Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hiking Quilotoa: The Green Crater Lake

I've left Cuenca now, but there was still one last place I needed to see before leaving Ecuador. It's why I left my home earlier than I needed to. Quilotoa, a tiny little town in the middle of the "Quilotoa Loop" is really just a large crater lake high in the Andes, a little under 13,000 feet above sea level. It's about 2 hours from Latacunga, a smaller city about an hour and a half south of Quito. Since I've been in this country people have told me how beautiful this region is, and the pictures proved they weren't lying.

So yesterday morning I geared up with my friend Amy and we headed south for Latacunga. Along the way we linked up with a friendly German kid named Elias, who was traveling around the country. Getting in can be a bit of a hassle, because once you reach Latacunga you need to rely on infrequent buses, and often are left to hitchike, depending on when a car comes by. But we were fortunate in our timing and made it into Quilotoa by 1:30 pm. To get into the town and crater you need to pay $2, and once we did so we found a hostel. It wasn't too hard, as there are really only three hostels, all next to each other. Across from that is one small strip of artisans, and that's about the whole town. Our hostel cost $10 per person, including a private bathroom, dinner and breakfast.

Once we dropped off our stuff we headed to the lake. The wind was fierce and the cold was offset by the power of the sun, but every time a cloud came by it was only cold and windy. Reading the sign, it said to hike around the rim of the extinct volcano was 7.5 miles and would take about 4.5-7 hours. It was truly beautiful, with emerald green water that bounced off the sun, still and unchanging. As it was 2 pm, we knew we only had about 4.5 hours of sunlight left, so we decided to go for it and start the hike.

I foolishly scoffed, thinking it wasn't nearly 7.5 miles and since we were all used to living at high altitude, we would finish it in a couple of hours. As usual, nature proved me wrong. We started hiking clockwise, stopping every so often to take the same pictures but from a different angle. It just always seemed like it was worth another shot. In some parts the wind was so strong that I thought I'd be blown away. Yet at others we were hot and taking our jackets off. Up and down, up and down the trail wound, going from dense brush to sand traps and desert-like conditions. At other points we could see the outer laying valleys and mountains, and the hundreds of farms in the distance.

We only passed a few other hikers in the beginning, and from then on we were alone. The peaceful emptiness of the lake was more of a reward than anything else. Though known to tourists with guide books, many Ecuadorians don't even know about Quilotoa. Telling my friends in Cuenca where I was going, they just scratched their heads unless they were tourism students. And as amazing as this place was, I can't believe more people don't go there.

For a while we hiked in near silence, and all you could hear was the sound of the dirt shuffling as we skidded down the trails. Some parts were really dangerous, and with no guard rails and just a narrow path, a mistake meant death, or at the very least broken limbs and possible paralysis. There is hardly any liability in these parts. One step to the left was a roll down the mountain into a farm, and a half step to the left was an 80* drop into the lake. Moving along and up the trail proved harder than originally thought. I always wondered what it would be like to walk on the ridge of a mountain, and the truth is that it's not just straight up easy. You have to go down and up and down and down and then way up again. It makes you sweat.

Going down gingerly, you'd hear the thud of the feet, and every so often the sudden, loud tumble of rocks, sand, and shoes as the person to your front or rear just lost control. But the lack of the deep thud told you that they regained their balance in that less than a millisecond of reaction from thousands of years of evolution. All you could do was trust the person in front of you and try to hit where their feet already went, and if you were in front, God be with you.

Once we reached what we thought was the halfway point we took a 15 minute break to eat a lunch of crackers and take 2 sips of water per person. We had to conserve since we only took one bottle. Spitting out the dust in our mouths, we took in the views and realized we needed to move on. I held my hands in front of me and estimated that we had 2 hours of sunlight left, and we still had the largest ridge to cross. Even living and running at high altitude for 11 months can't help you when you hike at almost 13,000 feet. You take two steps up and are just spent, no air getting into your lungs, getting into your blood, getting into your muscles.

Going up the highest peak was tough and for the most part done in silence, but we did finally reach it. We caught our breaths and realized that we had about 15 minutes of sunlight left. We needed to haul ass or we'd be stuck there all night, and the wind was picking up with force as the sun dropped. Going down the peak was almost as difficult, and while filming part of it with my small point and shoot, talking about how dangerous it was, I slipped and fell a bit, covered my other camera in dirt and making for a pretty funny video.

The sunset was red and orange and red again but in a different shade. The kind of color that can only be explained through actual sight, and as the last remaining light bounced off the mountain, they painted the sky and clouds. We were now marching in the dark, using the moonlight to guide the white path. Noses running like faucets and fingers frozen, we chugged along like our lives depended on it, because they did. And we were so tired. By 7 pm we were back in the tiny town, stumbling into the hostel covered in dirt. But it had only taken us about 4.5 hours with a few breaks here and there.

We got our dinner, talked with a few other guests, sat by the furnace for a bit to heat up, and called it a night. By 9 pm it was lights out, but freezing in the room with no heat, I went to sleep with my dirty socks and winter hat still on, and all of my shirts and sweaters as well. The wind was so fierce that at one point I thought the roof would blow away like in the movie "Black Sheep" or in "Twister." Sleep came fairly easy to us after a long day, and we still had more plans ahead for the morning, when we would hike to the bottom of the lake and get a glimpse of the water.

Above: Images from Quilotoa crater lake, Ecuador

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