Conquering the Queen’s Tooth: Hiking from Chugchilan to Quilotoa

hamartia n. (Greek) The character flaw or error of a tragic hero that leads to his downfall.

The word Quilotoa (pronounced key-low-TOE-uh) comes from two old Quechua words: quiru meaning “tooth” and toa meaning “queen”.  The queen’s tooth.  How apt.

We felt a little bad about skipping the Isinlivi to Chugchilan leg, but we also knew there wasn’t really much we could have done about it, given the bus schedules to the area.  As such, we were anxious to strap on our boots and actually get to hiking part of the Quilotoa Loop.  And our first hike would be the big one: the one ending at the top of the crater rim of the Quilotoa Volcano after which the Loop was named.  After a 14,000 year dormancy since its last eruption in 1280, which caused the collapse of the volcano itself, all that remains in a 3km wide water-filled caldera and a village build fearlessly right on the rim.

Of course, there were immediate complications.  The whole reason we had stayed at Cloud Forest was because Eva had worked out a deal with the owner; we would stay for free and they would get a nice feature on the Quilotoa website she was building.  She had already received confirmation from Jose, the owner, and we were good to go. Unfortunately, Jose wasn’t there and no one had informed the staff of the arrangement.  As we hauled our packs out of our room toward the entrance arch, one of the young cooks ran up and asked us to pay. 

“Trabajamos para Llullu Llama, en Isinlivi.  Eva nos dice no pagamos aqui.”  The grammar was messy, but I hoped it would be enough for them to understand.  It wasn’t. 

We tried to explain the situation to about three different women before I finally asked if I could use the phone.  First I called Eva and explained the problem.  She suggested I call Jose, so I asked the hostel workers if they could do so.  When Jose answered, I explained who I was and asked him to explain the situation to his employees.  After he spoke on the phone to them for a minute, they lit up and said, “Ah! Sus habitacion es gratis!” I made a mental note to store that word in my list of useful phrases. 

It was funny, really: In the multiple Spanish classes I had taken over the years at various schools, the main focus appeared more and more to be relatively useless words and phrases.  I could describe any article of clothing in just about any color of the rainbow, and yet I couldn’t ask simple, practical things like how to get from point A to B.  I had started mentally dividing my Spanish into two categories: the proper Spanish taught to me from books and the practical Spanish taught to me by mistakes and experience.

Even though everything worked out, the miscommunication had now set us about a half an hour behind schedule.  We already hadn’t been exactly part of the early bird crowd, but the morning delay now put us even further behind.  It was 11:30am now, and the hike was meant to take 4-6 hours.  Theoretically, I told myself, we should still be fine.  Then again, I should have also learned never to trust any thought that I prefaced with “theoretically”. 

The hike started off smooth and easy, along a wide dirt road running down hill out of Chugchilan.  The inevitable problem with starting a hike up a mountain going downhill is that you know eventually you will have to gain all that elevation back, and we did.  After losing an immediate 1,000ft, the trail cut off from the main road up a steep dirt “shortcut” (mistake #1) and the it was all uphill from there, and I don’t mean metaphorically. At the top of the shortcut, we passed through the tiny village of La Moya, stopped briefly to say hello to a friendly mule staked down at the side of the road.  Farmers sure weren’t very concerned about the security of their animals.

The twin peaks rising on the right side are the Ilinizas, Norte and Sur.

Outside La Moya, we reached another optional shortcut.  After just looking at the shortcut, which consisted of a steep trail plunging into the canyon only to the climb right back out of it, we elected to take the long route that circled around the canyon, passing by a waterfall.  It was the smartest decision we would make all day.

On the side of the canyon, we reached another little village called Guayama Grande, which we passed through in a matter of minutes of continued on our way.  At this point, things started to get confusing.  The main path was constantly being met with smaller, tributary paths leading to houses tucked away among the rocks.  More than once, we found ourselves on the wrong path but luckily were able to recognize our mistake before going too far.  Finally, we reached a main road once again.  According to our directions we could continue to follow this road up to the crater rim, or we could take a significant shortcut straight up the mountain and intersect with the trail just a little later on.  Because we didn’t learn from our previous mistake, we opted for the shortcut once again.  Right away, we got lost, ending up crossing a few barbed wire fences.  But it couldn’t be that tough, right?  All we technically needed to do was keep going up. 

But up quickly became unbearable as the ground changed from solid dirt to loose, powdery sand that sent us sinking two steps down for every step we took up.  We plowed on, gasping for air that simply wasn’t there.  The trail was completely gone by now and we found ourselves picking through dense patched of brush of trees.  Once, I clotheslined the top of my pack on a low tree branch, flinging me to the ground, where I stayed, content to just pass out for the night.  Finally, Chris convinced me to keep going.

Finally, we came to a clearing and the blessed path came into view, a wide, sandy wash marred with numerous footprints.  The ground leveled for just a moment and we collapsed in the soft sand.  The hike wasn’t over; in fact, we still had over two miles to go, but that moment still felt like a small victory.  The worst of the 4,000ft climb was over.

After resting for a few minutes and enjoying the view and the valley and mountains behind us, we picked ourselves up and continued on to the crater rim, elevation 12,841ft.  In front of us, the ground lurched downward into a steep plummet to the two-mile wide lagoon, turning from turquoise to navy in the evening light. Unfortunately, by that point, we didn’t really care.  We had slogged our way up the mountain, gotten lost multiple times, and now we were racing the darkness to get into the village; our primary concern was not the view in front of us.  We set out in the direction of Quilotoa, just a little less than halfway around the crater from where we were.  Everything hurt: our bodies, our lungs, the very skin on our faces.  More than once, we each sat down and said we weren’t going a step further, that we couldn’t go a step further.  Each time, we got up and continued on.  

The sun sank lower and lower to our backs, providing simultaneously a reason to keep moving and a desire to stop and stare. Despite the exhaustion, the physical pain, it was incredible.  The valley from which we had climbed was now blanketed in soft, blue clouds, leaving only the highest peaks rising from them.  The twin Ilinizas stood out starkly against the far horizon, catching the red rays of the sun’s final moments.  Maybe it was just the fact that our lungs were only taking in about 62% of the oxygen to which they were accustomed, but the sight was truly breathtaking.  It almost made the desperation of that final hour worth it… almost.

Soon enough, the sun dipped below the horizon completely, casting a dark purple glow across the land in front of us.  Surely nothing could go wrong in traversing a narrow, rocky crater rim at night, right?  Amidst our gasps for air at the high altitude as we quickly tried to cover those last two miles, Chris and I silently pondered how we always seemed to get ourselves into these kinds of situations.  How exactly do you define when a habit becomes bad?

By the final stretch of the hike, it was completely dark and we were shuffling slowly along the soft sandy path, trying our hardest not to plummet to our deaths.  Finally, the trail veered from the rim and opened into a wide path leading to lights: Quilotoa.  We had finally made it.  Every part of our bodies ached.  Our lips were split and bleeding from dehydration and sucking air at such a violent rate and our skin burned from the exposure to the sun.  As we reached the first building, we saw a group of kids walking toward us.

“Hostel?” the eldest girl asked us.

“Si, tenemos una reservacion en Runa Wasi.”  The looked at us and pointed down the street and to the right.  Quilotoa was tiny, even compared to Isinlivi.  It was one street, starting at the crater trail and ending around a wide curve leading to a few more hostels and the main road.  Naturally, our hostel was the very last building around this curve.  Even though it wasn’t far, it would be our luck that we still had to walk to the furthest possible hostel in town. We slogged down the road and finally stumbled into Runa Wasi. 

“A middle aged woman walk up to us and asked what we needed.  I attempted to crudely explain that we had a reservation made from Llullu Llama and she told us to wait while she went to fetch the key.  The hostel was build into a large rustic estate house.  A staircase wound up to the rooms from the foyer and the dining room cut off to the left, where a handful of other guests were seated around the tables.

“La cena?” I asked when she returned, terrified that we had missed dinner. 

“Si, en quince minutos.”  Finally, a bit of good luck.  She took us upstairs to our room, a dark little with solid brick walls, two beds piled with blankets, a wood stove, and a private bathroom.  It was probably one of the nicest aesthetically pleasing rooms we had stayed in so far.  Eva had warned us that none of the hostels in Quilotoa were very nice, and thus assumed this was the exception, and perhaps why she had recommended it to us.

We threw out stuff down on the first bed, feeling the ache in our collarbones as we finally lifted the weight from them.  As I entered the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and saw just why my skin felt so hot and tight as it did.  My face was brighter red than a tomato, probably the worst it had ever been.  I am notoriously bad at spurning sunscreen, but at these high altitudes, with far less space between me and the sun, I regretted that decision immensely.

We wandered downstairs to dinner and joined some fellow hikers, including an older couple from Canada named Mike and Louise.  As we looked around at the small clusters of people, we noticed everyone was as red, or redder, than we were. 

“We even put on sunscreen several times throughout the day,” a young German guy told us.  In our own strange way, we seemed to be fortunate compared to some, then.

As the couple who owned the hostel served us a three-course meal, consisting of soup, a little filet of chicken served with potatoes, and some desert and tea, we all bonded over the hell-ish hike we had all experienced, including criticizing the hostel direction that told us it would take 4-6 hours.

“Man, that hike took us over eight hours!” Mike exclaimed.  We were right there with him, and the delay in our start had only compounded the problems of that.  It was nice to chat over dinner with other travelers.  So many of the places we had visited had not had many opportunities for making friends, so we cherished the time when could.  After hanging out and sipping some manzanilla tea for a while after dinner, we all retired to our rooms, completely and utterly exhausted from the hike.  At nearly 13,000ft., it was a cold night, but thankfully our room cam equipped with an electric heater poised on the nightstand right next to the bed.  We turned it on, buried our aching bodies (filth and all) beneath the covers, and passed out.

The next day, we woke with sore, leaden limbs and a sever absence of motivation.  We had initially considered beginning our hike back to Isinlivi that day but we really could muster up the strength to strap on our packs again.  And we weren’t alone.  At breakfast, Mike and Louise informed us that they, too, had decided to spend an extra day resting in Quilotoa, even despite the fact that their limited time trip put them on an even greater time crunch.  The altitude wasn’t sitting with either of them very well, either, and Mike described to us the hallucinations he had experienced the day before.

Even though we wouldn’t be continuing our journey that day, we decided we wouldn’t waste it.  After all, gathering information about the towns was as much a part of our job as doing the hike.  We set out after breakfast to explore the whole L shaped street of Quilotoa, stopping and getting information from a few hostels, browsing through some local art shops, and stopping to see the indoor craft market.  Up the road where the trail from the crater entered the town, there was a large, wooden viewing platform that looked out over the crater.  We spent a few minutes taking it in, trying to appreciate it a little bit more now that we were well rested.  Near the platform, a man stood holding a pair of donkeys, selling their services to transport people down the steep, switch-backing trail to the shore of the lake.

After seeing Quilotoa in its entirety, we returned to the hostel to tackle our next issue: food.   Problematically, we were almost entirely out of food for the next two days of hiking and Quilotoa didn’t offer much in the way of shopping.  Sure, there were restaurants, but the whole town was pretty lacking in portable food.  We found one bare-shelved tienda that didn’t sell much other than candy and eggs.  Settling for what we could get, we purchased an entire flat of 36 eggs for somewhere around $5.  How were we going to live of eggs for the next two days, you ask?  Well, we were going to borrow from my Europe backpacking days and boil them.

After receiving permission from our hosts to use the kitchen, we spent the next hour hard-boiling and cooling our flat of eggs.  Once finished, we sacked them up and cushioned them on our clothing in Chris’ pack.   It wasn’t gourmet, but it was better than starving by a long shot.

The next day, we took advice from our previous mistake and got an earlier start.  We checked out of Runa Wasi, paying $30 a night rather than $35 after telling them Llullu Llama had recommended us.  We set out back through Quilotoa and got back on the crater trail from which we had come two days earlier.  Our intent was to hike back to Isinlivi over the span of two days via the Malingua Pamba route.  Malingua Pamba, one of the more remote villages of the Quilotoa Andes, boasting a very nice natural hot springs that no one knew about due to its remoteness.  Relatively no one went there due to a complete lack of hostels in the village.  To go there, you either needed to camp or work out a host stay with one of the locals.  Since we had camping gear with us and didn’t really have enough of a comfort with our Spanish to arrange such a thing, we planned on camping for a night.

The problem was that Llullu Llama didn’t have directions for this leg of the journey going that direction.  We only had directions for the reverse: Isinlivi to Malingua Pamba to Quilotoa.  Our goal was to decipher these directions in reverse and use out hike to create new directions for that direction.  Easiest said than done. 

From what we could decipher on the map, we needed to retrace our steps coming in and pass the point at which we had reached the rim trail. Easy enough. Shortly beyond that, we knew we needed to cut off the volcano to the right and descend down into the valley.  The problem was that we had no idea where to cut off.  Despite the fact that we had clearly followed the directions in reverse to a point accurately, there were no clear trails off in the direction we needed to go.  I poured over and over the directions and saw no mistake in our movement thus far.  Maybe we simply had not gone far enough.  We continue along the narrow crater trail, up a knife-like ridge until we finally decided we had gone way too far.  We must have missed it.  Increasingly frustrated, we doubled back and continued out search, well aware that we were wasting precious time to hike even if we did find the right path. 

After frantically running ahead and searching to no avail, we decided the best course of action was to return to Quilotoa for another night, then hitchhike back to Isinlivi the next day.  It was already 2pm at this point; Even if we somehow could find the trail, that left us with barely four hours of daylight to reach Malingua Pamba, still at least a four hour’s hike from the rim.  We would have to be fast and accurate and given that we would still be following reversed directions, there was no guarantee we wouldn’t get lost again.  Continuing on seemed like a stupid and risky venture, even by our standards.  It looked like Malingua Pamba would be a no go, but I could only hope we might be able to find enough free time while working at the hostel to take a couple days trip there in the proper direction.

Back in Quilotoa, we trudged dejectedly back to Runa Wasi, only to find that the owners had left town for the next couple days.  Homeless and hopeless, we tried the hostel across the street, one we actually hadn’t stopped in the day before and thus one we hoped would be a little cheaper than the others we had encountered.  Even though we would technically be reimbursed for our expenses, we still wanted to keep costs low for Eva.  Outside Hosteria Alpaka, a man approached us and asked what we needed.

“Cuanto cuesta un habitacion?” I asked.

"Viente y cinco cada.”  $25 each?!  Considered we had just paid hardly over that for both of us, the price seemed too high. 

“No, es mas caro.”

He thought for a moment before saying, “Quince cada.”  With minimum effort, I had miraculously gotten the price dropped $10 each.  There was a first.  We agreed and he showed us inside to our room.  Like Runa Wasi, the walls were solid brick, with two large windows over the two queen sized beds.  A wood fireplace was positioned in the corner between the beds and the bathroom.  Once again, we wondered why Eva had told us the hostels in Quilotoa were bad, because we had seen nothing but evidence to the contrary.

Since we still had several hours to the hostel’s dinner time, we set out in search of food.  The Chukirawa Hostel, one we had stopped in the day before, had what appeared to be a nice, inexpensive restaurant attached to it.  Inside, we ordered out food and some cocoa tea just for the hell of it.  Cocoa tea, made from the leaves of cocoa plants (that same one used to make cocaine), was popular among travelers to high altitude South American countries as it was meant to combat the effects of altitude sickness.  While we weren’t really suffering from it, we were tired enough to crave the little caffeine kick.  Besides, we were curious.  In the end, it didn’t taste or feel like anything different from regular tea, and in terms of effect, our strong coffee was better.

They brought our meals and I cut into my chicken drumstick, only to find blood gushing out from the meat by the bone.  I had never seen raw chicken look so horribly raw.  I showed our server and asked if she could cook it some more.  She looked at me very displeased, before taking my plate back to the kitchen.  I hated to be that person.  As a server, I never wanted to be the kind of person who sent my food back, but it wasn’t as if this was a small issue. I had gotten used to be being lax with my standards of hygiene and sanitation.  Hell, I had eaten sandwiched with mayonnaise from a bag that had sat out in the heat all day, but bloody chicken was a bit much for even me, and I didn’t feel as though I was being unreasonable for complaining.  She brought my chicken back, re-toasted on the outside, with the same bloody center.  I sighed, realizing it wasn’t worth complaining for a puny amount of meat on the leg anyway.  I did my best to pick around the bloodiest bits and told myself that if I got salmonella, at least we would be stationary for the next three weeks.

We returned to the hostel to shower.  For the first time in a couple days, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror: the redness on my face had started to give way to white scales appearing all over my forehead and nose.  If I brushed my hand along the skin, it released a shower of charmingly cute white flakes.  High altitude had not been kind to me.

That evening, we gathered in the common room for dinner which consisted of soup, beat salad, potatoes, rice, and chicken, served family style among the fifteen or so of us guests all seated around a long table.  We chatted casually to the other travelers and marveled at a Canadian girl who switched seamlessly between fluent French, English, and Spanish to talk to the different clusters of people.  I remembered how traveling in Europe had made me so envious of people more successful with language learning than I.  In South America, being one of the few people who did speak two languages, I had forgotten how amazing some people were with languages and I wished it came so easily for me.

The next morning, we rejoined the guests for a big breakfast before all packing up our stuff to head out.  Some were just beginning their journey, and some, like ourselves, were attempting to figure out transportation back to civilization.  It was easy for those returning to Latacunga, as buses came every half hour from the bus stop.  To Isinlivi, however, was a bit more challenging.  Since no one seemed able to give us a straight answer, we decided the best option would be just to head out to the road and wait.  We sat in the dirt next to a waiting Latacunga bound bus for about a half hour, turning down one offer for a ride via horseback for the low low price of $20. It seemed a little excessive.  Shortly after, a white van came barreling down the road, stopping in front of us.

He was heading to Chugchilan en route of delivering bundles of unknown plants, but offered to take us all the way to Isinlivi for $20.  It seemed like a fair price, so we threw our packs in the back hatch with all the plant bundles and hopped in the bench seat cab. 

It was an entertaining route to say the least.  Every so often, we stopped for a few minutes, just enough time for our driver to haul out the bundles to his buyers.  When we reached a crossroads shortly after Chugchilan, he asked which way we wanted to take to Isinlivi: the main road over the mountains or the…slightly less than a road… road through the valley.  I told him whatever was easier for him and he took that as a challenge.  Down into the valley we went on a bumpy and narrow road.  We rattled over rocks and logs, across landslides and piles of mud, and past dogs that tore after the truck for nearly 400 meters, nipping at its tires.

“Quieren morir,” he said grinning just slightly.  They want to die.

Finally, we made it to Isinlivi.  We paid the driver and thanked him so much for the adventurous journey as we pulled our packs out of the back and said hello to our home for the next three weeks.