Friday, March 18, 2005 - Laguna Volcan Quilotoa - The Hike
Around 8:00 a.m. we carried our lazy selves down the hill for some coffee before our 8:30 ride, and the Black Sheep folks packed us some cheese sandwiches and cookies for lunch. I didn't feel great this morning. I'd had chills all night, slept poorly, and my guts were in a knot from the altitude. But I thought, hey, when will we ever get this chance again? After all, the hike from 12,500-foot Laguna Quilotoa down to the Black Sheep is considered one of the best day hikes in Ecuador, so off we went.
A man picked us up in a little rickety pickup truck for the 14-mile, hour-plus ride to Quilotoa. The hike back is more direct, only 7.5 miles. It goes along the crater rim and through the Rio Toachi Canyon. The road was dirt, more potholes than surface, with steep drop-offs of hundreds of feet along one side, and of course lots and lots of switchbacks. Is there going to be a single day of this trip I don't need the meclazine? Very exciting ride though.
The driver dropped us off at the village of Quilotoa, where we walked to a mirador, and then to the trailhead. We were already winded. Was it too late to back out of this hike? Actually, it wasn't, but we set off anyway. There was a baņo publico at the trailhead, and we figured we better make use of this opportunity before hitting the trail. Big mistake. It was just a thatch-roofed wooden shack with a hole cut into the floor, and not everyone had managed to hit the hole. Truly awful. It was as bad as the Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tennessee! I had to tie a bandana over my nose and mouth just to enter.
Enter at your own risk
The first part of the hike took us a third of the way around the crater rim of Laguna Quilotoa, a beautiful, emerald green lake in the crater of the now-extinct Volcan Quilotoa. The water is 800-feet deep, salty, and sulfuric. Pretty useless as a lake, but lovely to look at. It was windy and cold on the rim.
Laguna Volcan Quilotoa
Trail along the ridge
They'd given us a trail map at Black Sheep, with detailed directions on the back, but trail finding was still a little tricky. It was supposed to be a marked trail, and it was to a certain extent, but someone had stolen some of the route markers! But we paid careful attention and only made one wrong turn. We'd only gone a few yards in the wrong direction when a local man struggling with two stubborn burros yelled and gestured to us that we were going the wrong way. Thanks!
Good man, bad burros
The hike at the rim varies in altitude between 12,400 and 12,800 feet. I loved the view, but boy was I glad when the rim part was over and it was time to descend. Every few feet helps! We descended through fertile fields and pastures towards the tiny village of Huayama. Our instructions told us there were two Huayamas, and to be sure to go to Huayama, not Huayama Grande, which was actually the smaller of the two.
We need oxygen!
Just before Huayama we came to a small group of children who stretched out a shawl blocking our path. They said something in Spanish which I didn't understand, so they repeated "regalos" as slowly and clearly as I'd ever been spoken to. That I understood: They wanted gifts. I didn't appreciate their tactics. They would get no gifts from me. Then an older girl came along and apparently wanted to "guide" us to Huayama. Well, the trail follows the road for a short period of time, and we were already on the road headed toward Huayama. Her assistance was not necessary. Later, an Australian girl back at the lodge told me the kids had actually wrapped the shawl around her trying to get "gifts" - they failed that time too.
Descending toward Huayama
By the time we got to Huayama, not only were my guts in a knot, but Tom and I both had aching knees from the steep descent. If we could have caught a ride back to Chugchilan at this point, we would have. But we were on that road for half an hour and never saw a vehicle. When we got to the village, there was not a car to be seen. There was nothing to do but hike out of there. It was still a long ways.
A few minutes later we reached the edge of the Rio Toachi Canyon (more stunning views), where the trail turned very narrow, with rock walls on either side. I just kept thinking this would be an extremely bad time for a flash flood, and then it started thundering! The trail dropped down, down, down VERY steeply, but at least we could reach out and help support ourselves on the sides, thus saving our knees a little wear and tear. Two or three times we crossed short foot bridges, of course without handrails. Exciting!
Another stunning view
Finally we got to the bottom of the canyon and crossed the river. This was the low point of the hike (literally, not figuratively), about 9,100 feet. Since the Black Sheep Inn is at 10,500 feet, we obviously weren't quite there yet. Both Tom and I remember the BSI owner saying that once we crossed the river, it was only one more kilometer to the inn. Well, there was apparently some sort of communication failure there, because that was not the case at all. Thinking it should only be one more kilometer just made it worse, because around every turn we expected to see Chugchilan.
Locals heading home
Ascending from the river was extremely steep and muddy. Going up is harder on the lungs but easier on the rest of the body. At river level I was going pretty strong, but I started to get lightheaded on the ascent. There was nothing to do but keep on going. We were sure we were almost there. Then it started to rain. We pulled out our ponchos, kept on walking, and finally made it back.
If I did this hike again, I'd definitely give my body time to acclimate first. The hike is supposed to take four to six hours. We did it in six and a half. Start late and go slow - that's our motto. The scenery was very picturesque. Tom built a fire in our room, and we warmed up and dried out. The last bit in the rain had been a little chilly.
Dinner was at 7:00, and none too soon. I was so hungry I could eat a horse, even a vegetable horse, though I'd rather bite into a steak after today's excursion. When they brought out dinner, I thought it was just a salad plate and we'd get the real food after. I was wrong. They served a bunch of stuff Tom and I didn't recognize and couldn't/wouldn't eat. Dinner was tomatoes; cucumbers with weird dressing; baba ghanouj (eggplant puree - inedible); hummus (chickpea paste, hold the flavor); falafel (chickpeas again, this time rolled in a ball and deep fried); and pita bread. Of these things, we ate the tomatoes, cucumbers, and falafel. We ate some pita bread too, but seeing as we'd ruled out most of what was on our plate, there really wasn't much to eat it with. I'd never had falafel before, but it was okay. You can rescue anything with deep frying! It reminded me of a hush puppy.
Immediately after dinner I purchased a cheese sampler platter. The owner asked, you didn't get enough to eat? I just looked at him. Any response I could think of would have just been rude.