We’ve been away for a while now, dropped some weight, built up those leg muscles and have got a bit hairier (mainly me in that area) so we felt it time to get out into the Andes proper and try and tackle parts of the Quilotoa Loop. The 200km circuit of Andean beauty starts via the busy little town of Latacunga that sits at 2800m, out west of the route’s namesake; The Quilotoa Crater Lake sitting pretty (cold) at 3900m. An entire 200km round trip on foot is far too much, so we set out to spend around a week working our way round by bus, truck and most importantly by foot.
Quito to Latacunga: Being the main jumping off point for the route we felt it sensible to head to Latacunga first and make a plan of attack. After nearly throwing myself on the floor in a full-blown tantrum at the fact that I had to spend another hour of my life on the Quito Trole system to the bus station from Old town, we found a quick little bus that got us there in around 2 hours. Latacunga at first glance can seem quite a grubby little commercial breeze block nightmare, but the further in you go, the more you can see its subtle colonial charms and handsome faded architecture. We were told that Hostal Tiana is a nice spot with some helpful advice on how to tackle the route unaided and it did not disappoint. Not a great deal else to do in the town but we did find a big supermarket to stock up on supplies, somewhere to buy a wooly hat with llamas on and lady who was selling steak, chorizo and plantain skewers at $1.50 a throw. After devising an excellent packing strategy (for me, tying two bags together with shoelaces) we thought we were ready!
Latacunga to Insinliví: We apparently want to be different so decided to head to the small town of Insinliví first and work our way round the loop anti-clockwise. The bus from Latacunga to Insinliví left the main terminal at 12:15 (as it does daily) and took just shy of three hours to reach our destination. A seat on the right hand side of the bus afforded us some stunning views; after the town of Sigchos passed us by as we began to wind our way through the clouds and treacherously muddy sheer drop paths. We have seen some impressive country on this trip, but nothing compares with the armfuls of natural beauty on offer here. It was school run time so at Sigchos the bus filled up with kids in uniforms on their way home. One thing I have noticed and continue to do so on this trip is that teenagers, wherever you are in the world are the same annoying specimens they are everywhere. London to NYC, San Salvador to Antigua and even here in the Andes, you will find a boisterous group of sods pumping tinny music out of their mobile phones. The only difference is, these kids get off and hike up dirt trails to their homes in the hills of an evening.
Soon we arrived in the tiny town of Insinliví where a local kid directed us to the Llu Llu Llama hostal where we planned to stay for a couple of nights. We immediately regretted coming here first as it was by far the nicest place we have stayed on our entire trip so far. The ground floor is set around some comfy sofas with alpaca blankets and a fire place that gives off a generous amount of much needed warmth. It is set on the edge of the town, giving stunning views over the canyon below. After perusing their well complied list of hikes we decided on a quick one that loops up around the town just to test our lungs walking at 2900m. It was soon dinner time and we tucked into a home cooked cottage pie with the two other guests and enjoy a glass of red. This place is top draw and I can’t recommend it enough.
The Guantualo Loop Hike: One of the many free hikes on offer from the Llama is the market trade route to the town of Guantualo from Insinliví. The hike took us SW down into the valley below Insinliví, where we crossed the river Cumbujin and slowly made our way up the other side towards the tiny town of Guangamala. The day was glorious with the sun’s intensity felt on our skin as we gazed into the blue sky and fluffy white clouds that top the green peaks around us. We steadily headed for higher ground and kept climbing through meadows and up muddy trails until we got that ‘top of the world feeling.’ Soon the town of Guantualo was in site and we walked through, not expecting to see much as market day is on Mondays. There is in fact, nothing going on here on a Saturday, and the only people we did see were sitting outside their house with a llama and plastic jugs of aguadiente. They offered us ‘uno para el camino’ which we graciously accepted.
Shortly after the fire in our belly cooled we stopped for some coffee and biscuits (I know, so very British) before descending downhill and back in a NE direction towards the road and hill we ‘recognised’. We lost the path quickly, but soon found it again with the help of a local farmer and we eventually got on the road back to Insinliví. The weather changed in a flash, the clouds zoomed in over the hill tops and soon rain came. Walking on a road uphill is never fun, even in these glorious surroundings. I stuck my thumb out and we managed to hitch the last uphill struggle back to the town in a pickup truck just before the killer rain set in which didn’t relent until it was time for another one of Gladys’ delicious dinners and some time by the fire. We were joined by the only other guest, Tara, and one half of the Ecuadorean/Dutch owner couple Cristian who was happy to tell us all about the area; including all about the Italian master craft apprentice style programme run here by Don Bosco in woodwork for locals and the Llama’s help within the community.
Hike from Insinliví to Chugchilán: With trusty maps (not the IGM ones, they were last updated 20 years ago, and due to the sheer amount of contour lines, it is impossible to tell what’s a path and what’s not) and directions courtesy of Llu Llu Llama we set off at 9am accompanied by two others. Tara the other guest and a scrappy looking mutt we affectionately named Biscuit. The weather was again pretty fine, which according to Cristian, is the standard. Fine weather up until around 1pm, then the clouds roll in and with it the rain. With this in mind, we realised that the proposed 6 hour hike was going to get a bit wet at the end.
Heading down into the canyon again we veered SE round the other side after crossing the river. After passing through a meadow we descended down through some deep muddy paths until coming out on a huge flat plain, overlooking one huge chunk of the surrounding sierra with a sheer cliff drop at the edge. Carrying on we saw some handsome light coloured cliffs and a couple of fun looking caves as we continued down to the stony riverbed of the neighboring Toachi canyon. This place is heart achingly gorgeous and it is hard to concentrate on the hike with all there is to see. Wandering past the river bed, we passed the odd farmer and cow herder, until we eventually came to a clearing of eucalyptus trees. Soon, a fun but sketchy-looking log bridge was in view that we knew we must cross so Ollie tentatively offered herself up first, followed by Tara and Biscuit. Slightly further upstream at an even more fun suspension bridge we stopped for lunch courtesy of Tara who knocked up some peanut butter and honey sarnies that along with our coffee (Biscuit just ate the biscuits), gave us the boost we need as the rest of the walk was going to be uphill with bad weather.
Heading up the other side of the canyon we came across a small village called Itualo which was empty of people, but offered a quick rest stop before a 400m 15 switchback climb up the canyon. I feel it’s important here to say that Tara was carrying full pack and only had two days of altitude under her belt. Only slightly behind us on the way up, it was clear who is the fitter hiker! We all took it slow, and panted for breath often, but soon were at the top and the look-out point at the town of Chinalo. The weather continued to darken and spit at us, so we pushed on (after Biscuit got his biscuit of course) slowly round the hills taking in some further jaw dropping views and seeking direction from a local. (apparently, Ollie can understand Kichwa now?) As we found the road to Chugchilán it continued to climb as the rain set in heavy. With 5 hours under our belts we arrive at our lodgings at the Hostal Cloud Forest and celebrated with a well-earned beer.
Sickbed and Cheese dreams: I felt it coming and didn’t want to acknowledge it, but it hit me with a bang. Fever, hot sweats, cold sweats, sore throat, nausea, head ache and photosensitivity. Not ideal when your 3200m up and planning on hiking. I stayed in bed and listened to the dogs bark all day whilst Ollie set out on a hike with Tara to the local cheese factory. Ollie would be writing this part, but unfortunately, the cheese factory closes at 11am and they got there at 11:20. Those of you who know Ollie will know how devastated this made her. It was a handsome walk she tells me and on returning while I lay in bed she and Tara tucked into a bottle of wine by the fire in the Hostal Cloud Forest games room.
Pickup to Quilotoa/Hike down the crater lake: Feeling much better, but not better enough to tackle the 7 hour hike to Quilotoa, which involves 1000m worth of ascent we all decided to take up the Cloud Forest hostal’s offer of a pickup ride to the town of Quilotoa for $5pp. Along the route, we were stopped by construction work in the form of diggers and earth movers carving out the road ahead of us. When I say road, you must understand that it is a dirt path. When the road ahead was clear (relatively of course), we continued on through some more impressive endless scenery and past further road works (they appear to be paving it!) until we reached the small town of Quilotoa. First order of business was finding a room, which we do at Hosteria Alpaca (don’t book online or pay the $25pp they ask, bargain!) on the outskirts of town. Second order of business being to check out this crater lake.
The first sight of it was stunning. Even though there was no sun (and felt like there never would be!) there are few clouds and the whole crater is clearly visible. We’ve seen crater lakes before but nothing compares to this. Even a photo needs perspective so here’s some dimensions. It’s 3km wide, 250m deep (although locals believe its bottomless), 3915m high at its highest point and to hike around the rim is 10km in distance.
We opted for the hike down to the lake’s edge which involved half an hour of steep descent. As soon as we got down there, the clouds started creeping in, but we had time for a cup of tea at the small hostal there. Refusing the horses we hiked back up in the pouring rain which took an hour and not quite as bad as it could have been. Still pretty tough though at that altitude!
It’s real cold there. The wind is harsh and the air damp. I had a fever still, and couldn’t shake the chill in my bones so we headed for some food in the town. Dreaming of some steamy soup and fire place all I got was constant disappointment with nothing on offer anywhere.
Quilotoa is a strange little town and I wouldn’t recommend anyone stay there longer than one night. It seems as if plenty of money has been thrown at development as there is no shortage of places to stay, and the new shiny buildings, car park and visitor centre (I imagine what that is what was meant to be, but it is just full of tourist tat for sale) are all branded with Ecuador tourism logo’s, but none of the places are actually catering for hikers and are run by locals who don’t seem to want you there or care about their businesses. I’m all for local run places and by no means am I looking for a Big Mac up there, but I don’t understand why they bother spending big money and then letting it be run poorly. They are on the ball everywhere else in the country, but here we didn’t even pay our $2 fee, didn’t know who to pay it to! We felt like we were the only people staying in our hostel as we didn’t see anyone else there and barely another soul in town, but when the dinner bell rang, out came 20 shivering and ravenous gringos who had obviously been hiding under the covers until dinner time. If only someone sold a little mulled wine by an all day fire, they would make a killing! Business idea…
Back to Latacunga and some warmth: After a night of feverish sleep by a fire stove we decided to head back to Latacunga. We just couldn’t get the cold out of us and were pretty knackered anyway so after a quick breakfast we grabbed a pick up truck headed to Zumbahua ($5pp), where we then got another truck back to Latacunga ($3.50pp) . The final views were still as incredible as our first ones a week before and before we know it, we were back on the streets of Latacunga and at Hostal Tiana again. Since we had spent the week eating various variations of chicken rice and potatoes we decided to head for pizza in town before an early night.
The natural beauty here on the Quilotoa Loop is absolutely jaw dropping and is a must do for anyone visiting Ecuador. I am genuinely sad that I didn’t get to see more of it now we’ve left and if we ever do return to South America, you can be sure we are heading into the Andes again. For a country we didn’t plan on visiting in the first place and weren’t too keen on in the beginning it has certainly been a major contributing factor in our new found love for Ecuador. Anyone planning on doing the loop should start in Quilotoa than finish in Insinliví. The reasons being that you descend in altitude, the temperature gets steadily warmer and the accommodation gets more ‘accommodating’ the more knackered you get!