Ecuador is considered an outdoor enthusiasts paradise. The country boasts the jungles of the Amazon, mountains of the Andes, coastline of the Pacific, and the islands of the Galapagos. Naturally, it is a country well-suited to my interests. Unfortunately, with only 2 weeks planned, Jillian and I decided it was unrealistic to tackle all Ecuador has to offer. We chose to set our sights mainly on the highlands area of the Andes with the Quilotoa Loop as our focal point. Quilotoa Lake is a volcanic crater lake high in the Andes. The loop is a 200 km (125 mi) circuit of connecting towns around the lake. These towns are home to the indigenous mountain-folk – mainly Quichua. The loop has become a big draw with backpackers and rightfully so. The views are stunning and the culture and friendliness of the indigenous people are refreshing. The appeal for backpackers is the combination and flexibility of using your legs, horseback, and local buses and trucks to make your way around the loop. Lonely Planet described the Quilotoa Loop as, “One of the most mind-altering trips in all the Andes.” I’m pretty sure Lonely Planet wasn’t referring to drugs.
Jillian and I flew into Quito. Because of a delay in Houston, we didn’t land in Quito until 2am. We overpaid for a cab (knowingly, but at 2am, I didn’t have the patience to negotiate over $10). The cab ran every red light on its way to our hostel, Secret Garden. It was perfectly safe since at that time there are very few cars on the roads, but this was clearly the normal practice. We crashed (no, not the car…) immediately after arriving. After some much needed rest, we woke the next morning and headed to the rooftop terrace for breakfast. The beautiful view of Quito greeted us as we ate our breakfast.
We met an avid climber Eric, from Canada but living in Baltimore, and spent the day exploring Quito together. Being designated an UNESCO site, Quito is filled with historic buildings. My favorite was certainly Basilica del Voto National.
You can (and we did) climb the hundreds of stairs and ladder steps into the highest steeple tower. Certainly not for those fearful of heights.
The next day, we took two local buses, first to Latacunga then Zumbahua as we began our journey on the Quilotoa Loop. We chose to do the loop clockwise though it can be done just as easily counterclockwise. Zumbahua is actually one of the bigger towns on the loop, yet one can walk through the town center area in under five minutes. We bought some papas fritas (french fries) from a street vendor and it came topped with chopped onions and a fried egg. As night approached, we saw the locals starting to set up in the central plaza for a market.
I lent a hand to a little boy who was trying to move a couple table pieces clearly too heavy for him. With not much else to do, Jillian and I played a couple games of war, which lasted all of 20 minutes as Jillian crushed me. It was ridiculous and probably the fastest two games of war in history. At 12,500 ft and no heat, we bundled up and went to bed. Starting around 4am, I began to hear loud festive music blaring but was too stubborn to give up on sleeping. Finally, we got up at 7am and when we looked out the window, we were shocked to see hundreds of people and market goods already in full swing. We walked through the market and bought some fruit before starting our hike to Quilotoa.
Quilotoa, where Quilotoa Lake is (obvious right; well maybe not always…after all, the Kansas City we all think of is in MO and not KN), is about 8.5 miles from Zumbahua. Though one could easily hitch a ride from the numerous trucks passing by for a few dollars, we had our mind set on doing this part of the loop by foot. The scenery was wonderful and we waved and said “hola” to the village folk we saw. The road was straightforward and we were feeling great until the last 2 km when the road became a seemingly endless uphill trek. As we rounded each turn, another uphill greeted us. With our packs feeling heavier with each step, we finally reached Quilotoa. We quickly found a hostel and rested for a bit before heading up the road without our packs (thank goodness) to see Lake Quilotoa. The sight I’d been eager to see for 3 months came into view and it was more beautiful than any picture I had seen or image I had imagined.
We took it all in then headed back to the hostel to save our energy to hike down to the lake tomorrow. Though only slightly higher than Zumbahua, Quilotoa was cold! The Andean air just made everything seem colder, but dinnertime was warm thanks to the fireplace in the room. As the hostel served authentic food, it was fun mingling with all the other travelers from many different countries. We all sat around these long wooden tables and it truly felt like a mini-family. That night, a wicked headache hit me for the second straight night. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep from the nights before, the altitude, the cold, or what, but I barely slept and felt like crap in the morning. Luckily, after some breakfast, I began to feel better and as we readied to hike down to the lake, I felt ok. With our German buddy Christian, we hiked down to the lake. It’s quite a steep descent of roughly 1000 feet and we were dreading the inevitable hike back up. But, we put it aside for now and enjoyed the amazing scenery. At the bottom, we rented kayaks and paddled out onto the lake. Paddling on a volcanic crater lake, and for $1.50, how awesome is that?!? Unfortunately after paddling, the hike back up was upon us. Steepness combined with nearly 13,000 ft meant slow going. After reaching the top, we ate a well-deserved lunch including hot chocolate!
Tired from hiking down and up the lake, we had no interest of hiking the 9 or so miles to the next town of Chugchilan, so we hired a local guy to take the three of us to Chugchilan in the back of his truck for $15. It turned out to be an exhilarating “rollercoaster ride” as Jillian described it. Along the unpaved roads, the ride was filled with all the jostling bumps a kid could ask for. There are three great lodging options in Chugchilan – Black Sheep Inn, Mama Hilda’s, and Cloud Forest. Black Sheep Inn is a celebrated eco-lodge, but also far pricier than the others. We’d read great things about Cloud Forest and decided to stay there. It did not disappoint. The food was good, the staff friendly, and they had hot water allowing us to take our first hot shower since we’d arrived in Ecuador!
The next day, Christian, Jillian, and I took a horseback riding tour to visit a cheese factory, a waterfall, and a cloud forest. All were cool, and the scenery was breathtaking! I’m talking about amazingly green Andean mountains hundreds of feet above and below us.
Plus, the horseback riding was quite the experience. None of us being accomplished riders (though Christian had some decent experience in Germany), we all found it quite tiring. This was no beginner’s riding tour. We were full on galloping up and down hundreds of steep meters. At the end of the 5-hour tour (yep, 5 hours), though completely accident free, we were beat up! Our knees were SO sore from being slightly bent for that long and my butt was sore as hell too!
The next day, we planned to take the (in)famous milk truck to the town of Sigchos before catching a local bus back to Latacunga. Instead, some of our new friends at the hostel told us they met two telephone workers who were doing a job in the area and were heading back to Quito at noon. They had offered to drop them off in Latacunga along the way. Our friends had nicely asked for us if we could jump in as well. But our noon departure turned to 1 then 2. By 3, we were seriously doubting if they were going to show up. This was especially annoying since it rains like clockwork in this part of the Andes everyday around 3. Finally, at just after 3, their red pickup pulls up and of course it had just started to rain. Since we had seven people and could only cram four into the truck, Christian, Dean (from Utah), and yours truly volunteered to ride in the bed partly cause we all had good rain jackets (thanks KaBOOM!). Using a plastic sheet to cover our bags, we braved the cold and rain for the 3-hour ride to Latacunga. Luckily, the second half of the ride was rain-free and we actually ended up quite dry. And in a way, it was a blessing in disguise as we got to experience the sights and sounds of the Andes on the outside instead of being locked inside the truck. In Latacunga, Jillian and I said goodbye to our friends except for Christian since he was heading in the same direction as us the next day.
The next morning, we parted ways with Christian and made our way to Banos. At about 6,000 feet, we felt like we had cardio for days! Banos is famous for its thermal paths and its adventure activities. You can do everything from bungee jumping to rafting to rock climbing and ATVing. Banos sits at the base of the active Tungurahua Volcano. Banos has been evacuated in the past due to volcanic activity, but the people always come back. We stayed in Banos for three days and did two activities – canyoning (rappelling down waterfalls) and a jungle tour. The canyoning was a blast; Jillian especially loved it.
The first few rappels were down moderate falls, but the last one I estimated to be about 100 ft! The face was caved in too, which meant no contact with the rock with our feet, which was pretty fun.
The jungle tour was an all day tour that took us past waterfalls, a monkey park where the monkeys climbed all over us, and into the outskirts of the Amazon area. We visited a local village, rode down a river in a dugout canoe, and hiked through the jungle to a pretty waterfall that we could swim in. We also had the chance to eat some jungle plants, ants, and termites thanks to our knowledgeable guide Carlos.
After Banos, we made our way back north towards Quito stopping in the town of Machachi. We stayed at the wonderful Hosteria Papagayo. Nice cabin-type rooms with good food and our own fireplace! Back up over 10,000 feet, the fireplace was great. We joined the hostel’s Bike Cotopaxi tour the next morning. Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador at 19,347 ft and an active volcano (Ecuador is littered with volcanoes). The tour bus took us through the vast expanse of the Cotopaxi area and all the way up to 14,650 ft. From there, we hiked up to the climber’s refuge at 15,780 ft where those seeking the summit crash.
Though less than a mile distance, the approximately 1000 ft elevation gain at that altitude made for a 45 minute endeavor. We rested up for a bit at the refuge before making one more push to 16,400 ft where we reached the glacier/snow line part of Cotopaxi. Upon reaching the glacier, Jillian uttered her last words, “Never again.”
Ok, so they weren’t really her last words, but I can safely say that they were the last time she will say those words at that altitude. We returned to the refuge where an amazing lunch awaited us. Tuna salad, cheese and crackers, guacamole, soup…simple but delicious!
After lunch, we made our way back down to the bus where we hopped on our bikes and headed down. Fast and slippery due to the volcanic rock/ash, I thought it was pretty fun. Jillian found it a little uncomfortable and scary, but she toughed it out and made it down. Tired after a day of fun, I slept on the bus ride back to the hostel. That afternoon, we caught a bus back to Quito and checked into Hostel Belmont, which was right by Secret Garden but cheaper.
We spent our last couple days in Quito buying some gifts and exploring the city some more including taking the teleferico (cable car) high up to the mountains looking down on the city.
The teleferico is a touristy attraction and there’s even a small amusement park there. Both of us loving rollercoaster type rides, we had to go on a couple, and it was so fun! Our flight home was at sunrise, so we left our hostel in the dead of night and rode to the airport just as we’d arrived…running red lights 🙂