Updated December 3rd, 2020.
For the past few weeks, backpacker and travel writer, Regina Röder has been hiking the trails and spending time with the indigenous communities of Guayama Grande, a small village close to the spectacular Laguna Quilotoa in the Ecuadorian Andes. Here she describes her unique experience getting to know the women of the community and what it taught her about harsh mountain life…
Getting to Laguna Quilotoa
My journey started off in Latacunga; from here I took a bus to a place called Zumbahua where I camped for one night in the mountains close to the town. Zumbahua is a small place known for its markets on Saturdays, which are great to stock up on fruit and vegetables – but also a good choice if you want to buy handicrafts and souvenirs. In case you are hungry, you can grab breakfast or lunch at the market from as little as $1,25.
From Zumbahua you can take a truck to Quilotoa for $1. I wanted to explore the area so I walked all the 12km to the lake, enjoying the amazing views of the Andes.
Laguna de Quilotoa was formed after an volcanic eruption 800 years ago and in the creater accumulated a 250m deep crater lake. Thanks to dissolved minerals it shines a spectacular greenish colour today.
To me Quilotoa is a magical place – I went three times during my stay with the indigenous family and camped right on the lake. You can basically put up your tent anywhere for free. Be prepared for cold and windy nights though. Weekdays are usually very quiet and I happened to be the only person camping. On the weekend it can get a bit more busy with Ecuadorian tourists, but in general Quilotoa is a very tranquil place.
Exploring the lake surroundings…
The descent to the lake takes around half an hour, whereas the climb up can be tough especially if you carry all your gear. Plan about 1 – 1.5 hours. If you prefer a horseback, you can ride up to the crater for $10 USD. At the lake you can rent a kayak which is $6 for an hour or $3 for half an hour.
If you are into hiking you can take the ‘Quilotoa loop’ around the crater, which takes around 5-6 hours and provides spectacular views of the lake as well as the surrounding landscapes. Personally one of my highlights on this trip. If you catch a really clear day you will be able to see the volcanoes close by such as the Illinizas and Cotopaxi in ‘La Avenedia de los volcanes’.
Another great way to get to the lake is to walk from a place called Chugchilán, a lovely place in the Andes with lots of hiking trails. I highly recommend the hostel Cloud Forest. It is a cosy place and the Ecuadorian owner can give you lots of tips on what to do in the area. The hike from Chugchilán to Quilotoa is around 4 hours and provides stunning sceneries.
I found it sometimes tricky to hike in the area as there are no signs or descriptions, so make sure to ask for directions beforehand and also confirm them with locals along the way. Also don’t be surprised if you do not meet a lot of local people going about their daily routines on the trails.
There are a couple of restaurants and little shops in the small town of Quilotoa, you can support the indigenous people of the region and have lunch for less than $3.50 USD. I recommend bringing some snacks along for the hikes because the stores do not offer a lot of variety besides drinks and sweets.
On your journey you will meet indigenous people in traditional clothes speaking a different language namely Quechua. During my travels, I learnt a couple of words, but it is very different from Spanish and difficult to understand. Quechua was the language of the Inca empire which was destroyed by the Spanish in the 16th century.
After hiking the trails around Laguna Quilotoa, I became fascinated by the culture of the area and decided to live and work with the indigenous community in the small village of Guayama Grande for a couple of weeks. A tough, but rewarding experience – getting used to working in very cold conditions 4,000 metres above sea level.
If you like nature and are interested to learn about the culture of the country, the area around Quilotoa is fantastic for spending a couple of days or even weeks exploring while learning from the indigenous people who have made the most out of the land here for centuries.
During my stay I met probably some of the most hard working women tI have ever encountered in my life. Life is a different here in the Andes and men are working in the cities during the week, which means the women are taking care of the farms and the children. Some of the girls I met were only 17 and had their first child strapped on their back while working on the fields. On average a women has 6 children!
For me it was an incredible experience living such a simple life and working long, hard days in a very cold environment on 4000m. Everyday we were out on the fields carrying goods such as potatoes, maize, wood and stones up and down the mountains.
Women in Guayama Grande work as long as there is light outside, which means roughly 12 hours a day. On the weekends their men come home from working in the cities and usually spend their weekends getting drunk while their women take care of them!
Observing these scenarios made me realize how lucky we are growing up in western societies and be able to decide about our lives as women. These girls do not complain about their lifestyles as they do not have a choice to choose a different path. and with little education, many do not realise that there exist societies where women are treated very differently.
Staying with the women in the community was physically and emotionally, a very tough experience for me, which made me again appreciate the little things in life and the freedom I have as a young woman, able to travel the world and choose my own destiny. I truly hope that future indigenous generations in Ecuador will have more opportunities than the current one and especially women will be able to have more freedom than today.
A brief stop at Cotopaxi National Park
On my way back to Quito I stopped by at Cotopaxi National Park to hike up to the Refugio and stay for a night in my tent close to the lake. The Refugio is the highest accessible point without booking a tour and wearing proper equipment for snowy and icy environments. I was lucky to pick a clear day with incredible views.
If you take the bus from Latacunga or Quito just tell the bus driver to drop you off at the Cotopaxi National Park. The bus will stop right at the highway from where you can either walk or take a truck, which brings you to the Park. Don’t worry if you haven’t organized anything in advance, there are always plenty of guides with trucks waiting close to the highway.
It is a pretty long walk and I highly recommend jumping on a truck, which costs somewhere between $5-$15 USD depending on where you want to head in the park and what you want to do. I hitch-hiked and it worked fine as well. It is roughly 15km to the park entrance and another 10km to the volcano. There is also a possibility of hiring a guide in Latacunga for about $20 a day, who will take you to the Refugio and back. The trip is well worth it as you can see from the photos. Waking up in your tent with views like that – backpacking doesn’t get much better!
If you are short on time but don’t want to miss Quilotoa Crater Lake, consider embarking on a day tour from Quito. It is also possible to combine a trip to Quilotoa with a visit to Cotopaxi Volcano – that’s two locations for your Ecuador bucket list!