Monday, April 8, 2013

Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador



Every now and then during our sojourn in South America, we'd go on a multi-day trip that leaves us disconnected from the rest of the world. When we 'emerge' from such trips, for lack of a better word, our perspectives about life in general changes a lot - there is something about being unplugged. One such trip was the Quilotoa loop in central Ecuador.
For almost a day, Swami and I part ways where he goes trekking from one village to another and I choose to take the bus. Both of us end up having a very good experience, but I'll mainly write about mine.


Lake Quilotoa







The loop can be anything you want - a trek, a walk, a bunch of loosely connected bumpy rides - all through the rugged countryside of central Ecuador, in Cotopaxi county. During the time we went, we saw only a handful of travelers after day one, and even those folks had hired a car for a day trip.

If you are ever in Ecuador, forget about time, go the full loop - either by road transport or by walk (if you have company) and it will show you an unforgettable side of Ecuador and travel in general. I have so much to say about these few days that I hope you will bear with me and read the entire bit.

What is the Quilotoa Loop?

It is a path that travelers take that mostly originates in Latacunga, Ecuador and winds eastward towards Laguna Quilotoa (lake Quilotoa) and after an overnight stay there, leads to the village of Chugchillan. From Chugchillan, one can go to the tiny town of Sigchos. From Sigchos there are regular buses back to Latacunga.

Laguna Quilotoa is a beautiful crater lake. The transportation in the entire circuit is very infrequent, so its best to carry warm clothing, rain proof clothes and snacks (dried fruit, bocadillo etc.).


Bus Latacunga to Quilotoa

Enroute scenery


Latacunga to Quilotoa

Latacunga is the base for this trip. Infrequent buses from Latacunga reache Quilotoa early in the afternoon - inquire at the bus stop as soon as you arrive at Latacunga. When we reached the lake, it was raining heavily. So we decided to check out one of the restaurants there. To picture the place, it really looks like the middle of nowhere with a few hotels near the entrance to the lake. The village is really small with one or two roads and a few establishments that advertise food and stay. These hotels are family owned and we stayed at Hostal Chukirawa right by the lake. The room cost includes a home cooked meal by the owners. The people here speak Quechua and are dressed in the traditional attire of a black skirt with embroidery, white blouse, colorful jewelry and long socks!

Our accommodation in Quilotoa


We walked down to the base of the lake - its about 30 minutes down and 1 hour up. The views are incredible all around - the scenery here is unparalleled. If you just want to stay here an entire day and trek the entire rim, thats possible too.

Hiking up - I am striking a pose, though in reality it is to mask my exhaustion
The path to the bus stop is on the left, the lake is on the right


Quilotoa to Chugchillan

While we were there, it rained a lot. So the following morning, amidst heavy rains, Swami spotted a couple from New Zealand who were setting out to walk to Chugchillan. We decided to part ways here. Swami continued forward by foot, while I stayed back to take only bus for the day - a 2 pm bus to Chugchillan.  But the bus can be up to one hour early! Afraid of missing the bus, I walked to the road where the bus passes, only to be met by steady rain and no place to take shelter on the isolated village road. Not even a single awning. Finally, after walking a bit more, I found a little shop, more a house really. A very small house. Two men were waiting there. After confirming that the bus is yet to pass, they invited me to share the tiny space to stay dry. Eventually, I was where I was from. (We always see wonder when we tell we are from India, and the next question invariably is how far it is to fly there.) We swapped family stories. The young Quechua man had 10 siblings! He taught me how to say a few words in Quechua. It helped pass time while the bus arrived. 

On the way during Swami's walk



Getting stuck and unstuck in the mud

The road to Chugchillan is really bad and not a tourist in sight. The locals are mostly indigenous Quechua people living in the villages around the loop. I realized that the locals rely on this bus for so many things. It was very interesting to watch life unfold around me. Moms in their typical traditional attire cart kids around on their backs. Old men with sun ravaged skin huddle close in their jackets to stay warm. The bus is the only way to transport essentials - sacks of rice, maize, corn and even a bag of live chickens made its way to the bus. People are ever courteous - they shout "gracias" loudly to the driver when their stop comes. The gratitude comes first you see - no stop, no excuse me, just thank you.

Due to heavy rain and road building activity, the bus had to be helped out of potholes twice. Once it was helped by a forklift nearby and once all the women got out of the bus and walked ahead while the men pushed it out of the pothole. People do this all like clockwork - clearly they didnt get stuck for the first time. 

Elsewhere, such delays would be inconceivable. I cant help but marvel at how easy people take things far far away from big cities. My camera stayed inside all this time due to the rains, so my words will just have to suffice in painting the picture my mind now sees.

A $1 ride that I will never forget!

When I reach Chugchillan, I see Swami waiting for me by the road. He had secured a place to stay at the lovely Mama Hilda hostel. I was ready to wind down for the day. We settle by the fire in the common room, swap stories over hot tea and relax for the rest of the day.

mama hilda hostel

Chugchillan to Sigchos - riding in the back of a milk truck


After a beautiful, refreshing stay at Chugchillan's Mama Hilda Hostal, we get to know that we can take the milk truck back to Sigchos. The milk truck is our only way as the bus to Sigchos goes past at 4 AM!!! Yes, 4 AM. But the milk truck goes by Chugchillan anywhere between 8.30 and 9.30 AM. After breakfast, we wait for the milk truck from 8 AM. It finally makes it way after a long wait. Turns out, the milk truck is the way all the locals sell their milk. There are huge containers in the truck and it makes frequent stops all along the way and collects milk in anything from plastic water bottles to huge metal tins. The milk is then filtered through a cloth into a tub and there are many such tubs. People huddle around the bus to catch a ride and so did we. The ride to Sigchos was an adventure by itself. At Sigchos, we found a place to eat - we had the company of the Kiwi couple, who we'd continue to meet during our travels - all the way south in Patagonia!

Milk Truck
Ecuadorian ladies and a milk truck
Milk truck!
From Sigchos, there are many buses to Latacunga. Just find the way to the bus terminal and ask!