Beware of the dogs
Ecuador has some breath-taking scenery and many hidden treasures, some completely overlooked as people head straight to countries like Peru or Colombia. However, a quick google search of Ecuador’s highlights will bring up images of a turquoise coloured lake sat in the middle of a crater. A lake in a crater!? We didn’t need to see any more pictures – we were sold.
A week or so later…
Clinging to a branch on a steep hill with one hand and the protruding root of a plant with the other, Chris managed to pull himself up onto the green land where the path continued. P behind him, heart pounding, couldn’t bring herself to climb up this unsafe crumbling mud ‘path’ to get onto the upper part of the trek. We’d all agreed we needed to get higher up on the path otherwise we’d end up further inside the crater rather than up. Somehow we had taken the wrong trail. Sound familiar.
Fellow brit Sean stepped up to show P where to place her feet and hands before the mud crumbled away below his own feet. Luckily there wasn’t a deathly drop below us but it was still a tall climb.
With mud crumbling away beneath us, that was enough. P just couldn’t bring herself to do it. This whole situation brought on sweat inducing flashbacks of us being stuck on the Great Wall of China roughly 6 months ago. We’re pretty sure we’d said between us to never put ourselves in dangerous situations like that again. In all honesty, this wasn’t as life threatening but still pretty scary all the same, as a fall could have broken something. The climb was about 5 feet but with no where to put your hands and feet, with the crumbling mud P refused to climb.
We never intended on doing this 2 day trek at all. Not because of the walk/trek itself, but mainly due to the many blogs P had found about trekkers being threatened/attacked by angry dogs on it. Again, after the dog attack in India, the last thing P wanted to encounter was angry dogs!!
A few days earlier we had arrived in the small town of Latacunga, we checked into our hostel and immediately began our research on which trek to do. Latacunga is a pleasant town to stay for a night but doesn’t offer much else, other than a jump off point for the many trek in the surrounding areas. It does have that small town feel with its slightly weathered 2 storey pastel coloured buildings and a slow pace of life. The locals wore similar dress to those that we had seen back in Otavalo, with the fedora hats (some with a feather in) and the ponchos or long shawls wrapped around them to keep them warm from the evening chill.
After much thought on our plan here, we decided on catching the bus straight to Lake Quilotoa and return to Latacunga on the same day. No dogs no stress.
Relaxed, sat in our hostel with a plan for the following day set we were approached by a Danish guy named Nicholas. We had spoken to him earlier and he had also said he was doing the day trek. Showing us the weather forecast for Quilotoa, it was heavy rain and clouds for the following day. With that combination and high altitude, visibility would be close to zero and we wouldn’t be able to even see this amazing sulphuric blue lake sat in a volcano crater. That is what we came for right?? We didn’t really have much time in Ecuador to wait around in a small town like Latacunga for the weather to change.
Sean who was sat nearby overheard us and mentioned how many people actually start their trek in Quilotoa, seeing the blue lake first and then continuing to the other towns along the way. With the lake being the main attraction it makes sense to reach to the lake last. He suggested maybe we should do the 2 day trek and then that way we would arrive at Quilotoa when the weathers better.
Sounds like a plan to us, plus we’d have company and P would feel a bit safer if we did encounter any these ‘angry dogs’ along the way.
Certain hostels in Latacunga offer overpriced tours for the Quilotoa trek aswell as tour agencies. Charging upto $75 per person per day. Yes it includes transport, food, accommodation and a guide but we caught the bus to Isinvili (our starting point) from the terminal across the bridge in Latacunga for around $2 each. Our hostel in the almost deserted town of Isinvili cost us $18 each and included breakfast and dinner. So it made sense to do the trek independently. Our hostel in Isinlivi didn’t hold back on the meals either. Dinner was a 3 course meal consisting of soup, a veg/mushroom/chicken mix, pasta and salad followed by a delicious strawberry & pineapple crumble. Suffice to say everyone was very stuffed after it.
The hostel we stayed at was called Lulu Llama. We arrived in the late afternoon and it was raining heavily, we were practically in the clouds, visibility was almost non-existent. We all agreed that we had definitely made the right decision. A few people at the hostel had been out trekking in the area for a few hours and said they could barely see anything during that time.
This hostel was very very cosy, we felt it had that cabin in the woods ‘christmassy’ feel. It was a converted barn/farmhouse complete with wood burner heating and comfortable couches around it. There was also free tea and coffee to keep us nice and warn on the inside too.
With dinner a few hours away, P took the lead in organising a game of pictionary between everyone at the hostel to take our minds off hunger. Most guests got involved as we sat around the wood burner with the rain licking against the window outside. Mixing the rounds up, we even threw in some international idioms to incorporate the multiple nationalities playing which proved to be highly entertaining when attempting to draw such phrases as “Everything has an ending but a sausage has only 2” (German) and “A latvian who has a clean mind can still have curly thoughts” (Latvian).
The following morning after a large breakfast of yogurt, granola, fruit pancakes and coffee; the four of us were joined by 2 Alaskans as we started our day one trek from Isinlivi to the town of Chugchilan 13km away. We were also joined by an overexcited dog who we later named Dolphin, due to his resemblance of a laughing dolphin. He’d actually invited himself into our hostel the night before and he slept on the floor at the head of P’s bed. He had an odd smell of wet dog and sulphur. Eww.
We were blessed with luck, the weather app was right. The clouds had cleared, the air was warm and we could finally see our surroundings. The walk to Chugchilan was very picturesque as we stopped every now and then between chatting and trekking to admire the views. From the surrounding rolling hills to the patchwork farmlands, the deep valleys and the flowing rivers running through them. We crossed wet rickety wooden bridges over small streams and passed small villages or shops that seemingly appeared in the middle of nowhere. Even though clouds were still in the sky, we were thankful for them as it provided some much needed shade.
The trek was well signed in places with red or yellow arrows painted onto stones or trees. The scenery on this trek was amazing the higher we slowly climbed, with the canyon and river below us. We stopped many times to take photos and just to appreciate our surroundings. Dolphin stuck with us for the first part before running ahead to join a German couple about half a mile ahead.
Stopping for lunch, we sat outside a small wooden shop which only seemed to sell biscuits and fizzy drinks. As we ate our mish-mash of snacks for lunch, school children from the nearby village school passed us on their way home. “Hola” they all said as they passed before stopping a few metres away to stare at us. A smaller group passed shortly afterwards with one brave individual stopping and asking shyly for “Caramelo” which basically means ‘sweets’ in English. Nicholas invited the boy over and gave him a mint. Before he knew it he was surrounded by about 15 children all wanting a mint too. Later on in the trek one little girl came running out of nowhere on her own asking for “Caramelo”. After Nicholas had gave her a mint she then bravely asked for money! We had heard about some children in the villages asking trekkers for money/gifts and this is not something we wanted to support. Sweets/biscuits if we have then yes but money certainly not. Thats something that should be discouraged.
Most of the trek was fairly flat with a few small inclines that didn’t leave us too out of breath. That is until after lunch when we passed through a small village in the valley. The zig zagging incline left everyone panting and dripping with sweat as we hiked our way up to the top. A couple of school kids not even breaking a sweat bounded past us all to the top. These kids make this walk everyday after school, we couldn’t fathom making that trek when we were younger. We were in awe.
Stopping for a well earned rest at the top we were treated to some breathtaking 180 degree views of the huge canyon with its dramatic drops and miniature looking villages below us. Queue panoramic shots galore. In total the trek took us 6 hours to make it to the town of Chugchilan. That evening at our hostel, we were treated to a lacklustre dinner of pasta soup, purple fried chicken or a mushroom dish & rice followed by figs and cheese. Apparently the other nights dinners were much better, we fed most of ours to a hungry Dolphin.
Ourselves, Sean, Nicholas and the German couple all met outside ready to leave at the agreed time of 8.30am. As usual, Dolphin was waiting – this time with 2 friends. Friends is a very light term as he and one of the other dogs were competing over the female dog. We named the female Nala and the other male dog Charlie. One of the guys who worked at the hostel had told us that Dolphin, everyday, walked back and forth along the trek with hikers. He knew the trek like the back of his paws. An actual guide dog some might say.
Stopping at what seemed like the only shop in this tiny village we picked ourselves up some more snacks and lunchables. Nicholas bought biscuits for Dolphin, but it seemed his ‘friends’ also wanted some too as Nicholas threw them all a biscuit each. We weren’t sure this was a good idea as we now had 4 dogs following us out of the town. So we now had Dolphin, Charlie, Nala and Trouble in tow.
I’m pretty sure we wanted to avoid dogs on this trek. But these ones seemed friendly enough.
Slightly tougher with more uphill parts we were treated to even more awe inspiring views than the previous day. We walked by friendly field workers who without fail said “Buenos dias” to each of us as we passed. Again this path was labelled in places but having the maps and directions on our phones helped hugely.
As we all walked we noticed how each dog had their own individual personality. Charlie was like the level headed leader and guide, running ahead showing us the path we ought to take. Dolphin was like the 2nd in command also showing the way but enjoyed interacting with us more. Nala was very timid and always stuck by us as she tried to avoid Dolphins advances. We think she was actually owned by someone as she had a collar on, but eventually started answering to the name we’d gave her.
And Trouble…your probably wondering how he got that name. Despite him being one of the most loyal out of the 4 he had a terrible habit of barking at anything that moved – sheep, donkeys, chickens, llamas and humans on occasion. At times he even got the other dogs involved. We wondered were these the dogs other trekkers had blogged about being scared of as we walked past farms and villages with these sometimes uncontrollable animals.
With our trek leading us to the Quilotoa crater a lot of it was uphill. We found ourselves out of breath more often, panting as we tried to fill our lungs with oxygen. The weather again, was just how the weather app was predicted for today; the sun beamed down relentlessly on us all. There was probably less talking as we walked up the winding path on the hillside trying to conserve energy.
Eventually we made it to the top and were completely blown away. We were stood on the rim of the crater looking down at the turquoise lake of Quilotoa. We’d made it!! The crater was huge, bigger than we’d imagined. The lake within it looked so still, surround by the jagged bowl shaped walls rising up out of it. At the bottom we could see a small collection of buildings, this is where people can hire kayaks and go into the sulphuric water with it. We all pondered on whether it was actually possible to swim in it.
We’d got to the top around 12.30pm – the perfect lunch stop. Enjoying a tin of tuna with tomato ketchup and tortilla chips (no expenses spared on this trip) we all took in the amazing setting that lay before us.
With lunch done, the best route to the opposite side, where the tiny village of Quilotoa lay was along the rim towards the town. We’d somehow ended up walking further into the huge crater due to the multiple paths each varying in difficulty. We stuck on what seemed like the most straightforward and prominent path.
This path was well trodden but still seemed fairly dangerous. We had the inner side of the crater wall on our right and a steep slope upwards on our left. Any misguided step would probably see us tumble all the way down towards the lake. The dogs didn’t sense this danger as they bounded up and down the hill into bushes and up again. Some parts were ridiculously narrow ledges, full concentration was needed to walk this path especially when the altitude can induce dizziness. We were around 3800m above sea level, as we walked the lake below looked like it was moving at a nauseating high speed in the opposite direction in the corner of our eyes. Not good.
Nicholas and Sean somehow marched ahead whilst the rest of us had to take our time and regulate our breathing. One part of the trail found us having to cross a section of the path that must have just gave way at some point. We had to cling on to some grass roots on the inner side of the crater, it would have been so easy for something to just give way to the weight of one us.
This had all of us worrying about our safety on this trek. This was around the time we realised we weren’t getting any higher and needed to find a path leading upwards as we had read the path was on the rim of the crater. We had passed one maybe 40mins back but even that didn’t seem safe and we definitely were not heading back. P couldn’t climb the mud mound after it crumbled away under Sean’s feet and went in search of an alternative route. It was a little longer walk but a much safer one and didn’t take her long to join the rest of the group. Thank god.
We couldn’t believe how dangerous parts of this was. In some ways some would say we are experienced, but we know when something doesn’t feel safe or enjoyable anymore. We all wondered where exactly we took the wrong turn and ended up right inside the crater. The rest of the trek was just straight uphill, we mostly walked in silence with only the heavy breathing really heard between us.
Finally reaching the top, we immediately felt the cold wind as we were no longer sheltered by the crater wall. Out of breath and sweaty we all hugged and high-fived each other. 2 hours after lunch at the start of the rim we’d finally reached Quilotoa. The village of Quilotoa was really small; just one main road that weaved through it and a handful of handicraft shops and hostels. It seemed this village had mostly been set up for tourists although it was eerily quiet when we arrived. There’s a small tourism office and a fairly large viewing platform that overlooks the lake. All of which look very new.
After resting for a few minutes we all hopped into the back of a pick-up truck ready to head to the next town to catch the bus heading back to Latacunga. Nala and Trouble hopped aboard too. We tried to tempt them off but they would not budge. Some nearby locals said the dogs would be fine if they went with us to the next town of Zumbahua as they knew the whole trek. We didn’t want to bring them but they refused to be pushed or coaxed off the truck. Giving in easily we closed the pick-up truck back door and set off. Poor Charlie feeling left behind, started to run behind the truck, the whole thing brought tears to P’s eyes as we’d really bonded with the dogs during the trek (no idea where Dolphin disappeared to).
Some people continue trekking from Quilotoa to Zumbahua but we’d all had enough of walking today. Arriving in Zumbahua; Sean, Nicolas and the German couple all hopped on the bus heading back to Latacunga. We, on the other hand wanted to check out the popular Saturday market which was the following day.
We walked into town ready to search for a hostel to stay for the night with Trouble and Nala close behind us. We began to notice that our dogs seemed to attract the unwanted attention from other dogs. A lot of barking and growling ensued as these other dogs fought over Nala. After we safely passed these dogs another set around the corner started to approach us. This was not an ideal situation.
Feeling responsible for them, we both didn’t want to leave these 2 dogs on their own here. There were just too many other dogs. Nala and Trouble would never make it back. We decided there and then to go back to the small village of Quilotoa as it was much smaller than Zumbahua and seemed like it had less dogs there.
After saying our goodbyes to the rest of the group who were returning to Latatunga we were back at Quilotoa and managed to find probably one of the only popular hostels there for a decent price including breakfast and dinner. Charlie and Dolphin both came to greet us. We were happy to see them again. Unfortunately we now had to stop them both as well as the other dogs in the town fighting over poor Nala. We know its natural, especially for ‘wild dogs’ but 6 male dogs all fighting viciously to hump the one female, we just couldn’t stand around and let them. We got talking to 2 Norwegian girls who were treking the trek in the opposite direction to Chugchilan for the 2nd night. After much talk about the company these dogs would bring we convinced them to take the dogs back to the town (mainly Nala as she had a collar and we were convinced she was not a guide dog like the others). They promised they would and even made an effort to remember the dog’s names we had given them.
After a freezing cold nights sleep in a warm bed, we woke up early and walked the dogs to the viewing platform 2 mins away one last time, said goodbye and snuck into a taxi heading for Zumbahua.
The open air market in Zumbahua was a small one but it was definitely not aimed at tourists – traders bought and sold chickens, llamas and sheep wool. Many local shoppers casually carried their newly purchased live chickens by the legs as they perused other stalls. The stalls ranged from everyday wear to knitwear to vegetables to random household items. We wanted to see the animal market but it seemed to have taken place elsewhere. We did however see vans pass us filled with cows or pigs.
We walked around for maybe half an hour, taking in the bustling atmosphere, intrigued by the locals in their trilbies slightly tilted forward and shawls wrapped around them. The setting of the market was stunning too as the whole town was surrounded by tall luscious green pointed mountains.
After we’d had our fill of the market we jumped on the next bus leaving Zumbahua back to Latacunga. P had bought a new day pack whilst at the market and transferred all of her items from the old one into the new one on the bus. She placed the old one on the floor at her feet and by the time we got back to Latacunga it was gone! This is a very familiar story in Ecuador (and South America) which is why we always keep our bags physically on us at all times during bus journeys. The old day pack was destined for the bin anyway so we can thankfully say we have not had anything stolen from us thus far.
What an adventure though!!
Update: The 2 German girls successfully brought the dogs back and had reunited Nala with her owner. Apparently her real name was Solitude, the owner was a baffled at how she was now answering to Nala. Oops.
Travel: Quito to Latacunga $5 for 2 people
Accommodation: Hostal Tiana (Latacunga)
Date: 12th Jan 2016