The Ups and Downs of Looping through Quilotoa

Some say that the water filled caldera at Quilatoa is the most beautiful site in the whole of Ecuador. After cycling the El Angel paramos and spinning under the armpit of Volcan Cotopaxi I’m not sure I can entirely agree. Beauty leagues aside though, it really is quite something. A two mile (3km) wide crater lake perched up around 13,000 ft (3,900 m) surrounded by sharp hulks of mountains and backed by views of the snow-capped Illiniza, you’d be hard pushed not to appreciate it. This green puddle was to be the emerald in our proposed route down through Angamarca, Simiatug and into the Chimborazo Forest Reserve. Unfortunately mechanical issues led us on a tool chase down to a sodden El Corazon on the western edge of the Andes before our hand was forced into a six-hour bus retreat to Latacunga. So the lake instead became the jewel in the crown of our own unique take on the Quilatoa loop.

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Sunrise at the famous Quilatoa crater lake

When the sun is high, dissolved minerals give the Quilatoa crater lake a distinctive greenish hue. An awe-inspiring touch to a quite stunning vista. Unfortunately though, these days where there is beauty there are tourists. Quilatoa’s popularity and solid footing on the Gringo Trail has prompting the formation of an ad hoc little tourist village on the south-east rim of the crater where visitors can choose from a variety of $10 a night options. Useful but also a shame. My selfish and probably over romanticized hope for such remarkable places involves solitude and a strategically pitched tent. This was obtainable in the El Angel paramos and on the route Jo and I took around Volcan Cotopaxi and a notable element in them as special experiences. Tourism hasn’t killed the Quilatoas experience but it is starting to cheapened it. Riding the dirt south from Chugchan to the lake we passed many really cute indigenous kids. Sadly tourism has turned them from curious cuties into commodities. Kids in true backwaters are usually fascinated by me and thrilled by the chance to laugh at their friends in photos. Kids on the Quilatoa loop know what tourists want and hold out their hands for money.

Map - Latacunga to El Corazon1

Route through from Latacunga via Quilatoa to El Corazon in the south…
click here to view the fully interactive map and elevation profile

Quilatoa Route elevation profile

Following the great route notes of dirt guru Cass Gilbert in this post, we left the Gringo Trail a few miles after Zumbahua and turned onto the dirt road towards Angamarca. Climbing up above 13,000 ft we cycled through cold wet clouds into a world reminiscent of Scotland or northern Wales. The further we spun the more stunning the landscape became, evolving into enormous deep valleys quilted with the typically Ecuadorian patchwork of fields… like the Yorkshire Dales after a couple of years hard work in the weights gym. Scattered amongst the landscape houses cluster in small communities and indigenous folk go about their harsh rural lives. The women of these parts are simply amazing. Felt hats pulled down to their eyes, socks pulled up to their knee-length skirts and shawls wrapped tightly up to the chin, these women are outstandingly stylish and incredible multitaskers. Somehow they manage to undertake all the demanding tasks their lives call for whilst simultaneously knitting. Descending one particularly treacherous stretch of rocky road we passed a woman who was managing to guide two rebellious load baring burros in the rain on really uneven slippery ground whist continuing to effortlessly work her knitting needles. Indigenous women of Ecuador, I salute you. Unfortunately I also struggle to overcome my perception of it being rude to photograph you.

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Clouds were a definite theme of this ride (here on the way out of Sigchos)… we rode in and out of them a lot and they dumped a lot of rain on us

Cass Gilbert was the first to blaze the trail through Pinllopata to Simiatug but has since been followed by my old riding buddies Sarah and James (their account here). Having studied their accounts I was more than a little excited by the opportunity to dirty my wheels on what looks an exciting route. So it’s with enormous disappointment that I boarded the bus back to Latacunga. But that’s cycle touring for you, it’s like street food, you never really know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you win the most delicious feast but you may also enjoy the free gift of some toilet fireworks. In our case we won an amazing few days on an incredible route followed up by a night in El Corazon, the wet arsehole of the Ecuadorian Andes and then a stinking dribble back to where we started. All in all a great week. And even the retreat has a silver lining in the opportunity to escape the rabid rains that at this time of year consume the lower Andes. As one opportunity closes a whole load more open up…

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Our first day north out of Latacunga is a bit of a failure. neither of us is feeling great and after battling traffic and dull roads we both bonk (run out of energy) just before Toacazo. After many many hours sleep we’re revived enough the next day to enjoy the rolling road west of town

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After a slow easy ascent out of Toacazo we descend down a lush valley

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The route meanders quickly down to a river before climbing again up through a small village and then to Sigchos… here looking down on the road ridden from near Sigchos

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I made the rookie error of misreading an ascent on the map as a descent… so Sigchos came as quite a surprise at the top of the climb

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Apart from a catchy name, Sigchos boasts some great architecture and…

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… a dog in a box

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After a night in Hostal San Miguel, Sigchos we leave town on a cobbled road that soon turns to sticky mud

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From mud the road soon dries into some really enjoyable packed dirt that carries us through incredible scenery

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Traffic is minimal, chasing dogs manageable and cute piglets plentiful

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As fine weather follows us through the morning the views just keep on coming

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The small village of Chugchilan where many sop to luxuriate at the Black Sheep Hostal comes at a perfect time for lunch…

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… as we refuel in the village restaurant Shermy finds a new friend

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After Chugchian the route traverses around a huge canyon before hitting a patch of forest (here) then charging up hill

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Watch out for hooligans!

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As we climbed up towards Quilotoa the road got wider and wider… clearly something was afoot

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Then with a brief flurry of road crew activity the dirt turned to what looked like an impossibly steep piece of freshly paved highway

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But like the yellow brick road the black-top led us up to the misty Quilotoa crater and its cluster of services

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We managed to wrangle a good deal out of Hostal Chukirawa right up by the crater and enjoyed a cosy night with our own personal wood burner

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Come morning the clouds had gone and we were treated to our first views of the Quilotoa crater lake

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A beautiful spot for quiet contemplation

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Beyond the lake Illiniza (5126 m) provides a magnificent backdrop

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As the sun rises in the sky the water becomes increasingly aquamarine

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The paved descent from Quilotoa down to Zumbahua gifts a rare chance for quick miles

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We even picked up some racers… I wonder how they get back up to the top!

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Well the descent should be quick in theory… our progress was stunted by the ice-cream truck and the chance of quick calories

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And then the chance of a second helping of quick calories

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Dropping down into picturesque little Zumbahua

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The 10 km paved climb from Zumbahua up to the dirt road towards Angamarca flt like a relaxed training ride… with the evolving views it was surprisingly fun

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After turning off onto the dirt the traffic was replaced by these guys

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Having spun away from the main road we settles in to enjoy the views over lunch…

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… unfortunately fate had other ideas as wet and cold clouds enveloped us for the afternoon

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Having climbed up to 13,500 ft (4,100 m) we descended away from the patchwork fields…

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… into a landscape very reminiscent of Scotland and Wales

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Soon the patches of field and small communities reappeared and we had a short climb before the long descent towards Angamarca

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As we started to descend the temperature plummeted, heavy rain set in and misery peeped its head around the corner. Thankfully we came across Los Pinos ranch and hosteria which on closer inspection was closed and deserted giving us a comfortable free night under shelter

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Out early the next morning to avoid detection we enjoyed a beautiful (if slightly cold) breakfast

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Filled with oats and warmed by coffee we resumed the descent down to Angamarca

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As Angamarca came into view so did the route down the valley west towards Pinllopata

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I find the back and forth nature of switchbacks a great way of varying the view

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Arriving in Angamarca I was quickly seduced by its tumbledown charm

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With its steep streets Angamarca is every inch a mountain village

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Like every other Latino town and village Angamarca is built around an uncharacteristically grand church and plaza (maybe ‘grand’ is a little strong)

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From Angamarca (top settlement) the road drops through San Juan (middle) into Shuyo. In Shuyo it crosses the river and starts to climb. Before turning west out of the village and crossing a small stream a steep road branches off to the left, this is the start of the direct up and over route to Simiatug. Having heard about it from Sarah & James I was keen to give this route a try. We asked around pretty extensively about it and were met with more than a few frowns… it’s a two day walk and I suggest a fairy steep slog. With Jo having discovered a couple of broken rear spokes in Angamarca and no way to fix them and wet clouds quickly enveloping the mountains we changed our plan and headed down the main route towards Pinllopata

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This was the last snippet of blue sky we saw before the day was lost to clouds and increasingly heavy rain. On the long descent to Pinllopata Jo lost another spoke and her back wheel looked set to fall apart. Sheltering in the Pinllopata village square we were told of a bike mechanic in El Corazon and had no option but to continue our descent down past the planned turn towards Quishpe and into El Corazon

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Arriving in El Corazon in heavy rain s darkness was beginning to fall, it felt like we’d landed in arse-end of shitsville. Come the morning there was little to change this perception

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Sunday morning on main street El Corazon… what a beauty

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For a brief period in the morning it was clear enough to get a feeling for our position perched on the far western edge of the Andes. But by midday we were in cloud and heavy rain again… people assure us its a nice place to visit in August

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Neither of the two ‘quality’ bike mechanics of El Corazon had the tools we needed to take Jo’s cassette off and mend the broken spokes. After researching the options it became clear she was going to have to return with the wheel to Latacunga. In view of her limited time and the very limited attraction for me of waiting a few days in E Corazon we decided to call it quits on the route and get the bus back to Latacunga

One response to “The Ups and Downs of Looping through Quilotoa

  1. I’m embarrassed not to have responded earlier to you, but I am really enjoying your regular dispatches. Thanks, too, for your postcard. Some friends walked that trail in England last spring — maybe if someday I get to England I will do it, too. Meanwhile, I just got back from my 5th visit to my daughter in Algeria, which is fascinating to learn experience on a personal level. Chase and Phyllis are cycling in Argentina or Chile, forget which, after a month learning Spanish — think they will be there through March or so. I will try to find your email (or email me first) to inquire more about your circumstances. . .

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