The Quilotoa Loop

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As we prepared to depart our friendly hotel in Latacunga, Enrique, the owner, and Enrique Jr, who had come home from university in Quito for the national holiday weekend, were so afraid we’d get on the wrong bus to Tigua, our first stop on the Quilotoa Loop that they insisted on driving us to the bus station and then scouring the lineup of waiting buses for the correct one for us. Enrique somehow managed to commandeer 2 seats, which was wonderful as the bus was packed Sri Lankan style and the road very winding, I’d have been in someone’s lap before we got half way.

Our first stop was Posada de Tigua, near the tiny village of Tigua. We asked the ticket boy on the bus to let us off at the road sign to the Posada, fortunately he knew what we were talking about. Our Rough Guide described the posada as a working dairy farm which takes in paying guests. The reality far surpassed that description, what a cozy welcoming family home!

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The farmhouse was built in 1900 by the present owner’s great grandfather and has been in the family for 4 generations. Marco and Margerita welcomed us enthusiastically in (fortunately) a mixture of Spanish and English, more Spanish than English but every bit helps. Our bedroom was rustic but comfortable, with at least 6 heavy blankets on the bed. Original rooms right down to the two foot thick walls and wooden shutters covering the windows but thankfully good bathrooms. No fireplace in the room but a constant fire in the iron stove in the foyer where we sat to read and warm up in hundred year old leather chairs, quite decrepit but charming. The daily rate included breakfast and dinner, and they made us a bowl of soup for lunch each day.

Marco gave us yet another perspective on the current government. He is a childhood friend of the president but despises what he calls his socialist policies. For one thing he has had a law passed that says that if Marco hires a worker for 3 days when they need help on the hacienda, they have to pay a month’s wages. The farm lands have also been vastly depleted from his great-grandfather’s time by the government seizing the land to grant to the indigenous people. The hacienda is still huge but much smaller than it was originally. And like farmers everywhere, he laments the low prices for milk and beef, also due to government subsidies. Consequently when the present government came into power about 12 years ago and replaced the sucre as a currency (one of those where you pay in the thousands for everything, like in many Asian countries) with the U.S. dollar, they got the idea of opening their home to paying guests to get some hard currency. Their enterprise has grown amazingly, particularly with tour groups who come in for the mid day meal and a tour of the place, but they have a steady stream of independent travellers and those who travel in cars with guides, who stay the night. Margarita is an amazing dynamo of 50 who having raised 4 sons, seems unfazed by anything.

The day we arrived they were feeding a group of college students taking tourism — 36 in all — who planned to camp in tents on the property but wanted lunch, dinner, and breakfast in comfort. They had 11 staying in the rooms, so they fed 47 people for dinner and breakfast. All she had in the kitchen is one helper, their youngest son was home for a few days, and the 4 of them ran like maniacs serving these huge meals to 47 people. Never a dull moment as she never really knows who will just turn up and want a room. They have no internet and minimal cell phone coverage so every day is a surprise.

We asked if they could find us someone to drive us to the Saturday market at Zumbahua the next morning, and sure enough a young man turned up in a truck the next day. He wanted a goodly sum to take us, and supplemented his income by picking up 18 more passengers on the way to the market. I ended up sharing the back seat with a family of 4 plus a glamorous young woman in high heels, fedora hat, and the rest of the outfit, quite the manicure she had too. The rest piled in the back. To give him credit he did ask. On the way back, he restricted the passengers and their market bags to the back of the truck.

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The market was great fun — muy autentico as they say here. We got up early to make the animal market, lots of the usual suspects, but more llamas than usual. Amazing to see how they stack the backs of their trucks rows deep with sheep, pigs, and goats they have purchased, shoving boards into the slats on the sides of the trucks to make sort of a bunk arrangement, and watching the llamas loaded was quite fascinating. Two of them would heave the llama’s front legs onto the truck, taking care of the bucking and leaping that ensued, then they would fold their lower legs under them, which is how llamas seem to sit on the ground, one at a time, and then tie their legs and bodies together, much as the camel handlers did in Jordan. That seemed to pretty much immobilize them, so they were able to hoist them around so that they were staring out the back of the truck in a neat row. Next they loaded on top the smaller llamas. Never would have believed they could get so many llamas in such small trucks.

The rest of the market — household goods, used clothes, vegetables and fruit, the usual necessities, spread over the rest of the town. Always good for a ramble. At one edge of the market, a number of old men used treadle sewing machines to mend and alter clothes — including cutting inches off the bottoms of the used jeans on offer to suit them to the very short men waiting their turn. That’s what will happen to my Otavalo jeans when I leave them behind in Quito when I leave! I thought we had seen all of the North American thrift store rejects in markets in Asia but apparently they make their way here too.

Back at the posada we walked in the hills and read by the stove, conversed with other guests when we could. On Saturday evening the twin sons and their families came for dinner and the night — I am afraid the rapid fire Spanish was too much for us, but fortunately one relative spoke reasonable English and took pity on us, translating from time to time. We enjoyed the atmosphere so much we decided to stay an extra day, and took a five hour walk in the surrounding countryside the next day. We must be acclimatizing as the altitude there is just a couple of hundred metres short of Lhasa, where we took Diomox to keep breathing. The countryside was stunning, hills reminiscent of those outside Ashcroft, but completely cultivated. Deep canyons divide the terrain, rugged and beautiful. Along the way we passed women and girls dressed traditionally including incongruously kitten heeled shoes in which their feet pronated terribly as they staggered along the rough roads herding flocks of sheep, goats, and cows. Tiny adobe block houses perched on the hillsides, these people must be so aerobically fit! When we reached a tiny village after about 2 1/2 hours, where a funeral was taking place in the cemetery, black clouds threatened and we turned home. Later that night it rained heavily, which as Marco said was very good for him, not so good for us.

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Each evening we peeked into the filthy cow barn to view milking time. Normally they do use a milking machine but as it was out of commission they milked by hand. They have 78 cows and were currently milking 38 of them. Most of the milk goes to Latacunga to be pasteurized and sold, but they retain a lot for their own use in the posada, and make their own yoghurt, cheese, and a sort of caramel boiled milk that they use instead of jam. The milkers were a mother and four girls — her daughters and nieces. The youngest at age 6 milked like a fiend. That poor kid worked so hard, my heart really went out to her. She had to chase errant cows when they ran madly off in all directions while being brought in for the night. She ran miles on her skinny little legs, switching them with her cowherding stick, but the worst was trying to convince the baby lambs to go out in the morning with the group that included their mother. She basically had to wrestle them out of the pen, they fought and struggled, it was painful to watch, finally she managed to sling one of them over her shoulder holding it by the tail and carry it to where the flock was streaming down the road, where it discovered it really did want to go with its mother and ran off. I couldn’t believe a 6 year old could begin to do it, all the while her sister was standing watching, in her high heeled pumps, waiting for her to get the flock together so she could amble off with them like some sort of sheepherding diva.

On we went next morning with our avaricious driver, Nelson, this time with orders from Margarita that he was not to pick up passengers. We took along a young Swiss girl who was going part of the way. Of course Nelson could not pass up money just lying on the roadside and before long the back of the truck was full again. The road to the famous “bottomless” Laguna Quilotoa was paved, and though the clouds were very low the landscape was gorgeous. When we arrived at the Laguna we hurried to the rim of the crater to see if we would be fortunate enough to get a view of the impossibly turquoise lake. Just in the nick of time, we looked at it for 5 minutes, contemplated taking the hour long trek to the shore, then clouds rolled in and in minutes the lake was invisible. Two minutes later a torrential downpour hit and we ran for cover in a shop selling warm hats, gloves, and scarves. I’m sure they do a booming business — by then I was wearing wool long underwear, another wool shirt, jeans, wool socks, my padded jacket and my windbreaker — not too balmy at these altitudes even without a blinding downpour. We left the Swiss girl at a hostel there, she hoped for clearing but alas .. it was not to be.

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Our destination was Chugchillan, a tiny, windswept, bleak village with a beautiful hostel — Mama Hilda’s — run by a friendly family. If it is not setting precipitation records the area is famous for its glorious hiking on mountain paths. The rain did not let up, in fact it only became worse, and though we were quite comfortable by the stove in the common room, and they even lit a fire in our room in the evening, we decided after one night with no let up in sight to carry on back to Latacunga rather than stay the next two nights as planned. Even if it had stopped raining, by this time the paths were so muddy and slippery that it seemed foolhardy to attempt to hike — visions of compound fractures in this remote and impoverished place danced in our heads. One of the brothers of the house offered his “camionetta” or truck (for a fair price) to take us to where the paved road started again at the village of Sigchos where we could get a bus. The views on the journey were absolutely stunning and the road not nearly as plagued with landslides as I had feared, much less so than the previous day. When it rains here the banks fall, and I think these little villages can be cut off for days.

When we reached Sigchos it transpired that the next bus was 3 hours off — not such good news in blinding rain, so we asked if he would continue on another 2 1/2 hours to Latacunga which he was delighted to do (for a price). Back to the Endamo Hostel where Enrique greeted us enthusiastically despite not expecting us for another 2 days and where we discovered that his poor wife, who was so sweet to us, had fallen and sustained a Colles fracture.

One night here and on to Banos, where apparently it is also pouring — all over Ecuador we are told. Might as well be in Maple Ridge — just kidding. To be continued.

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