The Cheeses of Chugchilan

coagulation n. The process by which a liquid changes to a thickened, curd-like, insoluble state.

Like most villages on the Quilotoa Loop, there wasn’t much to Chugchilan: a church, a couple run-down shops, some crumbling concrete buildings, and a handful of hostels that were nicer than anything else in the area. 

We stayed at the Cloud Forest Hostel, a sort of sister hostel to Llullu Llama. Cloud Forest was a lot bigger than Llullu Llama, with two three story buildings that looked more like small hotels than hostels.  It wasn’t nearly as nice as Llullu Llama, from the small bit of it we had seen, but it was nice enough for only $20 a night for a private room with both dinner and breakfast included.  On the ground floor of the building in which we would be staying was a cozy common room heated by a wood stove and an adjacent game room, complete with a pool table, ping pong table, and dysfunctional foosball table (on which we spend three maddening hours attempting to overcome the curse of the black team that made it impossible to win on that side).  And unlike Llullu Llama, it had wifi, though only in a two square foot area in the middle of the parking lot of no one else was trying to load something.

Rather than leave Chugchilan right away the next morning, we opted to stay two nights there to check out Chugchilan and try out one of the local hikes before setting out on the Loop. Tucked away in the mountains along the Loop are two separate queserias, or cheese factories: one outside Chugchilan and one outside Isinlivi.  If you’re a fan of either farm fresh cheese or strong aged cheese that doesn’t cost you your first born child, I recommend taking the time to spent an extra day to make the hike to one of these trips.  Personally, it had me at “cheese” and thus we dedicated our first full day in Chugchilan to finding this cheese factory.

The trek to the Chugchilan Cheese Factory is also advantageous in that it is also partially en route to the nearby cloud forest located just over the hills looming above Chugchlian.  As part of the Iliniza Ecological Reserve, all manner of unique bird, animal, and plant life can be found here.  If you hike far enough, you can even make it to the Pailachocha waterfall, a lovely, off-the-beaten-path oasis.  However, as a word of caution, the trails can be quite labyrinthine and when the fog rolls in, it can be difficult to navigate.

Because we weren’t terribly familiar with the area and still had a few days of hiking ahead of us, we regrettably decided against extending our trek to the Cloud Forest and instead set our sights only on the cheese factory.  The hike was a long but easy trek, following a steadily uphill dirt road to the village of Chinalo Alto, a flat road from the village to the queseria itself, and off-splitting dirt road down hill back to the main paved road leading into Chugchilan.  As with any trail in the Quilotoa area, we found farm animals galore, tied with fraying ropes to rotted pegs stuck into the ground.  More often than not, a great portion of our hiking time was dedicated to befriending these lonely beasts, like our mule friend we made on the way to the cheese factory.

While surrounded by green hills of farmland, the cheese factory hike is not exactly a hike for the views, at least not by comparison to some of the other hikes along the Loop.  And by the time you reach the top of the mountains where you might get some decent vistas, you’ll likely run into afternoon fog as we did.  The second we crested into Chinalo Alto, the fog rolled in and the temperature dropped a good fifteen degrees.  We bundled ourselves with some ragtag layers we had thrown into our bag and traipsed through the mist.

When we reached the cheese factory, we couldn’t help but feel a little bit disappointed.  Form the outside, it looked like a house, with a crowd of people spreading new cement just outside and kicking away from of the barking dogs that didn’t seem too keen on letting us near the house.  The cement layers ushered us inside where a man in oversized rubber boots met us and led us in.  The factory was really nothing more than two rooms, the first of which contained a large vat for allowing the milk to spoil and a table on which to set the containers of forming cheese.  The other room contained a bath sink, mostly for making the fresh mozzarella, and a wooden aging rack where the gentleman would store finished cheeses.  The wheels were all organized by age, the freshest on the left and the oldest up to four months on the right.

The cheese maker didn’t speak a word of English but continued to explained the cheese making process to us as if we spoke fluent Spanish.  Even though we didn’t, we spoke just enough to understand the general gist of the process.  At the end of the tour, the cheese maker told us it would be $1 each for the tour (how very Latin American to tell us the price after it was too late to refuse if we wanted) unless we purchased some cheese, in which case the tour would be free.  A 1,000-gram wheel of freshly made cheese cost $4 and an equal sized wheel of four-month aged cheese cost $7.  After trying samples of both, we quickly snatched up a wheel of the strong, aged cheese and thanked the man.  It wasn’t until a day later when we realized we carried no knife with which to cut the cheese, but who needs a knife when you can eat straight off the wheel?

Hike Overview:

  • 4-6 hours, 15.5km/10.42miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,840ft
  • Elevation loss: -1,845ft
  • Max elevation: 11, 612ft

Directions: While you can get printed directions and a crude map from the Cloud Forest, they’re not exactly the most clear and complete directions, which you’ll find is quite in line with any other hike on the Loop.  As such, here are my directions, paired with GPS coordinates to double check yourself.

  1. Beginning at the Cloud Forest Hostel (3,180m), turn right and continue up the main paved road into the village of Chuchilan.  Keep walking past the main square until you see a dirt road to the left with a sign pointing toward Quilotoa.  Do not take this path, but continue straight along the road.
  2. When you reach a blue horseback riding sign 400m after the hostel, turn right up a dirt road. 
  3. Keep following this road uphill for the next 3.75km.  At the top of this climb, you will reach the paramo, or high altitude grasslands, and the highest point at 3,540m.  The road flattens and you will reach a green bench on the right side (S0.78746°, W78.93326°).  Immediately after the bench, the road forks.  Here you have two options:
    1.  The road on the left leads across the fields and eventually curves down to the Cloud Forest.  Be warned: The road to the Cloud Forest is easy and downhill, but it is still quite a long way (about one hour of walking from the paramo) and the area is often (imaginably) cloaked in clouds.  The trails become numerous in the forest, so be savvy with navigation skills or hire a local guide at one of the hostels in Chugchilan.  Note that if you do decide to go down to the Cloud Forest, you will inevitably have to make the return hike as well.
    2. Continue straight on the dirt road until you reach the village of Chinalo Alto about another 3km from the fork (S0.76977°, W78.92777°)
  4. If you decide to skip the Cloud Forest and head straight to the cheese factory, continue through the village of Chinalo Alto.
  5. 200m beyond the village you will come to a T-junction and a sign reading Quesera Quilotoa.  That is the old cheese factory and is now closed, so turn left here.
  6. Keep walking for slightly under one more kilometer until you reach the new cheese factory, Quesera Guasumbini Alto, on the left side (S0.75983°, W78.92880°). 
  7. To return to Chugchilan, walk back to the point where you entered the village of Chinalo Alto.  The road forks here.  You can either go right, taking the path you took up the mountain, or you can go left to make the hike a loop.  The left path is slightly longer and will eventually lead you to the paved road about 1.5km away from Chugchilan.  Turn right on the paved road and follow it back to the village.  If you're lucky, you might even see some runaway cows dragging their tethers down the paved road.