This stunning lake fills an active volcanic crater, which last erupted 850 years ago. Legend has it that the 2km emerald lake is connected to the ocean, and the water is salty and sulfuric. The world-famous hike from Laguna Quilotoa through the Rio Canyon to the town of Chugchilán (where the Black Sheep Inn is located) is one of the best day hikes in Ecuador.
The lake is also accessible by car or bus if you’re not in the mood for a long hike. Once there, you’ll get spectacular views of the laguna below during the gentle walk around the crater rim. You can also hike down to the lake itself, which will take around half an hour, and swim in the 5°C sparkling waters. For a few dollars you can hire a mule to bring you back up to the top.
Iliniza Cloud Forest
The 149,900-hectare Iliniza Ecological Reserve is home to the Iliniza Twin Peaks, Laguna Quilotoa and a huge tract of Andean Humid Forest: the Iliniza Cloud Forest. This high altitude jungle is a unique ecosystem and home to diverse fauna and flora; the western cordillera is the last mountain range before the Andes unfold, dropping over 10,000 feet to the Pacific lowlands. The Cloud Forest is about a two-hour hike or horseback ride from the inn, and the stunning route weaves over the high paramó to the top of the sea of clouds.
The Ecuadorian National Park Service (INEFAN) declared the area an Ecological Reserve, yet any education programme, publicity, signs or controls are absent. Many who live in this area don’t even know that it’s a reserve. There are large tracts of old growth, but deforestation in Ecuador stretches further and further. The inn hopes that with some outside help, this Cloud Forest can be preserved for future generations.
The large plateau seen from the Black Sheep Inn floats like an island in the canyon. It’s just a 35-minute hike from the inn, but once you’re there you can spend hours exploring the edges and admiring the constantly changing view of the surrounding peaks and cliffs that descend to the Rio Toachi.
This is a good first hike to get you acclimatised to the high altitude as the route trails along level ground. Alternatively, there’s the option to travel on horseback with an experienced native guide.
Local indigenous markets
The local Andean markets are a great insight into trading techniques that stretch back thousands of years, and reveal many of the rich Andean traditions. Markets take place on every day of the week but vary in size and atmosphere.
It’s unlikely you’ll find any tourists at Monday’s Guantualo market as it’s a very small and rural affair. On the other hand, head over to Saquisilí market (on Thursdays) and you’ll find the entire community abuzz with the sale of all conceivable local produce.
Black Sheep Inn is three hours from the Pan American highway on rural roads, about four hours from Quito. Public buses arrive daily or private transportation can be arranged. Prices range from $35-$100 per day per person, and include three vegetarian meals, unlimited tea, coffee and purified water. All local taxes and service are included. For further information, visit www.blacksheepinn.com.