Heading south from Quito, we headed west off the Panamerican highway to have a closer look at the Andes. Although high-altitude compared to what we are used to (Ben Nevis, the Uk’s highest mountain is a mere 1,344m) here people think nothing of it and farm at over 4000m.
Quilota Loop is a roughly circular route through some very dramatic scenery on a variety of mountain roads. We wound through towering highlands and lush valleys. The sloping fields appeared to defy gravity at times but seem to producing a good quantity of crops like potatoes, wheat and bizarrely hollyhocks. The fields of rich volcanic soil making a glorious patchwork of colour in the morning and evening light.
Being no strangers these days to narrow, muddy mountain byways, we were not phased when the road narrowed to almost the truck’s width as we left the small village of Chugchilan. About 5km along, we found the reason why we hadn’t passed any oncoming traffic, they were rebuilding the road in an area of frequent rockslides. Half the hillside was being hacked away on two different levels by a bulldozer and a couple of diggers. Three waiting men told us that the road was closed but would reopen at 5, about an hour after we got there. We took a closer look, it looked like there was no way on earth that there would be anything resembling a road in an hours time. They seemed to be trying to create a road out of nothing on a steep slope which seemed entirely made of sand. Like trying to create a highway half-way up a sand castle. However we looked at it, turning round was not an option as the road was so narrow. We paced out all the possible options to see if we could possibly manage a 50-point turn somewhere but there was nothing. Steve would have to reverse the whole way back to the village 5km back, not made any easier by the winding road. So we went back to stare at the diggers incredulous that anything would come of their efforts. Amazingly at 5pm, the bulldozer seemed to create something that was starting to resemble a pathway. At 10 minutes past 5, Steve gunned the engine and I said a quick prayer. Off we went, slow enough to give him time to gauge the corners without getting too close to the edge but hopefully fast enough not to get stuck. We made it over in one piece.
Luckily it was only an hour away to our planned stop for the night and the roadworks foreman had assured us that the road was “very good” from there onwards. What I think he meant was that the road “will be….very good” in about a years time, once they finished all the roadworks. We were happy eventually to arrive at Laguna Quilotoa, to catch the last rays of sunlight and this amazing view!
The views the next morning were even more stunning with the dawn light peeping over the water-filled crater rim.
Steve and Alisha took an early morning walk down to the water, Lucy and I didn’t make it as we were suffering from a slight tummy bug. It took just half an hour for them to get down but almost 2 hours of exhausting climbing to get back. At 3800m high, exercise is hard work here.
Once they had caught their breath, we headed just 20km south-east to camp up in a hostel on a dairy farm. We parked up in the farmyard amongst the chickens and geese. On a stroll later that afternoon we were thrilled to see lamas and alpacas being herded in with the cows. We’ve seen a few pet lamas before now but not where they are part of the normal livestock, it really made us feel like we were in the Andes.
Coming down in altitude towards the town of Baños we were soon in a deep gorge with high slopes above us. We were just a stone throw away from the frequently active Volcan Tungurahua but didn’t see anything due to the heavy cloud cover. The road wound past Baños along one side of the canyon through many dark dripping tunnels. The views either side were stunning with a boiling brown river many metres below and waterfalls at every turn. We parked up for 3 days at Pequeño Paraíso a hostel owned by two friendly ex-overland drivers. We were within easy reach of two stunning waterfalls. The hugely powerful and impressive Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s cauldron) which certainly lived up to its name and the more elegant Machay. Both were reached by long walks down and up through dripping cloud forest.
Just a few hundred metres from the hostel was a restaurant in a family’s beautiful orchard and flower garden, where you could catch your own trout for lunch. Bizarrely the best bait was overripe guava fruit. The girls of course loved it and it wasn’t long before we were sitting down to a delicious meal of very fresh trout.
The weather had taken a turn for the worst with persistent rain, so we headed into Baños for a wander and to check out a microbrewery. As we came into town we happened across a colourful procession with lots of groups dancing though town mostly in traditional dress. The girls and I followed along to catch the festivities, while Steve got to scope out the excellent beers.