This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Ups and Downs of The Quilotoa Loop

O snail
...Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

かたつぶり そろそろ登れ 富士の山

- Kobayashi Issa (1763 - 1828)

Why does it feel like we are always walking uphill?
The haiku above has been the mantra for much of our travel in the Andes mountains of Colombia and Ecuador. I will admit that I'm no Sir Edmund Hillary when it comes to walking uphill, but these days I am steps ahead of Mika, my wife. The good news is that she is making it up all of the hills, albeit slowly slowly. This is important as we head towards the Quilotoa Loop which is a village hopping tour that takes us well into the mountains and to indigenous communities.

Coincidentally or not, Kobayashi Issa is from the same province in Japan as Mika.

So we leave relaxing Mindo and go to unrelaxing Quito for two days to buy some essentials (essentials = toiletries and nori). While I win $100 playing blackjack at the casino to pay for the hair conditioner and seaweed. From Quito we head south two hours to the fairly large city of Latacunga which is our launching point for the Quilotoa Loop. Latacunga seems pretty typical Ecuadorian enough. There is an old part of town where we spend all of our time with some nice colonial buildings and churches and too much grafitti on the walls. Also in good Ecuadorian fashion the no-meat options for dinner are very limited and since we are staying in a hostel without a kitchen it means I get my fill of french fries.

Later on in some villages we actually see
 some old timers wearing these llama hair chaps
 On a positive Latacungan note we happen to catch a big parade passing right in front of our hostel with many traditional costumes and dancing. Some parade marchers hand out candy to the children, roses to the women and shots of aguardiente (sugar cane alcohol) to the men.

Toward the end of this long affair these gangs of young men in white masks grab people from the crowd to give them a spiritual cleansing with chants and a spraying of alcohol. Being a gringo, I must look like I need a good cleansing. After the third time of getting pulled from the crowd and spat upon, I decide that I have had enough of the parade and go hide in the hostel until it finally ends.

A spiritual cleansing
To start the loop tour we leave Latacunga for the bus to Quilotoa. There are a few other towns on the way which we could stop at, but we only have three nights to get to Saquisili on Thursday for the big market. Boarding the bus we can immediately tell that we will be in indigenous country by the traditional outfits, signature fedora hats with peacock feather and plethora of ponchos worn by our fellow passengers. There is also the smell.
Ladies napping on the bus
I really do not want to come off as rude by saying this, but there is a distinct odor from the people in the Andean communities. It is not the viciousness of European B.O. ( ie. I almost died in the metro in Prague one summer) or like me going on my third day without a shower. It is more like the smell of woolly blankets that have been left in an old lady's attic for too long. We encountered this smell on our very first bus in Ecuador from the Colombian border to Otavalo and it is the same on the bus to Quilotoa. It is in the seats and on people's ponchos when they pass. For me it is and always will be the smell of the Andes in Ecuador.

The bus drops us off right in front of the mirador -view point- for Laguna Quilotoa, which is a beautiful crater lake sitting in the extinct volcano of the same name. The lake is especially beautiful when the sun is out reflecting clouds off the crisp blue water. Seeing the sun is a rarity during our stay and sitting at 3900 m (12,800 ft) Quilotoa is also cold. For a tiny little speck of a town, there are plenty of hostels to choose from all of which offer dinner and breakfast. We choose a room with its own wood burning stove which ends up being a lifesaver.
Laguna Quilotoa

At the mirador: Mika showing local high school girls how to
write their names and "I love you" in Japanese
On the crater trail
From the mirador people can either hike down to the lake or all the way around the crater. Mika and I start hiking around the crater. About a quarter of the way around Mika turns back and I plug on ahead to make it all the way around. I scramble up the highest peak huffing and puffing as heavy clouds roll in over part of the lake in the direction I am headed. Now the smart decision would be to turn around the way I came, but I have never been accused of being smart. I plunge ahead into the mist with the trail still at my feet, for now. 

Then it starts to rain, a light, cold rain. The trail is getting muddy and my visibility has been reduced to about thirty feet. I cannot see the lake anymore nor the town where I need to be. Everything is immersed in clouds. I know that the lake is on my left side, but I do not want to wander too close to the edge lest I plummet to the bottom so I continue towards the right. This ends up being way too far to the right. The light rain turns to heavy rain so I run towards a small group of pine trees for cover completely dislodging myself from a noticeable trail. I have no rain gear.
The exact point where I should have turned around
Squatting under the pines slight pangs of fear enter my head. Not about being drenched and getting sick, my biggest worry is if it gets dark and I cannot find my way back to the hotel. So I leave the pines and keep walking. Sometimes on trails, sometimes not. It ends up that these mountains are full of small trails leading to different villages and farms. It can be very confusing to stay on the correct path. I find this out the hard way.

In the distance I hear a truck and some roosters, so head down that way thinking it must be near Quilotoa. It's not. Cutting through farms past corn and cows I get to a road and walk in the rain with a sheppard and his sheep. He tells me that I am a three hour walk from Quilotoa. F&%#! Where the heck am I?

The road follows up a big hill to a ten-house village where a bus might be passing in a half hour to take me to a larger town where I am hoping to find a taxi to Quilotoa. I start talking with a couple and it ends up there are only two vehicles in this next village. She kindly makes a phone call and finds out that neither of the two vehicles in that village can bring me to Quilotoa.

The husband offers to lead me to Quilotoa through the mountains, but by this point I cannot imagine walking uphill two more hours. Plus it is still raining and my body temperature has cooled down considerably. My legs are shivering almost uncontrollably. The couple also offers me lodging to catch the bus to Quilotoa tomorrow, but I am sure Mika is quite worried by now and I need to get back. Plan D, I pay him $3 to take me on his motorcycle to another town back the way I came where he says his brother has a truck. When we get there the brother's truck is decommisioned. But finally in my first trickle of luck of the entire afternoon another truck has just dropped off some people and will bring me to Quilotoa for $15. It is a good thing that they do not know I would have paid $50 for the trip. It is about a 40 minute ride in the covered back of a pick-up truck. 
The long, muddy road home

Drying clothes and shoes
 by the stove
Meanwhile back in Quilotoa Mika is getting worried. It is raining, cold, foggy, getting dark and I have not returned. The worry is understandable, just a couple months ago at the crater of Quilotoa a tourist fell and died . She hires a guide for $20 (plus we give her a $10 tip) to create a two-woman, impromptu search and rescue. With no luck of course because I was in villages on the complete other side of the volcano. They return from the cold and dark hike to find me warming myself by the stove for an emotional reunion.
So in the end my hike half way around Laguna Quilotoa cost us $48. Oh well, at least I did not have to cut my arm off.

Check out Mika's blog for her take on events at Quilotoa.

The next morning it is a beautiful day. The sun is out, the lake is shimmering and people are enjoying the views. But after last night's episode, I lose the courage to hike on more unmarked trails to the next village, Chugchilan. We hitch a ride to Chugchilan with the owner of the town's only budget accomodation. In Chugchilan we are satisfied just to take a small hike up and down steep climbs to a plateau over-looking a deep canyon. That evening girls from the village entertain us tourists with some dancing.
Hiking around Chugchilan
We leave Chugchilan in the morning and take the five hour hike to the town, Isinlivi. We have written directions for this walk, but they are a bit obscure with things like:
...Follow this road until you walk into a curve next to a sandy cliff, after the curve you hike 150m more on the road and look for a small trail going down to the right, take this. Go down to the river until you see the suspension bridge. Do not cross the bridge, but follow the river...
...keep following the river until you see a log bridge...
I could keep going, but you get the idea. We are like Frodo and Samwise Gamgee on their way to Mordor never quite sure if we'll arrive. As it is everywhere in the Ecuadorian Andes, this hike is filled with endless views of mountains covered in an agricultural patchwork of rectangles in various shades of greens and browns. I like to call it "Pachamama's quilt."

Pachamama in Quechua language is Mother Earth. For the Incas the goddess presided over planting and harvesting and she is still revered by indigenous communities today.

Pachamama's quilt
The trail to Isinlivi ends with a final steep climb up a garbage strewn hill to the town which is a kind of a bummer because the rest of hike has been pristine. In Isinlivi there is only one place to stay (though one guy did offer to put us up in his house). It is foreign-owned and over-priced, but they have a monopoly on accomodation. The price does include a really nice dinner and I get to exchange my old Tom Wolfe novel for an old Haruki Murakami one. We go to bed early, around 9:00 PM exhausted from three consecutive days of hiking and because we have to catch a bus the next morning at 3:30 AM.

We drag ourselves out of the hostel at three in the morning. It is a bit creepy being out at this hour with nothing else but fog and a barking dog as our companions. If it was in Quito I would be crapping myself.  But soon another passenger arrives and then the bus for a cold and bumpy two hour ride. It is still dark when we arrive to Saquisili and follow the people pulling their sheep towards the animal market.
At this hour I'd rather be counting sheep; figuratively not literally
We decide to sit and have a coffee to warm up and wait for the sun to rise then head off to explore. The market in Sasiquili is quite large and spread out around the town. The animal market is broken into sections by species with a cow area, pig area, etc. The sellers stand around holding their animals on a tether waiting for a buyer to come along and haul the animal away for a good price. It is very busy, but this might be from the sheer number of sellers. It is hard to tell.

This year having spent three months in Indonesia and already four in South America we have seen our fair share of markets. And there is only one reason that we came to this one and that is to see llamas up close and in person. In Saquisili the llamas are clumped together with the sheep. It is hard not to like llamas. They have doe-like eyes, soft wool like sheep, a gentler temperment than cows, and do not squeal like pigs. If I owned a farm in Ecuador I would have bought one of the adorable small ones on the spot. And let's try to forget that most llamas here are sold to be eaten.
A llama couple
Llama love
These young, cuddly llamas are Ecuador-able 
We say goodbye to our new four-legged friends and find another plaza several blocks away where one can purchase furniture, fruit, clothing, chickens, guinea pigs, planters made from recycled tires, cd's, dvd's and every other household item in between. This plaza is the Wal-Mart of Saquisili.

With our internal energy now depleted from the entire long four day journey, we decide to pass on some other probably very interesting aspects of the market and head back to Latacunga. Our Quilotoa circle completed.

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