The Quilotoa Loop is a multi-stage hike in Ecuador’s famous Cotopaxi region. The loop takes hikers around a spectacular crater lake and through the surrounding valley. Hiking can take a few hours up to a few days, depending on how keen you are to hike at up to and over 4,000m and what the weather gods feel like throwing at you.
I got a decent pack of maps and information from Hostal Tiana in Latacunga and left planning to hike for up to two days – one from Quliatoa to Chugchillan, and maybe further the next day. Unfortunately I only got half way around the crater edge, to where the path peels off to Chugchillan, before the fog set in and rain was threatening. So I turned back the way I’d come.
On the way back I was almost mauled by dogs, got caught in a downpour, and arrived back soaking wet, cold, and out of breath from the altitude. But it was under an hour; much less than the remaining three to Chugchillan. And the hostel had a fireplace in the double-bed private room, dinner and breakfast included for $15. The rain didn’t let up all night so I stayed in and stayed warm.
I didn’t have time now to hike on, so instead the next morning I walked down in to the crater. Here you really appreciate the massiveness and deep, clear blue of the lake. For $3 I rented a kayak and paddle around for 45 minutes in the otherwise empty water.
Unfortunately I’d managed to sprain my ankle really badly right at the bottom of the path. The climb out of the crater to the bus stop was a hobbling struggle thanks to my new disability. The Quilotoa crater is definitely a sight to see though, so while the injury might not have been worth it I was happy I made the trip out there, even though I couldn’t hike the Cotopaxi volcano now.
Latacunga was still largely uninteresting like I’d left it the day before, so I stayed a night and was on the first bus to Otavalo. Usually people will either head to Quito or Cotopaxi from Latacunga, but more hiking was now out of the question in the near future and I was meeting some friends in Otavalo.
Although it’s known for a huge weekend market, Otavalo left something to be desired. I’ve since warned travellers not to have high expectations for the market; instead of being a sprawling treasure trove of hand-made arts and crafts, it was a bigger version of the normal town market. I finally found the hammock I’d been searching for, and the bartering power you have with so many people selling the same stuff means I got the original $28 to $14. There’s also the usual cheap lunch, weird local snacks (tiny salted shellfish), and souvenirs guaranteed to fall apart within a week.
The most interesting part of the day, and something I would recommend to any traveller heading to Otavalo was wandering the animal market early in the morning. Slightly out of town there is a chaotic scene of women carrying boquets of chickens, potato sacks of Guinea pigs, sheep on leashes, and the odd crate of bunnies. At first the animal market is confronting but in reality it’s nothing more than seeing where your lunch is coming from. As a cultural experience, nothing in Otavalo left more of an impression than that hour.
Eventually we left because some in our group were getting uncomfortable – it’s a better experience for those with a strong stomach. We had arrived just after 6.30am so it was coffee o’clock when we bailed. The Daily Grind, on the edge of the main square, served overpriced but great quality local coffee poured by the closest thing to a proper barista I’d seen in months.
If you want to buy something you’ve seen through Perú and Ecuador at the local market, wait until you get to Otavalo. The tourists flock there but there are several of everything so you can barter to between 40-50% of the starting price. My expectations were closer to Bangkok’s sprawling labyrinth Chatuchak, where in reality Otavalo is a bigger, more organised version of the markets in every South American city. Flying Donkey hostel was great with providing maps and information on the different markets, like getting to each early. The animal market closes stupidly early and once the tourist busses from Quito arrive prices in the main market rise, so getting up and out early will give you a better experience.