The natural beauty of Lake Quilitoa ranks near the top of natural wonders I’ve seen in this stunning country.
The journey to this popular tourist destination, however, was far from straightforward.
The first leg was easy– a direct bus from Banos to Latacunga. From this budding metropolis, the journey diverged, which is a welcomed challenge to any self-respecting traveler.
We navigated through the streets to the bus station, passing vendors and mothers escorting their children home from school. The next bus arrived about two hours later, at 6 p.m., meaning the last legs of the trip would be done in darkness.
We tucked our backpacks under the bus and nudged our way onto this packed bus. No seats remained, but the conductor insisted we sit in our assigned seats, Nos. 3 and 4. To accomplish this, the conductor forced a middle-aged man and a mother with an infant son from “our” seats.
It felt dirty, the result from being a gringo in a Latin American country. This situation for a Caucasian is often described as the “gringo wildcard,” different treatment from locals. The wildcard can be a blessing and/or a curse depending on the circumstances.
We reluctantly took our seats, but the selfless Pessa was discontented. She soon gave her seat to the mother and infant. (Who couldn’t love this gringo?) She sat on my lap for the remainder of the 15-mile trip that lasted more than 90 minutes as we weaved our way into the chilly Andes highlands.
From the village of Zumbahua, we hopped into the bed of a truck taxi for the remaining 30-minute leg to the village of Quilitoa.
Before departing, Pessa noticed that the top pocket of her pack was slightly unzipped and seemingly empty. She unzipped it to find her medicine/jewelry bag missing. She jumped out of the truck to alert the conductor. He lackadaisically searched the storage compartment of the bus. The off-white and red bag was nowhere in sight. Another man pushed the conductor to search harder, and the bag was uncovered beneath a white burlap sack. The conductor handed it back to Pessa; a robbery was averted.
On the dark ride to Quilitoa, the abundance of stars didn’t gain my attention. I warily eyed the other men in the bed of the truck.
“Were they going to try to rob us next?” I thought.
Nothing happened, but another scheme took its place. The driver of the pickup taxi led us to a hole-in-the-wall hostel. We felt as though we were being played and insisted on seeing other options. The next-door hostel was the same as the first – cold and dingy with cheap, firm beds.
We wanted to see Hostal Cabanas Quilitoa – the Lonely Planet recommendation. Upon arrival, we couldn’t understand why this place was suggested. It had all the negative attributes as the first two. But, with the time approached 9 p.m., we settled. After dinner, a seemingly 10-year-old boy packed the heating stove with wet wood. I spent the next 20 minutes unplugging the stove, sorting the wet from the damp and restarting the fire. We needed it as the temperatures dipped below 40 degrees.
The next morning, the near robbery and the cold night in the dingy hostel were overcome with the view of Lake Quilitoa.
This large, emerald-green lake was formed inside a volcano after an eruption in the late 1700s.
Our goal was to hike the rim. It was a 7.5-mile hike that climbed to more than 13,000 feet and down to about 9,000 along a narrow, rocky path. A sign at the trailhead said that it would take about 4 to 6 hours.
“Beware of strong, shifting winds,” the sign said, “steep drop-offs, thick fog and strong changes in weather.”
The biggest obstacle we found was none of the above. It was the disappearing path that was later found to ascend a steep rock face. We thought about turning back before we saw three French travelers come the other way. It wasn’t so steep; it was only our perspective.
This was only an hour in. At hour two, we reached sand dunes that provided a peak in an otherwise rocky mountain rim. In the next few hours, we hiked, trekked, walked, and tramped, passed vibrant green pine trees, herds of sheep, canyons that cut into the exterior of this dormant volcano and views of the checkerboard agriculture landscape on other Andean hillsides.
About halfway, we stopped for jelly (sans peanut butter) sandwiches and some quality time taking in the lake about 1,000 feet beneath us. Depending on the sun, the lake gave off a spectrum of greens and blues. Depending on the local and their story-telling ability, they will tell you that this lake has no bottom. (Experts say the depth is about 800 feet.)
The afternoon’s first pass was the highest of the hike. We made it up without fault, but soon after, exhaustion took hold. We had been hiking for about five hours.
The next few snapshots could be included in Ecuador’s promotional pamphlets. A pack of white alpacas were grazing on the shores. It was a nice conclusion to the hike.
For every bit of positive experience at the lake, there were equal doses of negative with the accommodations. A trickle of lukewarm water passed for their “hot.” I had to scrounge up scraps of dry wood for the stove. No shower curtain turned the bathroom into a small Lake Quilitoa. But worst of all was at 8 a.m. the next morning: they woke us for breakfast and asked for us to be out of the room as soon as possible.
During our hike the previous day, we met some travelers from Vermont, who raved about their accommodations at a North-American owned resort in the nearby village. I felt jealous of them when I thought about our situation. My thoughts dissipated when I thought about how, overall, we benefited the village by staying at their places and not at ex-pat locales.
On our hop, skip and a jump back to Quito, I saw how residents of Zumbahua dispose of their trash. They merely dump wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow into a riverbed. Further downstream, a few children played on the rocks that crossed this river. It reminded me of the glaring scene of trash in the slums of Buenos Aires.
Then I saw the view of the majestic Cotopaxi mountain on the way from Latacunga to Quito. It solidified my belief of there being two Ecuadors — the country of snow-capped mountains and the ramshackle, poor and dirty communities along the journey.