The Quilotoa Loop
Trip Start Feb 07, 2011
54Trip End Nov 30, 2011
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Where I stayed
Hostel Cafe Tiana
What I did
The Quilotoa Loop
Latacunga itself is a broad, sprawling township that seemingly runs itself on the industry of barber shops. Seriously, I saw more hairdressers in that place than I’ve seen during our entire trip, and none of them appeared to be doing what could be called a brisk trade.
The city itself is overlooked by nine separate volcanoes, when they’re not all hidden by clouds, which they all too often are.
But aside from the hairdressers and the volcanoes, Latacunga is also the site of the somewhat un-PC titled 'Mama Negra Festival’
But aside from the hairdressers, the volcanoes and Mama Negra, what did Latacunga ever do for us? Well, Latacunga is also famous for its local delicacy, chicharron. For the uninitiated, chicharron is a heart-stopping dish seemingly encompassing every cholesterol-laden, calorific food type in the Andes. Shua and I sat down for a light lunch of it one day and stupidly ordered one each. First course: an enormous bowl of pork scratchings and boiled white corn. Second course: an even more enormous platter of pork crackling, hunks of roast pork, more boiled white corn, 400 potatoes, rice and, inexplicably, popcorn. For someone who doesn’t eat pork, that’s a lot of potato to get through.
We took a desultory stroll around Lactunga afterwards to ward off a coronary and wound up at their museum. Hilariously, this seemed to consist of just one small room, stuffed with a mock carriage and a series of wooden boxes. The guide was Spanish and, despite our protestations that we didn’t understand the language, he insisted on showing us around. So, we’d stand in front of some random box and he’d give his little explanation, after which we’d nod and give little exclamations as though we had followed his entire dialogue, whilst actually not understanding a word. This went on for about 30 minutes before we managed to escape and yet again berated ourselves for our lack of local lingo.
The following day we were up bright and early in the cool, crisp mountain air to visit Saquisili and its famous market, some 20 minutes north on the Quilotoa Loop
It was crazy.
It took us almost an hour to find out where our next bus onwards was leaving from, but after that we just wandered along, happily gawking at everything, from the range of produce to the stall-holders indigenous dress to the squealing pigs loaded onto vans.
I think it was our gawking that got us into the trouble with the little old ladies. Josh and I stand head and shoulders over most people in Ecuador, and a good couple of feet taller than its’ little old ladies. So when one particularly pint sized munchkin started tugging at Josh’s kneecaps, we did our best to ignore her, but you’d need a heart of volcanic stone to ignore the pitiful pleas for money from someone twice as old and half the size of your granny.
However, here’s a valuable lesson for you all: Never, ever, EVER hand your heard earned cash over to little old ladies
Within two seconds, the word was out among the old lady circles that there were two dumbass gringos in Saquisili doling out free moola to anyone who could muster a bleary tear. Before long, there was a gang of tiny, ancient mummies, bound in black, chasing us down as we dodged between stalls, hiding behind enormous alpaca rugs and shielding ourselves with small children. Honestly, it was like Night of the Living Dead all over again.
After a lucky escape from the Little Old Lady Gang, we hit the guinea pig market. Cuy is a bit of a national dish in Ecuador and Peru. We’d sampled some in Quito, complete with its little paws and tiny jaw. It tastes like a cross between rabbit and chicken, but richer and a little gamier. If it weren’t for all the annoying little bones, I think it’d be high on Shua’s list of Things He Likes to Barbecue.
Anyway, the guinea pig market at Saquisili is just brilliant to watch. The sellers are divided into Basket Holders and Bag Holders. The Basket Holders have their wares on display in huge woven baskets; the Bag Holders have their wares concealed in large hessian bags, from which they occasionally pull a whooping guinea pig out by the head and show to a potential buyer, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat
Still, at least this prepared us for our onwards bus journey. Shua and I were sat gazing out of the window, waiting to leave, as passengers passed their bags up outside to be loaded onto the roof. Only, it wasn’t their bags they were passing up.
It was their animals.
A collection of chickens, gathered by their ankles and held unceremoniously upside-down were passed up. More chickens followed and were swiftly joined by several large squirming bags of guinea pigs, a pig and four lambs. All strapped to the roof of our bus.
After all this excitement, we set off for our next port of call, Chugchillan. Chugchillan is one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ kind of places, made up of barely 100 souls strung along a wind-blown street some 4,000m high up in the Andes. It stares down over a steep and stunning valley from its perch high up on the ridge, overshadowed by the majestic volcanoes in the distance.
Chugchillan was our base for exploration, staying at the delightful Mama Hilda’s
Course, no trip up a mountain would be complete without some horses thrown in. We were positively equestrian experts by now, and so lead the exodus next day for a gentle hack on Mama’s ponies to visit the local cheese factory, high up in the Cloud Forest. (Doesn’t ‘Cloud Forest’ sound like it should be a Care Bear name or something? Just saying…)
Sadly, the ponies we were on had a slightly differnt ideas on how we would get there. By the end of the ride, we’d had one poor bloke have to suicidally throw himself from his horse which was bolting towards the cliff face, another girl who’d been trodden on after being thrown from her ignoble steed and poor old Shua had been head-butted by a pony with anger management issues and left with an eye turning an interesting shade of purple.
The cheese factory itself was less of a factory and more of a room. The story behind it is that donkey’s years ago, the local milk farmers were in dire straits. As luck would have it, a passing Swiss took pity on them, and showed them how to make Emmenthal and, you know, work together. Before long, they had formed a co-operative, extended their range to include mozzarella and other assorted cheeses, and were making a motza exporting their dairy goodness as far abroad as Peru
Next on our list for Things To Do On The Quilotoa Loop: Quilotoa.
Quilotoa is a 4,000m high volcano, still active, whose floor is now filled by an alkaline lake. It’s an incredible sight as you crest the lip of the crater, gazing down at this vast expanse of blue green under a vivid bright blue sky. We did the hike down the steep slopes, ploughing through the soft, loose dust that coated Quilotoa in a powdery finish.
Rumour has it that the high alkaline nature of the lake meant that no living creature could survive. On reaching the bottom, we quickly established this was an outrageous lie, as thick algae lined the shore, but it didn’t spoil the serenity of this still and silent spot.
No, what spoiled it was the thought of having to do the vertical climb back up.
Undeterred, we approached a local and asked him to send for some horses. Like you do. After much shouting backwards and forward from the bottom to the top of the volcano, a mystery person agreed to send a couple down for us. So we waited. And waited. And in typical South American fashion, we waited some more.
If nothing else, this trip has been a lesson in patience
Finally losing patience, however, we started the long, arduous climb up. The soft, powdery sand that had been so much fun to slide down, slalom style, was unquestionably much less fun to try and work your way up. Two steps forward, one step back wasn’t even close. Luckily, about half-way up, just as I thought my lungs were going to collapse inwards with the altitude, salvation arrived in the form of two suicidal ponies. Mine immediately started trying to gallop downhill, clearly not relishing the prospect of carting me up the hill any more than I fancied it myself. Shua’s pony immediately set off towards the outer edge of the pathway, clearly not relishing the prospect of carting Josh up the hill full stop.
Happily, we made it back up the hill unharmed, and jumped a quick ute and a bus back to Latacunga for our next stop on Things To Do On The Quilotoa Loop: Cotapaxi. The highest volcano in the world.
Our trip around Cotopaxi was supposed to have been with a tour group with the hostel, but somehow we scored a complete result and ended up having our own car and a private guide. The only catch was that he didn’t speak much English, and us ignorant gits don’t speaka mucha Espanol
This tour was going to be… interesting.
Language barriers aside, we set off in our 4X4 for the first, critical mission of the day: find some lunch. Lunch was supposedly included in the price of the tour, but someone had forgotten to tell our guide, and what with it being a Sunday and the ungodly hour we were having to leave at, none of the shops were open. I won’t bore you with the finer details, but acquiring our sandwiches took 98 minutes, involved 17 different shops, two towns and his wife. Don’t ask me why his wife joined us; I guess she was the shopping expert.
Sarnies safely in our hot little mitts, we set off for Cotopaxi.
Cotopaxi has had 50 eruptions since 1738, but its most violent occurred way back in 1768 when she destroyed the town of Latacunga. When she blows; she blows. The main problem with ole Coty is that, if she were to erupt today, she would destroy much of suburban Quito and the surrounding valley – a sparkler that could cost more than 1,000,000 lives.
Thanks for NOT sharing.
We took a spin around the laughably uninformative museum in the national park, which mainly featured some appalling examples of taxidermy, featuring a tatty condor and a deer with dubious button eyes. Incidentally, Shua keeps threatening to have me stuffed when I pass away, so that we can always (and I quote) ‘Be together’. Under no circumstances allow him to do this. Particularly if he tries to do it himself.
The drive up to the base camp was altogether more exciting. Herds of wild Cotopaxi ponies swept across the plains as we roared along a bumpy road, veering between the enormous volcanic boulders spewn out by Cotopaxi hundreds of years before. The change in landscape was dramatic as we passed from pine forest to shrub to rocks to…snow.
I hadn’t seen snow in about ten years, and, it seems, in those ten years I have forgotten exactly why it is that I have avoided seeing snow.
Because it’s bloody freezing.
When we reached the car park for base camp, our guide looked at us as though we were mad to even consider getting out of the car
Until we got out.
It was breath-takingly, coma-inducing cold. Nope, cold doesn’t do it justice; it was freezing. Actually, if you ever need to use a word that means ‘colder than freezing’, look it up in the dictionary and it’ll say ‘Cotopaxi’. I suppose it didn’t help that I was hopelessly inadequately dressed for the conditions of freezing needles of stinging ice tattooing my face and blinding my eyes. We gamely made our way up the slope with every intention of taking the hour trek up to base camp, but seriously, two minutes in and I could barely see my feet, let alone feel them.
We abandoned all pretence of hiking and instead made a hasty and, admittedly, rather crap mini-snowman, did a couple of snow angels, and then beat a hasty retreat back to the warmth of the car. The view from Cotopaxi is supposed to be spectacular. With all the snow and cloud and general, numbing freezingness lurking around though, it was impossible to see anything.
Apparently only one in three summit attempts are successful. Given our intense encounter on the slopes of Cotopaxi, I can see why.
It was an amazing experience, but boy were we glad to be safely tucked up in our bus on the road back to Quito, on route to our next adventure: The Galapagos.
Cotopaxi – it was lava-ly to meet you.