We ended up doing a tour with ProBici the next day (USD60 per person), and we couldn’t have had a better experience. The weather was phenomenal, and our group only consisted of four people. We were picked up by Fausto, our driver/ guide in a 4WD at 0715h, and we finished the tour at 1800h. The tour included the transport by 4WD from our accommodation to Refugio Carrel and from San Juan back to our accommodation (and a ride whenever we would be too exhausted to ride our bikes – our fellow bikers only used it once). We were able to hike from Refugio Carrel to Refugio Whymper and back (it took us 90 minutes as the second Refugio is at just over 5,000m above sea level and part of the trail is covered in snow). At the cemetery to those who died trying to climb Chimborazo (out of all places), we bumped into a familiar face, Mark Kemp, who rides around the world on his motorbike, raising much-needed funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust.
Once back at Refugio Carrel, we got our mountain bikes and protection gear, ready to head down the mountain. From the park entrance, we continued cycling along mostly back road trails to San Juan, with many stops along the way to appreciate the countryside: We stopped at the ruins of a pre-Incan temple (where human sacrifices were made back in the day) and an Incan military post. We passed traditional indigenous houses where the local farmers still live as they have lived for thousands of years. And on top of it all, as we cycled down and around Chimborazo, this beautiful, mighty giant was ‘with us’ the whole day.
Latacunga and Quilotoa Loop
Travelling further up north along the Andes, our next stop was to be Quilotoa, with a night at Hostal Senderos de Volcanes in Latacunga. In hindsight, we could have travelled all the way to Quilotoa in one day as there are buses every hour from Latacunga to Quilotoa (for example, with Cooperativo Vivero) and not just the Transportes La Iliniza bus at 12 pm that I had read about.
Rather than hiking the loop from Quilotoa to Sigchos or Isinlivi (or reverse), we decided to take our time and booked three nights each in Quilotoa and Chugchilan and two nights in Isinlivi. This would allow us to do day hikes and sit out a day if the weather was not on our side (as it turns out the right decision). We stayed at Hostal Chukirawa in Quilotoa (USD22.80 per person per night, booked via www.hotels.com, TripAdvisor review), Hostal El Vaquero in Chugchilan (USD20 per person per night, booked directly, TripAdvisor review) and Hostal Taita Cristobal in Isinlivi (USD15 per person per night, booked directly, TripAdvisor review). If these prices sound a bit high (compared with other hostels in Ecuador): accommodation at the Quilotoa Loop includes breakfast and dinner, and we stayed in double rooms with ensuite.
On our first full day in Quilotoa, we hiked around the lagoon along the Crater Rim Trail, a 10km loop with an elevation gain of almost 750m. We had read that it would take anywhere between three and four and up to seven hours (with breaks). It took us five and a half hours, with three hours of pure walking time. We left at around 0830h in sunny weather, though with a third still to go, the clouds rolled in, and we finished the loop in fog. Thankfully though the rain held off until we had returned to our accommodation. Having spent a few days up there, fog by noon and (pretty heavy) rain by 1400h are very common, so do leave early!
The loop around the crater was absolutely beautiful and I would highly recommend it. But I would also issue a few words of warning…
- Do the loop anti-clockwise: There is quite a big descent followed by a massive ascent after about a third of the way. We found this to be the most difficult part of the whole loop. We were glad we did it when we still had the energy. The third that hikers do coming from Chugchilan is the easiest and best left when you’re running out of energy.
- Beware of vicious dogs: For most of the loop, we had no problems with dogs. However, during the last kilometre (coinciding with the part that hikers coming from Chugchilan will have to do) we encountered three very angry dogs. They came to within a metre of us, fletching their teeth. Only staring them down and picking up / throwing rocks at them slowly deterred them. The most vicious one of them followed us for a few hundred metres. As soon as you hear dogs barking and see them running towards you pick up a few stones. Stop in your tracks, stare them down, keep slowly moving in the direction of your destination but keep an eye on them. If you’re holding a hiking pole, umbrella or sturdy water bottle use them as a weapon if they attack. You don’t want a dog bite to spoil your trip.
- If you have acrophobia: I am scared of heights, so much so that I would normally not step within two metres of the edge. While I can tell you it was definitely worth the pain, the loop really tested me like nothing before. There are some non-scary parts but there are also a few very scary moments as a lot of the single-file trail has drops of several hundred metres on either side with not much margin for error. Also, there is quite a bit of erosion from the exposure to sun, rain and wind, which meant that at times, we had to use all fours to make our way up or down.
On our second day in Quilotoa, we hiked down to the crater lake, a trail called La Playita Quilotoa. It’s just under 2km each way. It took us two and a half hours return, half of it pure walking time. You can take a mule back up for USD10 per person but despite the 400m elevation gain, the hike up is doable with average fitness if you stop frequently to catch your breath.
After three nights in Quilotoa, we moved on to Chugchilan. There was meant to be a bus at 1300h but we ended up taking a taxi (USD7 for the two of us), which was lucky as a massive thunderstorm hit us as we drove to Chugchilan. Later in the afternoon, the weather cleared up, so much so that we were able to see the moon and the Iliniza volcano peeking behind another mountain range. We enjoyed a walk around the village, looking forward to the next day to explore a bit more. Unfortunately, the blue skies didn’t last until the next day. Nevertheless, we went hiking. Our host recommended the Quesería (cheese factory) near the village of Chinalo Alto. According to her, it was 5km each way. After walking 3km we reached the road up to the village but the sign stated a distance of 6.5km. After some debate, we decided to try it anyway and fortunately, after another kilometre or so, a pickup truck went past us and offered to take us up there (for USD1 per person). We ended up walking back to El Vaquero, and we can confirm that the total distance is just under 9km (one way!!!).
While a bit difficult to get to and very small, we would recommend a visit to the Quesería (entry: USD1 per person). Staff members showed us around the few rooms and explained the cheese-making process. The Quesería has been around for 40 years, making five types of organic cheese including Andino, Mozzarella and Emmenthal, and supplying not only the Cotopaxi province but also cheese shops in Quito and Ambato. We were able to taste some of their Mozarella, and the staff was happy to answer any of our questions (note: they only speak Spanish).
Being partly housebound gave me the chance to catch up on some reading. One of the brochures at our hostel was about Cotopaxi province (issued in 2008 with statistics from between 2000 and 2004). Some of what I read really hit home with me: There are so many, mostly foreign hikers that enjoy the beauty and ruggedness of the Quilotoa Loop, yet what many don’t know is that the Canton Sigchos which includes Chugchilan, Sigchos and Isinlivi was the poorest canton in Ecuador in 2000, with 90% of its population living in poverty. It had Ecuador’s highest rates of child mortality (69 out of 1000 children born in the canton in 2000 died before reaching their first birthday), chronic malnutrition (70% of Sigchos’ children under age 6 were chronically malnourished), and illiteracy (in 2004, 41% of Chugchilan’s population aged 15+ couldn’t read or write). With the strong focus of the current government on the alphabetisation of the country and reduction of poverty, things have improved though more needs to be done to address the huge discrepancy between rich and poor in Ecuador. It will be interesting to see to what extent these efforts will continue (particular if a governmental change occurs at the second round of elections on Sunday 02 April 2017).
Travelling through the mountains, we saw and met many indigenous people, at times shy but always friendly to us outsiders. I take my hat up to these genuine, hardworking people who try to make ends meet in one of the harshest environments I have ever seen, growing their crop at altitudes of up to 4,000m and on slopes so steep that the frequent rain often washes away part of the harvest. They remind me how privileged our life is.
According to www.andestransit.com, there is a bus from Sigchos and Isinlivi straight to Quito but when I asked the locals, that information seemed to be inaccurate. We ended up taking a Reina de Sigchos bus at 0700h towards Latacunga, jumping off at state road 35 to catch another bus to Quito (we waited only a few minutes until a Condor bus came past).
I am agnostic, but I ended up praying that morning as the bus ride from Isinlivi was hands down the scariest one we had been on to date. It had rained non-stop throughout the night, making the single-lane gravel road quite soggy in parts. The road wound its way up to 4,000m with some very tight turns, and nothing would have stopped the bus tumble several hundred metres down the mountain slopes had we encountered a landslide (of which there are so many in the Andes). We did make it safely to Quito though… whether that was luck, divine intervention or the bus driver’s skills we’ll never know.
Final days in Quito
As our flight to the Caribbean was out of Quito, we had to come back where we started our Ecuadorean adventure, and we decided to stay again with our lovely host family. Paul even found a 10km race on Sunday before we flew out that Santiago, our host family’s youngest son, was happy to run with him. Santiago finished ahead of Paul – by about 20m and with a personal best – well done!!!
We used one of our last days in Quito to go shopping… at least we tried to spend money (quite a novelty for us minimalists). Every 500+ km, Paul needs to replace his running shoes, and my wardrobe could have used some freshening up… but as it turns out, size 46 Nike RN Distance running shoes were nowhere to come by in Quito (apparently, Ecuadorean men have smaller feet), and I couldn’t find anything nice either, so we’ll have to try our luck again in the Caribbean.
The best thing about returning to our host family though was the surprise that Paul, Laura and Santiago arranged for my birthday. Laura organised a haircut and colour for me with her hairdresser (the first time in 6 months… AND BOY DID I NEED IT), and we celebrated with a lovely paella and cake dinner and lots of vino at the casa. It is times like these that re-emphasise how much more important experiences are over material things… when people who were strangers to us only 10 weeks earlier, welcome us into their home and treat us like members of their own family.
So onto the Caribbean now…We won’t be staying on each Caribbean Island for so long but will write about each one separately.
Laura and Santiago – we are so grateful for your kindness and hospitality, and we hope that we can reciprocate the warm welcome one day when you visit New Zealand.