“Tricky but rewarding” were the words Lonely Planet used. I was determined to do it independently anyway. I found a lot of useful information on some other blog posts people had written plus the few hostels at each of the villages around the loop also had informative websites. The ‘loop’ is actually a rough road network that connects small villages and the Quilotoa laguna in the Cotopaxi region, west of the Pan-American highway. An infrequent bus network services some of the villages, otherwise the other option, and the option most attractive to me, was to hike.
I began my journey in Latacunga, a reasonably large town two hours south of Quito. There, I was given a map and instructions on how to get to my first stop on the loop and luggage storage while I was gone. I met a New Zealand girl in the dorm who happened to have the same plan as me, leaving on the same day as me. We headed off together and got a bus at 9.30am for Sigchos, a small village two hours west of Latacunga. It was a beautiful drive through the mountains, however, only a taste of the amazing scenery we would see in the few days ahead. When we arrived we found that there were two other independent hikers on the bus too, a Spanish guy and a German girl and so soon we became a group of four.
Once we found the start of the track we followed our notes until we discovered it was a bit vague and conflicting and that we could possibly be a bit lost. We yelled out to the few local people we could see working in their fields, “Camino a Isinlivi?!”. We were on the right track though and we soon found the bridge across the river and the trail rising steeply up the other side.
Our first hostel was a cosy, wood fire heated, wooden house called Llullu Llama. We were able to just fit into the dorm where we met other hikers walking the loop in the opposite direction to us. We had a great afternoon chatting away until dinner which we all scoffed down ready for another day of hiking tomorrow.
The second day was a beautiful hike and we were blessed with beautiful weather. We walked through fields and paddocks and passed small farm houses. We crossed the river again and came into a tiny village where we headed up our tough hill climb for the day.
At the top of the hill we had magnificent views of the valley from which we’d come and then we quickly continued along the main road for a few kilometres until we came to the town of Chugchilan, where we found our hostel, Cloud Forest, for the night.
We were early enough for lunch and starving from our energy sapping hike that we asked the ladies for lunch. We happily paid $5 for the standard Ecuadorian lunch of soup, rice, plantains, salad and chicken with a juice. We then each claimed one of the hammocks on the balcony and read and relaxed until other hikers came wandering in.
Most people were doing the loop in the opposite direction to us because that was the way it was described in the guide books. However, that way begins at the Quilotoa lake and our rationale was that we wanted to end at the lake to have something to aim for and a beautiful finish. However, we were aware that we were doing it the hard way, but it was definitely more rewarding.
We got up early on our final morning to a relatively cool, clear day; perfect for hiking. We had to say goodbye to our Spanish friend who was staying an extra night in Chugchilan. We collected our days notes from the lady at reception who pointed to the steep mountains we could see across the valley, “Crater rim”. So that’s what we faced for the day, luckily we weren’t aware of that earlier or we might have opted for the 5.30am bus instead!
We walked down into the bottom of the valley and then began our trek up to the laguna, 1000m above sea level higher than where we stood. We headed for a small town half way up the crater rim. Along the way we passed an old couple who must have been nearly 100 years old going at a quicker pace than us. They were not the first people we passed or saw along the way walking or working in the field who appeared to be nearly 100. I’d love to know the life expectancy in this area, guaranteed it would be very high!
We reached the town and followed the road through it. We passed a local soccer match where all the villagers were either watching or playing. The women were all traditionally dressed in black heels, top hats and beautiful velvet skirts. Most of them didn’t speak Spanish but their native Kichwa yet they were still smiling and greeted us warmly.
We faced the toughest part of the three days, a switchback road up to the top of the crater. We finally made it and were so impressed with the view. We didn’t break for long because we could see the town around the other side of the rim. We turned to our right and saw three different trails to take, which our notes didn’t mention. We took the one on the inside of the rim for a while but were not confident we were right so turned around. We saw a French hiking group on a day trip with a guide that we’d made fun of earlier in their clean and official hiking gear heading down what turned out to be the right trail so we followed them. The last hour was the hardest, walking up and down along the top in an annoyingly difficult sandy track. We were so happy to make it to Quilotoa town that we weren’t sure what was priority: a shower or food. We decided on the shower to warm us up against the cold wind blowing at the high altitude and then headed for a restaurant in town.
We went to bed early and were up equally early to catch the sunrise over the laguna before catching the bus back to Latacunga. Bumping along the road back to collect our luggage we were happy to have completed our Quilotoa loop. It had only been three days and only between four and five hours of hiking per day but it had been surprisingly difficult with some steep inclines and the altitude didn’t help. However, it had given us a glimpse of what rural life was like in Ecuador, in an area still so untouched from both tourism and also modernity. The people lived like they had for hundreds of years in small villages, some not even accessible by proper roads. It made me think that this simple life they lived is what we should be aspiring to, one where we appreciate the basic necessities in life and can take a break from technology to stop and take in what’s around us. It was by far the most rewarding and interesting experience I had in Ecuador and one I recommended to other travellers I saw, however, part of me doesn’t want the loop to become any more popular than it already is so that it retains some of it’s charm and authenticity.
*post adapted from my trip here in October 2015 and from my previous site elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com