Inspired by the dirt road antics of Tom and Sarah – a couple who left North America in 2010, but leapfroged me during my touring hiatus – I set off to ride the ‘Quilotoa loop’, so named for the water-filled crater that lies en route.
Intensely rugged scenery, quintessential mountain villages and a few cool, eco-friendly hostels make this a worthy side trip for anyone hankering to experience some Ecuadorian backcountry. The area is criss-crossed by a web of dirt tracks, cobbled roads and footpaths. But ‘progress’ is coming to the valley and I expect it won’t be too long before asphalt encircles it, bringing with it all kinds of change.
I began the loop in Lasso and dropped down to Latacunga to complete it – but ended up backtracking to Zumbahua, after I found out about a dirt road alternative to Salinas that avoided Ambato and the Panamerican Highway. More on this equally rugged, backcountry segment of the journey here…
After a pavement climb from Lasso, I turned off the main road to Sigchos and headed for Isinlivi. Thankfully, intense cobble conumdrums eventually gave way to mile upon mile of smooth dirt.
The villages were few and far between. Ogre and I attracted plenty of attention from the local school kids.
Too cool for school. Like all those who lived there, the blotched faces of these kids were a telltale sign that I’m back at altitude.
Rugged scenery abounds along the Quilatoa Loop. The back way to Isilinvi climbs, climbs and climbs – up to 4000m – before plummeting back down to 2900m, on a rough cut dirt road that wraps snuggly round the valley.
Downtown Isinlivi: not much more than a grocery store, a couple of places to stay, and a furniture makers, set up by Italians to train local residents in the art of carpentry for export.
I’d planned to camp out on a hilltop I’d been recommended, but since I arrived with plenty of time to spare, I set up my tent in the Llullu Llama hostel instead. There I enjoyed an evening chatting around the fire with Canadian Nick, working between travels south on his motorbike.
Breakfast was included in the price, and an impressive spread it turned out to be… Eggs, homemade bread, fruit salad, juice, coffee and cereal.
I’m a sucker for good granola. The yoghurt’s even made in house.
This is Melanie, Gladys’s daughter, the Ecuadorian lady who runs the hostel. A little cutie.
Resident hound of Llumu Llama.
From Isinlivi, the road continued to corkscrew down the valley, until it bottomed out at a river.
I was tempted to try the hiking path that wended its way Chugtilan, but sense percevered and I opted for a jeep track I’d heard about – which bypassed Sigchos. It was a beautiful ride, and I had the road to myself.
After following the river, I climbed steeply back up on a loose, sandy track. The rewards were open views across the valley, and a distant Isinlivi where I’d come from.
The last portion pitched up extra-steep, requiring some brute force, and some high altitude huffing and puffing.
That night I stayed in the Black Sheep Inn, a coveted eco lodge set up 17 years ago by a North American couple, and now run by Ecuadorians. I’d planned to camp but was kindly upgraded to a room, making the $20 dollar charge – which included 3 generous organic meals, as well as endless cups of tea and coffee (and all important wifi) a real bargain. The normal price is $35 – but well worth the splurge if you want to treat yourself!
The expansive vista across the valley from the dormitory.
The beautiful, relaxing yoga room…
…with outside porch for a morning practise in the sun…
The Black Sheep Inn’s eco-credentials are well documented by international travel magazines. This is one of its famous ‘eco-toilets with a view’… Grey water from the sink feeds the plants.
The loo is dry composting.
There’s even a gym, with dumbells made from poured concrete.
Recycled bottles provide ambient lighting.
Old bottles were also the theme of the shower, which came complete with piping hot water. Bliss!
Freshly made bread for breakfast, served with homemade jam.
And another tasty bowl of cereal (am I obsessed?), chowed down after my morning yoga session.
Unidentified plants in the grounds…
As well as its namesakes, the black sheep that roam the farm, a couple of kittens padded about the lodge. This one crept into my room at night, curling up next to me and wrapping his skinny little tail round my wrist, like a bracelet.
A piece adorning the wall in my room, typical of a community of artists based in nearby Tigua. At only a few dollars each, I wish I’d found room for one in my panniers.
The Chilling Pod.
Escaping the luxurious clutches of the Black Sheep Inn, I worked my way ever higher towards Quilatoa, the crater lake after which this loop is named.
Sights of interest, aside from grand views of a multi-layered plateaux, included this pig snoozing in the sun and snoring loudly, while her piglet vied for attention.
Work is underway to improve the road, which doubtlessly means slapping down a layer of asphalt – so expect more speeding traffic soon. As ever, the photo above doesn’t come close to conveying the steepness of the grade…
But the view at the top was sweet: Quilatoa, a 2 mile wide, water-filled caldera – or collapsed volcano. You can teeter on the edge and hike all the way round the rim, or head down to the lake, 400m below.
From Quilatoa I was back on pavement, give or take the odd kilometre where road crews were hard at work completing their task.
Hunger strikes in Zumbahua, 3800m, where I stopped an one of the outdoor vendors on the edge of town.
A serving of greasy egg and chips got me over the next double pass…
Classic Andean patchwork fields en route to Zambahua.
And rugged scenery on the road to Latacunga…
‘Progress’ seems to prefer the latter. I try and keep to the former…
The need to know bit:
It was 84km from the Cotopaxi North Gate (380mm) to Isinlivi (2900m) with a high pass en route – paved, cobbled, and dirt. Then 26 tough kilometres to Chugchilan (3200m) that took me over two hours. This route isn’t on the map: just turn left at the bridge and take a right when you reach the school. It’s just over a hundred clicks to Latacunga, via Quilotoa (3900m) and Zumbahua, which has a great Saturday market. Despite the long descent down to 2900m, it’s still a tough ride with a double pass and a bonus bump for good measure, and took me close to seven hours.
There are lots of other dirt road options, including a route that goes directly from Isinlivi to Quilatoa, and lots of singletrack potential – all involving some intense hike and bikes, by the looks of things. The hike round the volcano rim is well worth doing, and takes half a day – which I ended up coming back for from Latacunga.