We were thrown left and right inside the pick-up truck as the driver skillfully negotiated the rutted and potholed dirt road to Laguna Quilotoa. The fifteen of us were moving in unison, the scouts at the front looking out for low hanging branches. As we climbed the 700 vertical metres a sensational panorama opened up down the valley. The hills ran down to a plateau and then into a 400 metre deep gorge. Along the roadside small one or two room farmhouses appeared with the children often running out to wave as we rumbled past. As we got higher up the valley the concrete block houses were replaced with traditional adobe walled and grass thatched buildings. Even the steepest sides of the valley are under cultivation: potatoes, broad beans and surprisingly, lupins. It is odd to see a staple of sub-urban gardens being cultivated in huge fields. The blue flowers evolve into maroon seed pods that are harvested, shelled and mixed with broad beans, onions and aji chillis to form a dish called chuchos.
On arriving at the top, we piled out of the back of the truck, settled up with the driver and made our way to the crest of the crater. As we turned the corner through a gap in the rocks the ground fell away several hundred metres to the crate lake below. The lake itself is fed only by rain and has no run off, so the water is heavily alkaline, leaving salt deposits in rings around the crater. After a brief stop for photos we began to weave our way down the side of the mountain, past small sandy beaches and quinoa trees. After a couple of hours we reached a small area of pasture with a ramshackle farm where we stopped for lunch. As we began to tuck into our packed lunch a small group of kids emerged; a young girl of nine or ten carrying her baby brother in a sling across her back and a little girl of four or five in ragged clothes with dusty black hair arranged in bunches. After handing out most of my lunch to the little girl the rest of the family emerged with the father disappearing into a barn to put on his stereo with strange Ecuadorian reggae. As the music came on, the little girl began to dance and didn't stop until we left.
Over the next hour or so we dropped down to the level of the plateau trough pine groves and Eucalyptus. As we approached the plateau the cultivation became more intensive and the flowers more sub-tropical. Beautiful, iridescent blue salvias lined the path with fuschias and what looked like agaves with flower spikes reaching several metres above us. Soon after walking through the village of Guyama we approached the deep gorge cut by the La Morita river. From the top of the gorge we could see the path traversing down the steep sides of the gorge, through deep cut slits barely wider than a shoulder width and several metres deep. At the bottom of the gorge we crossed a rickety woden bridge and began the climb. Within minutes we realised that the we are still acclimatising to the yet higher altitude at 3200m. The path became increasingly steep and it felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. Beads of sweat turned into rivulets that stung my eyes and to add insult to injury Rodrigo our guide was barely breaking a sweat. After a couple of stops to catch our breath and regain my sight we topped out just below the village where a fiesta was in full swing with a band playing Mariachi style numbers.
Today we are off to the Cloud forest with Rodrigo our guide from yesterday to try and catch some of the orchids and bromeliads. More on that later this afternoon when we get back...