Eager to stretch our legs (or at least I was), we took our guidebook’s recommendation and started off on the Quilotoa Circuit from Latacunga. Very similar to Colca Canyon in southern Peru, this circuit involves hiking relatively short distances (10-12 km) between small towns in the gorgeous Rio Toachi Valley. In typical fashion, our trip started off with a hitch, as it appeared that the 9:30 am bus to Quilotoa Crater left about 20 minutes early… after waiting an extra hour, and meeting a super nice Colombian couple, we were off. Even though our bus was very clearly labeled “quilotoa”, we were unceremoniously kicked off at Zumbahua, and told to get into a pick up truck which would take us the remaining 20 minutes. It was a tough squeeze, but we managed to get about 20 people into this truck. Victor, one half of the Colombian couple, laughed it off as typical “latin disorganization.” He informed us that we wouldn’t get a break from it further north either.
On the truck ride we met an 18-year old German girl who didn’t know much about Quilotoa, she just thought it sounded like a nice destination. Not at all prepared for the freezing temperatures up at the crater (4,000 meters) she was easily convinced that it was a poor idea to stay the night at the top… we invited her to join us on the hike down to Chugchilán, but not without a sense of foreboding (see the infamous ‘bob’ episode). Merit turned out to be pleasant company for most of the time we were together, but we did have to make certain “allowances” for her age.. would we have been like this traveling at 18? Honestly, I can’t imagine undertaking a trip like hers at that age.
The route to Chugchilán wasn’t clearly marked, but with the end destination mostly in view, we managed to get ourselves to the Cloud Forest Hostel before dark. The hot shower and filling meal were amazing, but really the accommodation on the whole was way above expectations. You don’t expect to have a private bathroom, dinner and breakfast for only $12 per person, even in middle-of-nowhere Ecuador, but that’s exactly what we got!
Merit caught a 4 am bus back to Latacunga, so we were on our own for the second day of hiking. Another 11+ km to reach Isinliví, and another descent and ascent into the Rio Toachi valley. The weather was nearly perfect on this day and we really took our time, stopping often to soak in the scenery. The general feel of the trek had us thinking of Colca Canyon a lot, but the countryside was more similar to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. In Baños, we had met a Catalan/French couple who called off extra days on the circuit after hiking this portion, because “the scenery was too similar to Colombia and we were tired of it.” As baffling as that is, I guess it makes me pretty excited for Colombia!
With plans to stay in a certain hostel in Isinliví, we were told en route that the Tiata Cristobal was equally great and much cheaper ($13 per person), which made our decision to switch pretty easy. We ended up being the only guests that night, and enjoyed an incredibly nice dinner and evening next to the wood burning stove, a private room and bathroom and an equally great breakfast. Since no one was there (and the town seemed pretty quiet in general), we asked if it was low season. Our host said no, that tourism in general had been down this summer, and that she blames the World Cup in Brazil.
The best news we received in Isinliví was that the bus back to Latacunga on Wednesdays left at 7 am! We had been told it would be a 4:30 am departure so this was just perfect news. The bus ride also turned out to be one of the most scenic I’ve ever been on. We climbed for 45 minutes to reach the Paso de Guingopana, leaving the morning sun-soaked Rio Toachi valley, and were greeted with stunning views of Volcan Rumiñahui and Cotopaxi. No pictures of that journey here (the camera was under the bus), but I’ll leave you with one from the previous night.