Day 5: Chugchilan to Quilotoa
I’m in the middle of explaining what today will be like to Lilah, as we head down a hill and out of Chugchilan for our last day of hiking the Quilotoa loop. I tell her that it will be the hardest day, with the most elevation gain, but that it helps to know what we’re in for in advance. We use our hands to mark off thirds of our trip, showing that we only have a 1/3 gap left to complete. I go on to say each step we take closes that gap and puts us closer to the end. “Doesn’t that make it better?” I ask. “To know what we have ahead of us and know that if we push ourselves we’ll get to the end faster?” I think I almost have myself convinced, but Lilah’s definitely not buying it. She would prefer not knowing how hard it’s going to be, and she’d like me to quit talking about closing the gap.
The lip service is selfishly for my benefit, after waking this morning to massively swollen eyes and a sun burn that seemed to worsen as I slept, I need a little pep talk. I saw myself in the mirror, ran back to bed, crawled under the covers, and hid my face under a pillow. I decided I’d just stay there and pout all morning. This didn’t last long, because Chris was soon calling – time to repack our day packs and head to breakfast at Mama Hilda.
Again we filled up on fresh, sliced fruit topped with yogurt and scrambled eggs with bread, while we chattted with our Austrian friends from the night before. She tells us of their plans to climb Rucu Pichincha with a guide when they finish the Quilotoa loop in a couple of days. They are hiking the trail in the opposite direction we are, so we won’t see them again. We took quick photos of each other, settled our tab, and slathered on more sunscreen we borrowed from Mama Hilda’s office. Chris had a small amount he’d brought for his volcano climbs that we decide to use instead of what we used the day before.
Now we are just beginning our third and final day, sack lunches in tow. We’re all in long sleeves, high collars, and hats (if we have them). My hair is down around my face, and I’m wearing my buff as low as I can get it over my head like a beanie, to protect my sunburned face as much as possible. It feels perfect on this cool morning, but I know a hot afternoon is in store.
Most of the day will be spent gaining elevation, with a couple deep drops mixed in. The clouds are sparse in the morning, and it’s sunny for our walk past more small farms and green fields. Everyone is in much better spirits now that we’re moving and all is going well.
We meet up with the couple from Spain we met on day 1 of our backpack, as we begin a steep ascent on a loose, sandy slope. Our feet struggle to find purchase in the slipping soil, and it’s a slow go. It doesn’t quite seem right, but seeing them in the distance gives us confidence to push on. They make it past the sandy wash along with Chris and Claire. Standing on a flat spot above, they all realize the trail ends there. From above, we can easily see where we went wrong and where the actual trail will take us. We’re getting pretty used to this turning around business, and it doesn’t take much effort to stay calm and not worry about all the energy we just spent working our way through quicksand. Going down is much speedier. We alternate taking big steps, sinking our heels deep into the moist sand, and quickly sliding on our butts when it’s too steep to step. This is fun! We reach the bottom with pockets full of sand.
What goes down must come up in this game, and we’re soon on our way. Up, up, up, until we pass through the tiny village of La Moya. We admire the bright colors and signs that seem to cater to backpackers, then stop for a quick break and more sunscreen by the school. The children are out playing, and quickly leave the fenced area to come look at us. One girl, braver than the rest, starts a conversation. She wants to know where we’re from and if we’d like a picture with her and her friends. Of course! There seems to be a delicate balance between taking a picture as a memory and respecting the privacy of the locals. This feels right, and we have permission. The school bell rings and everyone is on their way, them to school and us up the trail.
Not long after we leave La Moya, we find ourselves heading upward on a small dirt path at the edge of a steep hillside. It’s a beautiful view, with a sheep herder to greet us. He is friendly and seems delighted at seeing our young girls on the trail, asking their age. They are easily the youngest touristas we’ll see the entire three days too.
We can see our trail lead ever higher in front of us. Looking farther ahead, it’s clear that we drop deep down into the valley below, to cross a river. When we reach the river, Chris and the girls take off their shirts and hats, wetting them with the cool water. This is good for morale as we head right back up the other steep side of the valley.
Continuing to gain elevation, we eventually find ourselves high atop dry hills with no shade. Andean men and women come out to greet us or just look at us in wonder, just as we do them. Again I admire their clothing and feel in awe of their grit, as the heat of the sun and my full coverage clothing begin to weigh on me, heavier and heavier with each step. Still we walk on and on and on, the girls chatting happily behind us.
It’s here that I find myself in a familiar place. There’s a point, for me at least, in every difficult climb or backpacking trip, where my mind begins to build an irrational wall. A wall graffitied heavily with phrases like, “Why are you doing this?” “What a dumb idea.” “You can’t finish this.” “This sucks!” “This is all Chris’ fault.” “Is this even worth it anyway?”…I know this wall well. This wall makes this place, half a world away from home, seem like every place and no place I’ve been at once. And as I finally get up the nerve to tell Chris, “I’m done. I have nothing left,” the first and only tears of the trip leak out the corners of my eyes. He knows this place well too, and so he knows just what to say (which isn’t much) and just the right amount of space to give me to let it all out. I quietly cry as the girls continue happily behind me. I don’t want them to see my tears. They’re doing so well with no complaint. It’s right at this moment, a man (I think is a farmer) offers me a ride to the top on his motorcycle. I’ve been praying for this exact gift for many steps now. Somehow I manage the words, “No, gracias.” He laughs with me as I thank him, and I think we feel a bit of solidarity with each other. No doubt, he’s felt the pain I’m feeling now many times over.
We round a corner and find this little shepherd’s hut adjacent to a green hill of sheep. There the girls take a seat, and I do the thing I should have done long before the tears came, eat a granola bar, drink lots of water, and take the energy chew Chris offers me. When we’re only a few switch backs from the top, the clouds move in quickly. We’ve heard many stories of hikers making it to the top of this or that, only to have it all hidden by clouds just as they arrive. I know Chris and I both share this same sinking feeling. It only takes a nod and a phrase (“Go ahead. We’ll catch up.”) for him to open up and fade into the distance of the slope above. I wonder if this is even hard for him at all.
Just then, I find the burst of energy I need to quicken my pace to the top too. I don’t want to miss the view either. Three more switchbacks and I see Chris with tears now. He’s overcome by the view I’m sure, and so many other emotions only the grateful tears can communicate. I make my way to the edge, and that’s all it takes to know it was totally worth it. Not just that, but so much better for it.
The view of Laguna Quilotoa isn’t the only gift at the top. The air is cool and moist with a perfect breeze. There is a mother and son selling drinks and snacks in a hut. The girls get warm sodas, and I get a hot tea in a metal cup. We sit without a word, taking in the view. As soon as I finish my tea and return the cup, we set out again, working our way up and around the rim of the volcano’s crater to the town of Quilotoa.
The going is unexpectedly easy and enjoyable now. The clouds are cool and moist, covering us as we go. We talk, laugh, sing, tell stories and take pictures for the hour and a half it takes to get to town. My mind works to think of synonyms or sayings for penultimate, but it’s the best I can come up with. This is it alright, the penultimate.
We come through the fog and into town.
Quilotoa appears to be designed for tourists alone, with a new park and many hostels. We’ll stay our final night at the second hostel we come to. We’ll see many of the backpackers from Llullu Llama at dinner and breakfast. We’ll know again that familiar feeling that there’s nothing like the gratitude created by a long, hard hike, and so we’re grateful for it all – the food, the room (with a fire lit by a boy at the hostel), the rest, and even the shower. This shower was a warm trickle, to a backed up drain, in a bathroom that smells so bad we will keep the door closed for the whole stay. I will gag once or twice at the smell, but none of us will complain.
And our gratitude will rock us to sleep with the comfort of knowing that even though we have a few things to figure out tomorrow, we have also have few steps to take on our sore, tired feet.