We knew from the beginning that hiking the legendary Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu was going to be one of the highlights of the year. The famous trail through the Andes is normally completed in four days and takes you through spectacular scenery and high mountain passes that reach up to 4200m above sea level, before finishing on the last morning at the magnificent ruins of Macchu Picchu. By any measure it’s a tough trek, and though we’re both fit we have always been aware that we’d need to prepare for it well in advance.
In recent months we have done a number of lengthy day treks, most notably around Plitvice Lakes National Park (Croatia), the Cinque Terre walk (Italy), in the Grand Canyon du Verdon (France) and the Lauterbrunnen Valley (Switzerland). We completed all of these spectacular walks fairly well, though of course we were quite tired afterwards, and they were very useful steps towards our ultimate goal of completing the Inca Trail. But none of them, not even in Switzerland, had the key element that is the most challenging (and potentially dangerous) aspect of the Inca Trail: high altitude.
Our desire and need to practice hiking at altitude led us to the Ecuadorean Andes, and in particular to a small and isolated village on what is known as The Quilotoa Loop. Located in the centre of the country just west of Latacunga, the Loop is a circular route on increasingly poor roads that traverses some magnificent mountainous areas. It is possible to walk the entire loop over five or six days, and we did consider doing that at first. But the idea of lugging our big packs for the whole distance didn’t appeal very much, not even along the most scenic part of it, so we hunted instead for a convenient base from which to do a series of daytrips.
Which led us to The Black Sheep Inn in Chugchilan. Founded almost 20 years ago by two expats and now run entirely by locals, this authentic eco-lodge has made it onto numerous international lists of “best places to stay” and various eco-tourism awards. Its tariff includes three meals a day, and while more expensive than some other nearby options it is still good value if you opt for the dormitory accomodation. Most importantly there are numerous hikes you can do from its doorstep, and its location at 3200m above sea level was perfect for our needs! When we were offered private accommodation at bunkhouse prices, we booked for a week with the plan to do several hikes around the area.
But first we had to get there, and that turned out to be a much more adventurous journey than we were looking for. It’s not a revelation to say that travelling by bus in South America can be dangerous. Like many less-developed parts of the world road conditions can vary greatly, vehicle maintenance is not always a high priority, and local driving habits are sometimes hair-raisingly risky. In the mountainous parts of South America you also face the added danger of precipitous drops off one side of the road, so if the roads are poor, the bus a bit rattly and the driver has an obsession with speed then the combination can be gut-wrenchingly terrifying. And lethal.
During this year we have travelled on buses in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, and with just one or two exceptions the journeys felt pretty safe. We both have a healthy fear of road accidents, and try to minimise risks by completely avoiding night buses and trusting our instincts if we think something is wrong. In 2009 I actually got off a bus in Vietnam just one hour into an eight hour trip because the driver was certifiably insane, taking blind corners at speed on the wrong side of a mountainous road so frequently that I lost count of the number of near misses we had with oncoming traffic. However up to this point in Ecuador we had not had any problems with bus journeys, and we boarded the bus to Chugchilan in a rather complacent state of mind. I knew the road would at times have steep drops to one side, but we actually spoke to the driver prior to departure and believed him when he promised a “tranquilo” (calm, peaceful, relaxed) journey.
A more accurate word for the trip should have been “espantoso”, which translates as frightening, dreadful, appalling, hideous and scary. The first half hour was normal enough, but once we hit the steep and precipitous section we shared increasingly frequent looks of alarm. While the day was sunny and the road sealed (at that point), the route was narrow and twisty and there was no barrier rail on the “drop side”. That wouldn’t have mattered if the driver was tranquilo, but he seemed to revel in throwing the bus into corners and hooning along the uphill sections. Most of the corners we came to were blind, but he had an unnerving habit of crossing the centre of the road as he entered them and relying simply on a toot of his horn to alert oncoming traffic to our presence. Early on we passed a steep twisting section marked with a number of white crosses, which we later learned marked the spot where a bus had plunged off the cliff some time ago.
There wasn’t much traffic in either direction – which you would think was a good thing, right? Not on this day. Instead I believe it just goaded the driver into more recklessness, and the hairiest moment came when an oncoming ute appeared suddenly around one of the blind corners. The road was barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass at the best of times, and due to our speed the driver was forced to stamp on the brakes and veer right to avoid a collision. The wheels locked and skidded, taking us precariously close to the edge of a sheer drop that plunged several hundred metres to the valley below. Kristen was sitting in the window seat on the drop side, and freely admits that she was “shitting herself” at this point! We both shouted in alarm, and a number of the other passengers also voiced their fear and disapproval at the unnecessary risks the driver was subjecting us to. When the locals are also scared, you know it’s a ride from hell…
We knew we still had quite a few kilometres to go until the next village, but by now we were openly discussing getting off the bus. The only thing that stopped us from doing so right there was that there were literally no other options: no villages, almost no houses, and generally nowhere to stop in any case. We were forced to hang on and endure the ride for close to an hour more, and at the time I half-joked that I was alternating between kittens and bricks during that section of the ride. Finally the town of Sigchos loomed ahead, which was a scheduled stop, and we didn’t waste any time getting off as soon as it halted. We had paid all the way through to Chugchilan but we didn’t care: there was no way we were going to spend a second longer on that bus, especially as we knew the next section of road was in considerably worse condition.
After some time just sitting at the bus stop, revelling in the feeling of being alive and safe, we turned our minds to what to do next. We were just 22 kms from our destination, and I was sure we would be able to find a private vehicle willing to take us – slowly – to Chugchilan. I did a lap of the main square and asked a local about our options, but nothing was immediately forthcoming. Returning to where Kristen was sitting with our bags, I noticed that a fellow passenger had joined her for a chat. The bus had not left yet and he was the only other foreigner on it, and coincidentally he was also heading to the Black Sheep Inn. Tee had also had a scary ride to that point, and when we said we were going to find our own way to the lodge he said he’d be interested in joining us. I headed off again to call the manager at the Black Sheep in the hope he could organise a lift for us. I was able to do so, but it took longer than expected and by the time I returned to Kristen Tee had decided to continue on the bus. The ride we’d arranged showed up just minutes later, and at our request he drove us blissfully slowly along the final section to the Black Sheep Inn. One of the benefits of the private car was that we got dropped off right at our destination; Tee actually arrived after us and had to lug his bags all the way from the village!
The Black Sheep Inn was as lovely as promised, with a comfortable and spacious main building, a fabulous yoga room with views across the valley and an utterly peaceful vibe. You really felt like you were miles from anywhere, and we had the bonus of getting the private room at dorm prices. Our cosy hideaway was located right next to the main building which meant we were close to bathrooms and meals, and we could also receive the wifi internet signal in our room. Bonus! The Black Sheep Inn is a genuine eco-lodge, meaning that it has a serious and thorough commitment to minimising its impact on the local environment. All the meals are vegetarian and most of the produce is grown on-site; they even make their own bread and source their cheeses locally. Virtually everything is recycled, even bottles (they are incorporated into bottle walls across the property), and the dry composting toilets are a revelation. In discussion with one of the founders of the lodge, Andres, later in the week he acknowledged that their composting toilets were one of the most successful aspects of their eco-friendly activities and seen as a model for others. We would like to incorporate the technology into our dream home one day!
Once we were there we embraced two activities: walking and relaxing. On the walking side, we devoted one day to a trip up to the local cheese factory. The trek was 14 kms in total, 9 kms of which were uphill, and it was without doubt the best walk of our time there. Conditions were perfect during the climb and we enjoyed magnificent views of local valleys as we rose higher and higher. The cheese factory was small but produced excellent product, and we picked up a block for future snacks. We walked through a remote village to get there, and enjoyed watching local school kids playing in the yard wearing their bright pink ponchos.
As we walked across the paramo (high plateau) the clouds began to close in, and for quite a while they swirled around us as we edged up to 3500m or more in altitude. Suddenly we came to a steep descent which took us back to Chugchilan, and we were very happy with the fact we’d completed the walk relatively easily for the conditions. A perfect training trek for the Inca Trail!
Unfortunately the weather closed in after that day, and our walks were somewhat curtailed. After waiting a couple of days for conditions to clear we decided to join a few others in heading to Lake Quilotoa, the main attraction of the area. It is a large and impressive crater lake, and the normal way to visit it from the Black Sheep Inn is to drive there (by either bus or private vehicle) and then walk back. Even though the weather was forecast to be crappy we committed to sharing a private vehicle the following morning, prepared to get a ride back if conditions stayed poor. As it happened we got stuck at road works about halfway to the lake, and as the weather prospects didn’t look good we decided to simply walk from that point back to the Inn along the road. We had already seen a crater lake near Cotacachi, and we were not particularly fussed about seeing Quilotoa unless conditions were perfect. The walk back was very nice, about 10 kms or so, and was more useful training for what was to come.
Apart from a challenging visit to the nearby plateau on our last full day, we spent the rest of our time in the area relaxing and catching up on some admin. As the internet service was pretty good we caught up on some blog posts, uploaded photos, and made some preparations for our upcoming visit to Peru. And we enjoyed the excellent meals provided, especially the dinners. All guests eat a set meal together and the menu changes nightly, and every dinner was utterly delicious. The biggest downside was that for most of the nights we were there an overbearing Australian was also present, and his habit of dominating every conversation saw us head to our room as soon as possible most evenings. However after he’d left we lingered after dinner, and enjoyed some nice chats with the changing mix of people passing through. The only negative about the whole Black Sheep Inn experience was the lunches: there were only two options that rotated daily, and one of them was a rather unappetising combination of honey, cheese and peanut butter. If you were staying for just a couple of days it wouldn’t matter, but as we were there for a week the lunches become monotonous. Overall, however, the food was deliciously varied and one of the many reasons to return to this lovely place.
Finally the time came to leave, and taking the bus was entirely out of the question! We were prepared to get a private vehicle to ourselves, but four other travellers were heading the same way so we all pitched in and shared a van to Banos. The driver followed our request and drove very safely along the same road that we came in on, and this time we were able to enjoy the amazing views without fearing for our lives J