Although it took us longer to extract ourselves from Banos than we originally predicted, as soon as we had boarded the bus to Latacunga, I was looking forward to our adventure. Within less than three hours, we were dropped off on the side of the Pan American highway, where we quickly hailed a taxi to Hostel Sendero de Volcanes. Our stay would only be for one night, as this city stop was just the staging ground for a three-night trek to the Quilotoa crater. We were given a large room with two single beds and two bunk beds, that once served as the resident garage. It was bitterly cold and drafty, with one metal, roll-down car door, standing-in as a wall. The popcorn ceiling was low and the thick fleece blankets featured wild animal prints and aesthetically challenging patterns, creating a completely uninviting environment. One night – only one night.
We had chosen the place based on the fact that they will hold the bulk of your luggage in a secure room for the duration of a several day hike into the countryside. While trekking through mountainous terrain, we would have to carry all of our belongings on our back, for 4-7 hour stretches, at high altitude. This would obviously be an impossible feat with our current backpacks, so we set to work reducing our loads. We each packed one pair of pants that would be worn for four days straight, one pair of stretchy/lounge pants to change into at night (which we could also sleep in), a couple of shirts that could be layered, rain jackets, scarves, hats, sunglasses, clean underwear and socks for each day, cameras, passports, a reading book, and minimal toiletries. Stella and Gabriel were responsible for carrying their own necessities which were packed into their smaller day packs. Dan was able to stuff all he needed in his small backpack, but mine proved too tiny. I swapped with Stella’s larger backpack, which was still half the size of my normal kit. Then, we had to squeeze everything else into the bags which would be left behind, doing the best to conceal our electronics, and crossing our fingers that our laptop and iPads would not be nicked.
When originally planning our route, we had seriously considered reversing the typical direction of the loop, by starting at the famed crater. Since this landmark was at the highest elevation, any trek from this point should be easier, as each day would find you going down more frequently than up. However, starting at the Quilotoa crater, would feel a little like having dessert before dinner. We discussed our choice and concluded that we were all up for the gradual challenge of increased elevation, which would mean that we would end at the best bit, well-deserving of rest and celebration. We knew this would make for more difficult hiking, but we’re reckless like that. How little we knew…
Day 1 – We woke early, ate the worst hostel breakfast of fake everything (white bread, oily margarine, cornstarch grape jelly, and powder coffee), and then trooped off to the bus station. We were covering part of the loop on a local transportation circuit which would put the beginning of our walk at the village of Sigchos. From here, we would continue to Isinlivi by foot for our first night, then Chugchilan for the second, ending at Quilotoa, along the rim of its namesake laguna. In theory, all of these little towns can now be reached by road, but we were going to be hiking through farmland, in and out of canyons, and along riverbeds. We arrived into Sigchos sometime around noon, already starving for a more substantial lunch than the breakfast we had forced down. We went searching for a place to eat, and ended up at a grungy local establishment filled with local indigenous farmers in traditional dress (dark felt hats, ponchos and women with long braids). We were served the meal of the day – chicken bones with nubby meat, a spoonful of rice, and some other unmemorable side – another disappointing dining experience and poor source of fuel. This would have to last us for another 5-6 hours before dinner time, and push us through at least four hours of hiking. We got our bearings and headed out of the small town stopping to admire views and discuss whether this or that little dirt trail was a shortcut or a surefire way to get lost. A couple of hours into our walk, and the written directions I had saved on my phone were not matching up with our visual cues. We had downloaded an Ecuador country map on maps.me which saved our asses. Someone had actually added faint lines of trails (not roads) to this part of the world, which combined with our GPS blip on the screen, helped us to at least determine if we were headed in the right direction. Almost five hours after following farm-line fences, and zigzagging up steep mountain sides, we saw Isinlivi in the distance. This is a very small community, with only two possible places to stay. The first, which had the best reputation, Hostal Llullu Llama, was completely filled up for a yoga retreat, so we headed to Taita Cristobal, and learned that they too were now completely booked. We knew that many more trekkers were headed this way, all bound for the same shocking discovery. The woman who ran Taita Cristobal was scrambling to find a way to accommodate everyone. She put one couple in a store-room, and was clearing out another, packed with blankets and dusty mattresses, to fit our family. What other choice did we have? In the end, one reservation was a no-show, and we were moved to a proper room with a private bath, and another group of girls got stuck in the storage room. By the evening, we were loving this little stop. It cost our family less that $50 a night, which included a full dinner, unlimited tea, and breakfast for us all. Since it was a full house, this also meant we had lively conversation at the end of the day, and met friendly people from all over the globe.
Day 2 – We started our hike with new friends, a scot and his french girlfriend, and another family from Washington D.C., with their two teenage girls. The first part of our walk was all down hill, giving us the false impression that we were in for an easy day. Of course, we knew that elevation must be gained, so whatever goes down, must go up, and even higher. The wobblies start to set in after about three hours into a second day of endurance trekking. This is especially true when bracing yourself down a steep path, or lunging upward on burning thighs. The high altitude made our breath shorter, and we tried our best to pace ourselves. Taking breaks for water, eating packed lunches (purchased from the hostel of the night before), studying maps.me or printed out directions, and photographing that same river canyon from every new angle that just managed to take your breath away, were the pauses that punctuated a stunning hike. Eventually, we made it to Chugchilan, maybe six hours later, compared a couple of hostels, and decided on El Vaquero. We were all anxious to get out of our salty clothes, take a shower (praying for hot water), and do nothing but sit and indulge in a beer. Gabriel had complained the whole uphill way, but suddenly had the energy to kick around a ball in the Andes…
Day 3 – To say that this was the hardest day of any trek we had yet tackled on our trip, is an understatement. Firstly, this supposed 4-6 hour day, took us 7 hours with a few stops. Our legs were fried before we even began. More than half of the hike was a brutal uphill slog, where we gained 1000 meters of altitude, capping out at 3800 meters high (almost 12,500 feet). It gets chillier the higher you go, so that the sweaty heat that your body produces will be icy cold if you rest for too long. We got lost down the wrong mountain trail, and mistakenly trespassed on the farm of a crazy machete-wielding man. With spit flying from his toothless mouth, he threatened half of our group (including kids) with both his angry quechuan words and dangerous weapon. Our rushed escape marked the beginning of getting lost, which required extra backtracking and the loss of precious time. Where the heck were we? We were definitely in physical hell, but there was no question that our backdrop was pure heaven. We were surrounded by beauty everywhere we looked. The dramatic green landscape of terraced farms, wiggly ravines, sharp peaks, fields of purple flowering choclo, and beige or rust-colored quinoa stalks, uplifted our spirits in awe and appreciation.
By the time we finally dragged ourselves to the lip of the Quilotoa crater, the misty fog and clouds had started to roll in, and we feared that our late arrival would lessen the magnificence. We were wrong. The turquoise lagoon was a jewel to behold, and well worth the effort of our hike. We had definitely saved the best for last. It would have been nice if we could have ended our day there and checked into the warmth of a hostel, but we still had another hour of up and down trailing along the crater’s rim, before falling to our knees in gratitude at the end.
Unfortunately, the journey took a toll on Dan. He had pushed himself hard that last day, running ahead to make sure our group was on the right path, and backtracking to hail us all further. By the time we sat down for dinner, he was suffering a severe headache, which looked to be the first symptom of altitude sickness. Thirty minutes later found him vomiting, which was definitely not a good sign. The guy who ran our hostel, made him a special tea and gave us some medicine, which he thought should ease Dan’s discomfort. I had started to look up altitude sickness online, which got me into a panic. Almost everything said to go down to lower elevation, that this was a dangerous sickness to endure, and one that could prove fatal. However, Dan did feel better with the medication and ended up falling asleep. By morning his strength had returned, so we did one final walk, partially into the crater, before calling quits on any further insanity. We were sufficiently proud of our accomplishment to kiss a final goodbye to the Quilotoa Loop, and to the new friends we had made. Next stop…Mindo.