From Quito we traveled south to the Quilatoa loop, a 200km loop through the central mountainous region that includes a number of tiny Andean towns and the magnificent Laguna Quilotoa. This ancient volcanic crater filled in with sparkling emerald water is a must-see when passing through Ecuador, though fortunately it’s a bit of a trip to get there (it sits at almost 13k ft!), which keeps the masses of tourists away. Actually, with the relative dearth of people around and the mist that rolls in each afternoon, Quilotoa manages maintains a rather mystical, untouched air.
Many travelers do the entire loop, hiking from village to village each day. Due to our limited time, however, (and to our mammoth packs) we opted to travel straight to one village about half-way around the loop, Chugchilán, and spend a few days on day hikes out from there.
One day we spent hours hiking uphill (or upmountain, rather) to a Quesería, or cheese factory and co-op, we’d heard a lot about in the town and from other travelers. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the 1.5 room building, 2-person staff we found when we finally arrived. We were not disappointed, however, as the people were kind and thorough on the 3-minute tour and the cheese probably the freshest I’ve ever tasted.
Another morning we caught a ride up to the Laguna Quilotoa and spent the day hiking back. After some time simply taking in the magnificence that is the Laguna, we began our hike around the rim and our eventual descent back to Chugchilán. The “directions” we’d been related tried desperately to be specific, though that turns out to be a difficult task when there is little actual path, zero trail markers, and few landmarks along the way. It’s not surprising, then, that we managed to take a few detours from the correct path, the consequences of which in one case meant hiking straight up what I’m convinced was a 120degree (at least) a produce field in the hail. In the end, however, some combination of our intuition and the encouragement of the small handful of people we met along the way got us back to our village safe and mostly sound, and the nasty cold I carried as a trophy the next several days was entirely worth it.
These days comprised some of my favorite in Ecuador for their simplicity: breathing fresh mountain air as I worked hard physically all day to the spectacular backdrop of the Andes, later sharing a warm meal with a new group of interesting adventurers each evening, and perhaps some cards or reading before falling into bed exhausted and fulfilled.