Almost a thousand years ago, the volcano Quilotoa erupted. Its entire peak disintegrated, leaving behind a gigantic crater. Over the next thousand years, the crater slowly filled up with water, creating the beautiful Quilotoa Lake that we see today. Standing at the rim of the crater is a nerve-wrecking, sometimes death-defying feat. Yet the views of the lake and the rugged edges of the crater make it a scenery worth “risking your life for”. While most people would take a car all the way up to the crater viewpoint, here is how you can trek up the Quilotoa Lake:
The beginning of it all:
You can easily complete the Quilotoa Lake trek in two days. From the city of Latacunga, you can take a minivan to the village of Sigchos. If you are lucky, there is an indigenous market on Thursdays along the way, in the village of Saquisili. Vendors from villages all over the highland gather in Saquisili to sell their fruits, vegetables and live animals. This is also a great place to stock up on food for the hike. If not, you can directly head to Sigchos to start your hike.
After a winding journey up the mountains, the minivan left me in the sleepy village of Sigchos. From there, it was an easy, gradual ascent to the village of Isinlivi and then to the majestic viewpoint of the valleys from the village of Itualo. The views of the valleys, rivers and rolling green hills along the way were stunning. What amazed me even more were the fact that families lived high up on the steep slopes, and the way in was also the only way out.
From Itualo, I followed the main road to the village of Chugchilan. There were many guesthouses in the village and it was great place to rest and recharge for the upward climb towards Quilotoa Lake. Surprisingly, there was also a public library in the village with free wifi and computers. It felt strange using wifi halfway through a hike, but I did. Otherwise, Chugchilan was a really nice village to rest your legs, watch the sunset and have a warm dinner.
The windy night:
Somehow I did not stay in Chugchilan. It was still slightly early and I wanted to see how close I could get to Quilotoa. Moreover, I was prepared to camp out somewhere, and I really wanted to find a beautiful spot for the night. After an hour or so of a gradual ascent, I was on a rolling hill of little huts and vast farmland. The wind started to blow harder and harder, and soon I found myself battling the crazy winds with every step. I remembered walking past a small house, with children outside doing homework in the wind. After a minute or so, the little kids ran after me and stopped me.
“You cannot go further. It is late.” One of the two boys told me in Spanish. “Please, follow me.” I followed the two boys to the little house that I passed earlier, and their sister was sitting at the front yard. “Please, stay the night here. It is too late to go forward.” She said while gesturing me to put my bag down. They were right. It was getting dark and the winds were howling. I agreed and sat at the yard with the little boys and their sister.
After chatting for a little while, we headed inside the house, as the winds were just too cold to bear. Though the howls were amplified due to the metal roofs, at least it was warm inside. The house was really simple. It had two beds, some stools, pots and a furnace. Initially, the four of us were taking shelter at home. Soon, their parents came, relatives turned up and the little hut was livelier than a café. The adults were chatting about their harvest, and the kids about me. There were at least three conversations at the same time, with smiles and laughter filling the little room.
The sister soon started to prepare dinner. From a pot, she lifted a guinea pig and took out its guts before dropping it in another pot of boiling water. I gulped. And then there were more guinea pigs. One by one, she took them out, degutted them and added them into the boiling water. Amidst the drowning conversations, I counted more than ten white little guinea pigs in the boiling pot of water and herbs. I gulped, again. Once dinner was ready, I politely refused the food with the excuse that I was vegetarian. I could not imagine myself eating a boiled guinea pig.
After dinner, it was time to rest. Initially, the family invited me to sleep in the house. However, there was really no space, considering that there were 2 beds and six tired family members wanting their spot. I told them that I could put my tent outside, although clearly the wind was not too happy about it. While the winds battered my face, I made my tent and hid inside. As I tried to fall asleep in my little sanctuary, I could not help but worry if my tent was going to rip apart. And it did.
The next morning, we found a huge tear in my flysheet. The wind was just too strong for my worn out tent. However, the hike had to continue. I bid farewell to the beautiful family, and walked towards the Quilotoa volcano. It was near.
The scramble up Quilotoa:
A long uphill climb and an hour later, I was at the crater of the Quilotoa volcano. The wind was intense, so much so that I felt that I could be blown off. The steep ridges around the lake amplified my fear of heights, and I could not really stand at the edge of the crater. As I was on the other side of the crater from the accessible viewpoint, there was nobody. It was a silent, yet immensely beautiful view of the Quilotoa Lake. Yet this was not the end of the Quilotoa Lake trek. The viewpoint was still on the other side.
The wind was howling and I was losing control of my stability. I looked at the rocky ridge trail towards the other end of the lake and I began to fear. It looked extremely unstable, with a steep fall on one side into the lake, and another off the volcano. With the strong winds, I knew I could not make it alive through this route. Instead, I opted to go around the volcano, through the animal paths all over the volcano slopes.
It was an unpleasant decision. The animal paths crossed steep ravines, landslides and along sheer drops. Moreover, there was literally nobody living along the volcano slopes. I knocked on many doors, shouted to ask for directions but the only reply I had was silence. I looked at my GPS, hoping to stay on track, but the animal tracks and the terrain sometimes took me way off.
What was supposed to be an hour’s trek took two, three hours. And finally, I heard sounds. Wait, what sounds are these? Before I could react, six dogs came barking and rushing out of a house towards me. I panicked in fear, tried to pretend like I was picking a rock and acted like I was going to throw it. There were no real rocks in the sandy path and I had no real weapons. I begin to kick the dogs, but one leg was not enough for six. As I prepared myself to be bitten, the family ran out and called the dogs back. I was saved. My pants were torn pretty badly, but I was lucky to be unhurt.
I took a while to catch my breath and calm my nerves. These people were the first humans I saw in hours, and I could not miss the opportunity. I asked how I could get to the Quilotoa Lake viewpoint, and they showed me the way. It was literally just one straight path to the area, but the reassurance was something I desperately needed after hours of uncertainty. Off I went with a torn pant and six dogs plus a family looking at me as if nothing has just happened. Great.
Indeed, through that straight path, I made it up back to the crater, with the viewpoint in sight. Still, I had to walk along the narrow and death-defying ridge, with winds battering my face. I was frantically trying to hold onto the rocks and embarrassing myself as other hikers confidently hiked past me. I guess this is what a genuine fear of heights does to someone. Yet despite this fear, I always find myself along the cliffs, up in the mountains and desperately wanting to come down.
Finally, I made it. The entire Quilotoa Lake reappeared. Just a few hours ago, I was on the other side wondering how the heck I would reach the viewpoint. Somehow, I did. Somehow, we always do. It was a mentally tough hike, made serious because of the strong winds and the crazy dogs. However, I was happy I did it. The majestic view of the Quilotoa Lake was a great gift for completing the hike. Nature is indeed beautiful, but what makes it more is the wild experiences that come with it.
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