Ecuador 7 – Central Highlands – The Quilotoa Loop

5th October – Leaving Quito once again and going south for Latacunga, where we will begin the Quilotoa Loop, a road (part of it unpaved) that travels through the Andean countryside amongst farming villages, a community of painters, indigenous markets and Laguna Quilotoa, a turquiose crater lake.

It seems to take forever for the Panamericana to leave the congested suburbs of the city behind. From the main road, we have a view of Cotopaxi’s lower slopes, its peak covered in thick cloud, the whole skyline full of jagged volcanoes and mountains.

Latacunga is crowded, Saturday being market day.  We take the turning for Pujilli and are soon climbing through a landscape of golden grassland (the paramo) divided into a patchwork of fields.

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A dirt road takes us to La Posada de Tigua where we will stay for the night.  It is an old hacienda, nestled amongst the hills, which has been in the same family for many years and now welcomes travellers to either stay in their cosy rooms or to camp. At 3500m it is very cold here, but inside, the 63cm thick walls plus an amazing Italian stove that is fed wood around the clock, help to keep the one storey  farmhouse lovely and warm.

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This hacienda is part of a working dairy farm, where an indigenous family also live and work.  Not only do they milk the cows by hand but they also make butter, cheese and yoghurt.

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There are many baby calves but also sheep with their lambs, llama, alpaca, donkeys, hens and geese.

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It’s all in a wonderful setting with sunsets over the hills and the owners make everyone feel very welcome.  Every room is taken, so it is a popular place but it is no problem, as we can park and sleep in the yard outside.  We have an excellent dinner in the hacienda with everyone grouped together on long tables, which makes for interesting conversations.  The water here is wonderfully hot, in fact the whole house is warm and cosy with a real family atmosphere.  It’s going to be cold in our tent tonight though!  All is quiet, when the wind suddenly comes roaring through the hills and then the trees but we are sheltered between the buildings and are surprisingly snug and warm.

6th October – We leave the hacienda early and once back on the paved road, we soon arrive at the small farming community of Tigua and stop at Galeria Tigua – Chimbacucho, that has a large display of wooden masks and famous Tigua paintings.

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Tigua painting originated from the small community of Tigua here in Ecuador, where for many years, the indigenous people had been decorating drum skins with this special style of painting.  In the 1970’s Julio Toaquiza (the grandfather of the girl in the gallery), thought of the idea of turning the skins into canvasses, continuing to paint very colourful and detailed Andean scenes from Kichwa life and legends.  The first paintings were made using primitive materials, even chicken feather brushes, but today acryllic and oil paints are used and Julio Toaquiza’s art brought fame to Tigua.  He taught all of his family to paint, as well as many of the other local people and today there are around 300 painters or more who continue this style of painting in this highland area.  Chosen pieces are exhibited in some galleries in Quito as well as in exhibitions around the world.

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The paintings in the gallery are of various sizes but always depict detailed scenes and stories.  We buy a signed painting of a more familiar scene that we recognise – ‘Returning from work in the countryside’ by Luz Toaquiza, brother of Maria Toaquiza (who also has paintings on display here) and so we have a signed painting from the original famous Toaquiza family, albeit a small one!

At the small town of Zumbahua (approx. 15km from Tigua), everyone is dressed in their Sunday best, especially the very attractive women whose indigenous dress begins with heeled shoes and stockings, then decorated skirts and shawls, finishing with a neat bowler hat, their long plaits often bound with decorated braids. We could never quite get our heads around how they manage to climb these steep and very rough roads in high heeled shoes and stockings!

From Zumbahua, we turn north toward Quilotoa, the rugged, Andean landscape of golden hills continuing with the spectacular Canyon del Toachi winding its way also toward this small town.

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Quilotoa itself, is perched at 3800m and we have all our winter clothing on, trying to keep out the strong and bitterly cold wind.                  It is just a short walk from the parking area to the famous volcanic crater lake – Laguna Quilotoa.  It’s a spectacular sight from the view point on the steep crater rim, looking down to the turquoise lake some 400m below.  This incredible lake was formed some 800yrs. ago by a massive eruption and subsequent collapse of the volcano.  The caldera is 2 miles wide and geologists have estimated that the depth could be around 250m.  The locals however, will tell you that they believe it has no bottom!

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It is possible to walk down paths to the water’s edge and hire canoes and kayaks out on the water but it is a long and steep climb back up.  It is also possible to take a path and walk around the whole rim of the crater, which can take anything from 4-6 hours depending on your fitness and the weather.  We decide to walk some of the way round….a slippery path which then climbs steeply but at least we seem to be on the sheltered side of the crater!  We are too late to begin going far as it is not advisable to begin this walk after 1pm but the views are still amazing.

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We decide to return to the warmth of Posada de Tigua rather than camping here in this exposed location, although this will mean that we miss out on the remainder of the Quilotoa Loop.  There are a number of hostals but none have suitable parking if we take a room. We are welcomed back to the hacienda by the owner’s sons.  There are only 8 of us here tonight……Dutch, Austrian, Belgian and English and so we all fit around one table for dinner. Thanks Sarah and Hannah Laura in particular (two backpackers from Belgium) for interesting conversations and we hope you both enjoy the rest of your journey.

Tomorrow we will return to Latacunga in order to visit the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi.  We hope that clouds will clear so that we have a clear view of the world’s highest active volcano!

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