Quilatoa crater lake

29 Jan

A clapped out old bus with rattling windows, faded velour seats and a never ending soundtrack of Andean pan pipes dropped us off in the small settlement of Quilatoa. The indigenous farming village didn’t look like much, just a cluster of basic brick and tin roof homes, but we’d learnt that this was the access point to one of Ecuador’s most spectacular sights – the unbelievably beautiful volcanic crater lake, Quilatoa.

Following a period of dormancy lasting for over 14,000 years, Quilatoa blew its top around 800 years ago producing catastrophic pyroclastic flows and debris that reached all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The resulting crater is 2.5 kilometres wide, with a rim that rises and falls irregularly and which is now filled with gorgeous greenish/blue water. We’d seen the promotional posters in tourist information and the artwork adorning shops and cafes in the area, but we assumed the pictures must have been digitally enhanced – nothing could be that stunning…could it? We had to find out for ourselves.


During the 2 hour local bus ride from Latacunga we had climbed through beautiful rural scenery and passed rolling green hills until we were at a height where we could see a string of snow covered mountains and volcanos stretching in either direction. The distance from Latacunga to Quilatoa is only 35 kilometres and we made a rookie error in thinking we’d cover that distance in no time at all, forgetting the golden rule that you should never underestimate the state of the roads or the buses in Latin America, and that timetables, on the rare occasions they exist, count for nothing.


En-route we stopped for pick ups in tiny Andean villages and we were delighted each time traditionally dressed locals boarded the bus, greeting everyone formally with “Buenos Dias”. The men wore ponchos with embroidered designs of llamas, and dark coloured Panama hats which looked dog-eared but well loved – as if the hats had been worn every day for the last 20 years for every activity from farming to eating dinner. The women wore brightly coloured layered dresses and their hair, which was always dark and long, was tied in neat plaits down their backs. The women had distinctive felt hats in the same shape as a Panama but with a taller crown and with layers of felt flowers stuck on the side.

After an amusing conversation about directions with an aged and slightly deaf local lady who spoke the highland language of Quechua and only very basic Spanish, we were pointed up a short but steep and dusty path. It certainly didn’t look like we’d been guided towards a volcanic crater rim but we hoped that our loud repetition of the words “volcan” and “laguna” whilst performing the mime for swimming (where this came from we had no idea) had inspired the lady to send us in the right direction!


Watching our feet as we climbed, we’d missed the tell tale signs for an approaching view so as we reached the end of the short uphill climb we stopped dead in our tracks with our mouths wide open. The crater rim was closer than we’d imagined and the incredible views were causing the hairs on the back of our necks to stand up. The crater was a near perfect circle, with steep sides and a ragged upper lip. The water in the crater was milky green and, protected from the barrage of wind we felt from our high viewing point, it was still and calm. The walls surrounding the laguna were dry rock, crumbling into sand, but patches of small pink and lilac flowers poked their heads through the dusty ground and lower down near to the water there were some areas of greenery.


It’s possible to spend 4 hours completing a loop around the caldera rim taking in the changing views but we decided to experience the descent into the crater and down to the water’s edge. We posed for several photographs on a small section of wooden platforms which had been strategically built hanging over the very edge of the rim and then started our descent.


The first 50 metres was on a neatly constructed stone path but due to renovations the rest of the path had been dug up leaving only rubble and sand to pick our way through. The steep downward scramble played havoc with our knees and our ankles twisted a few times but we amused ourselves by chatting to friendly workmen and taking unusual pictures of their numerous and ugly wheelbarrows which contrasted sharply with the natural beauty of the area.


We clambered over large rocks around the the edge of the lake which had been shaped and sculptured by years of water running into the lake during the rainy season.


In places, we could see bubbles rising to the surface of the lake from pockets of gas trapped deep underground, reminding us that we were standing at the heart of what used to be an active volcano.


The lake is fed entirely by rain water, which we found difficult to comprehend as the area seemed so dry whilst we were there, but during the rainy season from November to March an average of 12 inches can fall per month in this highland region and the walls of the crater are transformed into rows of fast flowing waterfalls. The locals believe that the lake has no bottom but scientists dispel this myth quoting some 250 metres at the deepest point.


Green and yellow algae grew around the edge of the lake feeding on the mineral rich water adding to the unusual feeling of the place.


A small hostel in the crater offered basic rooms, drinks and rented out kayaks to anyone who still had the energy to explore further. For those who felt drained by the exercise of walking at altitude, the hostel also provided donkey rides back out of the crater for a small charge and many people opted for this sensible option.


With our budget and fitness in mind, we took the sand escalator back out of the crater and with the rythym of two steps forward and one slide back, it wasn’t long until we were pink in the face and feeling the leg burn. With buses departing every hour from the next village of Zumbahua (the last bus direct from Quilatoa left early afternoon so we took a 4WD jeep to Zumbahua for 20 Soles – 7 USD), we were in no hurry and stopped regularly to catch our breath and admire the panoramas.

We were surprised to find an elderly local lady knitting from a large ball of wool when we reached the caldera rim once again. We were hoping that we could sneak away before anyone realised how out of breath we were but we stopped to say hello. We managed to deduce that the lady had grown up in the local area and was the proud mother of 6 children – well, there’s not so much to do there in the evenings! She said that even after all of those years she still thought the crater was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen and as we walked away waving goodbye, we couldn’t help but agree with her.

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