The Andes mountains run the length of Ecuador, from the northern border with Colombia to the south and Peru, in a continuous chain that the 19th-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt dramatically-christened “The Avenue of the Volcanoes”. Around the capital Quito, they reach their highest (and most photogenic) peaks, including Cayambe (a volcano that’s right on the equator, the only place on the equator where there’s permanent snow, and the only place on earth where both latitude and average temperature are 0°), Cotopaxi (a symmetrical mountain that’s one of the planet’s highest active volcanoes), and Chimborazo (whose summit is the furthest point from the centre of the earth, despite being 2500m lower than Everest, due to the equatorial bulge).
Between Cotopaxi and Chimborazo is the nondescript city of Latacunga, at 2700m, one of the main towns in this part of the country. And while nothing special in itself, it’s the jumping-off point for one of the country’s most famous walks, a 4-day jaunt through mountainous countryside and small villages, called the Quilotoa Loop.
The circuit can be done in either direction – going clockwise it’s slightly more downhill than uphill, but every day consists of up-and-down walking, whichever way you go. So I decide to hike anti-clockwise, as there doesn’t seem to be too much difference either way, plus it gives me the most famous bit of the loop last (Quilotoa Lake), and it also allows me to visit a nearby town and its famous market on the first day.
Taking a tightly-packed and barely-functioning bus from Latacunga brings me to Saquisilí, a ramshackle highland town that’s probably as quiet as the grave for most of the week but explodes into life every Thursday for its market. A combination of shopping mall and social club, these markets are as much about a weekly chat with your friends and relatives as they are about doing business and buying & selling. They’re also a way of life for the local indigenous people, who’ve probably been coming here to trade for centuries. As the market is a local affair and not aimed at tourists, most of the stuff on offer is the general material goods that constitute daily life in these parts – pots and pans, kitchen utensils, saddles, bundles of yarn, baskets, blankets and swawls, mountains of fruits and vegetables, and sacks of grain (including trendy superfood quinoa). There are tailors to repair your boots and jeans, wandering hawkers selling toys for the kids, rows of pirated CDs and DVDs, an army of people offering mobile phone top-ups, and an assortment of food vendors selling everything from burgers to guinea pigs (that’s right, the guinea pig section wasn’t a pet store).
As fascinating as the stuff for sale is, the local traders and shoppers are just as interesting to observe. Wrinkled old women squat on mats furiously knitting; younger ones buy and sell with numerous children in tow (and often with a small baby stuck fast to one of their boobs, as well); several men have a serious-looking conversation over a gaggle of squealing piglets; and a sombrero-wearing old man casually leads his pet llama through the crowd. As with all over Latin America, there are also the ever-popular “pharmacists”, smooth-talking salesmen whose patter is designed to sell some panacea, from ginseng pills to coconut oil. Listening to the ways these guys sell, you’d think they’d discovered the cure for cancer or the secret to immortality, yet despite this (or perhaps because of it) they’re always popular with the locals (and in this case, popular with several of the local drunks, too – perhaps they’re selling hangover cures?).
I move on by another dilapidated bus from Saquisilí to Sigchos, on a road that seems to consist of nothing but hairpin bends through wild countryside and clouds. Sigchos isn’t much of a tourist destination either, but it’s the end of the paved road and the beginning of the walk. From here on, it’s hiking for the rest of the day, to Isinliví.
One thing that’s common throughout Latin America (throughout the developing world, for that matter, especially in places that aren’t well-touristed) is the spectacular lack of signage. Once you get out of the towns and into the sticks, it’s mountains and rivers, fields and farms, and a mass of small roads and trails, all going in every direction. Which means the only way to be sure of where you’re going is to constantly ask questions of any and every local you come across. And to prepare to be lost at numerous points in your journey. And so it is that I find myself several hours later, having spent the afternoon following a winding river into a lush valley, in a small village at the bottom, standing outside the church, trying to work out if this is Isinliví, and if not, where I need to go to get to it.
I don’t need to announce my presence to the locals, as their dogs have already noticed me, and all of them are now surrounding me, barking like crazy at the intruder. I have to climb up on a wall to escape their bared teeth and snapping jaws, and this is how one tiny old lady finds me a few minutes later. If she’s surprised by the sight of a white man in her village standing on a wall surrounded by angry dogs, she doesn’t show it. And although she looks like an antediluvian specimen, she wields a big stick and shouts some epithets in Quichua, and that’s enough to pacify the rabid canines. It turns out that, having gone all the way downhill into the valley, Isinliví is uphill from now.
Being the first (or last) stop on the Quilotoa Loop, Isinliví has several places to stay (and a shop and a church, and not much else); and all the hotels seem to have the same set-up – the nightly price covers dinner, a bed, and breakfast. And being at the lower end of elevation (less than 3000m) means it’s not freezing cold at night. Although I still sleep with all the blankets over me. And despite being in the middle of nowhere, the food is surprisingly good – quinoa soup, homemade bread, and pasta for dinner, and fresh eggs, homemade jam, and Ecuadorian coffee for breakfast. Not a fried chicken in sight.
The next day I head up to the next village, Chugchilán. Unlike yesterday, today I have a map, one that the Isinliví guesthouse owner gave me this morning. Although there are still several points in the journey where I find myself in the middle of nowhere, looking at a fork in the road and wondering which way to go, or looking for something written alongside the path, or asking a local farmer, or occasionally being barked at by some unseen dogs. At least on this section someone has helpfully painted arrows on the rocks every few hundred metres. But any inconveniences are all made up for by the gorgeous scenery along the way – mountains and rivers, valleys and peaks, every hill covered in a patchwork of fields stretching up the slopes to the point where it must be impossible to farm. Alternating strips of potatoes, corn, and quinoa form streaks of greens, browns, and yellows, splashed with the occasional scarlet poncho of an indígena farmer tending their crops. Even though there’s a road connecting the towns and villages of the Loop, this path travels far from it, so the only sounds are the birds and the cows (and the dogs). This rural region, the people in it, and their lifestyles probably haven’t changed much since the Spanish were here. The locals seem to be used to tourists wandering through, and are all friendly and helpful, despite being somewhat bemused by the concept of foreigners coming all this way just to walk nowhere in particular for fun.
Like yesterday, the path runs along the top of a valley, then down into it, along the river at the bottom, and back up. And at the top, surrounded by mountains that bear the scars of recent landslides and avalanches (it’s the rainy season, so perhaps that kind of danger is par for the course), is Chugchilán. It’s slightly bigger than Isinliví, with a few shops, a school, a church, and some guesthouses, all strung out along the main (well, the only) road. There’s even a village greengrocer, a baker, and a butcher – although the look of the delicious cakes in the bakery is somewhat undermined by the butcher next door, who’s determinedly slicing through the head of a dead pig with a hacksaw.
Having found somewhere to stay for the night, and watched the sun descend behind the mountains, it rapidly becomes clear that Chugchilán is considerably colder than Isinliví. Luckily, not only is there hot water (and hot piped water too, not the electrocuting shower heads you normally get here), but the hotel builders have constructed the place so that the kitchen and common rooms are on the ground floor, and the private rooms are on the first floor. So all the heat from the numerous stoves and fires downstairs gets sent upstairs, making everything toasty warm (at least until all the fires and stoves go out).
The next day, I get another map from the lodge’s owner, directing me to my last stop, Quilotoa (and there are more hand-painted arrows on rocks along the way). As with the previous hamlets on the Loop, there’s a road that goes between the two villages, but the car-less trail is infinitely more attractive. And as it turns out, infinitely more exciting. An hour or so outside Chugchilán, there’s a canyon I need to go down into (in order to go back up and continue on my way). And, if I had been paying attention, I would’ve seen the signs that told me to go all the way down and then back up, rather than struggling across a 60° incline covered in loose sand from a previous landslide.
Very sandy, and slightly shaky, I stop in another nameless village for lunch, before hiking up the last ascent to the rim of Quilotoa crater. The crater is all that’s left of an extinct volcano, a 3km-wide hole that’s 1000 years old and 700m deep (including its 300m-deep lake).
And the eponymous laguna is worth all the effort to get here. Walking round the crater towards Quilotoa village affords me a continual (and continually-changing) view of the turquoise lake, steep crater walls, and jagged cliffs. I have to remind myself to pay more attention to where I’m walking and less attention to the breathtaking view off to the side (especially as the path is narrow and steep, and constantly exposed to battering winds).
An hour of walking along the precipitous rim brings me to the crater’s “tourist centre” (a lookout, a small hut, and a man charging US$2). As it’s late in the day, I go straight into the village to find a bed. Quilotoa is the highest point on the Loop, at 4000m, and as soon as the sun’s gone down it’s absolutely freezing. And not helped at all by the fact that there’s an icy gale constantly blowing down from the crater into the village. Fortunately, every room in my hotel has wood-burning stoves, which, when they’re not filling the room with poisonous smoke and fumes, do keep the room warm. Unfortunately, mine keeps going out during the night, until I run out of both matches and swear words, give up all hope of re-lighting it, and simply go back to bed in all my clothes.
The next morning, buoyed by the fact that I didn’t freeze to death in the night, and while I wait for the midday bus back to Latacunga, I take a walk down into the crater to the lake. The mirador gives expansive (and windy) views down into the crater and over the lake, and a path leads down to the water’s edge (where a local family are taking a freezing dip). Apart from the hardy (or crazy) swimming family (and one rather sad-looking dog), there’s no one else around. And the combination of the beautiful nature and the peaceful solitude (both today and for the previous three) is perfect.