Living the High Life at Chugchilan

We landed in the Galapagos Islands this afternoon.  Yvonne and Jake are doing two SCUBA dives tomorrow while Kaia and I rent a double kayak to explore the shoreline and snorkel west of Puerto Ayora.  We board our ship Florianna on the 23rd.  We haven’t met anyone who hasn’t been captivated by a visit to these islands so we’re really excited. A little taste of the islands presented itself during a stroll through town before dinner … with a bunch of sea lions lounging on a dock 50ft from the main road.
If I don’t get to the Black Sheep Inn eco-blog tomorrow, you won’t hear from us in the next 9 days …
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We REALLY wanted to travel deep into Yasuni National Park and spend some time with the indigenous Waorani.  Yasuni is lowland jungle in NE Ecuador draining into the Amazon basin.  It is both wildly remote/pristine and sitting on top of a vast reserve of oil.  Yasuni has become famous recently because of an innovative attempt by Ecuador’s president to get the world community to pay Ecuador to keep the oil in the ground and protect the park and the Waorani.  This was a great idea  … that didn’t go anywhere.  Only a pittance was committed internationally, so the oil companies are slowly pushing at the borders of the park.  This jungle area on the Peru side of the border is already overrun by the oil companies and the indigenous folks (many of whom were contacted only very recently) are undergoing great stresses.  Oil spills are a huge problem.
However, after many hours of internet searching and phone calls from Costa Rica, Panama and Quito trying to line things up, we realized this journey would not happen this time around.  It would be a 10 hour bus ride followed by a 10 hour motorized canoe ride down the Rio Napo, just to meet our guide and start our trip.  And the same on return.  The guides generally don’t speak any English, and we were looking at a cost of over $300/day.  Our time and budget in Ecuador was somewhat limited, so we very grudgingly gave up on this idea ….
So instead we headed towards what is known to tourists as the “Quilatoa loop” which involves several days of bus travel and hiking through a remote and very high elevation area (“alto plano” or “paramo” – high plains) about 2 hours south of Quito. 

An easy bus ride took us from Quito to the large center of Latacunga where we boarded a bus to start the loop counter-clockwise.  Within a half hour we were climbing through VERY steep valleys, gazing across at what seemed near vertical potato, bean, corn and pasture fields with snow capped volcanoes in the backdrop.  Hairpin switchbacks up the valley wall … then down the next.  Thrilling, actually. 

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enroute to Sigchos

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Mt Iliniza Sur

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Chugchilan is just north of Quilatoa

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The first map can be placed within Ecuador using this map - look for Latacunga in center of map - south of Quito.

A brief stop in Sigchos to take on the high school kids, then south towards Quilatoa – our destination was a little village called Chugchilan (emphasis on the “lan“).  The school kids got off the bus one by one, and we watched them start walking up or down the fields towards little homesteads.
Upon arrival at the Black Sheep Inn http://blacksheepinn.com we were immediately greeted by one of the most outgoing, friendly, warm, enthusiastic (you get the picture …) people I’ve ever met.  Tecla is a dutch woman living in California who spends about half of each year exploring the world, and for now she is the assistant manager of this fantastic Inn.  This Inn is well known as an eco-lodge,  and indeed it is.  So much so that I’ll do a separate post to highlight it.  Within minutes she had us out hiking the “ridge” trail … with just enough time before dark.  First 20 minutes were straight up, and we started at 3300m, so breathing did not come easy.  We scrambled down some very steep fields to arrive back at the Inn in the final rays of daylight.

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fading light on the paramo

Dinner is included at the Inn, and is served “family style” – with all guests sharing a big table.  Erica & Chris from the US, Stephanie and Maria from Switzerland/Germany, Karl from Germany, Marco & Katie on a motorcycle with sidecar from Italy/California.  Great company!

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Next morning we set out on the signature hike of the area – to Quilatoa lake which is set in a large crater.  A 20 minute pickup/taxi ride puts you right at crater edge for a fabulous view of the lake/crater.

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It's hard to believe that we are only about 100km away from the Equator! But the wind was howling, and we're at 4000m (13200ft) vertical - we had all our warm clothes on, and were still cold.

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Quilatoa lake/crater. It is panorama - click to enlarge

The first hour of the hike follows the ridge of the crater, with outstanding views all along.  We got a few minutes of respite from the wind when the trail ducked behind the crater edge.  Kaia’s stomach was a bit off … owing most likely to the altitude.

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Cam, Kaia & Jake atop Quilatoa overlook

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The trail then descends from crater ridge back towards Chugchilan, via the little town of Guayama San Pedro.  Spectacular views abounded, and we loved to see how the local farmers (all Indigenous) successfully grew their crops and kept sheep & cows & pigs in such challenging geography (steep, remote, little water).

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click for panorama

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A potato field. All cultivation done by hand, and notice the attention to "contour" cultivation - furrowing perpendicular to slope to maximize water retention and minimize soil erosion.

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started warming up a bit ...
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These boards had very recently been hewn from trees growing only 10m away ... with only a chainsaw. Pretty good chainsaw work, I'd have to say!
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the locals have spent some time and money developing the hiking trails - benches and signs.
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great fun!
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Kichwa girls coming home from school
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we had already dropped 700m, but had another 300m to go - down this steep switchbacked trail

We marveled at local folks making their way through this country side, with babies and larger loads on their backs, trudging up hundreds of meters of vertical, as part of a daily routine.  We were greeted with smiles every  encounter.

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highly eroded trail from hundreds of years of use ... and they turn into drainage ditches
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This type of hat is characteristic of the local (Indigenous) women and many of the men from this and many other areas of Ecuador
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looking back on the trail from Chugchilan. We left the crater ridge in the low spot on the horizon. The last steep section descends from the plateau.

We had to climb 300m out of the valley floor to get back to Chugchilan, and got back in time to relax a bit at our comfy inn before dinner.  It was a 7 hr hike .. we were tired.  Yvonne managed to find her way to the yoga studio to stretch out a few sore muscles.  And Kaia, Jake and I had fun on the Inn’s home-made zip line.

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Whihoo! The line runs down to beyond the end of the shed in the distance.

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Kaia at end of zipline. You climb off onto the tire platform.

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A fantastic dinner followed, with some new guests joining. 

Tecla had arrived at the Inn only one week before us, but had already discovered most of the local trails.  She was anxious to try a new route back from the (somewhat) nearby cloud forest the next day, with a guide, and invited us along.  We gained about 500m of elevation very quickly, past farms, with ever present beautiful views.

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A local school, with no road to it. These kids and teachers must be in great shape!

This is truly the paramo country – we felt like we were on top of the world.

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Our cloud forest destination is in the distance ... as you can imagine from this photo!
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A cloud forest gets a significant amount of precip from water vapour, as opposed to rain.
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We'd seen cloud forests in Costa Rica before. But cloud potatoes were a new concept.

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This contrast from the very dry open plain only 500m and 15 minutes away was astounding. Here we are in thick, dense forest with lots of moss and other plants growing off the trees.
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our local guide Juvon (sp?)
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Yvonne with Tecla, admiring some new fruit

From this remarkable little cloud forest we made our way to a cheese factory that had just recently closed its doors and was for sale.  Enroute we passed through a small village where the school kids were outside playing soccer.  Keeping with the theme Kaia & Jake started in Zancudo Costa Rica, they joined in for 15 minutes of fun.  It was pretty fast paced.  Although the concrete field was pretty small, even a short sprint at 3900m altitude put them into oxygen deficit.  Kaia just about puked as we left the school.

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the girls were watching the boys (& K & J) play, and were disappointed when Kaia left as they took to the field.
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Solar hot water makes so much sense in the high altitude (cool) part of the country. I'm surprised we didn't see more of it.
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Dramatic views all the way back down to Chugchilan

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These chocho beans are a staple of the local diet and were being harvested and shelled as we hiked past. They were terribly bitter to our taste, and apparently are soaked for 10 days before cooking.
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The other local staple ... maize (a lovely taste, with big white kernals)

The descent from the paramo was challenging as our guide struggled to find a trail, but our very tired feet found their way home to make another 7 hr hike.  I had arranged with the owner/creator of the Black Sheep Inn for a tour of the “eco” side of the Inn.  Upon return from the hike, Jake and Kaia fronted the questions, Andreas explained, and the video camera rolled.  Andreas’s passion, vision, and sheer hard work was astounding – stay tuned for the next blog entry.
We had decided that we couldn’t afford another night at the Inn (above our budget) and had opted for a cheaper option right in the little town.  But the night before I had helped the manager with digitizing his trail map/photos, and he was very pleased – so he graciously offered to us to stay at a very reduced rate … and we were only too happy to not pack up and move.  Edmundo had until this point given hikers photos on paper of key points in the trail to ensure they stayed in right direction.  I had shown him how to resize the digital photos and add arrows with MS Paint, so he could then email the photos to hikers to use on their phones.
We had a relaxed morning next day then began our multi-bus ride to complete the loop back to Latacunga then on to Banos. These were good days.

Cam

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Our road south from Chugchilan towards Zumbahua, taken from the back of our open-air pickup truck

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