[I've re-posted this so it shows up in my Blog on CFA - I didn't do that correctly the first time around, sorry!]
[thanks very much to Sybille for helping me figure out how to add pix!]
This was a hike I did with some friends along one of the most incredible trails I have ever seen (and being a traveller who seeks out trails wherever I go, I've seen some pretty amazing trails!). I didn't actually run it, 'cause I was with friends who don't do that kind of crazy thing (!!), but I wished I could have.
Although it would have been surprisingly difficult - if you've ever tried to do anything at 4000m, without having spent a good several weeks acclimatising to the altitude, you'll understand what I mean... walking up even the slightest incline was a challenge! I had been at altitude for at least 10 days at that point, and I'm a pretty fit gal, so I gained a good respect for the powers of low oxygen pressure. I ran a few parts of it (downhill!) and it was pretty great.
Getting to the trailhead is the first challenge.
The best way to get here is to stay in Chugchilán the night before - I highly recommend Hostal Cloud Forest, where we stayed, owned by friendly locals (there is another far more costly option, the Black Sheep Hostel, MUCH fancier, owned by Americans, where you can go if you want comforts of home and interaction with other rich travellers - but they're a bit snobby, and you can't even buy anything at their shop unless you're a guest there! Which is silly of them, and annoying).
Getting to Chugchilán involves a 4 hour bus ride from Latacunga (which itself is a 2-ish hour bus ride from Quito) along a scary scary sketchy mountain road in a bus that was probably built in 1924, spewing black smoke and making disturbing noises every time there's an incline. You may or may not have a seat on this bus. The back of the seat may or may not stay upright of its own accord. There's no toilet on the bus and no stopping for bathroom breaks, so don't drink anything before or during the voyage. But you won't notice any of that because the views are BREATHTAKING. Make sure your camera is well-charged and you have lots of space on your memory card!
We arrived in Chugchilán in mid-afternoon & wandered around the 1/2-block long town, ate a yummy dinner at our hostel and figured out our hike for the next day. We decided to hire a guide (about $10 CDN) so as not to get lost in the mountains, and our hostel owner headed out into the night to figure out who was available and to organize us a ride up to Laguna Verde (the "green lake" within the crater of the Quilotoa volcano), where our hike would begin.
The next morning after hostel breakfast our guide & ride picked us up - a pickup truck with 5 seats in the cab, where we sat, and LOUD Ecuadorian music and political announcements playing on the CD player (we ended up asking to buy the CD after the ride, but it broke in my pack before getting back to Canada). We arrived at Laguna Verde where there was a little tourist market just setting up (although I'm willing to bet we were probably the only tourists they saw all day - it was a quiet time of year). We hadn't brought any $ with us but Bernardos, our guide, said it was ok to pay him later for anything we bought - so we bought some alpaca sweaters & gloves, nice & soft & warm (I put my sweater & gloves on right away 'cause it was a bit chilly up there). Then we headed off, accompanied by Bernardos and his 4-year-old son Milcan (who did the ENTIRE 5-hour hike with us, uncomplaining, never being carried, and only wanting his hand held near the very end - I was much heartened by this and hope when I have kids someday they'll be able to do a challenging 5-hour hike when they're 4 years old! And apparently Milcan had done it for the first time a year previously, when he was THREE, and several times in between).
We started at the lookout (el mirador) high above Laguna Verde. Pretty spec-tac-u-lar. Then, we headed along the western ridge alongside the laguna, up onto the highest edges of the volcanic crater and then down the other side where we could look across the beautiful green slopes & valleys and see Chugchilán, our destination. The sides of the trail were covered in beautiful wildflowers & Bernardos told us about their traditional & medicinal uses. One part of the trail went through farmer's fields on the outskirts of a tiny town where Bernardos introduced us to "oka" which tasted like a cross between a carrot & a potato, and "hava" beans (lima / fava beans). We went past a tiny school where everyone stared at the gringos walking by. We also saw lots of sheep & alpacas.
We stopped for lunch (tuna salad sandwiches, our backpacking-in-Ecuador staple meal!) on a cliff where Bernardos warned us the rest of the trail would be difficult, because we had a quick descent into the valley before us and then a steep ascent up the other side to get to Chugchilán. Yep, it was difficult, but also great!
The first part of the descent was through water-carved gullies, just-wide-enough-for-a-person tunnels through the rock with high walls on either side, which opened out into a switchback trail across the flower-covered cliff face. At the bottom, a river with a single skinny slanted log across it. We somewhat timidly crawled across, followed by Milcan (no fear!) and then Bernardos who calmly walked upright across it, no problem. Then we started our uphill journey, past farms & livestock & tiny houses with smoke curling up from their chimneys, remembering every so often to look back behind us across to the cliffs where we started.
Eventually the trail widened into a gravel road and we were almost back in Chugchilán. The last part of the trail wound past giant black pigs grazing at the side of the road but my camera had run out of batteries so no more photos!
Then it was back to the hostel for a well-deserved hot shower & a seat at the outdoor picnic table for papas fritas (fried potatoes) & hot chocolate with coconut rum. An excellent end to an excellent day.
Next time I'll run it. Who's in? :)