Latacunga and The Quilotoa Loop
After 10 days in Quito and Baños with Ruben's son and his girlfriend, we were on our own and back to our multi-day hiking adventures.
Our first stop: Latacunga, halfway between Baños and Quito. It is the gateway to the Quilotoa Loop, but it should also get recognition for it's ridiculously tasty and heart stopping addition to the culinary world: Chugchucaras, a heaping plate of fried pork, mote (hominy), popcorn, patacones (fried mashed plantains), mini empanadas, a few fried potatoes and pork rinds for good measure. An $8 plate left the 2 of us stuffed! I've read several blogs poo-pooing the city, but we found it to be a perfectly pleasant stop. We tripped over a cool food truck park, with 5 or 6 options, including a dessert truck selling delicious lemon meringue pie, plus we met the owner of El Gringo y La Gorda, who - after working for Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans - returned home and turned a beautiful piece of historic architecture into a restaurant and is working to promote tourism in the city.
The Quilotoa Loop
The Loop is a 3-5 day hike, depending on the route you choose, through lush Andean hillsides with the occasional snow capped peak in the distance, culminating at Quilotoa Lake, the gorgeous blue-green volcanic crater lake (unless, of course, you hike it backwards). You can visit the lake as a day trip from Quito or even join an organized tour for the trek, but there is no reason not to hike it solo, as long as you pick up a map in Latacunga before departing. Hostal Tiana in Latacunga will store your extra luggage for $1/day. This is a hostel to hostel trek, so all you need is your day pack. Hostal TIana also gave us a great map with explicit directions and photos. Don't leave Latacunga without it! You will still get lost at some point. Don't panic, everyone does.
We did the "classic" uphill route: bus from Latacunga to Sigchos, followed by a trek to the villages of Isinlivi, Chugchilan, and finally Quilotoa, with a bus ride back to Latacunga to complete the circuit. If you take the bus to Quilotoa and hike in reverse, the route is mostly downhill.
Day 1: We took the bus to Sigchos ($2.30 per person) first thing in the morning (way too early for my liking!). We hadn't had time for breakfast before leaving Latacunga, so we found a tiny spot in Sigchos to fuel up: coffee, juice, scrambled eggs, rolls, plus Ruben had the "completo" which included stewed beef for a whopping total of $3.25 for breakfast for 2. We followed our map and set out of town towards our stop for the night - Isinlivi. The first stretch of the hike is on a barely traveled road, and goes gently downhill. We followed the directions - and the occasional sign post - carefully, including a suggestion from a young woman we met before leaving Hostal Tiana: if the path looks too small to be the path, it's probably the correct turn. The instructions included: "when you see the pink church, turn left" and "there will be 2 houses on the left and then a driveway above them.". We chose the wrong 2 houses and headed down to the river on what seemed to be "the" driveway. After 10 minutes looking for a spot to cross the river, we decided we had turned too early and climbed across some barbed wire and through pastureland to get back to the route. A few hundred meters further on, a woman was standing at the correct turn, waiting for us. After paying her "property transit fee" ($1 that I posted to "Bribes" in my pie chart), we were on the correct trail down to the river. After the crossing, the trail climbs up fairly steeply for a few kilometers, and then finishes with a flat stretch into the town of Insinlivi. The scenery is dramatic - lush green hillsides, with farmland tucked in on plateaus and planted on the steep slopes. There are deep ravines down to the winding river, cows and sheep grazing, and very few signs of human life. We arrived into Isinlivi at Llullu Llama Hostal early afternoon, with time to have a bite to eat, stroll around the tiny village and fly the drone over the country side.
Book a room at Llullu Llama. Trust me. Book it in advance. For $20 per person, we had a small double loft-room with shared bathroom (plenty of hot water!) plus a delicious communal dinner (vegetarian available) and breakfast. Both were yummy and plentiful and the conversation around the table was delightful. There is a hot tub and sauna on site - the website says there is a $9 fee per person, but the facilities were free from 4:30-6:30pm, just in time for a pre-dinner soak. And there is an adorable resident St. Bernard.
Day 2: Most people hike from Isinlivi to Chugchilan and spend the night, then continue on to Quilotoa on day 3. We decided to get an early start and see how we felt once we pulled into Chugchilan. The trail was a little easier to follow as we meandered downhill and followed the river. As we approached the giant log masquerading as a bridge across the river, a group of kids appeared in a clearing. Ruben started talking with them in Spanish and they came running towards us. His first question: why aren't you in school?? When they told us they were on vacation, Ruben decided to give them a treat. He asked them if they had ever seen an airplane and then he unpacked his DJI Mavic drone and flew it for them. Pure joy.
We left the kids, continued along the river and then started to climb. We reached a mirador - a look out over the valley - and met the man who built the gazebo and maintained the viewpoint. From there, the trail merged with the road and we climbed up to Chugchilan. We cruised into town at lunch time and stopped to refuel. It was 1pm once we finished our classic Ecuadorian lunch of soup, juice and roasted fish. The first 12K was fairly easy, but the final 10K to Quilotoa is all uphill, gaining an additional 700M of altitude. We decided to keep going. We walked out of town, descended for a bit and then started to climb and climb. We were on a straight path to the crater - we could see the rim ahead of us and could almost imagine the lake below. There is a feeling of relief and joy once you get to the crater rim and the blue-green water sparkles below.
But then the wind hits your face and you realize that the "town" is one-third of the way around the crater rim and the only way to get there is on a narrow path that rolls up and down the crater edge. Nearly an hour after reaching the rim, we arrived in town, cold and exhausted, but successful! The lodging options are dodgy - we overspent ($35/per person) for a spacious room with a private bathroom and heat. It included dinner that was much too small for the amount of hiking we had done (Ruben had a second meal at one of the neighboring hostels) and an uninspired breakfast. The wind howled all night. We were hopeful that the next morning would dawn sunny and warm. Hope springs eternal!
Day #3: While many people hike in on day #3 and explore the lake that same afternoon, we had just lake-exploring on the agenda. After breakfast, we hiked down to the water. It was cold and windy, so kayaking on the water was out of the question (although an option). The other option is to hike the full length of the crater rim, but after hiking back up to the rim from the water, a hot lunch and the early bus back to Latacunga ($2 each) won out.
It was a beautiful, peaceful, moderately challenging hike and the Lake is stunning. Definitely a would-do-again adventure!