Monday, August 8: We arrived in the evening at the adorable Hostal Huasicama with its colorful murals of an indigenous parade, the Mamá Negra Festival. Luckily, we seemed to be the only guests there, and we were able to switch our room for one with a hot tub. It was the El Capitán Room: El Capitán is said to be “Mama Negra’s lover and the only one who is allowed to dance with her; its origin is Spanish. He wears a military suit and he is accompanied by a group of people who are called Engastadores.” All the rooms are named after characters from the Mamá Negra Festival.
The town of Latacunga is dominated by Volcán Cotopaxi. It erupted violently in 1742 and again in 1768, destroying much of the city both times. The survivors were not deterred; they rebuilt only to suffer an immense eruption in 1877. The townspeople dusted themselves off, rebuilt again, and have been spared Cotopaxi’s wrath ever since.
To celebrate their good luck and revel in their rich indigenous and Catholic history, the townspeople threw a party, the Mamá Negra Festival (Black Mother). Usually the celebration is September 23-24 and again on the weekend closest to November 8. At the head is the Virgen de las Mercedes, Latacunga’s protectress from volcanic eruptions. A local man plays the part, dressing as a black woman.
We ate a light dinner in the room – leftovers of Mike’s non-grilled cheese sandwich and other snacks. Mike made drinks for us with Sprite and the whiskey he bought at a shop across the street. We soaked for a good while in the hot tub and enjoyed a relaxing evening after our long drive today.
Tuesday, August 9: After an excellent breakfast in the cozy fern-filled common room at Hostal Huasicama, we drove part of the Quilotoa Loop. Many people spend three days hiking this loop; we drove and that seemed to take forever. We took a comfortable paved but winding road through heavy fog around mountainous curves. Our GPS told us that we had a couple more hours to go after we had driven nearly an hour and we considered turning around in frustration.
We finally came to a small cluster of art galleries along the road around milepost 50km. A young woman named Cuillar ran a cafe there, along with her art gallery. We enjoyed hot coffees in her cafe and asked how much further it was to Quilotoa; she said not far, maybe a half hour. Our GPS had misled us. We were glad we hadn’t given up and turned around.
One of the things I wanted to buy in Ecuador, besides Panama hats, were paintings by a community of painters in Tigua known for bright paintings of Andean life. We found the Tigua paintings in Cuillar’s art gallery, along with paintings by her father, who has shown them in galleries in Chicago. We took a photo of Martha (the grandmother), Cuillar (the mother) and Vanessa (the granddaughter). I bought two of the small Tigua paintings, one depicting Quilotoa and one Volcán Cotopaxi. They’re painted on sheep hides.
We found a mural painted in the Tigua style in the town Zumbahua on the way to Quilotoa. We were running out of cash and needed to find an ATM, so in Zumbahua, we asked a group of indigenous people who were clustered around what looked like a bank. We were using our pequito español and no one could understand what we were saying. We used hand gestures to mime getting cash out of an ATM. The women started snickering and they were all laughing heartily as we walked away, our tails between our legs; we were chuckling ourselves after another episode of failing miserably to make ourselves understood. Luckily we found a bank on the edge of town.
Just after Zumbahua, we found a tourist attraction at the Toachi River Gorge (Cañon del Toachi). We did a quick stroll around and Mike posed on a seat set within a heart overlooking the gorge. We also pushed the swing over the gorge, but neither of us had the nerve to actually sit in the swing.
We arrived at the famous volcanic crater-lake of Laguna Quilotoa about 14km north of Zumbahua. The winds were fierce and cold, but that didn’t stop us from tackling the walk down into the crater 280m to the mirror-green lake. According to guide books, the hike down takes a half hour and the hike back up twice that. We were told you could take a donkey back up for $10, which, once we started the steep and slippery downhill slog, we determined we would absolutely do.
I’m extremely cautious on downhill hikes, especially if the surface is slippery gravel atop a hard rock surface, which this was. It was incredibly steep. Even using hiking poles I was very slow and I kept losing my footing. It took us a full hour to get to the bottom. Mike insists that I’m a terrible descender as I tend to lean back instead of forward, not trusting gravity to take me downhill safely.
At the bottom, it seemed donkeys and horses were in short supply and the daunting prospect of climbing back up that slippery slope, especially at the altitude of 12,800 feet, had me in tears. Mike tried to console me and insist we’d find a ride back up, but I had my doubts. It was touch and go as I contemplated a two-hour hike back up.
Finally, at long last, we found a donkey and a horse to take us back up. The donkey took a lot of stubborn rest breaks and the boy was panting away during the donkey’s stops. Though I felt horrible putting the donkey and the boy handler through all of that, I also felt relieved that I didn’t have to make that challenging climb.
There is also a rim hike around the crater that is estimated to take 4-5 hours. We talked to a young Dutch couple who said they had hiked that trail “in the typical Dutch style – fast!” They said it was a scary narrow path often bordering steep precipices. They wished they had slowed down and enjoyed it more.
We left the cold winds of Quilotoa behind and started our drive back after I bought a huge wool poncho in a sprawling gift shop. I thought I might wear it at Cotopaxi where it is notoriously cold.
All along the highway, spaced at what seemed equal distances, were solitary dogs, either lying on the side or even in the middle of the road. We figured they had staked out their territory and were waiting or hoping for food. We jokingly called it “Señor Perro Highway.”
On our drive back from Quilotoa, the sun peeked out and washed the landscape in golden light. We stopped again at the little art gallery/café near Tigua for another cappucino and enjoyed views of the heights. We met Cuillar’s father who was manning the shop but we didn’t buy any of his paintings.
As we continued on another hour, we were able to catch views of the mighty Volcán Cotopaxi.
Return to Latacunga
We had another relaxing hot tub soak back in our room then we walked down several sets of steep steps to Terraza Resto Bar. Mike got a fancy rainbow colored shot, Barbados Sunrise (Ron blanco, curazao azul, granaidna, zumode naranja). I enjoyed a delicious meal of Tacos de Pollo (tortilla de maiz, rellena de pollo, fréjol, nachos, pico de gallo, guacamole). Mike enjoyed a Hamburguesa: a Lo Mero Mero (carne, jalapeños, guacamole, nachos, queso cheddar y queso fundido) and French fries.
It was a lovely end to a fun but challenging day. Even though the descent down into the crater was super stressful, I was glad we did it instead of simply driving all that way and looking at it from the mirador (overlook). We had a true experience instead of simply checking off √ the want-to-see list. 🙂
Here’s a little video of our time in Latacunga & Quilotoa.
Steps 13,935; Miles: 5.82.