Things had gotten pretty comfortable in Ecuador. Swimming pool-facing private rooms in Baños, restaurant meals in Quito, guided island tours and blue-footed boobies in Puerto Lopez. Paired-up travelling was a far cry from risk-laden solo backpacking, and so I was unable to ignore or forget the small write-up on the Quilotoa Loop hidden deep in the recesses of my Lonely Planet.
This four-day self-guided hiking tour takes you through Ecuador’s highest, smallest Andean villages, as rural and backroad as it gets. No WiFi. No public transport. Many thousands of metres above sea-level, far away from cities and beaches and tourist traps.
Ecuador is one of those places that won’t let you go. It’s small, but you’ll want to cover nearly every centimetre to become privy to every little (and big) wonder. “Are you sure you’re ready to leave? But there’s so much you haven’t seen.”
We weren’t sure if we could do it, or how we would do it, but the bloggers all made it seem simple enough and just adventurous enough to warrant a stab at something a little more off the beaten track. So after a few days in leafy, chilled-out Baños we took a bus to Latacunga, over-nighted in a high-rise motel, left our bags there not knowing if they’d be there when we returned, and near-seamlessly boarded a bus to Quilotoa two hours away – the first stop on the loop (depending on which way you choose to go).
Don’t worry about booking accommodation or even looking up your options online – locals wait for the bus to arrive then invite gringos into their homes for a $10-or-so night including dinner. We walked to the end of the village (five minutes from start to finish) and chose the last hostel, on the doorstep of the eye-popping cauldron, the Quilotoa.
Quilotoa is much wow. Blue and emerald and deep and big, it’s a mirror for the sky, framed by unending folds of the Andes in every direction. Here, at 3 914 metres above sea level (only about 150m lower than Potosi) colours are different; contrasts are more pronounced; the air is thin; temperatures plunge. From sweaty, sweltering, damp forests to icy, nose-freezing, finger-numbing altitudes in a heartbeat – this is what I love about South America.
I spoke with Bianca last night about Cape Town’s Table Mountain and my lack of emotional attachment to it. My tart response to her was, “Trust me, the mountains in South America are way more anchoring.” And that’s the thing about that continent – they have so many breathtaking sights that you could never possibly visit them all, do justice to every landmark, every natural attraction. No tourism marketer could ever develop a comprehensive strategy to cover all the must-sees. The same can be said for South Africa, of course – for any country. Wonder is after all found by those who seek it. The point is that no one is going to insist that you go see Quilotoa – that stroke of luck depends solely on a dogged obsession with one of 1 148 pages in a mainstream travel guide.
That afternoon we opted to go down to the surface of the lake first instead of taking on the rim hike, 10km and apparently five hours long. It was already 2pm and it would get dark early. Getting to the surface meant almost running down a very steep 280m vertical descent. On our way down we’d stop every now and then, peering up at the inalienable truth: what comes down, must go up.
And so we did. The trot down takes about 20 minutes; the hike up – anywhere from two hours or more. On our way down we already regretted what we’d done. I regretted every decision I had ever made. It was tough and I am unfit; possibly part of the reason why some corners of the world will always be inaccessible to me.
Mark had finally gotten the ‘flu I had in Cuenca and Quito (and Baños), so it was a tough night. He didn’t want his dinner and sweated through the night (which acted as natural room heating in sub-zero temperatures, thanks Mark!) but like a trooper he took on the rim the next morning. We were told it would only take five hours so we could still make it to the second village the next evening.
Well. There are many things I can tell you about the Quilotoa rim. It’s high and if you suffer from fear of heights, like me, there will be tears. The footpaths are at their narrowest, at their most terrifying, at the three highest points, which reach 3810m, 3894m and 3915m.
It’s a long walk of descents and ascents. Locals farm the cliff-faces to one side, the earth plummets down to the sky-mirror on the other. It’s exhilarating and tiring, sandy and steep, treacherous. The light breeze threatened to blow me right off the mountain, to my sure demise, down below. I packed the camera away – the added swaying weight only made me less steady on my feet.
We were blessed with clear skies and an occasional glimpse of Cotopaxi in the distance, the world’s highest active volcano. We took a lot of water but quickly realised that we might not have enough. Thoughts of impending doom.
It was quiet and beautiful. We scanned the horizon of greys and browns, a high-altitude Andean expanse that is home to people and lives and livelihoods, despite the apparent contradiction in terms. The size of it all can stun you, will stun you.
It took us seven or eight hours to get back to our starting point. There was no way we’d be able to make the next village that evening, so we decided to stay another night. So far we’d not done wonderfully to complete the Quilotoa loop in three nights – two of these were already spent at our first destination.
I was starting to get anxious about our worldly belongings that were stashed and non-secure behind the counter in Latacunga. We were tired; beat up. But we’d also accomplished more than we had in the preceding month when it comes to physical exertion and perseverance (of course, when you’re halfway around this kind of thing, you can’t exactly give up).
We got lost within 30 minutes of taking on the 10km hike to the next town that following morning – fairly predictable, as I knew we were not following the directions given to us a million times by our hostel owner that morning. We had descended too quickly, should have taken the same path that takes you around the rim. We engaged a cliff-face farmer and his family and his donkeys, who all pointed back up the mountain. There was a half-hearted scramble back up, at which point Mark and I looked at each other in silent agreement. It was time to cut our losses and count our wins – time to get back to Latacunga and hit Colombia.
I’m not sure who was more relieved that the other was ready to give up – I suspect it was me.
Long story short – I’m sure the entire loop is amazing and wonderful and awe-inspiring and life-changing. Maybe someday I’ll return and take the correct bloody road. But if, like us, you’re content with busting the comfort zone just once, you could do much worse than visiting Quilotoa.