As we left the highway in Sangolqui, grilled Cuy, (guinea pig, the national dish) impaled on tall sticks lined both sides of the road, to entice us to stop for a taste. We drove on, unable to consume a pet animal yet. Not sure what side of the omen scale this greeting fell on. We continued for several hours, driving along the route we had chosen through green farmland, before entering the higher regions that encompass Cotopaxi National Park. The relatively smooth cobbled road soon transitioned to dirt as it began to follow a narrow ridgeline that wove between small villages. The views of the lush valleys on both sides of the road were fantastic; just finding the appropriate place to stop hindered us from taking as many pictures as we wanted to. Occasionally we were passed by a speeding tanker truck hurrying from dairy farm to dairy farm to collect the day’s fresh milk.
Slowly the terrain changed and slopes of eucalyptus trees towered over the road. Our route brought us through the eastern side of Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pasochoa, a wildlife and habitat preserve of 33,000 acres. Signs for waterfalls began to appear, tempting us to stop at the Rumipamba Falls trailhead to stretch our legs. We followed the trail until a small suspension footbridge and a glance at the time turned us back.
Forest turned to shrubland as we rose in elevation and neared Cotopaxi National Park. Having not seen a car or truck for awhile now, we were surprised when all of a sudden five vehicles were parked, a little ways from each other, in the middle of nowhere. Not a person in sight. Was this a local lovers lane? Further along more cars. Thursday afternoon, what an amorous society we thought – “obtener una habitacion” – get a room!, seems to have lost something in translation. Later we spotted folks carrying baskets full of small blue berries, Mortiños or Andean Blueberries as it turned out, which are highly sought after. Around a bend the cloud covered dome of Cotopaxi (19,347ft) appeared for the first time.
Surprised by our appearance, a “how did you arrive here?” greeted us as we checked in. A large cloud of dust behind an SUV, driven by a professional driver, usually announces guests about to check in, we were told. Our humble vehicle was lost behind tall blueberry bushes in the parking area. Being surrounded by thousands of acres Andean Blueberry bushes, Hacienda Los Mortiños, is appropriately named. Located just outside the northern entrance to Cotopaxi National Park, (which encompasses 82,500 acres and three other volcanoes , Ruminahui, Sincholaqua and Morurco within its boundary) it offers inspiring views of the surrounding landscape from every window. If you aren’t into mountain biking, horseback riding or hiking, just sitting next to the fireplace in the restaurant, watching the weather change with clouds building then dissipating suddenly to reveal the shy summit of Cotopaxi is a mesmerizing and relaxing way to spend any day.
Towards sunset, wild llamas grazed near the main building. We snapped away while the dominant male approached closer than the rest, as if to announce that he was the protector of his harem. It was a postcard perfect moment with Cotopaxi as the backdrop. The temperature drops quickly at these altitudes once the sun is low in the sky. Towards sunset a housekeeper lite the woodstove in our room to keep the night chill away.
It was not as easy getting onto a horse as it was a few years ago, but I decided to go for a three hour ride with Jorge, a guide from Los Mortiños. Pull back on the reigns and say “Soa,” sounds like whoa, when you want to stop were my instructions in Spanish. I am not a very seasoned rider, but I’ve gotten my limited experience on steep trails in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and know enough to realize that the horse is smarter than me in keeping us both safe in difficult terrain. The horse leads, “you’re just baggage” a wrangler once told me. In a stiff cold wind we saddled up, “Vamamos amigo” and we were off. Just outside the reserve, cattle grazed in the wind swept grassland and llamas could be seen in the distance.
As we entered the park and rode along a deep gully I got my first chance to yell “Soa,” at least I hope I was yelling the right phrase, when a unseen bull violently exploded from the earth and spooked our horses into a sudden gallop! That was more than enough excitement for me. We were miles away from the base of Cotopaxi, but the high plains landscape had a raw natural beauty to it. Each turn of the trail and every hill crested brought wonderful vistas. The only sound was the constant wind. Later we would flush Andean quail and ride through several herds of wild horses. The ride was exhilarating!
I’m not sure which road was bumpier, the one leading to Hacienda Los Mortiños or the one heading away, but we were relieved to be back on the Pan American highway for awhile, as we headed to three days of very inexpensive R&R at a hostel in Isinlivi on the Quilotoa Loop. Not sure what to expect at the hostel, (we are not exactly the demographic you would find there,) we decided to fortify ourselves with lunch at the historic Hacienda La Cienega which dates from 1695. As we pulled into the stately drive that led to the hacienda we wondered if there would be sticker shock when we saw the lunch menu. The elegant dining room overlooked a beautifully landscaped courtyard and bubbling fountain, where an extended family was posing for a group photo. Simultaneously, a rock band was filming a music video on the steps of the hacienda’s ancient, private chapel. Surprisingly there were many reasonably priced entrees offered for lunch. Hacienda La Cienega is just a short detour off the highway in Tanicuchi, but well worth it. It’s a great destination to experience the grandeur of a forgotten way of life.
The Quilotoa Loop is primarily known as a mountainous hiking trail that links remote, isolated villages where indigenous Kichwa is the native language, via a series of footpaths that have been followed for several thousand years.
The elevations of the villages range from 9200ft at Isinlivi to 12,500ft at the Quilotoa Crater. Fortunately Hostal Taita Cristobal, our base for three days, was the in the village of Isinlivi. Why here? We had been moving almost continuously since returning from our Galapagos trip, so it was time to recharge our batteries and just chill for a couple of days. Also we wanted to experience something more remote and less expensive. So for under $40.00 per night Hostal Taita Cristobal provided a beautiful setting, a nice private room with en-suite bath with hot water along with two hearty and delicous meals per day. Plus they had llamas on the property!
Getting there was there harrowing part. Outside of Tanicuchi the road turned to dirt and the low hills became worthy of the Alps with footpaths and stairs cut into steep slopes leading to places unseen. We glimpsed the twin peaks of Mt. Iliniza Sur (17,300ft) and Iliniza Norte (16,900ft). The GPS showed a sinuous route that wound on and on forever. We quickly developed a system to navigate the numerous blind S curves we were encountering. I would lean on the horn for 3 long blasts as we were entered a curve and Donna would try to see as far around the corner as possible and give a thumbs if all was clear as we inched uphill in second or first gear. Once you are off the highway guardrails are non-existent!!! Several times the hair was raised on the back of our necks and Donna grabbed the “Oh Jesus!” strap above the passenger door. We often faced buses barreling downhill at us in a cloud of dust and we tried to navigate the switch-back turns, clinging as tightly to the corner as possible. We passed many sobering roadside memorials to those less lucky. Many miles were traveled in second gear with a top speed of twenty miles an hour or so. Every now and then we would stop and check the road when we heard a loud metallic ping come from the undercarriage, fearing that we lost part of the car. Fortunately our wheels stayed intact. Occasionally we drove through clouds of smoke, billowing up from fields farmers had set afire to burn off the stubble left from the harvest. We saw one partially hidden directional sign for our inn, which contradicted all three GPS mapping apps we were using. Despite no mention of miles to go, trustingly we followed it. At times we were driving above the clouds.
For the next three days and nights we shared wonderful meals around a communal table with hikers from the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Siberia. Stories told, plans and information shared, we learned about maps.me, which turned out to be quite helpful later on, and as citizens of the world how much we share in common. After midnight the wind blew so fiercely, for several hours, we thought the roof might fly off. Over the several days spent there, we turned out to be the only guests crazy enough to drive ourselves into this remote region. At tea time every afternoon the owner brought the llamas, 2 adults and a three month old, home from grazing and staked them out behind the inn for the night, to the delight of the guests. Just watching the little one playfully scamper around the yard was worth the effort to get there. We strolled around Isinlivi that Sunday just as church was letting out and villagers from outlying hamlets were sitting down on the curb to catch up on local news. Around the corner sheep grazed in the school yard, and a large hog was reluctantly led uphill through town by a woman and her daughter. Weary backpackers, dusty from the trail, inquired about lodging.
Discussing our driving plans over a map with one of the tour guides one morning, the inn keeper interjected that you can’t go that way, “YOU REALLY DO NEED A FOUR WHEEL DRIVE” for that route. “You must return the way you came, the road gets better as you leave Sigchos, it was just redone.”
I never thought I would be so happy to see a guardrail!
Till later, Craig & Donna