After an amazing time in Quito it was time to hit the road again. This time it was only a short 3 hour coach ride down to Latacunga from our hostel in Quito. Latacunga serves as a base and starting point for the Quilotoa loop with hostels brimmed with keen hikers. With such a big walk ahead we stayed at a chilled hostel with lots of other hikers talking about the route and hostels along the way.
The following morning after breakfast we made our way to the bus terminal to catch a 2 hour bus to Sigchos, the start of the trek. The bus ride up the mountain was stunning and got everyone right in the mood for the first day of hiking. Our hostel from the previous night gave us a map and instructions (and Maps.me conveniently also had most of the walking paths) so as soon as we set foot off the bus we started the trek along with others from the hostel.
Day 1 – 12.3km / 18,600 steps / 127 floors (3h15)
The first part of the day was pretty easy, all down hill with stunning views of the valley below and the mountains from afar. Along the way we encountered a few small sand/dust storms which hurt quite a lot and soon we were covered in a layer of dust. An hour and half into the trek we stopped for a snack by a river and soon realised that the next part of the trek was all uphill until the end. Both of us and a German guy set off first as we wanted the uphill to be over as quickly as possible. We took several breaks in the hour and half up and needless to say we were all sweating a lot! Once at the top we were treated to the most beautiful scenery of the valley we had just come from. Our legs were aching but we carried on as the very last stretch was along a road until the village of Isinliví – our first small village high in the Andean mountains. We arrived in very good time at our hostel (Taita Cristóbal) and relaxed for the evening. They provided a three course dinner where we sat and talked about the trek ahead of us with the others staying there.
Day 2 – 14.7km / 22,100 steps / 154 floors (5hours)
We woke for breakfast at 7:30AM fuelling our bodies for the day and packed our bags. By 9AM we were taking the steep path away from the hostel on the next part of our route. This time we set off with another group and walked with them for the majority of the day with a few splitting away. By 9:15 we had made our first mistake taking a steep path back up and realising near the top that there was a hidden path by the bottom of the river. Once back on track we set through farmers fields near the river edge gradually climbing up towards the top where again we could see across the valley and back towards the village of Isinliví. Again the first leg of the walk was easy enough with a mixture of uphill, downhill and crossing over log bridges.
We had a quick snack before the big uphill climb to get over the next valley. This was a ridiculously steep 400 metres ascent in a very short distance and everyone was struggling. Along the way we met kids selling the biggest strawberry’s we had ever seen for $1 which some of the group bought. Eventually we reached the top where we were treated to a beautiful mirador built by the two families that live at the top. We had lunch in the hut and got talking to the two male adults of the families and their children. We learnt that they are pretty much self-sustainable managing to live off everything they grow at the top as the weather is perfect for growing as they don’t have a winter. They also sell ‘Chocho’ beans which are prepared in their homes and help with the symptoms of altitude sickness. After lunch we had the remaining trek which was mostly along a road to the village of Chugchilan where we stayed in the Cloud Forest hostel.
Again the hostel provided us with a great three course dinner and that evening we had a few beers and played a pool tournament with 11 of us playing (Niamh won with Stu closely behind in 2nd!!) There was also a 15th birthday party so there was a big party with the locals and hikers together. They had a Mexican band playing at night with dancing and then in Ecuadorian fashion at the end of the Happy Birthday song the 15 year old girls head was pushed into the cake by her grandmother… A strange but amazing night!
Day 3 – 15km / 22,900 steps / 384 floors (7h)
Our last day as we had been warned was the toughest by far. We started the trek at 3200m and with huge sadness we had to descend back to 2800m right at the bottom of the valley. From there the rest of the climb is all uphill to the lake itself at 3400m. From the bottom of the valley we could see the walk ahead of us which was steep and dirty. The first uphill stage was tough but not too scary as we had trees and bushes mostly surrounding us, however it was the next few hours that were pretty terrifying. The next part was along a narrow pathway with a drop to the valley below on our left, eventually we came across an obstruction, there had been a landslide which now covered half the pathway. Our only choice was to cross which meant digging our boots into the rubble and holding onto any branch we could. Eventually all five of us got across and took a breather for a while.
For the next two hours we continued uphill meeting locals along the way and hikers coming to opposite way warning us of the strong wind at the top of the lake. After a very long hike we got to the top of the lake and were thrown back by the gale-force winds literally pulling us off our feet. Here we sheltered in a locals hut eating lunch and once there was a break in the wind we took our photos and enjoyed the view. From the top of the crater we could see the turquoise lake and all the way across to the village of Quilotao, the end was in sight, or so we thought. There are two routes on the shorter way around to the village, one along the ridge of the crater and the other around the backside along animal tracks. We took the latter because of the wind but this probably turned out to be scarier and more dangerous than the ridge.
To begin with we followed a trail for farmers and their cattle up and down for awhile, then we met a steep rock formation which we had to scale down, by this point the trail was becoming less obvious until we saw a house at the end of it. We decided to walk to the house and see if there was a back way around – there wasn’t. Instead we met with vicious dogs running straight at us, jumping up trying to bite, luckily the two walking with us had walking sticks so used them to keep them at bay while we backed away. Realising we were on the wrong track there were two options, walk back on ourselves or crawl/walk up the side of the rubble to meet the other path. At last we were back on route and followed the terrifying ridge path to eventually meet the village. After a long shower and rest we had another great dinner at the hostel and had a very early night after a long days walk.