But It Was Worth It. (Week 6)

Week 6 is officially in the books, which means I’ve been living in Ecuador for a month and a half now.  Part of me feels like the time has flown by.  However, another part of me feels like I’ve lived here forever.  Hope College seems like a distant dream and I cannot imagine my life without the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been here.  It’s all very strange and very cool.

As far as life in Quito goes, it’s fun as things become normal.  I’ve started to pick out norms in my daily life: the hipster dude with cool shades and a zombie backpack that gets on at the same bus stop as me, the boy with the clipboard on the corner who talks to every bus driver who stops at the light, the security guards at the IES Center who always say hola three times in a row, and the fact that Benjamín (the troublemaker who I love at the daycare) will always need a diaper change when we arrive.

This weekend, a group of eight people traveled to the mountain community of Quilotoa.  Located about 3 (?) hours outside of Quito, Quilotoa is home to a warm-hearted indigenous population and a giant volcanic crater lake.

Traveling to Quilotoa was the most Ecuador thing ever.  I was expecting a 1.5 hour bus ride before we arrived at our destination.  1.5 hours later, we arrived at the city of Latacunga and realized we were only halfway to Quilotoa.  Being the gringos that we are, we obviously stood out as we looked around the bus terminal for where to go next.  Suddenly, a man ran towards us yelling, “Quilotoa? Quilotoa?”  He motioned for us to follow him and sprinted off.  American Emily would have never in a million years ran after a random Ecuadorian man through a bus terminal before getting on a bus without even checking the sign.  Ecuadorian Emily did just that- armed with our luggage, we sprinted after the man before just making it onto the bus to Quilotoa.  I’m learning that trust and spontaneity are never bad things to have here!

My host mom warned me that Quilotoa would be freezing, and she was right.  We stepped off the bus at 12,000 ft above sea level into a cloud of mist.  By the end of the night I was wearing two sweaters and a windbreaker in our hostel because it was so cold!  Our hostel was very cool though (in both senses of the word)- the front part of it was a restaurant, and walking through the restaurant we then entered the hostel part, which consisted of many rooms centered around an enclosed common area.  It was styled like an old Spanish house, with everything centered around the public area.  Our hostel included breakfast and dinner, which was a score as far as good food and saving money was concerned.

On Friday night, we spent some time looking out over the laguna and adjusting to the altitude.  Even though we live at almost 10,000 ft above sea level in Quito, we knew that we should adjust to the extra 2,000 ft before attempting to hike the next day.

We woke up on Saturday morning ready to hike around the lake.  “Hike around the lake” is a very mild way to put what this hike actually ended up being, but we truly went in expecting an intermediate hike around the laguna.  We were all still scarred from our crazy hike in Baños, and when my friend Sarah asked if we thought this would be intense, we responded with “no- it’s probably just a nice, fairly flat trail.”  All false presumptions aside, we were paired with a local indigenous man named Jose Latacunga as our hiking guide.  What a legend. On this hike (which ended up being extremely difficult), he was scaling the sharp inclines and steep declines like it was no problem.  While wearing dress pants and a collared shirt.  I can’t make this stuff up.  It was incredible.

What was really incredible, though, was the hike itself.  I’ve never seen so many beautiful views in my life.  We hiked the ridge of the mountains around the entirety of Quilotoa, and every step provided a unique and stunning view.  As the sun rose and clouds moved throughout the day, we were rewarded with the crater lake turning different shades of blues and greens.  Granted, it was the hardest hike of my life.  I had to use my inhaler twice (when the inhaler comes out, we aren’t playing around), I once started laughing but inside I was sobbing, and I almost fell to my death a few times.  BUT IT WAS WORTH IT.  Every single step was worth it.

I have a new theory that any person who lives in Quilotoa could come to the US and hike the Appalachian Trail with zero training and succeed.  I honestly felt like I should’ve been training for this hike.  The feeling of accomplishment when we reached the highest summit of almost 13,000 ft above sea level was amazing though.  There’s something awesome about pushing your body to its limit and coming out stronger.

At one point, me and my friends Lara and Drew split of from the group to descend into the crater down to the lake.  We were hoping to kayak in the lake for awhile before coming back up, and Jose helped us out by calling kayaks for us.  News flash: the mythical kayaks never showed up.  Therefore, we were forced to find our way to a different trail where we could get back up out of the crater.  I honestly felt like I was in an episode of Survivor- we walked along the beach when we could, but also did some offroading and a bit of rock climbing.  At this point, it had been 10 hours since I had eaten a full meal and we were all running out of water.  Not to sound overly dramatic, but I really was getting a bit delirious.

Thankfully we made it to the correct trail, where we decided to ride horses out of the crater instead of attempting to hike (we had been hiking for about 8 hours and were very tired).  I really don’t love horseback riding all that much, but I had never been so excited to go horseback riding in my life, for the sole purpose of not having to walk.  The horses ended up being fun to ride and I got to talk with the teenage boy who was “guiding” them as we rode as well.

I really loved getting to observe life in Quilotoa.  This little town has such a strong sense of community- the indigenous roots run very deep and the people seem so connected.  One afternoon at lunch, I was watching a volleyball game among the men in the community from the window.  People that I had met throughout the weekend were all gathered there: our tour guide Jose, the boy who helped us horseback ride, the waiter from our restaurant (who left to go play), and the son of our hostel owner.  It was so cool to look out at the game and to be able to put names to the faces I saw.  The people of Quilotoa were so open and welcoming, and I love the community that they have.

We also met some cool souls at our hostel and on the trails: a solo traveler from Italy, a biker family from New Hampshire, two guys who were in a backpacking study abroad program, and a woman from Wyoming.  It definitely had a backpacker vibe and people were very friendly.  It was a classic “make foreign friends at a hostel while traveling” experience.

Overall, it was a great weekend.  The sore bodies are worth the happy spirits.  The stretched comfort zone is worth the growth that follows. The views are worth the climb.

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