Laguna Quilotoa, a lake of emerald green water in the crater of an extinct volcano, is absolutely beautiful. It isn’t far from Quito and everyone raves about it, so I decided to go.
Everything I could find online said it that the lake is tricky to get to, unless you have your own vehicle, and taking a tour was strongly recommended. However, I am not one to take tours unless I absolutely have to (see my post Travelling Solo to read more about why.) I like the challenge of sorting everything out myself and it is ALWAYS cheaper to do it yourself.
Hostels and travel agencies in Quito organise excursions from about 60$ upwards. I did not want to spend that much, and I didn’t want to get up at 6am and go there and back in a day. Other tours included an overnight stay but I like to choose my own accommodation and I want to be on my own schedule. I am an independent traveller so do I things independently!
And with that, I spoke to the lovely staff at BoutiQuito where I was staying, to work out my plan of action.
I was advised that buses leave Quito’s south terminal, Quitumbe for Latacunga frequently. I took the ecovia (one of Quito’s city buses) to Qutiumbe, and paid $0.25c for a 45 minute journey.
At Quitumbe terminal I bought my ticket for $2.35 and got on the bus. I had been told that Latacunga was not a particularly nice place, but it had lots of accommodation, so I planned to stay there if I couldn’t get to Quilotoa in the same day.
After a two hour drive out of Quito into the countryside, we arrived at Latacunga bus terminal. I always get approached pretty quickly in bus terminals, or whenever I look like a clueless tourist, and soon enough some Ecuadorian lad said “Quilotoa?” and pointed me in the direction of the next bus I needed.
I bought my ticket for $3 and waited in the stifling heat onboard as a tyre was changed. Eventually we got moving and after about an hour of driving the bus stopped in a small town. I thought we had arrived but the driver announced that he wasn’t going any further, for some unknown reason, and we were to get into a nearby jeep. He assured us that he had paid the jeep driver and that we wouldn’t have to pay anything more. There were a few other tourists and some locals that wanted to go further than the bus was going, so about 10 of us pilied into the jeep. I offered a seat inside the car by the driver, but I felt uncomfortable that all of the Ecuadorians were in the back in the open air.
The locals banged on the window when they wanted to be let out, often in the middle of nowhere, and when we arrived at Quilotoa, only tourists were left in the car. When the driver stopped he asked us all for a dollar each. Those of us that could speak Spanish, myself included, told him there was no way we were paying anything, that the bus driver had told us we did not have to, and that he should take up the argument with him. The man seemed pretty desperate but I was not interested in his pleas – why hadn’t he asked any of the Ecuadorians for money, when they had got out? So we all marched off and there wasn’t anything he could do.
On my way into the town I passed Hostel Cabanas Quilotoa and went in to ask about accommodation. The landlady had on a felt trilby hat with a feather, and wore traditional clothing. She spoke more Quechua than Spanish, and she showed me a room with very comfy looking beds.
She wanted $15 for the night, including dinner and breakfast. I got her down to $12, and as I spend up to $3 per meal out, I thought that $6 was a great price for a double bed, hot water, and a fire in the room
Once I had put on some warmer clothes, I took a walk to check out my surroundings. I had read that Quilotoa was small
but it is nothing more than a collection of buildings on a bend in the road. Later in the afternoon a heavy mist rolled in, which I realised was in fact clouds. There was no internet connection or phone line, and the town had a bleak, deserted feel. I came accross a few tourists who had stayed the previous night and were desperately trying to get back to civilisation! I made a mental note to get moving early the next morning.
The benefit of staying the night in Quilotoa, rather than Latacunga or one of the larger towns in the area, is that you are right by the lake. And I mean right by it. I walked about 20m from the road, and found myself on the edge of the crater
Having sussed out the laguna and decided that I would walk down the next morning, I went back to the hostel. These remote towns are interesting and certainly worth visiting, but when you are travelling by yourself and cannot get wifi to let people at home know that you are well, they can be frustrating! What’s more, there was a power cut at about 7pm, thankfully just after I had finished my dinner. As I wanted to get up early tomorrow to get the bus back to Latacunga at 1pm, I decided to just go to bed.
Later in the evening, the landlady’s son came in to put more wood on the fire. He was 20 years old and had never been to Quito. Like his mother, he spoke with a strong Quechua accent and my thoughts that this was a forgotten little village were somewhat confirmed.
The following morning I woke very early and after breakfast I went straight down to the laguna.
Under the sunshine the lake was even more beautiful. I made the mistake of putting on lots of clothes, as it had been so cold the previous evening. With the heat of the sun, and the effort of scrambling down the steep path, I soon got really hot and had to carry all of my layers.
I sat down at the edge of the water, soaking in the incredible scenery and the complete silence.
It is hard to describe the experience, other than by saying that it was truly beautiful! The crater is massive, and I felt tiny. The water is a beautiful bright green and I couldn’t hear anything other that the breeze.
The climb back up was hard work – the air is thin at such altitude and the path was very steep. Eventually, with much puffing and sweating and pauses to drink water, I made it back to the top and admired the laguna once more!
Then my thoughts turned to practicalities, and just like the tourists I had spoken to the day before, I wanted to get back to Quito if I could. I bought supplies for the bus to Latacunga (NEVER board a bus in South America without water and food) and went back to the hostel to collect my bag.
I got on board the bus, paid $2 and opened my packet of crisps. This cheeky monkey
appeared out of nowhere and held out his hand for some! As we journied back down the mountain, through rather depressing looking places
we stopped a few times and I saw the conductor walking around outside, his hands covered in oil after trying to fix something. I realised with a sigh that there was something wrong with the bus, and eventually we broke down and stopped for the last time
in the middle of nowhere. The driver announced that the next bus would be passing in ten minutes, and we could get on that. I didn’t believe him for a second – Quilotoa is a tiny place, the kind of place where only one bus leaves per day. I did not want to waste any more time, and feeling impatient and even more determined to get back to civilisation, I got off, asking an American tourist if he wanted to come with me. He did, so we stood behind the bus and I put out my thumb.
The first car that stopped was a pick up, and we got in the back with a few locals from the bus who clearly thought my plan was a good one. So we zoomed off, leaving the broken down bus far behind us.
I felt annoyed that we were not refunded for the bus fare, though I knew it would have been pointless to ask. The pickup driver wanted a dollar each, which was fair enough, but by this time my patience was wearing thin! He did not go as far as to Latacunga, but to another town nearby, from where we took a bus for 0.45c. From Latacunga, we boarded a bus to Quito and paid $2.15.
On this bus my coat was stolen. I know very well that you shouldn’t put anything in the overhead storage compartments as it can be stolen without you noticing, but I did not think that anyone would steal a grubby old coat. And yet when I arrived in back in Quito in the cold evening, I stood up to take my coat and it had gone.
By this time, I had had enough of the trials of the day and I was ready to get in a taxi. The taxi, however, would have costed about $10 and after a little argument with myself I got a city bus. The fare was 0.25c and I went back to the wonderfully comfortable BoutiQuito where I had left my rucksack, and where I ended up staying again.
The total cost of travel and accommodation was $23.95, much less than what I would have paid for a tour, even when I include the cost of a replacement coat! Of course, had I gone with a tour I would have gone in a luxury gringos-only bus and:
I probably would not have been robbed on board
I probably would not have had to wait for a tyre to be changed
I would not have had to argue with the jeep driver
I would not have had to hitch hike or take so many buses.
When I arrived back in Quito I felt exhausted, and I understand why some travellers opt for tours. It is certainly easier to have someone else sort everything out for you. However, I do not want someone else to make decisions for me, and if I were to go to Quilotoa again, I would go independently again. Despite a few problems, it was a little adventure that I won’t forget, and I went at my own pace. The laguna was breathtaking, certainly worth all of the effort required to get there!
The whole experience reminded me of when I went to the Marcahuasi ruins. Check out that post to read about an adventure into rural Peru!