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The Inaccessible Andes

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

After Baños, we were ready for a quieter place. Cities and towns of all sizes here are very noisy. So we headed off on what the guidebooks describe as the Quilotoa loop, basically just a series of mountain roads roughly making a circle through some fairly remote regions. Our destination, Chigchulán, was only about 80km away from Baños as the crow flies, but required about 6 hours by bus, not counting the 30 minute delay while they added branches to shore up the mudslide so it could be driven over.

As it’s quiet we wanted, we were not disappointed. We opted to stay at a fairly pricey ecolodge called the Black Sheep Inn (Fairly pricey in our case meaning it cost $65/night for the two of us in a shared room with full board.) It was an amazing setting. The inn was about a kilometre from town, which only houses about 100 people anyway, so it was fantastically quiet, and from everywhere – room, balcony, bathroom, yoga room, outside, etc… – you could see across a lovely canyon and set of plateaus, all green, except two peaks you could see in the distance if it was extraordinarily clear.

Our first day there, we got ambitious and attempted a hike. The directions they gave us described it as about 2-1/2 hours to the cloud forest. It turns out that hiking uphill when your starting point is over 10,000 feet high is tiring. After 3 hours, we were about 2/3 of the way to our goal, and we decided it was time to turn back. No cloud forest on this trip, unfortunately. We did get some rewarding views. We tried coming back by a different route – taking a path up over a ridge the overlooks our inn, which was marked as an easy hike on the map – and managed to get ourselves lost. We could see where we wanted to go, but couldn’t figure out how to get there. A wrong turn took us down onto private property immediately above our hosts’, but the owner was of the opinion that it was his trail and we were not going to cross. So we had to climb back up to the top and try again, ending up on an extraordinarily steep slope that was no good for Kathy’s ankles (and knees, not to mention Neil’s paranoid fear of heights!).

The next day we were not so ambitious. I finished my book, and we walked over to watch the sheep and chickens in the yard.

Getting into Chigchulán is much easier than getting out from it. The busses going there leave from Latacunga at 11:30 and 12 every day, arriving around 3:30-5pm. The busses leaving go at 3am and 4am, and 5am on Wednesdays. We are not morning people. So we splurged and spent the $30 to hire a truck to take us as far as Zimbahua, where there is hourly bus service back to Latacunga, which is on the Panamerican Highway. We also threw in a stop at Laguna Quilotoa, one of the famous things to see in Ecuador. While the view there is also fabulous, I wouldn’t mind sticking to the postcard. The lake is a volcanic crater, and the rim where the hikes start is about 14,000 ft above sea level, and it’s pretty inhospitable up there. Icy cold and windy. So we ended up skipping our intended hike, though two others from our hotel were doing the whole 6-7 hours around the rim, which seems nuts to me. We did, however, buy ourselves some alpaca wool scarves, and a sweater for Kathy.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt guiltier about a purchase. Normally it’s the price that bothers me, but I felt what we paid was fair. But I’m at a loss to understand why touristy places always feature long rows of stalls of maybe 10 or 20 people all selling exactly the same thing. One woman didn’t have a sweater in Kathy’s size and a colour we wanted, and ended up almost begging us to buy something from her. It made me feel terrible, but at the same time, you can’t buy from everybody, so what can you do.

We’re back in Quito now, after yet another long day of transportation. There’s many lovely things about Ecuador, but I have been frustrated that no matter how far apart things are, it seems to take about 6 hours of tiring bus travel to get to where you’re going. From here, we’ll try to do a biking trip to Cotopaxi on Friday, and on Saturday night we fly home.