Chugchilan is a picturesque little village on the Quilotoa loop. While we didn’t do the loop, read the post for our reasons, we ended up having a lot of fun hiking, horse riding and enjoying the scenery around.
Getting to Chugchilan
Chugchilan is a little village in the Cotopaxi province of Ecuador close to the Quilotoa Crater and lake. To get to Chugchilan, we boarded from Quito to Latacunga, where we had to change buses. There are 2 buses per day at 11:30am and 2:30pm. As it happened, we arrived in Latacunga on a Thursday which happens to be a market day in the region. Hence, we had to first take a bus to Sigchos at 10:30am and then change for a bus to Chugchilan at 1pm.
The ride from Sigchos was very scenic as the bus travels along a canyon. Moreover, you see village life going past as villagers and school kids are traveling home. It really captures your heart when a tiny native lady gets off a bus at her house and her two dogs jump on her in excitement. On the contrary, it also shows the challenges of living on a mountain when a bunch of school kids get off on the side of a trail and their house is a 100 metres above the road.
Cloud Forest Hostal
We had looked at our options and decided on Hostal Cloud Forest. The cost was $15 per person including breakfast and dinner. The price and the food sounded great but it got even better when we arrived. For $30 per night, we were able to get a private room, double bed, food and an amazing view. The prices of laundry, water and drinks were very cheap given the context of the location. Also, the hostel has a massive dog, which is actually a beast, called Max. He entertained us quite a bit.
In addition, the owner Jose was like a father looking after his kids. Each night during dinner, he would come and ask “Hola Chicos! Qué van a hacer mañana?”, “Hi people! What are you going to do tomorrow? “. Once you told him what you were thinking, he would get a map and explain in detail how to go about doing the trek. As a final goodbye, he even ended up giving us a lift to Latacunga saving us time and money. Great guy!
Rio Tachi Canyon Hike
Our first hike in the area was the Rio Tachi Canyon. With Jose’s map and directions in hand, we headed for the villages of Chinalo and Itualo which were a 40 minute descent from Chugchilan. The first trail was easy to find and relatively easy to hike down. The second trail was a tough descent downhill (who would have thought?). Once at the village of Itualo, we had to hike down to the river.
The trail so far had not been signposted and neither was the trail from here. Though we tried to find Jose’s directions, we could not for long and hiked down farms and formed our own trail to the river. The view from River Tachi in all directions was stunning. We walked along the river for half an hour before getting to a rope bridge. It didn’t lead anywhere but we had fun trying to walk it.
Our final stop was meant to be the log bridge further ahead on the river but the rain came in as we left the rope bridge. We decided to turn back and head back up the mountain. It was a tough climb as we hiked vertically up the canyon. The sun, rain and clouds appeared one after another as the view got better as we went higher. The sight up the canyon was well worth the hike. A great day of hiking!
Before we finished we stopped at Don Bosco, an artesania which is Spanish for artists workshop. A church opened this to help the poor and we were introduced inside by a gentleman who looked like he had issues walking. The “art” was all wooden furniture and we had to sadly say no to buying anything. However, for us the highlight was a pair of huge St Bernard dogs in the premises. First, the boy ambushed us with his cuteness and later, his other half who was locked inside the museum overwhelmed us. Together, they managed to make us happy but drooled all over us. A day well spent!
One of the highlights of the region is the Quilotoa Lake. It was the main purpose we were in the area. We took the 6am bus from Chugchilan to Quilotoa. At that early hour the bus was full of old and young native people. There was only standing room available as it was one of the few buses in the area everyday. At 6:45am, the bus dropped us at Quilotoa town and the conductor pointed us to the lake.
At this time, there was no one around town except sheep herders and barking dogs. It was cold and damp and the light was starting to get stronger. It was a short climb up the gravel road when we reached the tip of the crater. We were blown away at the first sight of the lake. The round crater, the turquoise lake and still water with no sound anywhere would be a sight that would live with us for a while to come.
Of course, seeing the lake from afar wasn’t enough. We started descending into the lake and the view just got better. There had been rain during the night and the stairs had a lot of mud. It was a slow walk down for us but one with plenty of stops as we took lots of photos. When we reached the bottom, the sight was beautiful in a distinct manner, the crater walls rose from the turquoise water. It was silent, wind blowing and a few people around. All we could think was “Om Shanti Shanti!”.
We had chosen this time to come as the clouds stayed away and this was the case. However, the bad thing was that inside the crater the kayak shop was closed making it impossible for us to kayak in the lake. Alas, we had a whole day of walking to do and we decided to walk back to the top. The walk back was tough and we took plenty of breaks. We were above 3500 metres and our hearts were going crazy from the hike and reduced amount of oxygen in the air.
We checked out the Quilotoa town a bit while I was contemplating buying a woolen poncho. The price quoted to us was $18 for an alpaca wool poncho. It was slightly expensive to Ecuador standards and we decided to look again in Bolivia. Therefore, It was goodbye to Quilotoa, a volcano which could blow up at anytime with an incredibly beautiful lake.
Hike Back to Chugchilan
The hike back started well enough. We had to walk on the rim of the crater of the lake and we took some amazing shots. After this the trail got a little confusing. We could see some village at a distance but couldn’t decide which trail would lead to it. A New Zealander couple had a picture book which helped us out. The couple were very annoying and managed to tick me off as well as many others in the area.
Finally, we were able to find a sandy trail which looked like it could lead to the village. Ecuador can be frustrating in this way as there are no signs on many occasions. We walked on this trail for an hour when we saw some Americans from our hostel who were on their way up. We had 2.5 hours to get back to the village and that made us happy. We had only been happy for 15 minutes when at the edge of the village the heavens opened up.
We entered the village and had a hot chocolate and decided to wait out the weather. We waited for 45 minutes under a volleyball court but to no avail. We saw some kids playing volleyball which surprisingly is a very popular sport in the indigenous parts of Ecuador. At last, the rain stopped and there was sunshine for the next hour.
The next part of the trail involved us going down a canyon, crossing a river and climbing up the other side to get to Chugchilan. Sounds simple? Well, it was one of the scariest walks of my life. The trail down the canyon was very narrow, 1.5-2 metres in most places. To add to that, the rain came down at the perfectly bad time when we were already 1/3 down the canyon. We had no choice but to descend. The water came rushing down the mountain. Our protective clothing could not handle the rain and we were soaked in 10 minutes.
Each step was dangerous as water, mud and rock were all together. Walking a little fast would mean we could slip down the mountain and get hurt. I really felt I had put our lives in danger. Moreover, I was angry at the hostel for not warning us. Most people who do hiking in this area are amateurs with average clothing. Somehow by praying, using sticks and patience, we made it to the river. We crossed the log bridge over a torrent and started climbing the other side.
Thankfully, the other side was not as steep and we walked through farms and mountain roads to Chugchilan. It was such a scary event that we even thanked our walking sticks before we threw them away. A hot shower after the hike really helped. We walked the longest ever and managed to survive a downpour on a mountain. It could have been bad. Phew!
Horse Ride in Cloud Forest
We rested a day and decided not to hike again. Horse riding was a great option as it was less tiring and also first for us. Our guide turned up with the horses at 8 while we finished our breakfast. Our horses were a boy and a girl named Paco and Estrella. We started our ride with our host telling us the basic commands and telling us to concentrate on the view not on the horses.
We had only gone for 15 minutes when my horse knew I was a newbie and wouldn’t follow what I said while Shruti’s horse realised that she loved adventure and decided to start galloping without a reason. Anyway, somehow everything was in control and we ascended up the hills above Chugchilan. The view was incredible and the guide was very chatty about the area and the natives of Ecuador.
45 minutes later we reached above the tree line and to a view point high above the area. We had a view of all the canyons, rivers, Quilotoa crater and the coastal plains in the distance. We parked the horses to enjoy the view and the guide told us about his area, his people and his family. It was green on each side as the guide told us that there had been a drought here recently and he thought his family would starve. The rain eventually came and he was now positive of a good crop.
Our next stop was the cheese factory. I had given up trying to guide my horse as it followed our guide only. For 5 minutes, the guide disappeared with his horse. We thought he went to meet family but he actually went to tell the factory manager to get there. Factory was not the right word for few rooms and a cheese cellar. The local farmers gave milk for return of simple cheese whilst the better, older, spicier cheese was for the tourists.
We bought a cheese circle for $5 to give to our hosts in Baños with whom we would be volunteering for next 2 weeks. It was touristy but then again it was a highlight of the area. The rest of the ride, we descended down to Chugchilan. Shruti’s horse was in her own world and stayed 50 metres ahead ready to gallop. The flora changed as we descended with our guide pointing out some trees used locally. The view also changed from mountain to farms. It was really like the Old McDonald song with the cows, pigs and sheep everywhere.
5 days in Chugchilan were incredible. The area is breathtaking and some great hikes can be done here. Cloud Forest Hostal was a great place, so cheap and Jose and his wife being so warm and caring. One of the highlights in Ecuador for us!