One of our trips was to Quilotoa, located by a massive volcanic crater filled with a huge emerald lake.
We set off at 7am catching several buses with many locals in traditional dress, and making several connections until we arrived at the town of Quilotoa at 12pm high up in the Andes mountains. We'd been told to ask for a bloke called Don Jumberto, a friend (only Spanish speaking) of a guy working at our hostel who could arrange a tour with a native guide from Quilotoa. With my basic grasp of Spanish, I thought that shouldn't be too hard so off we went to find this guy. Turns out the restaurant that he worked at was closed for re-building, and so this wasn't going to be an easy task!!...he was nowhere to be seen - so we wandered the village looking for his house! We never actually got to meet him, but after some swift talking we did have soup from his family (we think?! they knew who he was and seemed to imply that he lived there, but who knows!) and then a couple of local women appeared. One was in her early 20's and the other was in her 60's. As soon as the soup was finished we were given 5 minutes and then we started the walk to Chugchillan. Now for me personally it slightly defeats the purpose of hiking when the goal (the volcano crater) is at the start before you've begun the hike, but it was beautiful to see the highlight here anyway. After a couple of snaps at the crater lake the 20 year old said goodbye and the native 60 year old woman wrapped her veggies in a blanket type shawl and tied it at the front, starting a little walk by the side of the crater. I thought, "brilliant, she'll take her time and find a nice easy route"... as she began to jog down the sand banks I realised how wrong I was, this lady was actually an Olympic sprinter for Peru, or that's what you would have thought if you had been there. It was as if she didn't really know her way through the mountains, when she asked locals which way was best. I think she was trying to find the most difficult route for a fresh challenge! As we had only been in Ecuador's altitude a few days we were both still short of breath and found the steep sand banks challenging. We crossed valley rivers, meandered through local villagers gardens, and all the time trailing behind this ridiculously energetic lady who was at least mine and Tim's age combined!
The hike itself over mountains and valleys was beautiful, and we really got to see the houses, farms and way of life for some local communities.
11km and just under 4 hours later we arrived in Chugchilan. Our guide was quick to take us to the Cloud forest hostel and was enquiring about transport back....It had all finished, no-one was going back to her village!! We offered in broken spanish to pay for a bike or a place to stay, but she looked up to see how much light was left and started to jog down the road to make her way back. They must really know their land inside out because I would not be able to navigate the mountains with 90 minutes of daylight left to make a 4 hour hike back!!. But that's what is so amazing about going somewhere like that. You get to see how everything works without the modcons that we're so accustomed to and it's very impressive and humbling.
After a great sleep in a sweet little hostel, and some local dishes, we enquired about our transport options back to Latacunga. It was 7am but we were too late. There's a 2am bus that leaves once a day and transport choices end pretty much there. Instead of hiking another 4 hours in another direction we decided to catch the milk truck at 9.30 into the town of Sigchos. POSSIBLY THE BEST DECISION OF OUR WHOLE TRIP SO FAR!! We got on as a grain bag of live chickens was being handed over the side of this truck, A guy at the hostel next door had warned us to be prepared for the crowds and the bus stopping every 50 metres but as we drove locally there were only 5 of us on the truck....Happy days, lots of room, fresh mountain air, an insight into a local trade. A couple of women got on with their babies tied to their backs and buckets of milk were being measured and counted at each stop, then poured into these huge barrels. Some were giving buckets and also taking some back from these huge vats. 20 minutes later and we headed back to where we had originally boarded. There the bus stopped to pick up around 30 locals, a mix of families, young children, men and women, young and old and plenty of produce that they were carrying back to their homes.
This may not seem like so many but when I say milk truck, it's the size of a milk float in England, just higher and with wooden sides and one wooden pole along the middle to hang on to while you fly round the Andean mountain roads! The men were pushing eachother out of the way to shake Tim's hand, looking in amazement at how tall he was! We were helping to pick up buckets of milk over the side and people were handing us kids and bags and all sorts to help take on/off the truck! They all wanted to get to say hi and say a few words. We stood squished on the milk truck for 2 hours for $1 each and it was worth every cent. The scenery was incredible, the air was so fresh and the locals were pointing at places and people we wouldn't have seen, gesturing for us to take photos of their community. The truck stopped at many farms on the roadside and many young children were running out to flag it down with buckets of milk by their feet. It was a great mode of transport for us and we loved every second.
We had to wait 4 hours for another connection but we managed to meet some great characters in this little town too, and in particular a sweet little girl who was keen to show us her ripped up pieces of notepaper,
Locals couldn't have been nicer and a few smiles seemed to help our broken Spanish lots.
Apart from Latacunga, and Chugchilan, Quilotoa and passing the huge Cotopaxi volcano we visited some great little towns, including Otavalo - famous for its fabulously vibrant street markets
(from handicrafts and handmade clothes to the trade of their livestock) Cotacachi - famous for its leather trade and Peguche - a town where locals bathe under a seriously cold waterfall as they believe it cleanses the soul.
The locals crafts in these towns is quite unique and it's just a shame that we don't have enough rooms in the darned backpacks to pick up some souvenirs. All in all our time in Quito was great for these trips out, and a spur of the moment visit to the local museum of famed and interesting Ecuadorian artist Guayasamin,
the basilica and the old town gave us a greater appreciation of Quito. We also had great views from the Teleferico (cable car) on the way up - although by the time it reached the top the hillside was covered in cloud! We shared a cable car with a guy who we didn't speak to and then he bumped into Tim in Loja (at the very bottom of Ecuador) a week later. Both had a laugh and a high five in the street over what a coincidence that was, and that they both recognized eachother!...funny
On leaving Quito we just wanted to get down to Cuzco as soon as we could to get started on the Spanish classes so that's what we did - Spending every day the following week on a bus for 6-10 hours every day. Travelling in the Andes was great but back to back long journeys were a little taxing - on the plus side they were safe and with great local characters so we can't complain.
Seeing things like the Chimboraza volcano in Riobamba (the furthest point away from the Equator) and the quaint town of Cuenca was refreshing. A thumbs up for Ecuador - only 10
days but with so much to see and so little time to see it, we had some great experiences there.
The plan was to dive straight in to our Spanish classes in Quito and set up home here for a few weeks, but the reality was that although it had so many spanish schools, Quito was just another big city and apart from the classes, and a nice little historic center, there wasn't much else to keep us there. A visit to the Galapagos Islands was just too pricey for us, and we'd already chosen not to include it on this trip. Within a couple of days we had decided to start the Spanish classes in Peru (Cusco) a week before our buddy Matt was coming out to join Tim on the Inca trail. However that's not to say we had a bad time here at all, we did make a few awesome trips outside Quito and it was a great place to learn about Andean communities and local villages.