SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 25
The Quilotoa Loop – for quick facts about the route, scroll to the bottom of the page.
I skidded down the sand path, desperately grasping at tree roots to break my fall. To my left was a 200-metre drop down a rocky outcrop to Quilotoa’s vast crater lake.
“Nothing lives in there except algae, the alkaline water kills all life,” an American had told me the previous evening. His words resonated round my head now, drowned out only by my thumping heart and skidding feet. I lashed out again and caught a clump of grass; I was determined this lake wasn’t going to claim my life.
I’d arrived in Quilotoa the night before after skirting around part of Lake Quilotoa’s rim. I’d gasped at the flickering sun on the water’s surface and the 3,600m altitude. Slender, jagged ridges towered around the lake, their sides a mixture of soil, stone and hardy vegetation.
Yesterday it had looked majestic. Now it looked deadly.
I came to a halt, my trousers filthy from the downward slide. Just ahead a near-verticle slope menacingly eclipsed everything around it. The crater-rim path was only metres from the edge with nothing to stop a fatal tumble.
“Walk anticlockwise and stay on the high path,” the hostel worker had told me.
There had been no mention of the deaths that occur from misplaced footsteps which I learnt about on my return. I stared up at the 3,980m peak as the billowing wind swayed my body and my decision. I turned around and left the crater-rim walk to the elements.
I was on a four-day hike around the Quilotoa Loop in central Ecuador. This was my third day and I’d already passed adobe-brick villages, squealing pigs, lengthy valleys and delightfully curious locals.
“You’re walking from Sigchos to Zumbahua?” a 20-something girl asked as she frowned at her friends. “You can take a bus,” she offered, obviously unaware of the pastime of hiking.
Yes, I was going to walk the entire route. Alone.
I chose to follow the loop in a north-south direction starting in the village of Sigchos. I’d been told there was a shortcut path somewhere to my destination of Insinlivi but the locals had never heard of it.
“No, you have to walk on the road. Just keep going down. There is a bus, you know.”
I took the gravel track and wound past sharp corners adorned with crosses – tributes to those whose vehicles had toppled over the edge.
On the outskirts of Insinlivi, children danced on the grass verges running along to shyly greet me, their grubby hands and cheeky smiles on show. Old men with weathered faces bid me good afternoon as they tended their sheep. On the lush green slopes, llamas lifted their heads in alarm before drifting back to their grassy diet.
At Insinlivi I reached the cosy yet pricy hostel of Llullu Llama where the pet cat would do anything to get a piece of food.
The following day a German guy and I decided to hike to Lake Quilotoa, a 10-hour walk. Villagers were baffled that we’d opted to walk the entire distance instead of breaking it up into two days. “It’s five hours away,” the shopkeeper announced at the midway village of Chugchilan.
“Yes, but it’s only 12pm and there are 6 hours left of daylight.”
“You must be very strong,” she concluded as she helpfully gave us directions.
We trekked uphill, downhill, through a valley, across a river and up the crater edge to Lake Quilotoa. The crater lake is actually a dormant volcano, its last eruption was 800 years ago which scattered ash in a 35,000-kilometre-square area. There has been no activity since then and farmers have pastures on both the outer and inner slopes of the crater lake.
It’s striking blue appearance and unusual form brings tourists on day trips from Latacunga, the closest main town. Unfortunately tourism at Lake Quilotoa has turned the children, some as young as four, into ‘dollar hunters’. We were followed up to the rim by cute but persistent children who asked for presents or money.
“Give those children a dollar each,” a local man bellowed at us. I started a tirade about negative tourism and refused to give anything to the kids except polite conversation.
At the top of the crater we peered over at the deep blue lake – the uphill slog to 3,600m was worth it. We took the sandy back path around the lake for over an hour to reach the village of Quilotoa. Cerise and purple flowers bobbed in the wind until a thick mist obscured them, leaving the colours only in our imaginations. We managed to keep just ahead of the fog, which descended suddenly, and reached Quilotoa with an hour left of daylight.
Entombed beneath six thick blankets I slept soundly in a hostel that night, waking in the morning to dark clouds rolling over the lake pushed by huge gusts of wind.
“Will the weather clear?” I asked the Quechua and Spanish-speaking worker at the hostel.
“Yes. Now is a good time to on your walk. Later it will get colder.”
Colder? I was already buried beneath half a dozen layers of clothes.
I had set out on the six-hour crater rim path and decided walking the circuit with strong winds was a ridiculous idea (after nearly falling to my death). I retreated to the safety of the town only an hour into the route.
“Yeah, we heard that people fall off there,” an American girl informed me when I got back to the hostel.
“It was nice of the locals to tell me this before I set off,” I glowered.
The final day was probably my favourite. Tranquility shifted in the cold air as I descended over 300m to the village of Zumbahua. I took the tarmac road straddled by fields and hills for 13km. Not much traffic passed by, a few llamas and several pick-ups, the vehicles all beeping their horns and waving at the solitary gringa. Shy teenagers ran from view, their giggles escaping from their hiding places while brazen children toddled up and shouted hola.
At Zumbahua, a festival was taking place with vats of fried food, stalls with ponchos and organic goods and dancers bursting into the main plaza. The women were donned in their Andean gear – knee-length skirts, peacock-feathered hats and bright shawls. The men wore ponchos and felt hats while I was clad in filthy trousers.
Dressed in such a manner, I got more attention than the dance troupe.
PHOTOGRAPHS COPYRIGHT OF WWW.SOUTHAMERICAJOURNEYS.WORDPRESS.COM
QUICK FACTS ABOUT THE QUILOTOA LOOP
- You can hike in either direction starting in Sigchos and winding up in Zumbahua (as I did) or Zumbahua and ending in Sigchos
- There’s more uphill walking in the direction of Zumbahua to Sigchos
- Day 1 – Latacunga to Insinlivi
Take the 11.00am bus from Latacunga to Sigchos (travel time = 2 hours)
Hike from Sigchos to Insinlivi (3.5 hours) along the road. There are a few turn-offs which you should ignore, like the one with the sign for ‘Piscina’ and ‘Playas de Insinlivi’. When you see a blue concrete bus stop, take the road that goes past it (the right-hand path)
Sleep in Llullu Llama (US$18 for a dorm including breakfast and dinner)
http://www.llullullama.com / 03-2814-790
There’s also another hospedaje in town that’s cheaper – ask around for it
- Day 2 – Insinlivi to Quilotoa via Chugchilan
Set out at 7am at the latest – you want to be at Quilotoa by 5pm as you have to walk part of the crater rim (this part isn’t dangerous but you wouldn’t want to do it in the dark). The walk takes 10 hours.
You can break the hike at Chugchilan and sleep in one of two hostels there, The Black Sheep or Cloud Forest (the cheaper option)
Daylight hours = 6am-6pm
I slept in a hostel in Quilotoa next to Hostel Pachamama – it has a blue sign. It certainly wasn’t luxurious but the beds were warm ($10 for a single room with breakfast and dinner)
- Day 3 – Quilotoa to Latacunga
I actually spent my third day trying to go round the lake and then returning to Quilotoa. My advice is DON’T DO THE RIM WALK. Instead walk down to the lake (2-hour return) where you can hire kayaks. Horses also return to the top, although I don’t think the steep ascent for the animals with the weight of a human on them is healthy as they are forced to do the walk multiple times a day.Leave Quilotoa at 12pm after walking down to the lake and you’ll arrive at Zumbahua at 2.40pm.
Walk on the tarmac road, it’s downhill for most of the way.
Take the bus from Zumbahua to Latacunga – they leave every 30 min or so
There aren’t any in detail. Follow the road from Sigchos to Insinlivi. From Insinlivi to Chugchilan, the hostel Llullu Llama provides thorough directions for how to get to Chugchilan (for guests only). From there ask people which paths to go on to Quilotoa – there are always locals around. If in doubt, knock on a house and ask. Basic Spanish required. After the river crossing, the path is pretty clear.
Bus timetable of the Quilotoa Loop
Latacunga to Sigchos: everyday at 10am, 10.30am, 11am, 11.30am, 12pm, 12.20pm
Latacunga to Insinlivi: everyday at 1pm, except Thursday when it leaves at 11am from the village of Saquisili, and Saturday when it leaves Latacunga at 11am
Latacunga to Chugchilan: everyday at 11.30 via Sigchos and 12pm via Zumbahua
Latacunga to Zumbahua: everyday at 10am, 11.30am and 12.30pm. From there get a pick-up ride to Quilotoa for $4 (or walk)
Insinlivi to Latacunga: 3am (yes, I did write that correctly) or jump on the milk float at 9.30am if there’s space. On Wednesday the bus leaves at 7am and on Sunday at 12.45pm
Chugchilan to Latacunga: everyday at 3am, 4am. Monday to Friday (schooldays) you can take the 6am bus to Sigchos and change there to go to Latacunga
Sigchos to Latacunga: everyday at 2.30pm
Quilotoa to Latacunga: there are no direct buses. You have to get a pick-up (arrange this with a local in the morning or early afternoon) for $4 to Zumbahua and then a bus from there to Latacunga
WHERE ON EARTH?
- The only country in South America that uses the US dollar as its official currency (this was to reduce escalating inflation rates)
- It’s capital, Quito, sits on the equator line 2,800m above sea level
- It lost the southern part of its land mass to Peru in 1941, including the now famous Iquitos, the world’s only city inaccessible by road – it’s a choice of a six-day boat trip or a flight (Iquitos is now in Peru, not Ecuador)
- A three- to four-day hike
- Not many tourists walk the loop, most go on day trips from Latacunga to Quilotoa
- The altitude goes as high as nearly 4,000m – it gets cold so take warm clothes and a sleeping bag
- Quilotoa Lake is 2.5km wide