The wide, dusty trail is packed with people and mule trains and slides 1000 feet down from the rim of a crater to an emerald blue lake. We were warned the trail would be challenging. But I was seduced by those glassy waters that ripple with new colors as the sky shifts and turns from blue to grey.
Quilotoa Crater is a dimpled vertebrae along the spine of the Andes. Unlike majestic Cayambe or Cotopaxi, there is no startling view of a glacial-capped peak across a grand distance. In fact, you’re not even sure you’re on the flanks of a volcano until you come right up to the rim. At 12,400 feet, you will, however, feel the elevation.
When I first read about Quilotoa, well before my first trip to Ecuador in 2015, it sounded quite remote and lonely. Situated well off of the Pan-American highway, it’s flanks are dotted with remote-sounding village names: Latacunga, Zumbahua, Puhilí. At the time I looked into it, Quilotoa didn’t seem to have much of an infrastructure for tourists.
Now that I have traveled considerably in Ecuador, I should have known that few places in the Andes are really remote. You have to hike your way well into a national park, such as Cajas, in southern Ecuador, or travel to a place more than a couple hour’s bus ride from any city, such as Alausí. But even there, the steep mountainsides are populated with farm homes. I had been wanting to visit Quilotoa for years. What I didn’t expect was that it would be Ecuador’s version of Yosemite or Rocky Mountain Park. The village on the edge of the crater has grown up in a tourist frenzy, and narrow roads were packed with cars and tour buses. It didn’t help that we were there on a holiday weekend.
The 3-kilometer wide crater of Quilotoa was formed in an eruption about 800 years ago. Apparently, that eruption is estimated to be one of the largest on Earth in the last 1000 years. Over a series of four eruptive phases, volcanic ash was deposited across the northern Andes, and there were pyroclastic flows and lahars (flows of mud, debris, and pyroclastic material) that reached westward all the way to the ocean. The caldera, with its deep blue-green lake formed following these eruptions. Dissolved minerals in the lake water give it that unusual color (not really captured so well by my camera), and fumaroles and hot-springs dot the lake floor and eastern flank. Yes – it is still an active volcano!
A number of my students were wiped out from a hike on the slopes of Cotopaxi the previous day, but there were several that still wanted to do the hike down the the water and back up again (mules were also an option for the return journey). A wide trail winds down into the crater, and over about half an hour, takes you down about 1000 feet in elevation. Of course, the return journey takes a bit longer.
We started our way down the trail at about the same time as a very large group, and quickly found ourselves on a soft, sandy surface, shoulder-to-shoulder with what felt like hundreds of other people, who would separate only long enough to let the mules coming up or down pass by.
Fortunately, the crowd eventually thinned out. But there was still a steady stream of people the entire way – way more adventurers than I found on the Lake Agnes trail in Banff earlier this summer. What’s so fascinating to me is the sheer variety of people you find on a trail like this in Ecuador.
In North America (at least, in Canada and the US), there is a clear ‘outdoor culture’. Most people you see on the trail, while varying in age, all tend to have the same type of clothes and gear. We have our Camelbacks to carry water, Patagonia backpacks (or special hip-packs for those with back discomforts), we have our sturdy, full-traction, waterproof, ankle-supporting leather/vinyl hiking boots, Fitbits, GPS watches, sunblocking hats and shirts and zip-off pants that dry in 2 seconds, $3 energy bars and smartphones to document each step of the way.
On the Quilotoa trail, it was not uncommon to see women with skinny jeans and flats, older ladies with jewelry and fine jackets, assisted by grandchildren. Shoes and shirts of every type. Skirts and sweaters. No Camelbacks or supportive leather boots here. There were people carrying gallon-sized jugs of water by hand for the whole family, if they had water at all. They DID, however, all have smartphones for taking photos that were quickly whisked off into the ether to Facebook or Instagram. It was clear that despite the strenuous nature of this hike, this was a trail for everyone.
And that makes me wonder, as I did when I visited Lake Louise earlier in the summer, how do we encourage people to protect natural areas, and at the same time, protect those natural areas from being loved to death? I know there are no easy solutions to this. Maybe the best thing we can do is let people come. Let kids be free to create great outdoor memories that will spark action when they grow up. And, perhaps, someday we can avoid having people running governments who have never spent the night under the stars, and can’t comprehend the value of the natural world in their own lives – or in anyone else’s.
Despite the crowds, I’m so grateful I could share my first visit to this place with my students – and the fuzzy llama.