After several days of exploring Quito’s historic old town and enjoying life in the big city – Ecuador’s second largest – we headed south to the town of Latacunga which serves as the jumping off point for the Quilotoa Loop. A spectacular mountain road that loops off the Panamericana, the Quilotoa Loop connects remote Andean villages that are home to small indigenous groups, some of the country’s most traditional markets, natural wonders and beautiful countryside panoramas in the central highlands of Ecuador. Travel along the loop is challenging, but the rewards are abundant.
Arriving in Latacunga, the largest of the towns along the loop, we immediately set off to visit the Thursday morning market in Saquisili. The indigenous people of Saquisili dress in felt pork pie hats and red ponchos. Entire blocks and plazas were filled with women sitting alongside sacks of potatoes and blankets covered in vegetables. There were also live chickens and ducks for sale. The going rate for a pair of adult ducks was $12. Interestingly, on the ride back to Latacunga that afternoon the unsold ducks ended up in sacks in the luggage compartment under our bus while a couple of sheep rode on the roof-top luggage rack.
After returning to Latacunga from Saquisili we set off again in the opposite direction, this time headed for the town of Zumbahua. Famed for it’s fascinating Saturday market, Zumbahua is a tiny town surrounded by farmland and green patchwork peaks. Beginning before 6a.m. Saturday morning hordes of people all in felt hats, the men wearing ponchos and the women wearing felt knee length skirts, colored stockings and layered ponchos crowd into the central plaza. In addition to the usual market offerings, the market at Zumbahua has a fascinating and disturbing twist, an open-air butcher shop where animals are slaughtered on-site and sold immediately.
Following the market we hopped into the back of a pick-up truck to make the 14km journey along unpaved mountain road to Laguna Quilotoa, a stunning volcanic crater lake and one of Ecuador’s most impressive natural wonders. Standing at the top of the crater the view overlooking the lake with the snow-capped volcanoes in the background was amazing. The hike down inside the crater to the lake and back, however, was exhausting and as we struggled local women and children, many with babies strapped to their backs, ran up and down leading horses that were carrying others who had already given up walking.
The area surrounding the lake is barely a town at all, just a few simple accommodations that offer inclusive food and lodging options to visitors and it was in one of these lodgings that we spent a very cold night. Despite Ecuador’s location on the equator, due to the high altitude temperatures along the Quilotoa Loop, especially at the lake are extremely chilly. The following day, having visited many of the towns and attractions along the loop and desperately in need of some relief from the cold, we headed back toward the Panamericana passing once again the towns of Zumbahua and Latacunga and continuing south to the tourist hot spot of Baños. Traveling the Quilotoa Loop has been, without a doubt, one of our best adventures yet.