A few days in the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes
01.06.2009 - 05.06.2009 20 °C
A couple of hours south by bus took me to Latacunga, back in Ecuador's picturesque Andean foothills.
Latacunga is the setting-off point for the so-called 'Quilotoa loop', which I'm beginning to think might be an invention of Lonely Planet. There's a whole collection of small villages dotted around the rolling hills to the west of the town. Are they hills or mountains? I'm not really sure, since I've never seen anything quite like it in the UK. They are small mountains or big hills. Cerros, the locals call them.
But I digress. The idea of the loop is to travel by bus, camion (truck) and/or foot through these villages and back, the far point being the Quilotoa crater lake.
English in general seems to be a bit trendy in Ecuador, but the Ecuadorians really, really love the English word 'full'. It pops up everywhere in posters and signs, isolated among text otherwise entirely in Spanish. For example, a business might offer full servicio or (more grammatically worrying) be called full cars. But in Latacunga I found my favourite of all, which must have been a message between feuding lovers:
Translation: Karen, I love you, full apologies
The hostal Llullullama, Isinliví
So I set off on the first leg of the loop, by bus: perhaps my first real taste of unpaved roads in the trip so far. It was a large bus, maybe with 40 seats, but the driver crashed on undeterred over the dust and rocks.
After a few hours we arrived in the minuscule town of Isinliví:
Myself and the German couple I had met on the bus were the only guests at the spectacular hostal Llullullama (yoo-yoo-yaama), where the menagerie (including the somewhat threadbare namesake llama)
presided over the spectacular views across the valley:
After a short walk up the cerro opposite
we spent the rest of the day playing with the animals. I've not encountered a more chilled-out hostel.
It was my birthday! They served an excellent dinner, including cake for dessert (my slice with a huge white table candle sticking out of it)
Trek to Chugchilán
The next day the three of us hiked all day to Chugchilán.
Through some of the most beautiful and rugged valleys I have seen. But every possible surface was cultivated.
Across a rickety footbridge with cartoon-style missing planks:
Even the smallest village had a church (with walls of straw and mud), and of course, a volleyball court:
We stayed that night at a hostal in the tiny town of Chugchilán, which had more than the usual complement of stray dogs hanging around for scraps:
We got our first glimpse of Quilotoa. The whole part lit by the sun is the rim of the crater:
The crater is several kilometers across.
Bright and early the next day, having exchanged my German companions for a dog-phobic Californian named Blake, I set off on the hike to Quilotoa. On the way we rescued a sheep that had fallen down a slope, and was being suffocated by the rope it was tethered down with. Here I am with the poor critter, who after having been untied and set upright seemed too deep in shock to run away:
After a whole day walking (in which Blake repeatedly deployed his anti-canine device, which looked like a taser and apparently emitted a high frequency sound, to no effect; thankfully none of the dogs we encountered actually tried to attack us, not that this prevented a preemptive US strike), we travelled the last stretch in the back of a truck we flagged down:
And on arriving in Quilotoa discovered the route we should have taken, which was about half as long:
Here I am at the lake. It was freezing:
Meanwhile the Ecuadorian navy seemed to be doing exercises below, in a tiny inflatable raft:
Maybe it was the navy. At least, they were all dressed in camo and had guns. They had set up camp in a motley assortment of tents by the lakeside, and were roasting meat over a campfire and generally making merry.
Blake and I were the only guests in the hostal Pachamama (meaning 'earth mother' in Quechua, the language of the Incas, and still the first language of many folk throughout the Andes). It too was cold:
Despite Blake's appearance after he had put on all his winter clothes at once:
The family who owned, lived in and ran the hostal were incredibly friendly. Mirasol and Blanca prepared the dinner (and seemed to run the hostel practically by themselves) while dad made paintings and mum knitted hats and gloves from llama wool. They sold these goods to tourists, though demand in Quilotoa was surely low (Blake and I seemed to be the only gringos in town), so perhaps they took them to market elsewhere.
After dinner we all sat around the small stove. The family spoke to each other in Quechua. Blanca knitted a shawl for herself:
And with great pride told me about her hat, which was of 'super fino' quality, and cost something like 150 US dollars. A small fortune for that family: Blake and I paid less than 10 dollars between us for the room and dinner.
Blanca even let me have a go: