We arrived in a chilly Quilatoa – a small village on the crater of a huge extinct volcano – after a four hour bus ride from Quito. Although the sun was setting, we couldn’t wait until the morning for our first view of what we’d come to see – the beautiful lake which fills the base of the crater.
Quilatoa itself is tiny. We’d thought Mindo was small, but this place is like a mini-village. It’s rustic too; in our hostel there wasn’t running water in the bathroom unless you turned on a pump outside, and the solitary lightbulb hanging from the ceiling was the only working electric thing in our room.
Going to Quilatoa was almost like stepping back into a distant time-gone-by. The people we met were extremely friendly and warm, but it was strange to see them working in fields with rudimentary tools and living in make-shift houses with little or no appliances. The clothing we saw completed the ‘olden days’ effect – all of the women wore what seemed to be a traditional ‘uniform’ of full skirts, socks pulled up to their knees, heeled shoes, a shawl around their shoulders and black or dark blue or green pork pie hat. They looked extremely smart, but their male counterparts looked disappointingly ‘normal’ – they didn’t have a particular dress-code and wore jeans and t-shirts.
After having a nose around Quilatoa, we returned to our basic hostel bedroom to warm up a bit in front of the wood-burner before heading over to the dining room for dinner. The ‘dining room’ turned out to be an open hut with one table and another wood-burner to stave off the chilly air that was curling around our legs. We also discovered that we were the only ‘gringos’ at the hostel that day and that the hostel dining area was also a restaurant that many of the local bus drivers (including the one that drove us to Quilatoa) use for a meal and a drink after their last shift.
Luckily for us, the locals were great fun and after our dinner they invited us to stay and have a drink with them (it would have been rude to say no…). The drink was a bit of a mystery. Apparently it was a ‘house speciality’ and involved boiling some green fruit with sugar water and then adding a mysterious alcoholic ingredient that came out of an unlabelled plastic bottle. Whatever it was, it was fruity and warming – and we felt very fortunate to be included in their little gathering.
After trying to speak to them for a little while in my broken Spanish, they confessed to me that they didn’t speak Spanish well themselves either and that they actually spoke Kichwa (which it turns out is a language that is linked to the Incas and is spoken by many indigenous people of the Andes). Despite the language barrier, we found that a very cute kitten playing with everything in sight is hilarious no matter what language you speak!
The next day we enjoyed our breakfast in the dining area – ready for our trek down to the shore of the lake. When we stepped outside I glanced to the right and was horrified to see a sheep strung upside down with its throat cut – and an old man with a knife grinning toothlessly at us. After getting over the shock of seeing a dead animal hanging in the doorway, we watched the man for a while as he worked on his dinner (from a safe distance). He skilfully skinned it – making it look more like food and less like a sheep – and gutted it, before giving some scraps to the waiting dogs. While we were standing in awe, children ran around us playing – completely oblivious to the butchery happening in front of them, which made me feel like a total wuss!
When we finally got ourselves back on track after that little distraction, we set off to trek down to Laguna Quilatoa.
In the sunshine, the lake was absolutely stunning – with the bright green water rippling and sparkling in the wind.
We strolled down at a leisurely pace, taking in the picturesque landscape around us and the pretty yellow and lilac wild flowers that lined the path.
When we eventually reached the bottom, we found we could rent kayaks to paddle right out on to the lake. It was an amazing experience to glide out into the middle of the old volcano.
The most challenging part of the day was the climb back up to the summit of the crater. The steep path, which was covered with a thick layer of crumbling sand and grit, felt like we were trying to climb up an extremely long escalator that was going the wrong way.
Our trek to Ciudad Perdida in Colombia was fantastic training though, and we both got back up to the top within an hour (the guides say it takes one to two hours). We made it back to the village just in time for our new found friends – the bus drivers – to pick us up and get us to Latacunga. There we were getting a connecting bus to Ambato and on to our next stop – Banos – the adventure capital of Ecuador.