Leaving the cloud forest region of northwestern Ecuador, we moved south towards higher grounds in search of volcanoes, of which Ecuador is famous for.
Our first stop was Pululahua, one of only few inhabited calderas in the world. It once was a giant volcano 2500 years ago. One massive explosion blew the top completely away. The north part of the volcano wall partially collapsed as well, and that is why it did not become a crater lake. From the main road it was a 45 minute winding drive down to the flat caldera floor, now cut up into patches of agricultural plots. It is completely hidden by peaks and lava domes, sparsely populated, and gave a feeling of being out of this world. In August, it was dry season and it looked a bit brown like the wild wild west. But we were told that in the winter wet season, the hills and pastures come alive with colorful wild flowers and that would be the most beautiful time to visit.
Next we headed towards Cotopaxi volcano. This was supposedly to be one of the highlights on this trip. Take a look at this amazing picture (photo credit: Song of the Road) and you will see why. In this area there are terrific high altitude hiking and horsebacking riding. This picture is the view from a free camp site in the national park!
Unfortunately, we saw only ashes, no glimpse of the volcano, and the park was off limits. It was big news in August when Cotopaxi first rumbled and shot ashes kilometers into the sky, and then continued doing so for weeks. The National Park and villages were evacuated and millions of face masks were distributed to protect people from volcanic ash. I suppose what we actually saw was rare and pretty exciting too – we got to drive through the volcanic ash on the highway.
Since Cotopaxi was off limits, we headed to the other side of the mountain range to visit Lake Quilotoa, a crater lake formed by its own eruption 800 years ago. We actually had an escape route planned too. If Cotopaxi were to erupt, which at the time many people thought it would, the main highway would be closed, but from Quilotoa we could cut to the coast and continue southward from there. Luckily nothing happened.
We stayed in a hotel in Chucchilan called Hostal El Vaquero. They probably would have allowed camping too, but for $20 a person, we had a nice room with breakfast and dinner, so why not. Our first day here we did a hike from the rim to the lake. We had planned on riding mules back up, but at the bottom, I kind of felt like walking, and Ty said he didn’t mind (!), so Simon, in his words, had to “man up.” It was not an easy walk as the altitude was about 12000 feet. The uphill was sustained and the path was soft sand and gravel. Ty is becoming much tougher with these hikes. With kids this age, they are physically very capable with all the energy in the world. But mentally, he is just now gaining confidence about what he can accomplish with his own legs. Still not his favorite activity, there needs to be lots of games and sweet incentives.
We also took a horseback ride into one of the canyons. We hadn’t ridden since we left Boquia, Colombia, so we were excited to hear that a 4 hour ride here would set us back only $15. When our horses came though, my horse looked more like a mule and our stirrups were not adjustable. In the first slow minutes, we were very tempted to call it off. Then the horses+mule hit the dirt highway and they were ready to run so all was again well. It was probably a couple miles on the highway before turning onto a trail down the canyon. And in a town used to horses, so many locals drove by and laughed at this family of Chinos cantering down the highway. Into the canyon we went. While there were some decent houses and nice agricultural plots, we also saw very poor living conditions again. Two children with their scrawny puppy asked us for candy, the first time we encountered any “begging” since Central America. We rode by these kids’ “house”, and it is difficult to see the lack of opportunities for some. There is no denying that the Quilotoa area is beautiful. But it is not a place that will warm your heart. It is a cold, windy and harsh environment. You have to be tough to live here.
To visit the Quilotoa region, there is a scenic loop road from the main highway that passes through many indigenous communities. On our way out, we stopped in the village Tigua and stayed in a family run farm/inn that allowed camping. An indigenous family worked on the farm. I and the kids were able to spend a few hours with their kids one morning. This was after their boys finished moving the animals out to pasture but not before the eldest 12 year old girl finished chopping firewood for the day. The few hours with them was very unusual because we have found the indigenous people throughout the Americas to be very reserved. I don’t remember one other time having a conversation with an indigenous person who was not working in tourism. Even this time with this bunch of four kids, it took us walking closer a little bit at a time and a long while before they flashed us a smile. Once that happened though, they fooled around just like all kids.
Baños is on most travelers’ radar. But after visiting, we feel it is completely overrated. Yes, there are lush mountains and waterfalls at every turn, but there is also a massive hydroelectric dam and lots of cheesy $5 canopy tours. Although Banos turned out to be a bust, we were glad we went because we met some wonderful people. The first night we went to the nearby town of Rio Verde in search of free camping and set up next to the children’s playground. A very cool nine-year old girl riding a BMX befriended Ty right away. She and her friends stayed to play with Ty and Jamie until they almost missed their curfew and had a few panicky (and funny to us) moments. In the days that followed we would fatefully run into her again and again. That night was probably one of the worst and memorable camping nights one could have. It started raining hard and the car parked next to us had a very sensitive car alarm. We were literally a couple feet away from this blaring alarm actually considering whether we could stay through the night. After an hour we had to pack up and move camp at 1am.
The next day we moved to the campground Pequeno Paraiso. Our stay grew from one day into three, when an Aussie family with a four-year old girl rolled in. It is always so nice to meet a playmate for Ty. He is happy and it gives us a break. Plus, the family (twogypsiesandaprincess) is quite inspirational doing this with their little girl in a roof top tent. Some may call us crazy for being on this trip but I would never even have considered a roof-top tent an option. We did a couple day trips together visiting the waterfall Pailon del Diablo one day, and went to Rio Verde for a town party the next.
Near Banos is the volcano Tungurahua. Here is another photo from Song of the Road of what we could have seen. But it was rainy while we visited, so again, no volcanoes! Seems like sighting volcanoes is like whale watching. No guarantee. With that, we decided to give up our search and move on to southern Ecuador.