"Man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it"
(George Moore, English Analytic Philosopher)
Carrying the bare essentials for 3 days of hiking and riding the Quilotoa Loop, I took a bus to the village of Sasquisilí, Ecuador. Every Thursday the small Andean town erupts into an open-air market with all 8 plazas filling with villagers from tiny communities all over the Cotopaxi region plying their wares.
Trilby-hatted indigenous women with liquorice plaits down their backs hawk live guinea-pigs and chickens for the pot. Mestizo men examine their wares, scrutinizing the quality of the meat. Vendors sit around on giant bales of alfalfa with diminutive elderlies skittering around, burdened down with produce on their backs. There is something about these folks that defy belief. Small in stature, they are exceptionally strong. Male or female, they are able to carry huge loads for long distances. You never see someone ambling along here, simply shuffling to their destination. A mestizo's walk always has determined purpose, however aged and kyphotic their backs may be. At times it can be hard to keep up with them at these high altitudes. I'm huffing and wheezing like a 40-a-day asthmatic and these guys zip along hunched and resourceful.
Everything imaginable was on sale at Sasquisilí -- from random wooden doors and metal bed-frames to freshly made charcoal. Squealing pigs pierced the chilly mountain air, sheep brayed in fear, vast mounds of spring-onions, huge bags of fresh carrots and sweetcorn lay heaped on the ground. Artisanal goodies in the shape of hand-knitted ponchos and drapes, woven baskets, blocks of palm-sugar, puppies, and a plethora of knives were all available for a few pesos.
Sated on chunks of fresh sugarcane, I found my onward bus to Isinlivi -- a tiny settlement nearly 10,000 feet high in the Andes. The bus bumped its way along the sole road ambling through tiny villages that seemed to literally cling to the side of the mountain. I felt far removed from The Gringo Trail. This part of the adventure was already making me question everything I had experienced in South America so far.
The first night in Isinlivi was at a fantastic hostal called LLulu Llama complete with wood burning stove that warmed the ancient adobe building, an amorous cat, and the most incredible toilet I've ever been in. A composting bog surrounded by geraniums, with a view out into the valley to make you feel humble as you sat and performed your morning ablutions. I couldn't imagine my neighbors back home being too pleased if I installed a similar device in the garden!
Hiking at altitude is extremely tough and so for two days I invested in a trusty steed and a Quechan Guide. We rode from one village to another journeying through countryside sculpted by glaciers. The way so steep, I occasionally had to dismount and let my horse find its footing. The paths were treacherous and at times, cantering along so close to the edge of a gaping ravine made me really wonder whether I was going to make it round the entire Quilotoa Loop alive.
Lupins and orchids dazzled in the meadows and wherever one looked you could see resilient Andean farmers cultivating the incline of the land with sweet corn, yucca and other hardy plants able to cope with extreme temperatures and high altitude. My lackadaisical London life in the film industry seemed so trite in comparison.
A day's riding with moustachioed Oswaldo took me up and down the valley, across icy rivers and eventually higher in elevation to the remote village of Chugchilan where as soon as the sun went down, the temperature dropped dramatically. I had to pull out my goose-down sleeping bag and huddle in it with layers of clothes beneath layers of blankets.. a veritable triple-decker sandwich of insulation. No electric blankets here to keep you warm in bed.
After a second day of hard riding, we arrived in Quilotoa at almost 14,000 feet. I wobbled off my horse, legs bandied like John Wayne. As the dusky fog descended, the electricity cut out plunging the village into a miasmic gloom. With the sole wood burner in the hostale I was staying at giving out enough heat to keep only the dog warm, I retreated to my bed for the night. Hailstones battered the tin-roof and mists blew past the window like the Dementors in Harry Potter. I lay there shivering, hoping it would clear for my planned descent the following day into the elliptical cavernous basin of the Quilotoa Crater Lake -- a water-filled caldera and the most western volcano in the Ecuadorian Andes.
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