Horsing Around in Quilotoa

I was so excited to hike the famous Quilotoa loop. Volcanic crater lake! Stunning views! Incredible hostels! Interaction with locals! Off the beaten track! From the moment I first read about it, I knew it was going to be a defining moment in our trip, something we’d remember for years to come.

Then on morning of our first day of hiking, I woke up at 4:00 am and puked in a hostel shower.

Needless to say, hiking didn’t happen. We spent an extra day at the Hostal Tiana in Latacunga (nice, but they did construction in our private room for like an hour while we were in there – weird) and enjoyed the little time we did spend exploring the parks and restaurants. Like most tourists, though, Latacunga was only a means to an end – it was our gateway to Quilotoa.

Since we had limited time, my illness meant skipping the hike. It was that or skip the coast at the end of the trip, and I really didn’t want to sacrifice beach time and blue-footed boobies, so the hike had to go. We compromised by taking a bus to Chugchilan and staying at the beautiful Black Sheep Inn halfway through what would have been our hiking route.

It’s one of the more expensive spots at $35 per person, but that includes your cozy dorm bed, three meals, free snacks and optional yoga. It was a gorgeous place to stay (even though I could barely touch my lovely vegetarian meal due to illness) and we made friends there with other backpackers, two of whom inspired the next leg of our journey.

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Horses! That’s right, horses! I used to hate horseback riding – I did it once on vacation with my grandparents and was miserable, but this time it seemed like just the right amount of wild. We weren’t going to survive hiking, we didn’t want another bus ride, and here was a budget-friendly adventure ($30 per person; five hours) with good company. It was meant to be.

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It was amazing. I stopped being scared about two minutes in (they didn’t give us helmets) and started to drink in the scenery. Everything was beautiful. There were animals everywhere, and friendly schoolchildren who would wave when you passed by. It’s hard to put such an amazing experience into words and pictures, but trust that it was moving and magnificent. Maybe the best day of the trip.

There were times, of course, where it was terrifying. The trail there is notorious for getting wiped out by rockslides, and there were many times our guide had to jump off his horse to cajole ours into moving again along the treacherous terrain. I earned the nickname “Panic Spanish” because anytime I thought I might die (which was more and more frequent as the day went on) I would start speaking rapidfire Spanish at a level of fluency previously undiscovered. Fear is a powerful thing.

The views and thrill made it all worth it, though, and the next day we got our hiking fill as we journeyed down into the crater to go kayaking on Lago Quilotoa. We went from one side of the crater to the other and were quite proud of it.

It’s one of those places you should definitely visit, even if only for the day. Just beware: the hike back out of there is a real bitch. Do not underestimate the power of altitude.

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