Hiking Around Volcanoes in the Ecuadorian Highlands: The Quilotoa Loop
As we topped the volcanic rim, the view smacked us awake like a shock of ice water. The dramatic crater of Quilotoa, three kilometres across, dents the mountaintop as if an angry god has punched down from the sky. 300 metres down lies Laguna Quilotoa, a vast body of water shifting from threatening navy to tranquil turquoise depending on the mood of the sky it reflects. The locals believe the lake is bottomless. Not surprising since it’s a staggering 800 metres deep.
As we looked down from the village of Quilotoa, we contemplated our journey tomorrow: we’d balance along one quarter of the crater rim, then hike another 7km along goat track and road to the mystical village of Chugchilan, population just a few hundred. It would be 11km all in all.
Three days ago, nestled in Secret Garden hostel, Quito, we’d been planning a bit of R&R in Baños. A tropical paradise of waterfalls and adventure activities, Baños sounded great fun, but then a silver-haired traveller going by the name of Mike mentioned the Quilotoa Loop. Why go easy? Two days later after an early start, two Quito metro buses, a two hour bus journey south to Latacunga and another two hour local bus to Quilotoa averaging about 20mph on unlaid roads and we were disgorged into a windswept, dusty landscape almost 4,000 metres above sea level.
But not before we’d paid our $2 village entry fee to a sweet natured local girl. We’d seen more and more of these trilby-hatted, be-shawled women since Latacunga, but we hadn’t heard them. These indigenous Ecuadorians are blessed with the cutest little girl voices. So softly spoken, they actually whisper to each other in Quichua, their local language. Diminutive in tongue, they are small of stature also. Most don’t measure five foot. Wrapped up in layer upon layer of velvet skirts, primary coloured stockings, jewelled shawls and llama cardigans, with wind-burnished cheeks, they have the endearing appearance of rotund dolls. They are also incredibly shy (except when they are selling you a jumper, this lady let us take a photo).
After peering over the crater rim we embarked on a half walk, half scramble down the loose volcanic scree to the lake, the enlarging expanse of green blue ever-changing with reflections of the arid slopes encircling it. The return trek was a slippery struggle, but it warmed us up! Even so at the top I bought an alpaca jumper and beanie to combat the whistling winds whipping through the village.
Quilotoa lies 90km south of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The Quilotoa Loop is a road running through the highlands of Ecuador, stringing together a few villages like beads on a necklace. To say that this is a hiking Mecca is an understatement. The dust coloured volcanic mountain ranges are split by deep canyons zigzagging like lightening bolts along valley floors. Trees find the harsh highland winds near intolerable. Hardy pines punctuate the patchwork of grass and farmland that spreads a surprising way up the slopes, testament to the locals’ will and tenacity. On the canyon slopes Australian Eucalyptus trees have been planted in an attempt to slow down the erosion. Some tower into the sky. Others have succumbed to gravity through weak root purchase, their top leaves drowning in the lively chocolate milk stream snaking the canyon bed. The dramas of the view are seen through a misty veil – a constant cloud of dust.
After a cosy night spent in a wood-fire heated cabin under mountains of llama blankets, we adjusted our backpack straps and opened the door… to a freezing world of gale force winds. At this high altitude the air is crisp, cold and shiny bright while the sun is white and quick to burn. We took the obligatory photos at the trail head sign including a close up of the map on the sign’s reverse; a measure which proved to be very useful, and set off.
After a few minutes the path met the crater rim and our true battle with the wind commenced. Bronson’s beanie took a journey of its own, never to be seen again, and shortly after we met a little man. “The wind is very dangerous,” he yelled. “YES!” we nodded furiously as the air roared in our ears, billowing out his navy windcheater. “You need a guide,” he stated. At $25 just to get to the midway village of Guayama, we felt we could do without, though when he lowered his price to $10 I could have almost been swayed. The dust in our eyes was making it hard to see. But Bronson the seasoned trekker was confident of our orientation abilities. Realising this, our new friend split to the right, scrambling down the scree to the lake, anorak flapping in his wake.
It was lucky we’d asked so many people details of our route. We had to strike out left after circling a quarter of the crater rim, but there were at least 20 turnings before ours, marked by the second massive erosional slide of dusty white sand. 45 minutes of walking the rim in winds threatening to topple me with full-thrust gusts was challenging, but it added an element of fun to the trekking game. We were elated to be setting off on our journey in the first place, the wind coupled with our shimmering companion on our right made the start of the trek another highlight of our travels together.
We could see the village of Guayama below us. Instead of sedately taking the hairpin track, we leapt and slid straight down the sand erosion in giant gravity defying bounds. More goat track over grassland and as we got lower, the wind released us until we were on a calm raod entering the tiny settlement. Excepting a forlorn donkey, our welcome party consisted of about 50 little children in grey tracksuits all with a ready “Hola!” and a shy wave. 100m and a left turn later and we’d passed through pale grey Guayama and were fast approaching a 400m deep canyon.
At the top Bronson and I looked across the valley at our destination, looked down the near cliff, looked at each other and plunged down the sandy track through scrub and white walled canyon cracks to the bottom. Turning a hairpin bend, we suddenly happened upon three round-cheeked little boys, the oldest not more than ten. Clutching bundles of reed sticks, the polo shirted trio joined us in a merry procession down the rest of the hill. Sometimes we stopped, exchanged a few words and gave them Oreos. Turned out all three were called Luis – Luis Estabo, Luis Sebastian etc. The Luis’ were little Godsends, showing us the way, taking us on short cuts and waiting patiently while I stopped every five metres up the hill, panting like an asthmatic old dog on a particularly hot summer’s day. I blame the altitude.
Arriving in Chugchilán we waved goodbye after another Oreo exchange and this photo. Wandering a little further we came upon Cloud Forest Hostel, ready for lunch. We’d somehow done the 5-6 hour walk in 3 and a half.
A wooden pile of balconies, balustrades and little rooms, the Ecuadorian run Cloud Forest was perfect for our first night. Especially as board was only $15 per person including a delicious supper of maize soup, flame-grilled chicken, yellow mash potato, vinegar tomatoes and fluffy rice, and breakfast – homemade jam, croissants and scrambled egg. But The Black Sheep Inn was what had really drawn us to Chugchilán. This fabled eco-lodge was rather more pricey at $50 per person, but it was also where Bronson and I would spend our last days together before an enforced three month break, reuniting in England at the end of the year. So we were happy to spend it in a bit of luxury.
The Black Sheep Inn deserves every eco accolade it receives. Rain water is collected from the roofs of the compostable toilets, used for hand-washing and for the plant beds inside the loo sheds. Which are of course fertilized by the compost while ending the air a fresh scent.
This use of water is a small-scale illustration of the owners’ ethos. They take the wide view donating tubing, valves and tools to the village’s spring-fed water system from which they also benefit. And a step further – the local library, school and health clinic have all profited from The Black Sheep’s magnanimity. The Inn runs an ongoing programme sourcing second-hand computers, copiers and other technological equipment.
It goes without saying that The Black Sheep was built using a local taskforce and that it grows all its own fruit and veg. The hefty room rate’s sting is neutralised by the Inn’s good deeds to earth and community, and by the three amazing veggie meals they include every day. And I’m not even a vegetarian!
The Quilotoa Loop is a real adventure. You can choose how much hiking you’d like to do, journeying from village to village or using one as a base. And if you don’t stay at The Black Sheep, you can spend next to nothing. It’s a win-win adventure.