Quilotoa and altitude sickness

Courtyard in Latacunga
Courtyard in Latacunga

Carolyn and I have spent the last couple of days staying in Latacunga, a small town near Cotopaxi, which is an easy 2 hour bus ride from Quitumbe bus station in southern Quito. Our purpose was to visit Lake Quilotoa, a volcanic crater lake nearby.

We arrived in Latacunga about lunchtime, checked into our quite basic and very cheap hotel, and then went in search of food, after a short wander around the town centre. We found a small cafe in a courtyard and had a Mexican salad each, which comprised beans in sauce (inevitably) with cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, etc and was very tasty.

Interior of a church in Latacunga
Interior of a church in Latacunga

Afterwards, I was desperate for a haircut and a salon was conveniently located next to the cafe. I should have inspected it properly first! On entering, we woke up the hairdresser, who was having a little siesta in front of the television. She said she was tired! She then took to my hair, first with the shears, then with the thinning scissors and lastly with some none too clean and none too sharp, cutting scissors. She lopped bits off, seemingly at random, until I eventually decided she had done enough. I’m sure it will grow but in the meantime, there seem to be bits sticking up in odd places. Once I had gone back to the room and applied some colour, I felt infinitely better though and, I thought, looked 10 (well, maybe 2) years younger.

Later, we managed to eat again, this time in the hotel restaurant, which featured in Carolyn’s 5 year old Rough Guide, but the food certainly didn’t really warrant a recommendation now. The most impressive part was the waiter, who seemed to be a man of all trades, as he not only served us dinner but also attended to the reception, answered the phone and seemed to be there for breakfast and lunch as well.

Mountains at Quilotoa
Mountains at Quilotoa
Canyon carved out by lava flow
Canyon carved out by lava flow

On Friday, we were up early, had a very mediocre breakfast in the restaurant, and then headed for the bus station on the outskirts of town. We were going to Quilotoa but the information on the internet about transport seemed to be contradictory and vague so we weren’t quite sure how we were going to get there. As it happens, it was extremely straight forward. There was a bus leaving for Zumbahua as we arrived and once there, the driver of a pickup took us to Quilotoa, along with a couple of Americans, for $2 per person. These pickup drivers obviously wait for the buses to arrive as they know people will want rides to the lake.

On the way, he stopped at a couple of viewing points where we could see the canyon that the lava from the Quilotoa eruptions had carved out through the land. We had to pay $2 entry fee for the Park in which the crater lake is located. The small village itself consists primarily of cafes, hostels and souvenir shops. It was quite cold with a fairly strong wind so I was glad I had brought extra clothing with me.

Lake Quilotoa
Lake Quilotoa
The path descending to the lake
The path descending to the lake

The steep walk down took about 3/4 hour and I went very slowly. The scenery was beautiful and the lake very reminiscent of New Zealand, with the water a strong colour when the sun deigned to appear from behind the clouds.

Once at the bottom, I stayed for a little while whilst Carolyn started back up. The altitude at the rim of the crater is 3,900 metres and the lake is 300 metres below that so walking is difficult and I had to stop many times to catch my breath and for my heart to slow to a normal pace. It gave me time to admire the view though and, on the way, I was passed by locals leading horses or mules down to the bottom so that tourists could ride up if they could not manage the ascent themselves. There were also a couple of people walking their dogs down, which gave me cause to wonder whether dogs experienced altitude sickness!

By the time I reached the top, I had a major headache, even though I had been drinking a lot of water. I was greeted by Carolyn with the information that a bus going directly back to Latacunga was about to leave, so we hurried to catch it.

The lava canyon near Zumbahua
The lava canyon near Zumbahua
The road from Quilotoa
The road from Quilotoa

The next two hours were a nightmare. The road between Latacunga and Quilotoa is very windy and the driver raced downhill, braking hard on the bends and when stopping for people waiting by the roadside. The scenery was magnificent but I could not appreciate it as I concentrated very hard on not being sick. By the time we arrived back, I felt so ill I could barely stand up and was very grateful that Carolyn was there and able to get me back to the hotel, where I spent the rest of the afternoon comatose on the bed, recovering from the altitude. By early evening I was feeling better and went to the restaurant for something to eat but it wasn’t long before I had to retire to my bed again.

Sadly, I may have to cross off hiking up Cotopaxi from my ‘to do’ list as it is even higher than Quilotoa.

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