3 day hike: Sigchos – Isinlivi – Chigchulan – Quilotoa
Total Distance: 34.5 km – 21.5 miles
Total Descent: 1184 m – 3883 ft
Total Ascent: 2152 m – 7059 ft
Highest Elevation: 3894 m – 12777 ft
After one month in Quito, we boarded a bus at Quitumbe Bus Terminal, and bought a $2.30 ticket heading south, where 2.5 hours later, we arrived at the Latacunga bus terminal, and then grabbed a $1 taxi to Hostal Tiana. We chose Tiana based upon our internet research and other blogs about the Quilotoa loop. Tiana includes breakfast for the $12.50 per person (private room, shared bathroom), they have poorly written “maps” and hiking trail descriptions for the loop and since you only need a day pack – they will store your backpacks/luggage for you while you’re on the loop for $1.50 per day (first day is free).
Latacunga is much bigger than we expected. We arrived on a Monday – dropped off our packs and found an interesting bar across the pedestrian street called El Templario, where apparently Cory was the first person to ever order a martini. Conveniently, there was an ice cream shop around the corner, and just a half block up was a great spot for lunch or dinner called Cafe Guadalajara, just don’t expect it to open on time. Making our last minute plans in the public space of the hostel, we met Morgan who was off to hike the circuit solo from North to South (vs our South to North plan.)
On Tuesday we had breakfast with Morgan and decided we’d join her if she was alright with that. She was very happy, as were her parents. She was all of 23 years old and apparently we reminded her of her parents since we were about the same age…..which didn’t make us feel old whatsoever. So we joked that Morgan was our adopted daughter. Despite the beer along the way, she was much cheaper than a real kid!
We grabbed a cab to the bus terminal and were soon on the bus to Sigchos. For some reason, any bus ride over 2 hours features the worst US movie ever, dubbed over in Spanish, and played at ear-bleeding volume. As we attempted to enjoy the idyllic mountain scenery, we were pummeled by sounds of “The Marine,” a plotless movie filled with gunfights and bad dialogue. The views to Sigchos are amazing. If headed to Sigchos from Latacunga – be sure to sit on the right side of the bus.
We got off the bus at the bus terminal, where there are bathrooms with no toilet paper. Armed with the “directions” from Hostel Tiana, we attempted to find the trailhead and soon realized that our “directions” were less than helpful. Because of this, I created a separate document (Quilotoa Loop Directions) for those who are prepping for the hike. For the rest of you, continue reading for the color commentary.
We tried not to get too dejected right away, but not being able to find the trailhead on day one of our three day hike was not the best sign. Our directions told us very generally to head to the right corner of the town – the first question you ask is, right from where? We assumed that met looking down from the bus station as for some reason that made sense. We headed “right” came to a dead end and stopped and asked for some directions, we finally found the road that would lead us to the trail. Our confidence boosted, we walked with purpose and the immediately were faced with a fork in the road and more confusing “directions.” We made an educated decision and hiked on.
With 10.7kms ahead of us, Morgan started with an ice-breaker question – “what was our most favorite hike of all time?” A great question which lead us to talking about prior travels, trips, hikes and parse the difference between most favorite and most epic hikes. I’ll just include this as an aside here, and that is how refreshing it was to travel/hike with a new person. Don’t get me wrong, Cory and I love each other, but it was fun getting to know a new person with a fresh perspective and a new story. For once, we were the wise ones passing along experience!
On this first day especially, there were many moments when the “directions” seemed more like a hinderance than a benefit. It also helped to read them properly, i.e., look for houses, not horses, right, Morgan? But all in all, we worked together. If one person doubted the way, we worked it out; and sometimes we made a new way that eventually met up with the right way.
One of the most comical scenes was when we came to one of many “T’s” in the trail. One led up a very step trail, while the other was blocked by a very comfortable looking donkey who was sprawled out across the trail. We were fairly confident we were to head up the steep trail, after all there were yellow markings which helped guide you along the way. So, off we went, up and up and up, past a very ornery cow and a what we hoped was a docile bull. Suddenly out of nowhere we met an amused Andean woman farmer who very clearly let us know we were on the trail to her casa. After gesticulating and attempting to communicate with Morgan’s advanced Spanish and our hopeful questions, we finally gave up and headed back down the trail, past the bull, past the ornery cows, until we were again face to face with the donkey. Cory took the lead. Immediately the donkey stood up and very loudly laughed in our faces as if to say, I told you so! Yes, the donkey literally laughed, or did what donkeys do, which sounds incredibly like laughing.
We scurried past the donkey and made our way up and up and up. The directions failed to mention how steep this section of the trail was. After several switchbacks we came face to face with another obstacle – two bulls standing in the middle of the trail. Unlike all of the other farm animals we had faced up to that point, these two were not tied up. Plus, they looked completely uninterested in moving out of the way. Not aggressive, but certainly not docile. Cory climbed up behind them on the trail and shooed them away – actually he shooed them toward Morgan and me, while we clung to the edge of the trail behind a bush. The bulls passed us without incident and soon we reached the road. Cory mumbled to us, “good thing none of us are city folks.”
Before we knew it, we were at an amazingly cozy hostel in Isinlivi called Llullu Llama. I would say that if you ever find yourself there to check it out, however you will never just happen through Isinlivi, you have to work pretty hard to get there. So, when we walked into the cozy cottage with the incredible view, warm fireplace and cold beer, we were very happy to call it home for a night. Despite an angry-at-the-work Dutchman who rallied against business and lawyers and China and his ex-wife and on and on and on and on and on…. An added bonus at Llullu Llama were a giant St. Bernard named Baloo who loved to slobber and shake hands with Cory, and a cat who came through the upstairs window in the middle of the night to snuggle with me.
But all good things must come to an end and soon we were back on the trail, armed with better maps this time c/o of Llullu Llama and headed to the village of Chigchulan. This day we were joined by one of the many stray dogs who populate every town in Ecuador. At first we thought he would just follow for a short distance, but he was our companion for the entire 12.4km hike.
Our second day of hiking was pretty uneventful. We had no trouble finding the correct trail thanks to the very descriptive directions, complete with photos. The only drama was perhaps our dog, we called him Andy, chasing sheep and angering nearby famers who had to make chase after their runaway sheep and save them from the small ledge where they hovered for safety. We also came upon a sign for a hacienda stationed half-way on the trail that boasted cerveza. Brilliant! However, when we arrived, we were disappointed to only find soda. At least it was cold and Alto in Azucar!
The hike was nothing but spectacular, along the river, hot, dry…
After a steep uphill and a 45 minute walk on a dusty hot road, we arrived in Chigchulan, Andy in tow. Our next hostel, Cloud Forest Hostal had semi-cold beer, hammocks and hot showers, a most coveted commodity.
We were tired after day two, but that didn’t stop us from sharing 2 bottles of wine in front of the fireplace before dinner. We again attempted to guide Morgan in her figuring-out-life-stage of life.
Day three of hiking started after an incredibly filling breakfast of gigantic pancakes, fruit, yogurt, a hard-boiled egg, and coffee. the pancakes where so big, we saved half for a later snack along the trail.
We didn’t know how hard our 11.4km hike would be this day. That’s probably a good thing. The directions mentioned only one major climb and after that suggested we would essentially be at the crater. So, we began our hike and were excited to end with the climax – Quilotoa Crater Lake. Again we were joined by a dog on our hike. He looked very similar to Andy, but we convinced ourselves he was a different dog. His demeanor was much different – more like a puppy – so we named him Gato. I think Morgan is to blame for that.
We first hiked down to the bottom of Toachi Cayon, crossing a poorly constructed wood log bridge at the river and then had to hike up. Clearly this would be the most difficult part of the hike we thought. And it was difficult. We hiked from 2800m to 3800m in a fairly short distance. Those in our group who are afraid of heights (Cory) were challenged by the many steep switchbacks over the canyon and narrow pathways along the steep trail.
We soon discovered that this was just a foretaste of the extreme inclines to come. We paused in a small village and came across a couple of women frying some dough, we didn’t know what it was, but Cory ordered one and I was pleasantly surprised by our mystery snack, which reminded me of a funnel cake – $.25! Little did we know how much we would need this sugar for the next 2 hours. We spent the next 1 hour and 45 minutes in a constant uphill toward the rim of the crater. It was hot, no shade, approaching 12,000’ – the only relief was our playful dog companion who was so happy to guide us along the way.
We finally arrived at the cold gusty rim of the crater. Cory quickly side-stepped toward safer ground while Morgan and I gaped at the Grand Canyon-like crater with turquoise water. It was magical. But we weren’t done yet. We had a good 45 minutes left until we were safely in Quilotoa, and Cory needed some talking-to in order to get him on the trail. From the first appearance of the trail, it skirted the very steep edge of the crater, with little room for error. Without providing the play-by-play, I will just say that there were some tense moments on the trail. Cory, who, as I mentioned before, has a tremendous fear of heights, may have crawled through a couple extremely narrow passages but I failed to get photo evidence. If you were to ask Cory, he would tell you there were sections of the trail that were only one foot wide.
We were all glad to reach the town, find pizza and beer and settle into another cozy hostel. This hostel however did not provide hot water, nor were we able to use the in-room fireplaces as the wind was so intense. No wonder the beds had 9 blankets. But while the winds blew, we met other travelers, played a rousing game of spoons and enjoyed another hot meal.
The next day we took in a local gallery that featured paintings by a family whose patriarch founded the style and that garners international attention. http://cosasfmb.com/tigua_art.php We are excited to hang our little painting from Tigua when we have a home someday.
And so came the end of our 5 day adventure through the Andes. A full 3 days of hiking proved challenging but I can’t imagine a more beautiful landscape. I know we’ve only begun and we have an entire continent to discover, but Ecuador has been full of surprising beauty. We’ve also now fully assimilated to the backpacker scene. Meeting like-minded travelers and learning their stories along the way has added to the experience. We are on such a journey. I realize it’s just beginning but it’s already been life-changing. I can’t wait for the next challenge, the next adventure, the next friend, the next everything.