Ecuador: Cuenca/Parque Nacional Cajas and Latacunga/Volcan Cotopaxi/Quilatoa Loop (June 23 to July 4, 2015)

After hiking the amazing Santa Cruz trek in Peru (see previous post), I took an overnight bus, an all day bus, and another overnight bus to Cuenca, Ecuador.

Per Wikipedia, Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador (population ~400,000) located in the Andean highlands at about 8,200 ft (2500 m). It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for its charming historical center, its 52 churches, the small cobbled streets and colonial houses with noble facades, wrought iron balconies and red tiled roofs. Besides being a center for culture and art, Cuenca is also the gateway to Parque Nacional Cajas, a high-elevation area [10,170 to 14,600 ft (3100 to 4450 m) which contains about 270 lakes and lagoons surrounded by tundra with jagged peaks, gnarled red Quenua trees and cloud forest.

So how did I spend 5 days in a UNESCO World Heritage city and the nearby national park? Exploring and trekking of course!

In Cuenca, I reconnected with Renata and Gabriela (Czech Republic) who I’d met in Cusco (Peru) and with who I hiked the Santa Cruz trek. We spent a few days exploring the quint, beautiful city of Cuenca, enjoying the lovely plazas and churches and the delicious food at the local markets. After a few days in the city, we decided to do a 3-day trek in Parque Nacional Cajas. Unfortunately due to high winds, rain, and cold temperatures, we instead did a day hike that while beautiful was very wet and muddy, then spent the night at a refugio (instead of camping), and returned to Cuenca the next day. Back in town, we spent the day washing our muddy gear and deciding where to go next. I said farewell to Renata and Gabriela who headed to the coast for some sun and beach time, and I headed further north in Ecuador for more trekking.

After an overnight bus from Cuenca, I arrived in Latacunga (population 98,355), located on a plateau at about 9,200 ft (2,800 m) which serves as the gateway to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, home of Volcan Cotopaxi. The active Cotopaxi volcano, the second highest summit in Ecuador at 19,347 ft (5,897 m), is only about 15 mi (25 km) from Latacunga. Per Wikipedia, “Volcan Cotopaxi erupted violently in 1742 and again in 1768, destroying much of Latacunga both times. The indomitable (or foolhardy) survivors rebuilt, only to have an immense eruption in 1877 wreak havoc a third time. Not to be outdone by Mother Nature, the townspeople were compelled to try again, and they have been spared Cotopaxi’s wrath ever since.” Until recently, the last eruption occurred in 1940. However, on August 14, 2015, about 6 weeks after I was there, the volcano erupted “with a series of six very strong explosions that produced ash plumes and some pyroclastic flows. In response, the Ecuadorian government declared a state of emergency for the area around the volcano and ordered more than 400 people to evacuate from the village on the northern foot of the volcano.” As far as I can tell, no one was hurt and no property was damaged by the eruptions. Too bad I missed it, it would have been exciting to see the volcano erupt!

Along with Volcan Cotopaxi, Latacunga is also the gateway to the Quilatoa Loop, a 3-day trek through several Andean villages that allows a glimpse into rural, indigenous life while enjoying majestic canyons, lagunas, and volcanoes. The trek is made famous by the Quilotoa crater lake. Per Wikipedia, the 2 mi (~3 km) wide caldera was formed by the collapse of the volcano following a catastrophic eruption about 800 years ago.

So how did I spend 7 days in an area of large volcanoes, deep canyons, and indigenous villages? Exploring and trekking of course!

I started with a day-hike on Volcan Cotopaxi with my hiking partners, Benjamin and Jasmin (Germany) and Jason (Canada) who I’d met at the hostel in Latacunga. We took a bus to the national park where we hired a guide to take us to the foot of the glacier (the furthest point before technical climbing gear is required). While the trek to the glacier is steep, it’s short (about 45 minutes) and not technical, requiring only willpower to complete. However, the national park requires hikers to hire a guide to accompany them at least to/from the trailhead. Our guide, Patricio, was fantastic, sharing information about the geology and natural history of the area and the volcano. He seemed to genuinely enjoy hiking and talking with us as much as we did with him. Amazingly, he hikes the trail almost daily, guiding tourists to the glacier, and still loves it each time. A true hiker. The views of the surrounding landscape were stunning from the edge of the glacier located at 16,732 ft (5100 m). It was a great day-hike up a majestic volcano with fun people, including our guide, Patricio.

Next up, the Quilatoa Loop. With my legs warmed up from the volcano hike the day before, I packed my gear and headed to the trailhead with Alex (England), whom I’d met at the hostel that morning, and Benjamin. After a 2.5-hour bus ride, we started the 3-day, roughly 25-mi (41-km) trek. The loop is typically done starting from the village of Quilatoa, adjacent to Quilatoa crater lake. However, we opted to hike the reverse direction from Sigchos so we’d be rewarded with views of the stunning crater lake at the end of our trek. We hiked through wide canyons, pasturelands dotted with cows and sheep, and up and over several steep ridges. On the first night, we stayed at a lovely hostel in the village of Isinlivi which, along with a gorgeous view, comfortable beds, and hot showers, included a delicious home-cooked dinner and breakfast. This was luxury trekking for sure!

The next day we hiked to the village of Chugchilan. There, we said farewell to Benjamin who was meeting Jasmin and staying the night before they continued on to Quilatoa. Alex and I planned to hike to the crater that day and stay in Quilatoa that evening. However, later that afternoon, we ended up hiking with Eduardo and his younger sister, Yolanda, who were moving a small herd of cattle to higher pasture. After chatting for awhile, Eduardo invited us to stay at his family’s home located just below the crater. While there was no toilet or shower, for $5 each, we would have our own rooms, dinner, breakfast, and best of all, the company of a local family. We accepted the invitation and continued our hike to the Quilatoa crater. While less than half the width of Crater Lake in Oregon (5 mi (8 km) wide), the Quilotoa crater and its sparkling blue lake was an equally impressive sight.

After enjoying the late afternoon views of the lake and surrounding mountains and valleys, we hiked the short distance back down the hill to Eduardo’s house. Besides Eduardo (age 26) and Yolanda (12), the small three-bedroom house was shared by their mom Manuela, dad Espirtu, grandmother Josephina, grandfather, little sister Priscilla (3), and little brother Moses (2). Three other siblings, ages 19, 21, and 30, lived in Latacunga. Like most households, the kitchen was the central gathering place. The simple room consisted of several small stools and a table positioned around an open fire on the dirt floor. There were pots and pans of various sizes stored on the floor below a few shelves holding bowls, plates, cups, and silverware. In the corner, there was a small cabinet containing dried herbs and teas and other pantry staples. The only kitchen gadget I could see was a hand grinder mounted on a small table used to grind grains for cooking. While the family was Quechua, Spanish was our common language. Alex and I spent the evening talking and laughing with the family. I noticed immediately that they were all very affectionate with each other and laughed and smiled a lot. They all seemed to like having us there and laughed warmly as we played with the little kids and fumbled through our Spanish. They really had a good laugh as Alex helped Eduardo cut up a cow leg with a hacksaw. It was harder than it looked! For dinner, we were served large bowls of hot sopa de avena y leche (soup of oats and milk) with boiled potatoes on the side. The soup was creamy and delicious. After dinner, I retired to my room (which was Eduardo’s bedroom) and slept well after a long day of hiking and a wonderful evening amongst new friends.

The next morning, the family was up early. There was a huge pot of boiling water on the fire to which mom Manuela added onions, potatoes, spices, and the pieces of cow leg and feet that Alex helped cut up the night before. While the soup was cooking, Alex and I joined the family in de-kerneling raw corn. Eduardo’s family grew corn and sold the kernels at the markets in nearby villages. The husks and other food scraps were fed to the family pig. After simmering for a bit, we were served the soup for breakfast. I thought that perhaps the cow leg and feet were added to the soup to provide flavoring. Nope, they were part of the dish. I’ll admit I got a little anxious as I was served a huge bowl of soup with a giant cow foot in it. I sipped the rich broth and ate the potatoes and onions for awhile while I watched how the family tackled the feet. Okay, so you pick it up, eat the “meat” off the bone, then suck out the bone marrow. Given that it was the foot, the “meat” seemed to consist of the skin (hair removed), tendons, and cartilage. All eyes were on Alex and I as we picked up our cow feet, ate the “meat”, and sucked out the marrow. They found our efforts very amusing. I ate all of the broth, veggies, and bone marrow but got out of eating the rest of the “meat” by saying I was full and giving the rest of my foot to Eduardo. After breakfast, Alex and I packed our bags, took pictures, and said farewell to our host family. It had been an wonderful and unforgettable experience. We hiked back up to the crater, enjoying the amazing lake views from the rim trail. Once in Quilatoa, we had a snack, reminisced about our trek, particularly about our evening with Eduardo and his family, and caught the bus back to Latacunga. It had been another wonderful trek with fun people!

Exploring and trekking in Ecuador was a fantastic experience made even more special by the new friends with whom I shared the experience, including the wonderful family that welcomed me into their happy home.

Here are a few pictures. Click the links to see the full photo albums:

Cuenca & Parque Nacional Cajas:

Latacunga & Volcan Cotopaxi/Quilatoa Loop:


Hiking up Volcan Cotopaxi.
View of Volcan Cotopaxi from the hostel in Latacunga.
With Jason, Patricio, Jasmin, and Benjamin at the edge of the Volcan Cotopaxi glacier at 16,732 ft.
With Benjamin and Alex on the Quilatoa Loop.
With Moses and Yolanda in our host family’s home below the Quilatoa crater.
With Alex enjoying sopa de avena y leche.
At the Quilatoa crater lake.
Trying new fruits with Gabriela and Renata at a market in Cuenca.
With Gabriela and Renata at Parque Nacional Cajas.

Travel notes: recommend Hostal Santa Fe, Cuenca (nice owners, good wifi, cheap, no shared kitchen), Hostal Tiana in Latacunga (friendly staff, good wifi, good shared kitchen and patio), and Hostal Taita Cristobal in Isinlivi (on the Quilator Loop); tap water in Ecuador is NOT potable (treatment needed).