How much for this llama, señora?

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June 19th 2012
Published: June 19th 2012
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Leaving Mindo and its gorgeous array of ornithological, lepidopteran and batrachian wonders behind, it's time to head south, and deep into Ecuador's highland heart. Crossing Quito - again - for what must surely be the last time, we head down along the Panamericana highway to the small city of Latacunga. Latacunga is slap bang in the middle of what Ecuadorians call La Avenida de los Volcanes, the "Avenue of the Volcanos" stretching all the way from the Colombian border to Riobamba in the centre of the country. Indeed, the bus ride between Quito and Latacunga takes you right under the noses - or should that be cones? - of some of Ecuador's loftiest peaks, nearly all of which are volcanos (for the most part extinct, thankfully). On our way to Latacunga we pass Cotopaxi (5,897m) to the east, Illiniza Norte (5,126m) and its twin Illiniza Sur (5,248m) to the west. None of these is even Ecuador's highest point - that honour going to 6,310 metre Chimborazo, which towers over Riobamba - but they all easily dwarf any western European mountain. Even the city of Latacunga is located at an altitude over twice that of the highest point in the British Isles
Bus from Latacunga to QuilotoaBus from Latacunga to QuilotoaBus from Latacunga to Quilotoa

Vendors plough through the aisle, offering everything from chicken stew (seriously) to toasted maize kernels.
- we're high up!

Latacunga lives up to the reputation of most Ecuadorian provincial capitals, attractive in places but not an attraction in itself. The city does, however, lie close to a particularly scenic part of the country's central highlands, a collection of villages scattered across a rolling landscape of hills around the extinct volcano of Quilotoa. The volcano itself, which collapsed in a cataclysmic eruption some eight centuries ago to produce a huge, turquoise caldera lake, is the area's main draw, but the region's traditional markets, beautiful hikes and slow pace of life all make Quilotoa well worth a few days' visit.

The (very roughly) circular route which connects the loop of villages around Quilotoa is supposedly hard to navigate on public transport, but we have no trouble (touch wood) catching a bus from Latacunga to our first stop, the tiny hamlet perched on the very edge of the caldera (and itself called Quilotoa). A quick look at our fellow passengers is a real eye-opener: dark-skinned Andean features and traditional dress - colourful woven ponchos, bowler-style hats, long plaited hair, children tied to back with squares of cloth, dominate absolutely, and there is very little western clothing to be seen other than what we two are wearing. It's a bit like Otavalo, but much more marked. It's quite a surprise, and a wonderful one to be sure, after the relative cosmopolitanism of Quito.

Quilotoa teeters on the edge of the caldera at an altitude of over 3,900 metres: the air is cold, dry and noticeably thinner as we step off the bus. After settling down in our warm and welcoming little hospedaje, complete with wood stoves, great big beds and huge, thick duvets (a real luxury at these altitudes), we venture out slowly - we're not acclimated after our time in Mindo, at "only" 1,200 metres - to have a look at the caldera. The lake at the summit of Quilotoa is widely considered one of Ecuador's finest sights, and it's easy to see why. Surrounded by high walls of volcanic rock which tumble precipitously to the waters' edge, the lake is a beautiful vivid turquoise colour, reflecting the sky and clouds overhead. A steep, dusty path leads down from the caldera rim to the shore: eager from some exercise we head down. The cold waters of the lake are some 250 metres deep - more than twice the deepest point of the English Channel - although local folklore has it that the lake is bottomless. The walk back up to the hamlet - no more, in fact, than a collection of small guesthouses and a brace of tiny food shops - is predictably painful (walking steeply uphill at 3,900 metres altitude is not a piece of cake) but worth it for the splendid views down at the bottom of the caldera. The eruption which formed the caldera 800 years ago was apparently so huge that the flows of ash, rock and debris reached all the way to the Pacific Ocean...over 300km away to the west! Must have been a pretty big bang. By the time we get back to our hotel it's bitterly cold. A nice hot meal and blisteringly hot shower (true bliss!) later we bury ourselves under mountains of duvets and wollen blankets and the mercury drops. It's cold up here.

The next leg of our little circuit is from Quilotoa to the village of Chugchilán, twelve kilometres or so to the northeast. We've left our big bags down in Latacunga and are travelling light specifically so we can hike this small but beautiful section of the circuit. It already promises to be a warm, sunny day by the time we leave Quilotoa. We walk about a quarter of the way around the caldera rim before dropping steeply down the former volcano's slopes, now a patchwork of fields, thatched houses and pine groves. The volcano sides are criss-crossed with tracks, but after a few false starts - and the help of some friendly locals - we soon find our way down. The path from this point is wonderfully well-marked, with rest spots, rubbish bins (more on Ecuadorian's abysmal attitude to littering in a later entry) and remarkably precise signs ("distance to Chugchilán - 11.458km"). Shortly before arriving we plunge down into a river canyon, only to crawl our way back up on the other side to get to the village. Twelve kilometres is not far, but it's up and down nearly the whole way. By the time we arrive in Chugchilán in the late afternoon it's definitely time for two cold Pilseners.

There's little to do in Chugchilán - part of the village's appeal. The next stretch of the loop, from Chugchilán to the town of Sigchos, is a bit of a transport headache. The daily bus to Sigchos leaves Chugchilán at 3am - yes, 3am. A milk truck apparently goes there on some days at 8am, but a far more interesting way to get there is on horseback. This being Ecuador, hiring a couple of horses for the following morning is a matter of a few minutes at most. And so the next day we head off - at the far more respectable time of 10am - with a guide and a globe-trotting French couple we met at dinner the previous evening. The easy three-hour ride to Sigchos is spectacular, affording beautiful views of the twin peaks of the Illinizas in the distance, and going, bizarrely, past a Swiss-funded cheese-making cooperative where we purchase the most authentic mozzarella (I say most authentic) we've had since leaving home. Argentina, please take note.

We ride straight into the centre of Sigchos, where horses in the bus station forecourt attract no attention whatsoever. Sigchos is a much larger affair than either Quilotoa or Chugchilán, but again with very little to offer in itself. We linger long enough for lunch before a bus ride to Saquisilí, a village which certainly does have something going for it. We've timed our arrival in Saquisilí to coincide with its famous Thursday market, one of the largest in all of Ecuador. The ride between Sigchos and Saquisilí is spectacular, even by spectacular Ecuadorian bus ride standards, twisting and turning at the foot of the Illinizas and even giving us a near cloud-free view of Cotopaxi (not a common occurrence, apparently) just before we arrive.

We'd read that Saquisilí on a Wednesday evening was a lively place - but after half an hour's wandering about we still found precisely zero places to have dinner. Thursday morning, on the other hand...

Saquisilí market is no Otavalo - thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians descend on the town overy Thursday from many miles around, and there is nary a white face to be seen anywhere. Ponchos and woolly hats take a back seat here: this is no tourist market. The market is divided into sections, each occupying large open spaces scattered about town. Potatoes and vegetables in one, maize in another (we are in Ecuador), household goods in another, meat in another...For us, however, the absolute highlight of the market - and, for that matter, perhaps the crowning glory of the Quilotoa area itself - is the livestock.

A vast open space on the edge of town, clogged with pickup trucks trying to inch forward through the dense crowds. Elderly ladies - to whom Spanish might well be a foreign language, for all around us we hear only Quichua - having travelled down from their isolated villages, surrounded by pigs, sheep, cows, calves, even llamas on rope leashes. Teams of young men manhandling desperately squealing pigs into the backs of pickups, men smartly dressed in bowler hats and ponchos nonchalantly asking "¿Cuánto vale este chancho?" - "How much for this pig?". The bargaining, the incongruous wads of US dollars changing hands in this tiny corner of the northern Andes. With a few minor tweaks, you can absolutely imagine these scenes repeated centuries ago, even before the Spanish arrived, perhaps. It's crowded, noisy, smelly (there's a whole lot of poo about) but utterly, utterly thrilling. A couple of cheeky ladies even try to convince me to buy a cow - only $300! Good value, I'm sure, but I'm not sure the Peruvian borders will agree in a couple of weeks time.

A few blocks away on another plaza and frenetic high-pitched squeaks announce the cuy section of the market - the guinea pigs. This is, if it's possible, even more surreal. Baskets and baskets and baskets filled to the brim with hundreds - nay, thousands - of guinea pigs wriggling over and under each other. Apart from the large animals, the cuyes are definitely attracting the most attention. Ladies in their traditional garb try to nab passersby, holding up a cuy by the scruff of the neck in their faces, shouting "How about this one? Only five dollars!". Wholesale purchases involve dozens of guinea pigs being transferred from basket to basket, counted out like so many apples or potatoes. Bulk discounts! Ten for the price of nine! Baby ones for fattening up! Nice fat ones to grill for dinner tonight! If you ever thought guinea pig was a niche food in Ecuador, come to Saquisilí market...

It's a riot of colour, sound, smell. Taste doesn't get left behind, with dozens of sellers offering a huge range of tempting snacks like lapingachos, fried potato and cheese cakes, or bags of toasted corn and mote. Whole roast pigs, chicken feet soup, it's all here. By 9am we're utterly exhausted by the sheer intensity of the experience - now that is what I call a mercado. Suck on that, Borough Market!

Additional photos below
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20th June 2012
Basket of cuyes, Saquisilí

How cute!!!!!
They look like guinea pigs to me;) Suz x

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