Thursday, March 17, 2005 - Quito to Chugchilan, the northern Latacunga Loop
Today we were moving to the mountains for a couple of nights, so we left an extra bag with Hotel Cayman again this morning and headed out. First we took a taxi ($5) to the Terminal Terrestre Cumanda, a big, dirty bus station on the south side of Quito. There we paid $1.50 each for bus tickets to Latacunga, plus a 20-cent tariff required to walk out the bus station door toward the buses. There was a machine at the door where you put in 20 cents, and then you were supposed to be able to walk through a turnstile. But it didn't work very well, so a man was on duty whose job was to keep putting your money in and hitting the machine until it let you through.
The bus took us through part of the central Andes "Valley of the Volcanoes," and we had a good view of Volcan Cotopaxi, the tallest active volcano in the world at 19,347 feet (5,897 meters).
Just before Latacunga we changed buses to Saquisili (50 cents). Thursday is market day in Saquisili, and it is a colorful one. They sold everything from piles of chicken heads to furniture to wallets to gay porn (seriously). We didn't buy anything, but the market was fun to look at. We knew our next bus, to Chugchilan, left at 11:30, but we had some trouble finding it. The owners of the lodge we were headed to had emailed me very detailed bus information, but I hadn't examined it closely enough beforehand. It wasn't until we were in Saquisili that I realized directions like "one block up and to the left" were not especially helpful. Which direction is "up"? Anyway, the locals were very helpful, and we made the bus with just minutes to spare.
In hindsight, traveling through Saquisili on market day was a mistake. The bus was loaded down with goods and people, and we had to stop at every hut and wide spot in the road to let somebody off and unload their wares. The road was all switchbacks, and the journey took FOREVER. At Sigchos we picked up a bunch more people, and space was tight. One indigenous woman got on with four kids, and there weren't enough seats. We watched her hand one of the kids to a gringo, and he got a lap passenger for the rest of the ride. Ha!
The scenery on this northern half of what's called the Latacunga Loop is gorgeous, very lush, steep farmland. Crops are planted up the sides of hills I would only stand on if I was roped in. How they manage that I'll never know.
At 3:30 we finally arrived at the Black Sheep Inn, an eco-friendly lodge run by an American couple just outside the small village of Chugchilan. The altitude here at the lodge is 10,500 feet. Coming from sea level yesterday morning, we were really sucking air. BSI is situated on a steep hill. About half of the eleven guests were staying in a bunkhouse on the same level as the main lodge, but our private room was about a block straight up. Our room was connected to two other rooms, but we only had to share our part of the mountain with one other couple and a llama (Francis) who lived outside our door.
Our cabin at the Black Sheep Inn
Black Sheep Inn outhouse with a view
The view from the lodge is sensational. Chugchilan is nestled in the heart of the Andes, along the Rio Toachi Canyon. Everything is lush and green and gorgeous. The trip here from Quito took a taxi, three buses, and almost seven hours. I thought we were really in the middle of nowhere. But when Tom checked his GPS, we were only 50 miles as the crow flies from our hotel in Quito! Next time I'm traveling by crow.
View from our room
After settling in, we went down to the main lodge to get maps and information on hiking tomorrow. We found the owner preparing a giant green beer, and staff and guests alike passed the beer around in celebration of St. Patrick's Day.
Celebrating St. Patrick's Day
Dinner is included in the room price and is served family style. To our horror, all meals are vegetarian. Nothing against vegetables - I love vegetables with my meat. Tonight we had an excellent tomato and zucchini soup, and for the main course "vegetarian shepherd's pie." Where meat would normally go in the meal, they had substituted a lentil-based concoction. It wasn't bad, but I wouldn't call it shepherd's pie. I know some Scots that might take offense.
When dinner was over, the owner surveyed us all on what we had planned for tomorrow. Eight or nine of us wanted to visit Laguna Quilotoa and go for a hike, but on Thursdays the bus for Quilotoa leaves at 6:00 a.m. Forget it. Tom and I are renting a truck at 8:30 for $25 to take us to the trailhead. If the others would join us, we could split the cost, but they're all opting to leave at 6:00 and pay $1. Too early for our blood!
At this altitude it gets pretty chilly at night, but the rooms have wood-burning stoves. Tom got it nice and cozy before we turned in. Unhappily, though, the bathrooms are about 50 feet from our door, so we had to get completely dressed and venture outdoors every time we needed to pee. The lodge has eco-friendly compost toilets. I understand the sentiment, but I prefer Jana-friendly indoor plumbing!
"Francis" the llama