and things seem to have changed. In both Colombia and Ecuador I expected dodgy bus terminals filled with con artists and addicts and extremely poor facilities. Both times however I have been surprised by clean, modern stations, with a visible police presence. We bought our tickets and 5 minutes later we were on a comfortable, modern bus on our way out of town.
The trip to Latacunga was quick and comfortable and soon enough we were pulling into Latacunga bus station. The bus station is on the east side of town and we needed to find hostel Tiana which is close to the centre, so once again we loaded up the backpacks and off we went. We found the hostel with relative ease and went to check in with a little trepidation. We’d decided to pick hostel Tiana as it was recommended as the best place to store our bags while walking the Quilotoa loop, however the reviews mentioned grumpy staff and musty rooms. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the staff were lovely and the room was simple but clean and comfortable. We went for a walk around the town to both stock up on snacks for the trip and to find somewhere to return later for dinner. Latacunga is not a huge place and an hour later we’d explored the town, bought our snacks, eaten cheese empanadas and found a Mexican for dinner. After returning our supplies to the hostel we went out for some dinner which was tasty but nothing remarkable. We packed up our bags ready for the early start and got an early night.
The next morning we prepared to start our adventure. Our next four days were to be spent walking the Quilotoa loop, a hike between towns that starts or ends at Quilotoa, a beautiful lake in the crater of an extinct volcano. Most people walk the route the easy way, starting in Quilotoa and walking downhill for a lot of the way. So that Quilotoa was our reward at the end of the walk, we decided to walk the other round, starting at Sigchos and finishing at Quilotoa. This meant that our final day involved climbing nearly 1000m up the volcano.
After checking out of our hostel and leaving our large rucksacks locked in their basement we walked back to the bus terminal to catch a bus to Sigchos, our starting point for the day’s walk to Isinlivi. We arrived and walked up to a ticket window saying Sigchos. We asked for two tickets and paid $5 in total. When the lady handed us the ticket it had a departure time of 12:30 on it. It was only 9:15 am, we knew that it was a two hour bus ride to Sigchos and we would then have a three to four hour walk to Isinlivi. On the 12:30 bus we’d be struggling to make it before dark and the last thing we wanted was to be walking in the Ecuadorian wilderness in the dark. We enquired about an earlier bus and were told that this was the next bus. Our hostel had told us that busses left every half an hour so we were slightly surprised and decided to walk around the terminal to think of an alternative. We didn’t have long to wait as three windows down was a competing bus company offering their own bus to Sigchos at 10am. We had no idea where the fabled 09:30 bus was but having just brought our departure time forward by two and a half hours we happily paid another $4.60 for new tickets.
Soon enough we were on our way to Sigchos on another modern, comfortable coach. A film appeared on the big screen at the front of the coach and we settled into the ride. We soon discovered why the journey took two hours for what looked like a relatively short distance, as we started to wind up and over the mountains twisting our way through countless hairpin bends as we crawled to Sigchos. By the time we got to Sigchos we were both feeling pretty ill but we staggered off the bus and found ourselves in the middle of a tiny town.
We worked our way through the centre of the town, meeting an old lady who offered one of her seven sons to us as a guide. We politely declined and set off on the road leading out of the corner of the town. I’d downloaded a GPS trace from the internet and we used it, overlaid onto a digital map, to successfully find our way along the first day’s path. This was so useful that I recorded our own GPS trace that is slightly more accurate than the one that we downloaded and includes the circuit of the Quilotoa crater. The links to the files are at the bottom of this post.
The first day was mostly on the road, however the route helped us to find shortcuts that avoided long loops as the road descended into the valley. We barely saw any other walkers on the route all day going in either direction. The last half of the walk was all uphill and, since we hadn’t had a lot of time to acclimatise, we found the 450m climb quite hard, but we finished in good time and found our hostel for the night Llullu Llama at 2900m in Isinlivi. Llullu Llama felt like an oasis in the otherwise fairly poor village of Isinlivi. We had reserved a cabaña which was newly-built with traditional style adobe walls, a fantastic hot shower, two balconies, an open fire and a very comfortable bed. Every detail was extremely well made from the building itself to all of the furniture handmade by the local carpentry school. I had a pretty serious headache at this point due to the altitude, so I lay on the bed and watched the sun set from our incredible view of the valley below. We walked up to the main house and sat down for dinner on a long refectory table with the other guests. Dinner consisted of soup followed by a potato and vegetable bake (with meat for everyone except me) and finished with banana bread. The food was delicious and homecooked and exactly what we needed after a long day. We sat around talking to some of the guys we had seen on the walk, then headed back to our Cabaña to light the fire. Once the fire was roaring we stepped outside onto the balcony and looked up at the stars. Because we were so far from anywhere the whole sky seemed to be twinkling. We eventually went back inside and fell asleep to the crackle of the log fire.
The next morning we got up for a hearty breakfast and after packing up we set off on our walk. Our second day’s walk involved a decent to 2600m and then a climb up to Chugchilan, our town for the night. The day started with a very clear sky and a hot sun.
Although at 2900m it is not very warm, we’re nearly on the equator and the sun can still burn very quickly. We started our decent and found the path to be extremely dusty which made it quite slippery. There were numerous forks in the path and for a large part of the decent the instructions that we used took us away from the GPS trace that we’d been following. After a few wrong turns and more than a few minutes spent scratching our heads we reached the bottom of the valley and started walking along the river. We passed two couples coming the other way who gave us a few tips on the route ahead. By the small number of people that we passed it seems that there are no more than 10 people walking the route each way per day.
We walked into a tiny village just as the local kids were leaving school and then we walked up a steep incline to reach the top of the canyon. Many of the school kids were also making this climb and from speaking to them we discovered that their daily route to and from school involved this 400m climb down and then back out of the canyon. As we reached the top of the canyon we found a lookout point where we met some more of the school kids and took photos with them. We left the lookout point and started our final long slow climb to our destination for the night. After a couple of kilometres we left the nice country trail and joined a new dusty road. There was a wind blowing towards us and the dust from the rocky road blew into our faces as we walked the final couple of kilometres into Chugchilan. We easily found the Cloud Forest hostel where planned to stay and went to check in. The room we were shown was not a patch on the previous night’s accommodation but it was also half the price, looked clean and had a private bathroom. We grabbed some food and a well earned beer and spent the afternoon lazing in the sun.
Dinner that evening was nothing compared to our first night; consisting of rice, salad, mashed potato and plantain for me and unidentifiable meat for Alex. Despite my triple carb meal I was extremely happy and Alex was left wishing she could swap the meat for some plantain. Over dinner we got to know Graham and Elaine a little better. They were another couple who were walking the Quilotoa Loop the same way that we were. They were Irish and a few years younger than us, Elaine was a doctor (probably the most handy travelling companion you can have) and Graham was an investment accountant (my eyes glazed over when he told me this just about as quickly as most people’s eyes glaze over when I say I work in IT). They seemed like fairly similar travellers to us and were good company for the evening. They were off to the Galapagos before us so we should have exchanged contact details so we could hit them up for advice! Hindsight is a wonderful thing! Anyway they were walking with a Canadian couple that they’d met on the route. Together they were setting a pretty good pace so we were more than happy to follow behind them, enjoying the scenery and meeting up to compare notes in the evenings. Anyway after sitting around chatting for a while we were all pretty tired and decided to get a good night’s sleep before the next day’s big climb.
That night we struggled to sleep. The sheets in the hostel were furry, almost fleecy and gave out static shocks and the bed creaked whenever we moved. However, having gone to bed so early we managed to get enough sleep and awoke early for breakfast.
Breakfast was actually pretty reasonable compared to some of the hostel breakfasts we’ve had, so feeling well-fuelled for the day we checked out and started our walk to Quilotoa. Our first leg involved descending a couple of hundred metres back into the canyon we’d already crossed twice, and then up the other side. The path down was steep and the path back up was extremely narrow and badly eroded. For the first time in 3 days there were some barriers to stop us falling off a steep drop, however the vast majority of these had collapsed and we’re either totally missing or hanging over the edge. We also had to quickly cross a minor rockfall, mostly just sand falling into the path but every few seconds a few stones would fall into the path, some big enough to do some damage if
they hit you! We reached the top of the canyon in tact and realised that we’d now climbed our first 200m of the day’s total of 900m. At the top of the canyon we could wander along a gentle slope through a small village where we stopped for a warm drink (they had no fridge) and then continued up to the foot of the volcano. By now we’d managed to climb another 200m and the path once again started to get steeper, and then steeper again for the final ascent to the rim of the crater. The rim of the crater was at 3900m and although we weren’t too tired, we had to take small steps to prevent us becoming completely out of breath. We climbed the last 20 minutes with a teenager who was carrying up two wooden posts for the hut that his uncle was building at the viewpoint on the rim. For the last hour climbing the volcano we’d noticed low cloud advancing behind us and around twenty minutes after we arrived at the rim of the crater the cloud caught up with us. Before this however we had a beautiful view of a lake in the crater 400m below us.
We then had to walk around a third of the crater rim to get to Quilotoa village, our stopping point for the night. We took a narrow path that started off well then slowly descended into the crater. Luckily we realised this pretty quickly and backtracked and found the right path. We were quickly shocked to find ourselves walking through beautiful white sand just like you’d find on a beach. At 3900m on the rim of a volcano this was quite surreal.
By this point we were both tired and short of breath so the last stretch took us a little while however we eventually arrived in Quilotoa just over six hours after we’d left Chugchilan that morning. By the time we arrived in Quilotoa the cloud had come in as a dense fog with a visibility of no more than 20m. Tired and starting to get quite cold by now we quickly examined a few of the hostels from the outside, picked out what looked like two of the smartest and walking into the biggest one. When we walked in the lunch service was in full flow and nobody seemed to be interested in showing us a room so we wandered to the back, found an empty room and had a look around. It was nothing special but looked clean and we walked back through the restaurant with the intention of looking at some other options. On the way out a guy walked up to us and asked if we were looking for a room. We said yes and he took us upstairs to show us a different room, that was not as nice as the one we’d seen. We enquired about the other room but were told that this was the only one left so, tired and hungry, we agreed to take the room. We payed up ($20 each including dinner and breakfast) and got our key.
We walked into the room and realised that we’d make a mistake. It was cold, it wasn’t quite as clean as we’d first imagined, the only light in the room didn’t work (although the bathroom one did) and the bathroom when illuminated was also pretty shoddy. There was also only one towel in the room. We went downstairs to ask for another towel and were told that we’d have one later as they were waiting on a delayed laundry delivery. We decided to pop out for some lunch and on our way out mentioned the broken light. In fact not knowing the Spanish for light bulb, and having ascertained that the bulb was the problem, we took the broken bulb with us downstairs and gave it to them with the words “no functionar”. We were slightly reassured when they dug some change out of a drawer and dispatched a small child to go and buy us a new one. We walked to the second best looking hostal as we’d seen pizza advertised and grabbed some seats at a bench. We ordered the large “vegetariana” pizza and were excited when someone else’s pizza came out looking delicious. Thirty minutes later our pizza came out looking as good as we’d hoped, however my excitement turned to disappointment as I noticed that there was ham on top. We obviously pointed out that ham was not vegetarian and, confused and unable to convince us that ham is vegetarian (despite several attempts), the pizza was taken back into the kitchen. Two minutes later the pizza returned having had about 90% of the ham picked off. Too hungry to care, and since there was never much ham to begin with, I tucked into the half that looked most vegetarian and Alex had the slices with the remaining ham. I’m not sure if it was the hunger but the pizza was delicious and we sat around for another hour watching the end of Happy Gilmour dubbed in Spanish on the TV. The film has a pretty simple plot so we didn’t really need to worry about the words to understand what was happening.
We walked back to our hostel, picked up the lightbulb that was waiting for us and I fitted it. Being the gentleman that I am, I’d earlier let Alex use the only towel and so I was waiting for the laundry to get another towel. We inquired again about the towel and were told that it would be arriving in 15 minutes. It starting raining outside and we sat down in a communal area and read our books. A little while later I spotted the staff taking towels to other rooms, so Alex went to enquire once again, this time with success. I went to get in the shower, turned the water on and waited for the water to heat up. A couple of minutes later the water was still ice cold. Once again Alex had to go and complain this time about the lack of hot water. The staff to be fair immediately jumped into action and minutes later I was in a hot shower. Before this however, when the guy came to check that the water was hot we had a very confusing conversation where he asked us if we were using the single bed in our room. When we said that we weren’t, he asked us something that we thought was a request to put someone in the room with us as the hostel was full. We politely but firmly declined but he persisted. Eventually we worked out that he was actually asking if he could take the mattress and relieved we immediately agreed. We headed down for dinner and got talking to a Ukrainian guy who spoke very little English and a Dutch couple who spoke English as well as us. Dinner started with a vegetable soup but was followed with a meagre portion of chips, an over-fried egg and a pile of pasta that they assured me was vegetarian but actually had tuna in it. Thankfully having eaten a massive pizza only a couple of hours before I was able to eat the chips and egg and leave the pasta. Having found that everyone in Colombia perfectly understood what was meant by vegetarian it was a shock to be served meat twice in one day.
We chatted to the Dutch couple for a while who told us that the previous night the staff had refused to light the woodburning stove in their bedroom (probably the only selling point that our room actually had) and we mentally prepared ourselves for a long cold night. A few minutes later some of the children who appeared to work at the hostel came up to the Dutch couple offering to light their stove and I quickly thrust our room key at them. Twenty minutes later there was a warm fire going in our bedroom and having now had a warm shower, working lights and a blazing fire, our room was suddenly looking a little more palatable.
The next morning we awoke early for breakfast, packed our bags and got ready for the day’s walk. Realising what we were about to do, the owner offered that we could leave our bags in the hostel however when we asked where to put them he just pointed to a room that they used as a shop to sell artesanal crafts. Not wanting to leave our bag in a shop, but also not keen on the idea of carrying it we loaded the valuables into the bag that we were carrying and stashed the second bag full of dirty clothes into a cupboard under a display of Alpaca jumpers. We left the hostel and started what we hoped was to be a nice final day’s walk around the volcano crater, walking the loop to finish at the hostel then catching a bus back to Latacunga.
The path started well but soon narrowed into a half metre wide peak with sharp drops to both sides. The top of the crater was also not flat, so we were faced with multiple climbs and falls of several hundred metres on our way round. Around a third of the way round we reached the highest point of the walk at 3930m high. The climb up to this peak was tortuous thanks to the altitude, the narrow path and by now the wind which had picked up considerably since leaving the hostel, prompting Alex to drop down to the ground in fear every time the wind picked up. We finally made it to the top and after making Alex take a photo of me next to the sign (which was itself wobbling quite significantly in the wind) we quickly started our decent, which turned out to be just as hard as the ascent. Much of the rock around the volcano crater was extremely soft so that we seemed to be sliding around in grey dust at some points. At one point I nearly fell after putting my hand onto a solid looking rock only for it to crumble and cause a small landslide on the path.
The path continued crossing a series of peaks climbing 100-200 metres on each and then dropping a little. Eventually we got to the point on the crater where we’d arrived the previous day. Although this day’s walk was a little shorter, we were at 1000m higher altitude than previous days so it didn’t feel any easier. Having taken the wrong path the previous day we resolved to take the correct path which was a steep climb up some rocks and over a final peak. We got to the other side now completely shattered, and remembered there that was still a quarter of the crater and several small peaks to walk over. The rest of the walk, much like the day before, was slow and we were delighted when we arrived back at the hostel. We were even more delighted to find our clothes undisturbed in the cupboard that we had left them in.
However this was not the end of the day’s journey as we needed to get back to Latacunga. We grabbed a cold Coke in our hostel and Alex asked about the buses. The owner immediately volunteered one of his staff to take us to the next town (Zumbahua) for $5 and, since we didn’t have a huge amount of time, we gladly accepted. We seemed to drive straight through the middle of Zumbahua and stopped on a street that didn’t look at all like a bus station or even a bus stop. The driver assured us that this is where we needed to be so we jumped out and walked into a shop that our driver seemed to indicate might sell tickets. They didn’t sell tickets but did assure is that if we sat outside a bus would be along in 30 mins. We sat outside and about 2 minutes later a guy came over and asked if we were heading to Latacunga. We said yes and he offered us a lift in his pickup for $8. This was much more than the bus but would take much less time and get us to Latacunga before dark. We thought for a moment and decided to get in. It’s worth saying at this point that this is one of those unexpected situations that you need to be quite careful in. Ultimately it’s a calculated risk when you get into someone’s car like this. We never would have done this in a city or even a town but we were in a small town in the middle of nowhere with only a few roads in or out. There were two of us and I had an offline map on my phone so I could easily see if we were going the right way. The most important thing in these situations is does it feel right? In this case the pickup truck looked reasonable and the guy seemed decent, neither charging a very cheap price nor an extremely expensive one. Anyway we got on the road and the driver quickly asked what music he should put on the stereo. We opted for some traditional Ecuadorian Cumbia. Next he asked us if we liked indigenous art. We said we did and he offered to stop at a shop we were about to pass. We said we had no time, money or space in our bags and at this point he revealed that his uncle was actually a painter and that was his shop. The driver then revealed that he was also a painter and had, many years ago, been on a cultural exchange to the USA. We talked a little more about his experiences and we discovered that far from making a trip out of his way to drop us off, he was actually on his way home to the town next to our destination. The rest of the journey went pretty quickly, at one point he stopped so we could take a photo of an impressive view. Shortly before getting to Latacunga I noticed that he took a turn into a different town. I took a look at the map and saw that the road we were on still went to Latacunga. Alex hadn’t realised and, thinking we were entering Latacunga, started to give the guy directions as to where to drop us off. At this point he told us that we were actually now near his home and would we like to come and look at maybe even buy some of his art. Once again we said we were in a hurry and had no money (the last part was true as having had no access to a cash machine we were down to our last $30) and our driver continued on to Latacunga. He dropped us in the Plaza near our hostel and we made our way back into Hostel Tiana.
We checked in and retrieved our main bags from the basement. I was just on the way to drop our clothes to be washed when a German girl stopped me and said she recognised me from the mountain. Apparently I’d taken a photo of her and her friends. Although I remembered taking the photo I had no recollection of her, however she told me that she had just filled the hostel’s only washing machine (curse German efficiency!). This was a blow as we desperately needed some clean clothes and didn’t want to turn up to our first host family with a huge pile of dirty laundry! I spoke to the guy on reception anyway and, even though I could understand him telling me that it would have to wait until the morning, I couldn’t ask whether it was OK to leave the laundry with him so it would be ready early. I went to get Alex to translate and eventually the receptionist agreed to take the laundry. We went out for a surprisingly good Pizza and headed back to the hotel. When we got to the hotel we were presented with the laundry freshly washed, great service!
The next morning we gathered our belongings and headed back to the bus station. Again we didn’t quite understand the process and, after queueing for bus tickets for 20 minutes for a bus that didn’t leave for over an hour, we got to the window to be told to go straight to the bus. We dumped our bags in the hold and 5 minutes later we were on our way back to Quito to start our Spanish course!
Although the Quilotoa loop was really hard work, it was an amazing experience and we’re really glad we made the effort and did the full walk and the crater loop. Looking back three weeks later, it was unique and one of our best experiences in Ecuador so far. Despite the hardship we would go again tomorrow! The scenery was fantastic and it was so different to spend a few days in the middle of the countryside.
Here’s a few more photos that didn’t make it into the post!
And finally, here’s the links to our GPS trace in a variety of formats!