Thursday, January 24, 2013

Quilotoa Loop with a View

The 'Quilotoa Loop' refers to a VERY bumpy, cliff hugging "road" that winds off the main highway and high into gorgeous back- country of the indigenous Kichwa-speaking people. This loop, however, is not as easily circumnavigated as one my hope it would be. The mysterious bus 'schedule' seems to baffle even the locals. "Well, there's probably a bus at 3am and then maybe another one at 4pm... and there very well be one at noon, but I wouldn't count on that one.." And that would be only for the largest town. The smaller towns have one bus a day- at 4am. For our bus from the town of Quilotoa to Chugchilan we were told to be there (in 2 different locations) a half hour early and that the bus would come at 1:20 or 1:30 or 2:00. It eventually arrived in a cloud of dust at 2:15. It was the single most terrifying bus ride I had ever been on. Not only were the roads more like suggestive dirt paths, but they were perched literally on the very edge of sheer cliffs that dropped hundreds of meters without so much of a tree to break the fall of a tumbling bus. Believe me- I pictured it. By the time we made it to Chugchilan, about an hour later (after unloading a stereo system through the back window) I was convinced I deserved my $1 bus ticket back. But, really, the scenery was spectacular and we did make it safely to the destination. So, I guess it was worth the $1. Who cares if we had been waiting on the side of the road for the bus since noon and I to pee the entire hour and the bus was hopping up and down like Jiffy Pop? It was like a discount roller coaster, only we weren't strapped in and we certainly weren't at Fantasy Island. Not to complain.
But back to the beginning. We left Cotopaxi with our new German friends, Martina, Bozi and Armin. Conveniently all of our new friends, and pretty much everyone else travelling in Ecuador except us, speak Spanish. We were dropped at the side of the Pan-America highway by the taxi and told to flag a passing bus to the next big town, Latacunga. It took about 5 seconds for one to pass. We all piled on with the locals and their chickens, gas tanks, paper wrapped bundles and babies. The scenery was beautiful and other than the ubiquitous teenager slumped in the very back corner of the bus playing that horrible screaming music so loud through his earbuds that everyone in the vicinity suffered, it was an uneventful journey. With luck we caught the only bus going all the way to Quilota that day and reserved the whole back row for the 2 hour mountain journey. By the time we arrived in Quilota, the famous village of the turquoise Laguna Quilotoa, a volcano crater that is now a shimmering lake, surrounded on all sides by steep mountain walls, we were starving. Being a town with exactly one street it was easy to find a little restaurant serving traditional Ecuadorian fare. Lunch was $3 and included a soup, and a plate piled with fries, rice, fried chicken and a piece of lettuce or 'salad' and hot tea (coca- as in cocaine tea- if we fancied). J- being a vegetarian, of course, was the only person out of the 5 of us to get a chunk of chicken in his 'vegetarian' soup. Instead of fried chicken he got a slice of fried banana. We picked the hostel next door to stay for the sweeping views of the valley. Quilotoa was cold and damp. Morning was clear and gorgeous, but by mid afternoon thick clouds rolled in, obscuring anything further than 5 feet away and leaving us chilled to the bone. We cuddled by the fire, sipping mint tea and chatting. Dinner rolled around. Soup, of course, to start.Then a plate piled with spaghetti (no sauce), boiled potatoes (no sauce), a slice of tomato and another piece of fried chicken. "What do you call this?" Our new Japanese friend asked us motioning to his plate. 'A whole lot of carbs!' We told him, and all had a friendly laugh as he tried to wrap his tongue around the word 'carbohydrates.' Needless to say, so far, we haven't fallen in love with Ecuadorian food, except the fried chicken- who doesn't love fried chicken? There are these little snacks served street side, however, 'cheese empanadas'- some sort of fried dough, probably corn or potato based, stuffed with melty cheese- pretty delicious and totally not diet friendly. The next morning we were up with the sun, eating fried eggs, bread and, surprisingly, some fresh fruit. Just the start we needed for our 5 1/2 hour hike around the rim of the Quilotoa crater. It was a spectacular hike and it felt good to be burning some of the bagillion carbs we had been eating. There were some major ups, and steep downs, the hike involved a bit of scrambling and a lot of narrow causeways with the land falling away dramatically inches from the edge of the path. It was a great day out with Martina, Bozi and Armin and we feel very lucky to have met all three of them and that we had the opportunity to spend so much time with them. But, as all good things come to an end, after our epic hike, we parted ways. Everyone was headed south, to the jungle and our plan was to stay a bit longer in the mountains. Thankfully, before they left Martina taught J a couple really long/complicated German words- which he repeated over and over again, trying to get them right. That night I woke up to J talking in his sleep- in German. Thanks, guys!

We continued on to the next town on the 'loop,' Chuggchilan via the terrifying bus ride mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry. Still high up in the (green) mountains with spectacular views of the canyon, mountains and steep farmers fields. We stayed at a wonderfully atmospheric hostel that offered the best food we've had so far in Ecuador. The hiking was awesome and the strategically hung hammocks offered such views while swinging in the blissful breeze. We had working internet for the first time since arriving AND there was the most adorable cuddle-y cat 'Felipe' whom won even J over- although he won't admit it (J: I couldn't stand the flea-bag).

A note on dogs here: They seem to fall into one of two categories- either they are horribly terrifying, or they are little love bugs who run up to you on the street like you are their most favourite person in the world, and try to kiss you everywhere and share all their precious fleas with you.

Example #1- We got off the bus (and not a minute too soon) in Chugchilan and there were literally more dogs than people. They were mostly distracted by each other or eating or sleeping, scrounging or fighting or mating. Stray dog drama is hilarious. We started walking down the street and there was a medium-large dog sitting beside a little girl on a stoop. As we neared, his tail was wagging- then, all of the sudden, he was half way across the street, crouched in anger, teeth bared, growling and and snarling at us. It was so scary. J lifted the water bottle and pretended to throw it at him and he stayed back- but seriously. Why do people want dogs like this? Then we went out for a walk and passed a dilapidated house with a long drive way. Just as we got in front of the driveway, 2 dogs barreled out at us, barking and growling and generally being very ill-mannered (and really scary).  Its not like they have leashes or gates to prevent these dogs from eating me. I leapt behind J, literally shrieking (ok-twice) and he raised his hand with the rock he'd been carrying around in his pocket for this exact reason and pretended to throw it at the lunatic man-eating dogs that were barely keeping to their side of the street. The effect was immediate. The larger dog turned and scurried away with his tail between his legs and the smaller dog literally started crying in fear as he retreated back down the driveway. Its nice to know that we have a solution to the problem- but the way your heart stops when a dog rushes at you, teeth barred and very aggressive is really not nice. At all.

On the other hand Example #2- In that same town, on a different walk a smaller dog flew up from behind us. Right at our heels. My heart stopped but just before J spun around and kicked the thing, I realized that actually his tail was wagging so much that the whole back half of his body was shaking with it. He ran up around and between our legs and jumped up, slathering us with kisses. Full of love and affection. Even when J tried to convince him to chase a gaggle of very attainable piglets, he stayed right at our feet- heeling better than any dog I had ever seen trained to do so. He followed us the rest of the walk and then when we got back to our room, he slept outside our door for hours, waiting for us to resurface. The next day was the exact same. It was like he'd never been happier in his whole life then when he saw us walking up the street.

J's Spanish has improved exponentially in the last week. Still, of course, there are times when our lack of language skills leads to some pretty confusing moments. This morning, for example, we had just finished a massive breakfast. We had fried eggs, bread, cheese, fruit, yogurt, coccoa puffs and tea with warm milk. Breakfast was included, and we certainly ate our fill. We were stuffed. We had just finished when Mama Hilda, the Grandmother patroness, and for whom the hostel was named came into the breakfast room. She asked what we were doing today, and some other basic questions that that we understood and could answer in basic terms. Then she asked how we liked our eggs done and left to go into the kitchen. 'That was a random question,' J noted. And then we heard the oil bubbling in the pan. 'She's making us more eggs!' I realized and groaned. Sure enough, out she came, with a broad smile and placed two more fried eggs in front of us. Oh boy. We rolled out of breakfast and into the hammock. Later, we were paying for our room and were trying to ask for the receptionist/cook/maid to change our $20 for $5 bills. I wasn't quite convinced that we had gotten our point across. When Mama Hilda came ambering down the stairs with her hands cradling her hands like she was holding a fly and a huge smile on her face I was intrigued. When she poured a handful of nickels into J's pocket, probably 40, as change I couldn't help but laugh. When J later dumped the entire contents of our change purse of dimes and nickels onto the counter in a corner store to pay for the ice cream bars we had chosen, all six local towns-people milling about the store couldn't help but laugh.

We made it to our final town on the loop, Isinlivi, this morning about 10am. We went on a great hike up through a little tree-canopied alley lined with curious sheep, adorable lambs, snorting pigs and wandering piglets all munching away. We hiked up to a ridge above town (missing the actual trail at first and scaling a 45degree potato field, and narrowly avoiding being spat on by an alpaca) but we eventually found our way to the top and were rewarded with glorious 360 views stretching all the way back to Quilotoa. Our hostel here in Isinlivi is cute with hammocks and comfy couches arranged around the fireplace, and as with every town on this loop, magical views. This hostel also a puppy, a constant parade of stray dogs, a mommy cat and her two cute tiny kittens and an adorable two year old named Melanie, who is currently sitting on J's lap, taking all the bookmarks out of his Spanish phrasebook, doing her best to avoid her mother, who is chasing her around with an errant sock Melanie refuses to put on. Put all these players together- and you have an adventure.

Like this afternoon when I finally convinced J to take a shower. I was sitting out on the back patio, all by myself, writing this blog, minding my own business, when two small dogs race around the edge of the patio and immediately start freaking out at the sight of me. Their tails are wagging a mile a minute, they are throwing kisses out on any and all surfaces and they are litterally climbing up the bench, onto my lap and are halfway onto the table as I am frantically trying trying to shove the computer and my cameras and the variety of things I have scattered around - out of paws way. The littlest, and female dog is SO excited that she is crying- loudly- and running circles on the bench. The black male dog is jumping about, his tail sending stuff flying about. The suddenness of this love onslaught has me overwhelmed and I really don't want fleas. Or rabid kisses, for that matter. Just then I hear wailing from inside the hostel. The dog's crying must have woken Melanie up from her nap. Assuming her mother is on it, I continue to try and get the dogs off the table. Then, there is a little screaming girl, on the edge of the garden, crying for her mother, who is no where in sight. I'm not sure if she's scared of me so I slowly approach, dogs darting between my legs. Her rosy cheeks are stained with tears and she's only wearing one shoe. When I'm close, she holds her arms up-so I pick her up and she immediately stops crying and clings to my neck. She's really cute. We just settle down, dogs lying under the benches instead of on the table and Melanie cuddled in my lap- when the cat appears. More commotion. The dog wants to play, the cat wants to claw his eyes out. She flattens her ears, hisses and arches her back and he continues to dumbly approach, tail wagging. The other dog is barking and I'm trying to drag Melanie and her appendages further into my lap as the action heats up at my feet, yelling at the dogs I don't know (who probably don't speak English) and trying to shoo the cat. AHHH! J comes out of the shower and the dogs turn their attention to slathering him with kisses and rubbing their flea-fur all over him- long enough for the cat to slink back into the garden shadows. Sigh. So, there we are. My self with a two year old Ecuadorian kid on my lap (who I thought understood some English but turns out she was just nodding at everything I said), flea ridden, but cute, stray dogs lying on our feet (most of the time- when we can keep them off our laps) , mommy cat and her kittens watching from beneath the geraniums- and J, wet hair hanging in his face, serendaing us all with the communal guitar. Just picture it.

And now, Im sitting here, by the cozy fire, with the cat settled on my lap. The computer used to be on my lap- but cat wasn't happy about the set up and shoved it off my knees to make room to stretch. Guess cats are the same 'round the world.

Where we stayed:
Quilotoa: Hostel Chukirawa $15 per night/per person with breakfast and dinner included (and private bathroom)
Chugchilan: Mama Hilda $19 per night/per person with breakfast and dinner (really great place with really good food)
Isinlivi: Llullu Llama: $19 per night/per person with breakfast and dinner


Yogi said...

Hi C & J,
Jenny asked if you come across some Alpaca wool, could you buy some and bring it home, she'll pay you when you get home or send you the money via Paypal.
That would be her knitting dream :D

Parentals said...

great stories!! Kids and animals always make for an unpredictable adventure!! Sounds like fantastic scenery.

Anonymous said...

Hi J and K,
You sure are getting around, doing the hard work and letting us at home to leisurely
enjoy the fruit of your labours, minus the flees ! Your Blogs are
great and you describe them so well, that we feel we are with you enjoying it all. I am just off the phone talking to Dad Mooney.
Love and best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Hi to you globe trotters. It's NZ here.
We loved looking at your travel blog. The black dog & the wee child Melanie were indeed heart warming. I am so taken with all the "COLOUR"- food clothes and scenery. You were braver than I, I couldn't bear to put dirty rotten snorkel gear in my mouth!!! I've been in the medical field too long hehe! Go well and be safe Love
from M & M.

The Little Tweet Heart Co. said...

I am in love with that awesome....also that pup licking Jesus is beyond adorable and how you described it reminded me of Ella...and i hoped you would bring the pup home... :)

ps work sucks so come home so we can have a dinner party and you can show me all your pictures!!! cause they look fantastic!