A couple of weeks ago we put out a poll on Facebook as to how I should spend my 40th birthday:
- A jungle excursion
- Hiking the volcanic crater on the Quilotoa Loop
- Spending a night in Quito with a nice dinner
True to form, I decided to celebrate for longer than my allotted day and chose all three (hey, you didn’t think I’d make things easier for everybody as I got older, did you?). You can read about our jungle adventure with our fearless Danish guide here, and I’m happy to report that our friends from Otavalo, Catherine and Fernando, met us in Quito and took me out for a fabulous sushi dinner complete with dessert and singing (“Feliz cumpleaños, Betsytita”) by 3 handsome baritones.
But now that we are already 3 paragraphs in, I should probably mention the amazing beauty and fabulous experience we had seeing and hiking on the Quilotoa Loop.
First things first: It is not fast or easy to get here. We took a bus north from Baños to Latacunga, then we caught one of the 2 buses per day that go to Chugchilán, a village midway through the Quilotoa Loop. The trip is only 65 km, but it takes almost 4 hours to get there due to the curving mountain roads.
The drive is gorgeous: farms on the steep hillsides, beautiful children in brightly colored clothes herding sheep and playing with each other, and indigenous people walking, riding horses, and performing their daily chores. No matter how much land a person owns, it seems they always build their houses close to the road, so we could see their clothes hanging on the line to dry, dogs sleeping in the shade of the houses, and children playing under the watchful eyes of their mothers and older sisters.
When we were not mesmerized by the beauty, we were distracted by the steep cliffs, evidence of recent landslides, and our driver’s attempt to share the lane with the occasional passing car or truck. If you are scared of heights – and I am – this can be a nailbiter of a ride.
A Few Adventures at the Start
We arrived in Chugchilán around 3, and I was surprised at how small it was. In fact, only 80 people live there. Much to our surprise there was an internet cafe with 4 terminals across from the bus stop…I was pretty excited at this unexpected luxury.
Except for one small hitch: there was no electricity in the entire village.
We enjoyed a candlelit dinner with other travelers from around the world at our hostal and exchanged stories until the wick was almost burned. We stood up and turned on our headlamps to make our way back to our room and realized that we had locked ourselves out of our room. Okay, I locked us out of our room.
You can imagine how dark it is high in the Andes in a tiny little village with no electricity at 9 p.m. And the staff had all left us after dinner to go home to their own families.
Did I mention it gets really cold there? I have to give Warren a lot of credit here for not freaking out on me. It was probably a huge help that my birthday was the next day, so he was trying to be patient.
I finally found one guy left in the kitchen and he didn’t have a master key. He said the only solution was to give us the key to another room and let us sleep there until the next morning when the rest of the staff came to work. So we curled up in our clothes under the blankets in the room next door and went to sleep.
The next morning, we explained our problem at breakfast to the no-nonsense woman in the kitchen. She said she had the universal key and would open our room. We followed her out and watched her take a credit card, jam it in the lock and pop open the door. I’ve used my credit card for a lot of things, but never as a key!
Hiking in the Area
We quickly changed clothes and set out for our first hike, and it was just as gorgeous as the bus ride in. The clouds roll in after lunch each day, usually followed by rain, so it is important to get out early for any hiking. I was coming down with a cold, so we chose to do a fairly easy hike down to the river and back up.
We stopped along the way to make my birthday video, and I got a little verklempt thinking back to what life was like just one short year ago as compared to now. (Click here if you don’t see the video below.)
We had electricity again after returning from our hike, and we spent the afternoon bundled up in the hammocks on the porch reading and watching the rain come down.
The following day Warren hiked alone while I battled my cold, and he found some really beautiful views on the overlook to the village. And finally on the third day we drove with 3 Austrian guys who had a car to the Quilotoa Crater to see the famous green lake and get in a little exercise. We had hoped to hike from the crater back to Chugchilán, a distance of 7.5 miles, but my cold and the altitude were not working well for my ability to breathe. We hiked along the crater, joined our new friends for a beer afterward, and gratefully accepted a return ride home. Even though Quilotoa is just 22 km from Chugchilán, it is probably the roughest distance by road on the entire loop and took us an hour to drive.
We left on Sunday to drive toward Quilotoa by bus and continue the loop back to Latacunga. After reaching Quilotoa, the road improves remarkably, and the sights are just as breathtaking. We were lucky to be sitting on the left side of the bus to get the best views, and we were only hampered with clouds in Quilotoa, which we had already seen.
We spent 4 nights in Chugchilán, and even though I was sick for most of our trip, we didn’t have electricity for the first 24 hours, and I locked us out of our room in the cold, it still ranks as the most beautiful place we’ve seen so far on our journey.