Quilotoa Lake is one of the gems of Ecuador, and this hike is one you´ve probably heard about if you have ever considered a vacation here. The lake is a volcanic caldera, filled in over the years with rainwater colored by the various minerals in the crater. It is a bright blue gem set amid the highlands, and one of the things that made us so excited is that you can take a 3-4 day hike through small mountain villages to reach the lake. You hike from inn to inn, getting half-board (dinner and breakfast). In practical terms, it means hiking basically with a day bag.
We caught a 9:30 bus out of Latacunga. This was actually kind of a bummer, because our info told us that there would be a bus every half hour, and we arrived at 8am. We sat around the bus station and waited and regretted we had not had a more leisurly breakfast. The ride out took approximatly two hours and wound through some stunning scenary. Hillsides here are steep and verdant, and the canyons between them provide a dramatic backdrop as your bus tears around curves and skirts giant cliffs. We could see the peaks of the Illinzias at various points and overall enjoyed the journey. On another note, the towns that we drove through seemed ROUGH. The houses were adobe, concrete, and rebar and the hard life of the people who work farms on the vertiginous slopes seemed clear. The Ecuadorians seem to me a hard-working bunch who do a lot with very little in terms of resources.
Upon arrival in Sigchos, our directions told us to "observe the town is surrounded on three sides by hills. Head to the open side and walk to the right side of town. Then, take the road out of town". Done, easily enough. Less easy was "The road will come to a curve with a road on the right. A second road will appear beyond the road. Take the small trail on the left side of the road". The aformentioned trail was nearly obscured by brush and appeared to be basically a streambed, but we went with it and Okaay... major spotting eyeballs on! We found the trail and thus began the scavenger hunt for the trail blazes. Occasional red and yellow blazes marked the footpaths we followed, and adhering closely to the directions I can proudly report we did not get lost once!
We hiked down to the river, and in Andean terms that meant we were halfway. The valley was clearly cut from an old lahar (volcanic mud flow), and after crossing the river we bagan our uphill climb to Isinlivi. Through farms, cow pastures, and eventually up the road we found our way to Llulu Llama Inn, a much reccomended way station. We liked it so much we decided to stay for two days, just relaxing and soaking in our time in the remote Ecuadorian Sierra.
Isinlivi could not be a much smaller town. As far as I could tell, there was the school, a few convenience stores, two hostels, and many small farms. Major sights included the grandstand/cross/stage on top of the hill, a farm tour, a cheese factory (aka, a place where one lady makes cheese at her house), and a Don Bosco Woodworking Cooperative School.
Llulu Llama itself was a lovely hostel full of warm wood and with the option of paying an extra $9.50 to use the admittedly lovely spa. Opting not to do that because we were feeling cheap, Blake and I lounged around, read our books, gazed out at the general splendor, and played with the house horse-I mean Saint Bernard- Blu. We took a leisurly stroll up the hill to the grandstand, played with a kitty, and decided to visit Don Bosco´s.
Centro Artistico Don Bosco represents an effort at a real world solution to the problem of urban emmigration from the small villages of the highlands. Without opportunities to achieve more than a subsistance living by farming the land, many young people leave the villages for the city, trading their community, heritage, and quality of life for the opportunities of the city. You can´t blame them, but it means that small communities and the essential character of rural Ecausdor has slowly been dying over the last 70 years. Don Bosco´s offers young men from the poorest families the opportunity to learn woodworking over a six year apprenticeship while they live at the school, receiving full board. All the work they create during this time is donated to the community. At the end of their apprenticeship, they have the choice to either open their own shop elsewhere with their skills or join the cooperative and continue to use the shared resources of the shop while earning a nice living for themselves and their families. At the same time, the school employs other villagers to serve as cooks, housekeepers, and groundskeepers for the school. To my eyes, it´s an awesome model and I greatly admired the unique craftsmenship of their work. Unfortunatly, education laws changed three years ago here in Ecuador. In an effort to help the country modernize, all students now must attend a comprehensive high school, and thus the apprentice program is shut down at this time. I hope they can adjust their model so that young men have the opportunity to both learn a vocation and get the education neccessary to compete in the modern world.
If you are interested in helping Centro Artistico Don Bosco by finding a store which would like to sell their products in the US, please email ______ at ______ or email@example.com. We let him know we´d try to find someone in the US who could help him find a market for the unique work of the Cooperative.
Isinliví - Chugchilán
Leaving Isinlivi meant heading down, down, down to the river again into a different valley. Again, we were following word-of-mouth directions and seeking out the trail blazes to find the correct path in a valley where many, many small trails branch off the mains. One of the coolest parts of these trails is that due to the heavy rains in the highlands, the trail often gets literally cut down into the mountain, creating canyon tunnels arched over by vegitation. We reached the river and walked pleasently alongside it for 4-5 kilometers. The most exciting part of this section is crossing the river on a giant eucalyptus log.
After crossing the river, the time came again to climb. The funny part about these canyons is that from the bottom, the thought of a footpath taking you to the top of the soaring cliffs above seems implausible, to say the least. However paso a paso (step by step) and switchback by switchback we gained 700m of elevation in 1.5km. Puffing at the top we were rewarded with an incredible view of Toachi Canyon.
From the top of Toachi Canyon it was only a 45 minute walk to the village of Chugchilan. We initially decided to stay at Cloud Forest Hostel but after waiting for 2 hours for them to turn on the water, we decided to move up the road to Hostel Mama Hilda´s where we enjoyed a relaxing evening in front of a roaring fire. In the morning, we again faced a steep descent into yet another canyon and then up the far side, this day was to be our greatest elevation gain as we hiked up and up towards the rim of the Quilotoa crater at 3800 meters.
CHUGCHILAN TO QUILOTOA
In the morning, we again faced a steep descent into yet another canyon and then up the far side, this day was to be our greatest elevation gain as we hiked up and up towards the rim of the Quilotoa crater at 3800 meters. However, we frequently paused to catch our breath and drink in the amazing views of the surrounding countryside. After a few hours we had gained almost a 1000 meters in elevation, crested the rim of the crater, and were rewarded with views of Laguna Quilotoa far below.
After pausing to enjoy the view and re-energize with a much needed Snickers bar, we proceeded to circumnavigate the lake towards the town of Quilotoa. The lake´s surface was constantly shifting hues of green and we stopped frequently to enjoy the view. We made good time and were soon in town. After talking to literally the first person we encountered we negotiated a ride in the back of truck back towards Latacunga and civilization. Our truck driver took us back towards the Panamerican and dropped us in the town of Zumbatoa. There we successfully resisted the many offers of private transport--"solo viente dollares" (only 20 dollars) they told us, "no llegue el bus por un hora y media" (the bus won´t arrive for at least an hour and half) they said--while we waited for a local bus. Scarcely 30 minutes later the bus arrived and we said ádios´to the now-crestfallen taxi hawkers and we were off towards Latacunga and the next stage of our adventure: the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca.