Foxes and Fun on the Quilotoa Loop

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South America » Ecuador » Centre » Quilotoa
December 11th 2011
Published: January 22nd 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

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1: A Noisy 360 View of the Lagoon 34 secs

I saw so happy to finally board a bus in Quito, happy to be leaving the city and happy to be leaving with friends in Bill and Ryan, two big, fun personalities from the US. As we took our seats they gave me strange looks as I brought BBQ meat from a seller of the bus, but neither that or a hot-dog from outside a cathedral made me sick so I am loving Ecuadorian street food. Nice change from the constant sicknesses I had in Asia.We walked from the terminal and checked into the overpriced Hostal Tiana where we met a wonderfully miscellaneous group of travellers. Those that spring into my memory now are a couple from New York, two German guys, a Swiss couple and a pair of Israeli girls. Seeing as I was along with the two big guys from the US, we of course continued tradition and purchased a bottle of rum and some coke from a tienda and began drinking in the early evening. Bill and Ryan dominated the conversation as usual in their loud American way but Bill did start a game where we each went round a circle and said our names, where we were from and something interesting about ourselves. It may sound like something Cub Scouts would do, but it was a good ice breaker.I only remember one comment that was made in the circle that night, it came from the attractive and bright eyed face of one of the Israeli girls and simultaneously made me both laugh and reminded me of my best friend in England, "My name is Mor, I'm from Israel and I like meat".Hostal Tiana as a I mentioned, was a nice hostel, though overpriced, probably due to it's foreign ownership and LP recommendation and I thought it was incorrect of them to rope guests into staying in their sister hostel in Llullu Llama by telling guests that they have to make a reservation and pay $3 for it, but unfortunately the US guys didn't need to think about it and paid so I reluctantly handed over my money. I will clarify, yes, they actually ask for a $3 reservation fee in a country where I often pay $5 for a whole night.Saquisilí Market

We left Latacunga on a short bus trip to Saquisilí, drinking a litre of dirty red wine between the three of us en-route. We had headed to this small town as we were lucky enough to want to start the Quilotoa Loop on a Thursday, the same day as the town holds a local market. Whilst I could take or leave most markets, I don't buy souvenirs, I was looking forward to the possibility of visiting an authentic local market, not one catering to tourists and to have the chance to see the life that passes through.We jumped off the bus and passed a series of men at sewing machines that were out of date in Europe at least 100 years ago. Strangely placed next to these guys was a wheelbarrow full to the lip with a mound of hog-roast, something that confused me deeply as I couldn't decrypt whether the image was incredibly tasty or decrepit. I paid one of the men to repair a bag I purchased in Bolivia for a buck before we moved into the market proper.We ambled through several different sections that I won't mention for they are all irrelevant compared to the livestock section. I separated from the guys here walked on my own, passing a large number of freshly cut plants and herbs, before spotting the guinea pigs. These animals, called 'cuy' for the sound they make, are common food in much of South America and they were piled high, alive, inside a large quantity of cages that lay ahead of me. Every once in a while someone standing in the crowd around the sellers would point to a couple in the cage, where upon they were picked up by the scruff of their neck and observed, before one of the two would be chosen as an appropriate size for a hearty meal. Whilst the animal may seem like strange and cruel food to much of the world whom often keep them as pets, here they are native, plentiful and there is no astigmatism and I found the selling methods and identification of the best animals interesting.<br style="line-height: 16px;" />The Andean people of Ecuador are almost all considerably smaller than Europeans, they are also usually quite stocky and well built, presumably due to the high labour that most undertake in their rural environments. The men seem to wear a variety of clothes, which makes their female counterparts more interesting. Traditionally they wear long skirts made of what looks like velvet, with several petticoats underneath. A woollen cardigan middles the look before a friendly smile with several gold plated teeth, all of which is usually topped by a particular style of hat that indicates the family or area there the person comes from. Of course there are some other variations to the clothes, but mostly, the females in this part of the world dress very similarly to each other. The indigenous females of Bolivia have a somewhat similar style of dress, but somehow the Ecuadorian women wear their clothes with more panache.Amongst the other creatures on sales were chicken that were squashed into small crates, pigs that were usually marches around the market in twos or threes by women and kittens that were piled on top of each other in the same way as the guinea pigs. When I posted some photos of the markets on facebook, I received some negative comments about the perceived cruelty towards the animals in the market, but having spent 8 months seeing the inner workings of a chicken factory in the UK, I can say that conditions are not dissimilar and the piles of guinea pigs and kittens probably kept each other warm as opposed to too much discomfort.I ate some miscellaneous fried food that amongst ingredients I couldn't identity, definitely had some hints of cheese, before boarding another bus with Bill and Ryan and we left for Isinliví, arriving after two hours bumping along a dirt road.The Quilotoa Loop

For travelling purposes, the Quilotoa Loop is basically any route that takes someone around the Quilotoa lagoon, one which has formed inside the extinct volcano crater of Quilotoa. It can be done on foot, bicycle, bus and probably other forms of transport too. We had started out loop in Latacunga, travelled to the market at Saquisilí and taken the bus from there to Isinliví where we were to begin hiking.Our bags were dropped at the hostel we had foolishly made our reservation in advance, LLullu LLama. Our room here was a large dormitory in the attic with relatively comfortable beds and we found the eco-friendly bathroom a short walk outside from the main building. If the price of the hostel had been even remotely close to reasonable, I would have no complaint, but at $18 a night for a bed in a dorm, Llullu Llama is very expensive in the Ecuadorian backpacking world. We did receive two good meals as part of the fee, but if I compare the price to the locally owned hostel we stayed at on Quilotoa later, the visibility of the poor value is far more evident. At Quilota we paid $10 each for private rooms, an amount that included three good meals. My advice to anyone who ends up in Isinliví is to simply arrive and look for somewhere else to stay, unless you are on a far more generous budget.<br style="line-height: 16px;" />Llullu Llama has a great selection of hand drawn maps and notes for the various side treks and sights around its area and whilst Ryan disappeared somewhere randomly, Bill and I took instructions from one and hiked atop of a hill to see some pre-Colombian ruins. Unfortunately, we had only read the instructions and were confused for a while until we realised that the ruins we couldn't spot were in fact the hill that we stood atop. The hill was build as a viewpoint overlooking the valley.We walked back to the hostel, en-route bumping into the Swiss couple and one of the two German guys we'd met in Latacunga. Once they were ready the five of us set out and climbed a nearby peak overlooking the town. For most people, the Quilotoa Loop isn't especially intense and the altitude is never challenging, but we knew this already. People take the route purely because the Ecuadorian countryside is incredibly beautiful and the remote life of the Andean villages is a wonderful throw-back to many years previous. We stood above the town, looking down as the clouds moved in and over the lush green valley, swallowing our view before we left for the hostel.After a good breakfast the next morning we left the hostel to begin our walk to Chugchilán. I knew rapidly that I was going to really enjoy the loop for the trail to Quilotoa is wonderfully vague and we had but a few basic instructions to guide us through the fantastic green countryside mountains. We regularly needed to pass close by small settlements where on occasion dogs would either approach us curiously or bark insanely. Along the way we took a couple of wrong turns and had a few debates about which way our crude notes were trying to direct us. Ryan, Bill and I moved a little distance ahead of the others, but I always ended up at the back of the group due to regular wanderings off the sides of the trail to find vantage points for photos. Eventually though, the three of us were making faster progress than the others and we slipped ahead. I did have a laugh at the poor Swiss guy as we pulled ahead. The Swiss girl was very confident of herself and self-assured and had informed me of her fitness and the numerous gymnastics she did to stay in shape. Her boyfriend happily admitted to me that he was surprised to be doing the walk as he was very much of the nature to avoid exercise at all costs. Yet despite the opposing ideals, he was of course the one who was lumbered with a giant backpack for the entire walk whilst she was able to bound around freely with just her camera to carry. The backpack was particularly amusing to everyone else for the simple reason that the trek was only for a few days and not a single other person was carrying anything more than a few items in day-packs. Poor guy.In the late morning we stopped for lunch at the bottom of a valley, alongside a healthy clean river. The others caught up as we were eating our pathetic packed lunch from Llullu LLama. I promise this is my last dig at that hostel, which did have good food, information and great views from toilet (seriously, you could sit for days), but the packed lunch was $3.50 and consisted of a few items from the shop two doors up that would have cost not much more than $1. I think I'm pissed about it still as I write on the grounds that I was dumb enough to believe them when they suggested the food inside was going to be considerably more substantial.After we ate our sad little lunch that we were fortunately able to supplement with food that we'd brought with us, we headed out crossing the river via a log and enjoying the views and we used our instruction to navigate the valley at a speed that was pointlessly rapid. I had told myself that I would never again walk a trek as fast as I had done the Annapurna circuit previously, it's a shame to miss the views and photo opportunities and was something I was to rectify the following day. One good thing came out of it though, the perfect timing with which we arrived a tiny village where the school children had just been let out for recess. This timing was wonderfully fortunate and as we entered the village the children scattered excitedly and returned with a variety of orchestral instruments which they played and sang for us, not for money, but simply for the happiness in performing for guests. After their cute performance one grabbed a football and a game broke out around us that we joined into until it was time for them to go back to class. Sometimes timing really is everything.The days walking was concluded in an unwelcome fashion. From the village we hiked up a terribly steep donkey trail where the soil slipped and fell repeatedly underneath feet for some time before we reached a road that led further uphill to the village of Chugchilán. This small village sits at around 3200m and has a merge population of only 100, most of which live in the surrounding hills and valleys. Due to the pace of our hike, we had arrived in the very early afternoon and as such we had to find something to do with our time.Passing the time would be easy I thought as my mind ran over several side hikes that I'd read about, unfortunately though, the mountains didn't like my plans and quickly hid themselves underneath a vast spread of thick clouds before beginning to rain.Not long after we arrived in Chugchilán one of the overland tour buses pulled up at the hostel. Forgive my slight arrogance, but I was amused when asked by one of the slightly clueless younger members of the group when asked how we'd managed to get to the village, 'Ummmm, we took a bus and walked' and she appeared surprised that the country should have public transport and that it was possible for us to take it.There was a pair of Australia sisters in the group and Ryan and Bill quickly switched to full volume and pushed their way forward in a centre of attention US way and began their show. More rum was purchased to pass the time under the clouds, but I left the others, choosing to read and snooze in a hammock until it was time to eat. I admit that my memory is somewhat hazy for the sequence of events, but at some point I encountered the pair of Israeli girls that we had met in Latacunga, Mor and Shay-li. They had spent an additional night in Latacunga having spent their previous days on an epic journey South from Colombia and had arrived in Chugchilán directly from Latacunga. I can't put upon the exact reason why, perhaps it was a desire to move away from the volume of the US, perhaps I simply remembered Mor's funny comment about liking meat, but I decided to try to get to know them a bit more and so sat with them during dinner and breakfast and putting a little distance between myself and the others. As well as the two Israeli girls, the second German guy we'd met in Latacunga, David, was in the hostel. He was only 18, but in a great move had decided to take a year out before studying to teach English in the villages of this picturesque part of the world. I spoke to Mor and Shay-li that evening to ask whether they minded me joining their walk in the morning. Why I asked to join them is once again a little vague, perhaps it was the opportunity to walk with two attractive girls, perhaps I wanted a change from the volume and fast walking pace of my US friends, perhaps I simply had a feeling that it was the right thing to do. Whatever my reason was, they said that it was no problem and with that, I went to sleep.In the morning I packed and was ready to leave with the Israeli girls and I let my US friends that I was leaving with the girls and with David also, who we had gladly accepted the company of as a friend and also a guide for the morning. The Swiss couple and the other German, Frank, were apparently meant to be walking with us, though nothing had officially mentioned and we carried on walking as they entered a shop and we didn't see them until the evening. As we left the town in our foursome, we sped up a little as we passed a freshly slaughtered cow that was leaking blood all over the pavement. Not a particularly delightful sight first thing in the morning. I was in a good mood on that morning, I was very happy to be with the people that I was, it was calmer/slower with the US guys and despite liking the other two guys, I can't pretend I was a fan of the Swiss girl with seemed a little self-obsessed I am a little bitchy today). The day felt like a clean break as we ambled down a hill and out of Chugchilán.As the four of us walking we exchanged plenty of travel stories. I was particularly interested in David's story and what life was like for him as a teacher in these remote communities. It has long been something that I have considered doing and so I asked many questions. I think I spoke to Mor and Shay-li a little cautiously to begin with. I tend to avoid asking Israeli's about the military service when I meet them because I imagine it is the one of the first questions anyone from another country asks and that it must get very dull and so we stuck largely to education and travelling. Mor's recent graduation from bio-chemical engineering stuck with me in particular. All in all, the mornings hiking was quite fantastic as we rambled, witnessed endless beautiful countryside views before passing through a long rock passage to the top of a cliff and the entrance to another village, Guayama. The US guys caught up with us here and we spoke for a while before we left to carry on and they stayed behind to wait for the other three to catch up.One of the highlights of the Loop happened a short walk after leaving Guayama. We were looping our way around and up the side of a cliff when we stopped to the sounds of excited voices. Looking above us we noticed a man standing over a fire that was burning just below him and strangely, on the side of the cliff. We listened and watched for awhile whilst the shouting continued before David and I went ahead to find out what was going on. We got to the top and through a combination of Kichwa and Spanish discovered that the group of children and several other members of a family were pointing to the fire which had been started in an attempt to kill an Andean fox, a zorro andino. The flames were definitely a strange and unpleasant idea, but when I thought about what the family probably had to hand, it was probably their best hope to get rid of the pest. Further to that, if anyone at home reads that and thinks that it's awful that they were trying to kill the fox, consider that these communities have almost nothing and their livestock, from cows to chickens simple wander around their land, there are no secure areas. If they lose an animal, it is a tremendous loss and one that is difficult to recover from and therefore, they had to kill the animal, using whatever means they could. We stayed, watching the children directing their father from a viewpoint around the curve of the cliff as their mother produced some amazing and dramatic facial expressions, also directed at the father as he stretched the fire, covering more ground. David joined the attempt to stoke the creature out, using his little Kichwa to communicate and they both climbed a little the cliff, stepping on branches to further the flames, moving the animal in its under-bush. When I finally caught a sneak of a glimpse of the animal in some long smoking grass, I could only make out one thing, it was black. I am most certainly not an animal expert, but I have encountered Andean foxes before and they were never black.It took a long time, but eventually the father managed to spread the flames far down and close enough to the fox to force it to make its escape and it darted, jumping over the fire and flying through the air and down the bushes below, stopping to hide. We looked at each other in confusion, questions raised, but not spoken until after I zoomed in on a photo I'd taken with my camera. We all agreed, it was not a fox, but a skunk. We left as the skunk continued its escape route through the bushes as elderly man flew down the a cliff path optimistically, wielding a machete above his head. I completely understand why they would need to kill a fox, but a skunk?! They obviously know far more than me and perhaps skunks cause far more problems than I imagine, either way, the whole incident was hilarious.Watching had delayed us considerably and David had to leave us to get home before the clouds set in, leaving me with Shay-li and Mor. He had been interesting to talk to and kindly pointed us in the right direction before he left. We carried on ascending, we were on the side of the Quilotoa crater. Ryan and Bill overtook us, having not been able to find the other three and disappeared into the clouds that were filling the valley. I was hugely enjoying walking with the girls. I found Mor very easy to talk too, for she was enthusiastic, open and had an electric smile. We finally reached the crater rim at just under 4000m above sea level, tired but happy to know that we must be close to the end of a hard days walking. We took a moment to stand on the desert like landscape to try to see the famous lagoon inside the crater, but unfortunately, clouds had surrounded the crater, us and inside the crater as well. Everyone but the two girls were planning on leaving Quilotoa that afternoon and as the day day progressed I edged towards the same decision to spend a night sleeping at the crater. I had decided this of course because I hadn't seen the crater yet, but also because I was very happy with my change of company.Turned out that on arrival at the edge of the crater rim we actually still had some way to go, but after children asking for food and a man asking for money to pay for surgery, many clouds and 22km in total, we arrived in the village of Quilotoa.We ate a much needed meal before spotting the two guys from the States and shortly after, the other three. Everyone decided to stay for the evening and as a group we checked into a hostel. Mor, Shay-li and I visited a crafts market where they brought hats and gloves and I desperately tried but failed to get a sensible price for a ridiculous monkey hat. We drank some coffee together in a restaurant, my introduction to the two girls addiction, whilst we listened to a comically cheerful Latin Spanish song about leaving South America to live a happy life in Israel. The girls found it vaguely ridiculous, commenting that the writer has clearly never been to Israel, but we all enjoyed the crazy upbeat tune that carried the happy lyrics.The evening was for once, not about drinking, Bill and Ryan had exhausted themselves with it the previous night and everyone was exhausted from the days walking. I spent a fair amount of time away from the others, preferring to be alone, wandering in the rain, hoping for a few glimpses of the lagoon. Whilst I was out and the others, except for Mor and Shay-li, were out napping, a Spanish women arrived at Quilotoa on horseback and I returned to a ridiculous panic. Mor told me that there was an overreaction and the woman who had arrived on horseback believed she had hypothermia and everyone was rushing around worrying unnecessarily. Instead of changing her wet clothes, they wrapped endless towels around them. None of it made much sense and it was extremely over the top. It was much like watching a South America soap opera, except if the actresses were overweight. Fortunately she was eventually slung into a vehicle and taken away, allowing the seats in front of the fire to be returned to the girls.I entertained myself a lot that afternoon. I was in a slightly odd mood and enjoyed being outside in the clouds and the rain, maybe it was my English nature. I wandered the single street town, watched kids play football and an elderly women herding animals before the crafts market closed and the locals carried away their wares for the day in packs twice their size of their bodies. Whilst on my wanderings I found a seller with the ridiculous monkey hat and I managed to buy it for a sensible price after all. I brought partly because I did appreciate it's ridiculousness, but I think I also took it to try to amuse the two girls. I seemed to be running with my strange mood.After dinner our group very quickly retired to rooms, except for Mor and Shay-li. I lay in my bed for a few minutes before wondering what I was doing there and left the room to join the two girls. During the evening Mor had mocked her for being overly English for choosing to sit on the floor with my legs stretching out, as opposed to sitting on a chair. Also for wandering in the rain. There was something of a joke about them being Israeli and not being able to survive drizzle, whilst being English I fail miserably in the sun. Either way, the three of us stayed up talking until just after 11, which may not seem late, but considering the days hiking, the lack of sun since midday and that everyone else had already been sleeping for two or three hours, I think we did well.I woke far too early the next morning and left the hostel to try to see the lagoon properly at last. I walked along a high ridge, giving me the perfect view I wanted of its rich green-blue water and the sharp jagged edges leading down. I hoped down a ledge whilst considering my options of where to wander next when I found myself happy to be looking at Mor who was sitting quietly overlooking the lagoon. As I walked down a ledge I was happy to find Mor sitting peacefully in a spot overlooking the lagoon. She had woken even earlier than me. Sometimes a person feels more of a connection to a particular person than to others and despite knowing little about Mor it doesn't bother me to write here that I liked here and increasingly in the short time I knew her whilst we were walking together and as such I was very happy that she was the first person I saw that morning. There was just something about her. We went back into the hostel together for breakfast.After breakfast everyone left for Latacunga except for me and the two girls and we began our walk around the outside of the crater with little consideration of how long it would take. I became increasingly drawn to Mor, her friendly smile definitely helped, but she easily made me laugh and was clearly intelligent to go along with her open nature that was somewhat addictive. We walked together for some time, taking photos for each other at viewpoints, whilst Shay-li walked a little behind with headphones in. Eventually though, we hit a sharp incline and I decided it was time to test myself after my lazy time in Quito and I pushed ahead. The tranquillity of the region certainly was a nice change from Quito and as I reached the highest point of the crater rim the sound of a brass band floating up the valley to my ears from a village below.Whilst waiting for my girls, I met another two from Austria and once everyone was together we all admired the view and took photos before heading onwards. I read that the locals believe the lagoon to have no bottom and as I like the idea, I think I'm going to believe them. When we carried on walking we regularly split up, the Austrian's girls left the top a little before us and I found myself bouncing between them and the Israeli's, catching up one group before stopping and waiting for the other. Whilst I was in the middle, some dogs approached me angrily barking and so I waited for Mor and Shay-li to catch up and to get past, to make sure they were OK. Once again during this trip, I don't really know the reason for something, but I felt a desire to be a little protective of my two Israeli friends, despite them both having served in the military and more than likely not be in any need of help, providing we didn't encounter any donkeys.I advanced again, marching around the rim. They caught up with a short whilst later, whilst I was lying on the rim, watching clouds float into the crater through dips in the rim. They drifted over the lagoon into fluffy lines, meeting in the middle. I loved the location, it was surreal and haemorrhaging barely believable beauty in a perfect tranquil location.Once we decided to move again we ploughed on underneath the clouds that had once again taken over and we eventually met again in Quilotoa village where I continued in the way I started my trip to the Quilotoa Loop, by eating something strange. I walked to a street stall and asked what a man was eating and to him whether it was good, to which he replied in Spanish that it was. I ate the same discovering that it was cheese covered in treacle. I am fairly sure the girls thought I was insane. After I finished that treat, we ate a real lunch together before leaving the serenity and calming beauty of Quilotoa for Latacunga, thereby completing the loop and a fantastic trip that started with a litre of wine on a bus and ended with me arrived back at the starting place with two girls, one of which I was already smitten with.


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