Avenue Q; Quito & Quilatoa

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
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Trip End Apr 16, 2011


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Flag of Ecuador  , Cotopaxi,
Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Having splurged on a flight to Equador and saved ourselves several days on Columbian buses we arrived in Quito excited to be heading back into the mountains. First though we had to finish acclimatising so spent our first couple of days in Ecuador trying to get as many views of Quito as possible.  We wandered the Old Town, climbed the towers of the Basilico (which feels like an ancient cathedral but was only finished in the 1920s), supped beer on the balcony of a bar overlooking town, took the new Teleferico to 4,100m for a higher altitude hike and schlepped out of town to visit the monument marking the equator.  All of which enabled us to spend as little time as possible in our hostel which is one of the worst we've stayed in yet; the staff were either absent or drunk, the rooms were dirty, there was only one shower for more than 30 people and to add insult to injury someone nicked our Marmite at breakfast.  Definitely not our best choice.  Quito itself is a very easy place to spend time with lots of international restaurants, a crazy nightlife and more gringos than you can shake a stick at.

From Quito we headed south to the Andes again to do the famous Quilatoa Loop.  The Loop is a route through the countryside that you can do by a combination of car, bus, truck, milk-float, horse, hiking, or just about any other means of transport you care to name.  The difficulty though is finding out quite how to do it.  The section on the Loop in our guidebook consisted of a long list of possible bus times from various odd-sounding villages with no map to suggest where they might be in relation to one another and ended with the helpful words "Don’t worry – everyone’s confused".  Hmmmm.  Armed with no information we therefore headed to Latacunga for the night where we managed to procure a very basic map (that looked hand-drawn) and ascertained that we should be able to do two day’s walking with buses/trucks at either end depending on our luck.

Bright and early the next morning we therefore got a bus to Zumbahua (we promise these are all real names) where we then needed to negotiate a ride on a pick up truck 13km up the road to Quilatoa village.  After a bit of haggling we found ourselves sitting on the floor of the back of a truck where we were joined by an old man holding two chickens who was delighted to see foreigners and asked us lots of questions about where we were from (“Where is this Europe?”).  About 5km down the road the truck stopped to pick up four more people who were equally chatty and turned to be Jehovah’s witnesses who were preaching in Quechua to the local indigenous villages.  It turns out they are just as annoying in other languages.  Having tried and failed to convert either us or the old man they jumped off a little further down the road to find new prey whilst we enjoyed the scenery.  The biggest change to the scenery we’d got used to in Venezuela is how green everything was.  Venezuela’s oil economy means there’s barely any farming but in Ecuador every last possible inch of land seemed to be fields or pasture.

We had been nervously watching the weather our whole way out to Quilatoa as not only did we not really want to walk in the rain but we’d heard that the lake at Quilatoa was the highlight of the Loop but can get full of clouds.  We were therefore a bit worried seeing some low cloud as we approached the village, bid goodbye to our new friend and walked up the hill to the mirador of the lake.  We couldn’t see anything until we rounded the corner and there before us lay Quilatoa lake, perfectly clear in the sunshine.  It is a mind-blowingly gorgeous blue-green volcanic crater lake and left us speechless for a quite a while just staring at it.

When we recovered our wits we simply had to get a bit closer and so decided to walk down to the lake before climbing back up to start the walk to the village we were heading to, Chugchilan.  We found ourselves stopping every few minutes to take yet more photos as the clouds changed the shadows on the lake or we passed different wild flowers.  On the way back up we needed the pauses even more!  Quilatoa is 3,800m above sea level and a lot of the path was scree that meant for each step we took we slid at last half as far back again.  At the top we treated ourselves to a cold drink and set off for Chugchilan, a village 4 or 5 hours walk away.  There was a very helpful sign at the start of the trail assuring us that the route is marked with blue arrows and so we confidently set off.

The first part of the trail took us right round the rim of the crater lake and again we couldn’t stop taking photos.  After stopping for a seriously scenic picnic right on the edge we started looking for the blue arrow that would show us which path we needed to take down off the rim.  Except there were none.  Occasionally we saw a twisted bit of metal and eventually realised that they were all that was left of the signs for the path.  Luckily we knew roughly which direction to head in from our scribbled map so struck off that way and asked for directions every time we came to a farm.

The path that we took wound us through the farms and pastures that took up every possible piece of land on the sometimes very steep hills and was gorgeous walking.  After about 3 hours we even found a blue arrow – the only one we saw all day – although helpfully it was on the one bit of the trail where it was very obvious which way we should be going as we could finally see Chugchilan.  The only problem was that it was on the opposite side of a very deep canyon.  Happily, compared to the climb up from the lake it wasn’t too bad going and we soon found ourselves in Chugchilan village and settled ourselves into the hammocks outside the cheapest hostel in town.  As we were sitting back marvelling at the day we heard someone shout 'Gorr-Den’ (that’s Gordon in American in case it’s not obvious) and looked up to see Mike, who we’d also climbed Roraima with and who was in the room next to ours!  He and his girlfriend were doing the Loop in the opposite direction to us so were handily able to give us the full directions for the next days’ walk and we spent a very fun evening playing cards and the soon-to-be-patented Reverse Jenga.

Next morning we bid the others goodbye and, now armed with proper directions, headed off into a gloriously sunny day for the walk to Isinlivi village through more über-picturesque farmland, river valleys and hills.  Isinlivi is a tiny village and, it turns out, there is very little to do there, as we discovered when we arrived in the early afternoon.  The only bus out of town left at the ungodly hour of 3am and so after a very short night we found ourselves waiting in the village square with one other local lady, a crate of chickens and two sheep at 2:45 am.  Having helped load the livestock onto the roof of the bus we claimed some seats and promptly slept all the way to Saquisili, our final destination on the Loop where there is a market on Thursday mornings that the Lonely Planet raves about.  Now, we were short on sleep so probably hard to impress but the market really wasn’t all that great - as Gordon pointed out it was a bit like Salisbury market but more people were wearing felt hats.  After an hour wandering around looking at leaks and potatoes, two greasy hot chocolates and some soup that we think was tripe soup we decided enough was enough and boarded our final bus of the Loop to head back to Latacunga.  Despite the uninspiring market the Quilatoa Loop was a real highlight for us; some of the most gorgeous scenery we’ve seen, wonderfully friendly people and fantastic hiking.  If only the buses went at sensible times!
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