By Caroline Healey, Oct 12, 2012
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.
Looking 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 ‘Trole’ buses to Quitumbe (Quito’s south terminal), a two hour bus journey south to Latacunga (arrive here before midday or you’ll be stuck) and another two hour local bus to Quilotoa averaging about 20mph on unmade 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.
We spent a cosy night spent in a wood-fire heated cabin under mountains of llama blankets, 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.
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.
Want to trek the Quilotoa Loop? From Quitumbe (Quito’s south bus terminal) take a bus to Latacunga. Make sure you arrive there before midday as the only direct bus to Quilotoa leaves shortly after then. Alternatively book an organized tour from Quito or Latacunga. For more information hunt down a Lonely Planet Ecuador, which gives a comprehensive logistical breakdown.