Mariposa, Mariposa

The Quilotoa Loop: A 4 Day Journey

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The Quilotoa Loop started out as a way to meet up with friends, yet ended up being a solo journey, along with the kind souls (and not always so friendly cows) along the way.

Day 1: Monday / Quito — Latacunga — Sigchos 

Per usual, we set out without much of a plan other than a vague idea of what the “Quilotoa Loop” was. We left Quito from Quitumbe Station that afternoon and arrived at the first stop, Latacunga, around 4pm. Cluelessly, we started to wander and spent almost an hour at the grocery store, wandering the aisles, looking for protein bars which Daniel did not believe me would not be available at a small Ecuadorian supermarket. We found some internet and after realizing we would not be able to hike with our friends at all, decided we needed to get to Isinliví that evening to start out hike in the morning. So back to the bus terminal we went around 5 pm.

I approached one of the ticket counters and confidently announced that I needed two tickets for Isinliví.

“No hay,” a response that I would come to be very familiar with. This would not be as easy as we thought.

“And when are the next buses to Isinliví?” I asked again in Spanish, this time less confident, but still a little hopeful.

“Mañana a las una,” she told me.

One o’clock? That would mean we wouldn’t arrive until at least 3pm and it would be way too late to start our hike. That wouldn’t work. A man standing behind us, although he didn’t speak English, saw the looks on our faces and overheard our debate.

“Hay un bus para Sigchos que sale a las 6,” he told us. “Puedes salir de Sigchos muy temprano en la mañana,  y sólo es 30 minutos mas o menos hasta Isinliví.”

“Y hay lugares donde podemos dormir en Sigchos?” was my first question, as not having a place to stay was always one of our fears.

“Sí, claro,” he told us. Of course – like we were being silly for asking.

“Y donde podemos comprar los boletos?” I asked, as it was already approaching 5:30.

“Ven conmigo,” he said and started walking to another ticket counter.

The only other problem was that we did not want to bring our big backpacks on a two or three day hike, and had wanted to leave them at a hostel in Latacunga, per what we had read about while doing our minimal research about the trip.

“Hay un lugar para quedar nuestras mochilas?” I asked him hopefully. He offered to leave them in the ticket office, but it wouldn’t be open on Thursday when we were hoping to return. After buying our tickets, we set off in search of lockers to leave our bags. We came across lockers in an office and asked the man behind the desk if they were available to use. He wouldn’t let us leave them there but told us to go downstairs and look for a barber shop. We assumed he meant there were more lockers down there. Fifteen minutes until the bus left. Leaping down the stairs, we ran right past a dark barber shop, where a man with glasses, a fluff of hair circling his head, and missing front teeth had poked his head out of the door and asked us if we needed a place to put our backpacks. How did he know? we both thought while looking at each other with slightly frightened but also excited expressions.

“Sí, sí! Hasta jueves?” I told him, thinking we would spend 2 full days hiking, and then return on Thursday.

“Bien. Cinco dolares,” he told us.

“Can we pay him when we get back and our bags are actually here?” Daniel asked me. But Alberto wanted to be paid right then and there. We each pulled out $5, shoved the things we needed in our day packs, and shouted “Gracias!” as we ran to the bus, hopping on with 2 minutes to spare.

“Is this a terrible idea?” I asked Daniel, after my breathing had steadied.

But it was too late. The bus started to pull away.

“Shit. That was so so stupid! Why would we leave all of our belongings with a stranger and expect him to just keep them safe for $5?” I exclaimed, in disbelief at how being caught up in the moment led me to be so careless. After a lot of back and forth bantering about what we could’ve or should’ve done, we decided that we should probably not expect our bags to be there when we got back, and spent the rest of the dark, foggy and windy bus ride letting that soak in so it wouldn’t completely run the rest of our hike.

Two and a half hours later, we were the only ones left on the bus as we pulled over for the last stop. The town was dark and deserted and we had no idea where we were going. Thankfully, the bus driver got off the bus with us and walked us to a hostel, which ended up being full. He then continued to walk with us until we found a hotel to stay at. We were so grateful for his kindness and were relieved {once again} at having a warm place to stay and a bed to sleep in.

Before collapsing in our room, we asked the receptionist if he knew how would could get to Isinliví in the morning. He matter of factly stated that there wasn’t a bus until 1pm. Our hearts sank. But we only came to Sigchos so we could get to Isinliví early in the morning to start our hike! I thought desperately, already scolding myself for not planning better.

“But, if you want, I have a friend that drives a milk truck and he could drive you there at 6,” he offered.

“Yes! That would be perfect! Thank you, thank you,” we told him, in awe once again at the kindness of strangers.

Day 2: Tuesday / Sigchos — Isinliví — Chugchilán 

It was still very much black outside as we stumbled down the stairs to meet the man who had promised us a ride. We took a ten minute walk through the still deserted town, not a sound except for the fighting of the street dogs, before the man said goodbye and we were left standing beside a truck with no one in it. Suddenly a bundled up man appeared and gestured for us to get in the cab of the truck. We waited while he emptied some of the containers from the back before jumping in and cleaning the fog off the windshield with a rag he kept in his pocket. I was smushed between the driver and Daniel as the truck rumbled to life. Daniel’s eyes quickly closed and his head rested on his palm as I kept my head forward, watching as the sun slowly began to illuminate the mountains we had criss crossed through the night before. It was a magnificent if not slightly terrifying ride as the road was extremely skinny and there was no guard rail to keep us safe. We picked up a few people that stood on the side of the road and they hopped in the back of the truck, the same as waiting for a bus at a bus stop.

All of a sudden the truck came to a stop and the driver looked at me as if to say, “we’re here!”

“Isinliví?” I asked, to which he nodded. “Gracias!” we said as we hopped out of the truck and looked around. It was 6:45 in the morning and we were feeling very sleepy. We had read of a very nice hostel in this very small town and started walking, sure we would come across it soon as it appeared to only consist of a few streets.

And we were correct. Not more than three minutes later we saw a sign for Hostal Taito Cristobal. We meandered around the back, calling “Hola? Hola?” Suddenly an older woman appeared and we told her our story. We had come from Sigchos and wanted to rest a little and eat breakfast before starting our hike to Chugchilán. Would that be okay?

We each snuggled into a bed of at least 7 blankets and instantly fell into a slumber. Three hours later we awoke, feeling much better but starving. Gathering our belongings, we opened our door to the most beauteous view. Everywhere we could see was green, and the mountains looked magnificent in the not so far distance, and some cows grazed in the backyard of the hostal. Two people were hard at work in the small garden on the side of the house and we saw the same woman who had let us into the room. She looked up and saw us, and somehow knew we were ready to eat. Soon someone arrived in the dining room and started preparing our breakfast as we looked around at the pictures of previous guests and found some maps of the trail, which would be a precious resource later in the day.

After eating a delicious breakfast of a fruit salad, coffee, bread, and an egg scramble, we were ready to go. The only regret we had was not staying at the hostel longer and having the wonderful dinner so many other guests had raved about. Clean, comfortable, warm beds, a beautiful view, a fantastic meal, and kind owners made this hostal one we would love to recommend. 

And then we were off! We were told it was a four hour journey from Isinliví to Chugchilán. We left around 12 and hoped to arrive at 4. Right away, we were very impressed by the beautiful mountains and made our way slowly – taking time for pictures and to say hello to the cows that were near our path. Our general direction was down the mountain, along the river, and then back up.

Lots of sit breaks and snack breaks and water breaks and pondering the not so clear map made our hike end up being  6 hours instead of 4. Also, we hypothesized that Ecuadorians can hike much faster than we can, which is why anyone we asked along the way said it wasn’t that much farther.

Our feet were dragging by the time we reached the sign that said we were entering Chugchilán. Again, we had done a little research and had read that there was a new hostel at the furthest end of town, so we passed one, two, three hostels before finally, in the fog and nearly dark evening, arriving at Hostal Vaquero – dirty, exhausted, and damp from the late afternoon rain.

Don Victor showed us a beautiful room, but then informed us that because of a problem with the water lines in the town, there was no running water at the moment. The happiness at finally arriving was replaced with disappointment and a slight panic at the thought of not having a hot shower. We told him we didn’t want to be difficult but we really wanted that shower, and he not only gave us a discount, but drove us to his brother’s neighboring hostal where we were able to take a hot shower, and then drove us back, fed us dinner, and warmed us up in front of the wood stove. We couldn’t believe it. We were humbled by his graciousness and felt like we were visiting a family friend as we sat around the dinner table. It was the perfect end to a long day.

Day 3: Wednesday / Chugchilán — Quilotoa 

After a cozy night at Hostal Vaquero, we felt rested but still weren’t sure if we would make it to Quilotoa on foot. Sore from the day before and a 5 to 6 (but really 8 for us) hour uphill hike looming in front of us, we decided we would give it a try. Full from a hearty breakfast and with directions from Don Victor, we set out for the laguna.

If I could sum up this day in a few words, it would be “only about 3 hours left”. That is what every hiker we passed {going the opposite way} told us and what we continued to tell ourselves as we {thought} were getting closer to the end. One of the worst parts was the sandy incline right before getting to the lake through a dense layer of fog. The only thing that helped was a nice bench for a sit break, some Jackson 5 to give us a little energy, and the wildflowers that surrounded the lake.

 

And when we finally made it, we simply stopped and smiled. It was such a magnificent sight after all we had gone through to get there.

   

It was another two hours of a treacherous walk around the lake with many skinny paths before we reached Quilotoa. Unfortunately, I cannot say our stay at Hostal Pachamama was nearly as nice as the night before. I normally would not give negative comments about a place, but the only good thing about this place was the warm dinner. Other than that, we couldn’t wait to leave. There was no water {although they did turn it on for an hour for us after we asked}, our room appeared to not have been cleaned, and the people that worked there were not so friendly {although this could have been due to the language barrier}. We did, however, have a wood stove in our room to keep us warm despite the howling wind above our heads and we were so tired that as soon as we laid down, we were asleep.

Day 4: Thursday / Quilotoa — Latacunga

When we walked out of the hostal after breakfast at around 7:30 am, we were very disappointed and {I} was mad to find a much nicer hostal right next door. But, alas, it couldn’t be changed {but if you’re reading this and looking for a place to stay, Hostal Chukirawa appeared to be much nicer than ours}. It was a sunny, windy and fairly frigid morning, but we walked across the street to the lookout and were enchanted by the lake once again. We made the dusty hike down and took some time to sit by the lake and feel the magical sun on our faces.

To treat our tired muscles, we decided to ride horses {or rather, a horse and a donkey}, back up the sandy trail.

And then our Quilotoa journey was complete. We headed to buy bus tickets back to Latacunga, and waited in a small shop, snacking on some bananas and trying to figure out where we were headed next and how we would get there.

And when we arrived back in Latacunga, Alfredo was waiting with our backpacks.

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