I didn’t have high hopes for yesterday. We embarked on our trip to Quilotoa from our hostel in Latacunga, in good time, hoping to catch an early bus for our journey. 40 minutes later and 40 minutes from the bus station we realised that we had gone everywhere, basically but the bus station. The sun put his hat on around this point and beat down upon us relentlessly, in way of punishment of our questionable navigational skills, accompanying us as we made our weary journey back to the terminal. I say weary because at 2,800m above sea level, just blinking is an effort – particularly if you have yet to acclimatise, like me.
Having begun our journey, we had not travelled more than 20 minutes on a 2 hour bus trip, when a cheery Ecuadorean toddler named José reached across from the opposite seat, grabbing my hands. I don’t actually know what his name was, but the odds of it being José, I suppose are higher than not and so he will forever be José to me. Irrespectively, one moment I was sat playing with him across the aisle, the next thing I know – the mother had launched him across to me and I was confronted with a happy Ecuadorean toddler on my lap. This is José and I.
My girlfriend who had been snoozing at this point, awoke to find me with child, absolutely aghast. After I had assured her I was not in the business of kidnaping little Ecuadoreans and that she hadn’t given birth within the last 20 minutes, she settled down and began chattering away in Spanish to him. I persisted with English as I want him to speak his father’s tongue. Spanish or English – the kid was a bit dense. He sat happily mute on my lap for the best part of an hour, doing nothing but playing with whatever he could claw into his chubby hands. Having eaten a cardboard box and part of his shoe, we gave him something a little more appetising, in the way of a banana. José being José preceded to tear the banana apart in the most peculiar manner, resulting in some consumption – of about 7% banana, 93% banana skin. The rest of the banana went on my shirt.
By this point we had been avidly ascending into the Andes, the roads meandering chaotically, the air becoming thinner. I began to feel more and more nauseated but I reasoned this was more the result of the driving than the altitude. The atmosphere grew cooler and intermittent rain made for a depressing outlook. As we passed into the clouds, I was both amazed and terrified, perhaps simultaneously.
We arrived at Lake Quilotoa at 1pm, to an altitude of 3,800m or so. I can’t really stress how high up that is but we were above the clouds. We were breathing at the level of the stratosphere. Having acknowledged administrative formalities we made our way across to the sleeping volcano and its now resident Lake. What we saw was absolutely mesmerising.
Gaping in front of us was a crater of the most epic proportions, flanked at all sides by rolling clouds. At the centre lay an eerie turquoise lake – a colour which dramatically changed from moment to moment – the bed lying some 200km below its surface. The perimeter repressed a jagged edge which though assailable represented a 5-6 hour walk of considerable effort. We made our way slowly down to the bottom. A painstakingly slippery descent of 1,600m.
We reached the lake approximately 30 minutes later, struck by how beautifully quiet and serene the surrounding area was. There was no noise but for the chatter of other intrepid travellers, it was an auditory bliss. I walked my hands in the mineral water of the lake and we sat and ate some biscuits, watching in awe as clouds fell over one side of crater before our eyes. It was one of the grandest moments of my life.
Rested we began our ascent back up the volcano, a fantastically difficult task. Although there were some mules available for the more lazy of the tourists, I by method of Jedi mind tricks, convinced my girlfriend to walk up halfway with me and to meet someone with a mule returning the other way – and to get a lift up the rest of the way. The mules never came and she, the poor dear, had to walk up the entire way! I’m such a bad boyfriend.
I like to consider myself quite a fit person, being a runner and generally quite active but I was surprised by how difficult the climb up was. The altitude was bad enough but at points, the walk was nothing other than volcanic residue and almost vertical gradients. A painful tearful hour later, we arrived at the top, exhausted but happy.
It had been getting later on in the day and so we decided to begin to make out journey back. Having befriended a happy English northerner we jumped aboard his rented truck to make the 2 hour trip back to Latacunga. 2 other English girls jumped on not long after and we had a very English sojourn on the stormy ride back to base, stopping only twice – once to feast in the local eaterie, being as hungry as we were. I opted against the roasted guinea pig and instead wolfed down a plate of rice and eggs followed by some honey tea and guava juice. Our second stop was in recognition of a calamitous landslide by the side of the road, where we waited for an hour for the road to clear. Thankfully it did and we continued on our way unscathed.
We chatted the rest of the journey back to Latacunga and despite the rain painfully hitting us in the face, the dramatic cold, the howling winds, the creeping darkness – it was all very enjoyable and concluded the end to a very satisfying day.