“¿Caminar a Chugchilán?” locals questioned us judging by our packs and trekking poles. “¡Si, si! Caminar.” we replied in our broken Spanish. “But shouldn’t they be asking us if we are going for a hike, not a walk?” Christine and I jokingly said to each other. Whatever. Let’s go for a walk then! The journey from Quilotoa to Chugchilán is absolutely stunning, but we would not consider it a walk.
Quilotoa is a tiny town perched atop the crater rim of a water-filled caldera within the Cotopaxi province of Ecuador. At a “mere” 12,841 feet, 360 degree views abound of far-off snow-capped peaks, farm lands steeper than a double black diamond ski trail, and the naturally nuclear green-like lake 1,200 feet below. For most, the Quilatoa Crater Lake is the pinnacle and grand finale as it marks the end of the “Quilotoa Loop” – a series of hikes from village to village spanning over a few days while ultimately ends at the gorgeous crater. Those that end here will have ascended for days, but for us, it is mostly downhill here from here. Somewhat acclimated to the high elevation, we leave the town of Quilatoa, a small tourist town made up of a few hostels and tiendas, and set out for our hike to Chugchilán . The road abruptly transitions from pavers to dirt to footpath. Continuing in a clockwise direction, the trail follows approximately one-third of the crater ridge line before dropping out of sight. This was the easy part of the trek as there was one path and one path only. As we continued down the mountain, there were forks in the path that led to other forks and those forks to other forks! Unlike the blazed trails we take for granted in the States, the non-existent markings and signage that was far and few in-between was less than helpful. Needless to say, we would have been two lost gringos without the help of the app Maps.Me and the paper directions provided by Llullu Llama Hostel. For those who do not know of Maps.Me, it is an excellent resource. You can download trail maps for offline use for anywhere on the globe. It’s not only useful for trail hiking, but for obtaining driving directions and bus information as well. Even with a phone in airplane mode, you are still able to see your location on the map and receive walking directions similar to Google or Apple Maps. This app was our saving grace during this hike, but as we learned the hard way, it is to be taken with a grain of salt. Maps.Me looks for the shortest route which may or may not be the easiest route. As we literally went straight down the backside of the crater mountain, bashing our toes in the front of our boots, we wished there were a more gradual approach. As we discovered later on by reading the paper directions more closely, there was a series of switchbacks very close by that would have made the hike negligibly longer, but made life appreciably easier. So lesson learned, trust the directions provided by locals and supplement with Maps.Me.
Another lesson learned worth mentioning is to not trust the weather forecast in the area. We packed for 100% chance of >1″ rain per day for 5 days straight with temperatures ranging from 34 to 45 degrees F along the loop. To our delight, however, we were comfortable wearing t-shirts and sunglasses and keeping the down jackets, gloves, and winter hats packed away. (The lone exception was the night spent in Quilotoa when we wore our hats and jackets at night when walking about the town of overlooks.) As a result, our packs were noticeably larger than others on the loop.
Mornings in the mountains here are amazingly clear as you can see for miles. As we traveled down the backside of the crater rim, we could see our destination of Chugchilán off in the distance. A constant breeze kept us cool during and wafted fresh scents all around. Although apparently not native to this region, we thoroughly enjoyed the eucalyptus that grew everywhere which is reminiscent to walking into a Yankee Candle store. We took our time taking in the sights and smells, snapping pictures, capturing video, and taking snack and water breaks. We stopped to hand candy and toothbrushes to children and walked along the trail and through towns at a leisurely pace. Being our first full day in the Andes though, we didn’t realize that we should have been a little more in a hurry.
Although the weather predictions aren’t entirely accurate, the weather is somewhat predictable. Come 1 – 2 PM, the clouds roll over the mountains from the west. Skies turn from bluebird to overcast in the matter of an hour, temperatures drop, thunder cracks, and sprinkles begin. Oh crap. 2 miles to go. And these two miles are directly down into a canyon and straight back up. No easy task. Again, our toes jam into the front of boots and we descend into the canyon. As we round a turn we squint to see that there has been a landslide and the trail appears to be washed out. Another oh crap. What do we do? Do we trek back up the canyon and look for another route? But the storm is coming! Or do we brave it an plod on ahead? With no time to spare, we choose to continue on the trail climbing over other less severe landslides. All the while soil mechanics courses from college race through our mind as we think about soil stabilization and slope failure. Ugh. We reach the landslide and see that someone has wedged a very, VERY narrow trail traversing the sandy landslide. I am not exaggerating when I say this–the trail was no more than 1.5′ wide. That may sound like plenty of space, but think about your own shoulder width. And now imagine walking this ledge–a wall to your left and a TWO HUNDRED foot drop-off to your right. No bueno. We put mind over matter and not knowing the stability of the path, quickly tip-toe across. A little shaken and crisis averted, we catch our breath on the other side. But don’t forget the impending storm! Still another 1.5 miles to go.
Preparing for the worst, we put our valuables into waterproof bags and don the ugliest ponchos that money can buy. We make it to the bottom of the canyon and we can see the river pick up with the runoff from rain further upstream. We rush out of what we feel is the flash flood zone and begin the final uphill push to Chugchilán. Roads meander up to the town, but soon enough Maps.Me points us to “shortcuts” that literally put us on hands and knees. We grunt, we moan, we struggle, legs near exhaustion and hearts about to beat out of our chest, we make it to our hostel. Oh my gosh.
The walk, I mean hike, from Quilotoa to Chugchilán is one for the memory books. Although the hike was mostly downhill, it was by no means easy. Our endurance was put to work and our perseverance tested. We just can’t imagine people walking in the opposite direction! We will never forget the jaw-dropping views, the amazingly friendly people we met along the way, nor it’s adrenaline pumping weather patterns and steep, steep trails. Estimates put the hike time between four and six hours; we took almost every minute of the latter. Luckily, the drizzle never amounted to the expected downpour. Mostly dry and extremely exhausted, we check in and drop our bags. That night we slept almost ten hours.