Quilatoa: There and Back in a Day

I usually try to avoid travelling with a time limit. Scheduling is not one of my strengths. But, I had five days to see Ecuador.

I headed to the mountains and tried to fit in as many Canon friendly moments as possible. For those who have been to Ecuador, you would know that this isn’t really much of a challenge.

Luckily, my short stop was still enough time to trip out to Quilatoa. A big, blue, crater lake settled high up in the mountains.

The Quilatoa Loop is a pretty well known trek for Ecuadorian travellers. It takes four days and finishes at the lake. With my time crunch, I skipped right to the end and did it in a day.

After spending the night in the nearby town, Latacunga, we got up early, took on the cold, and headed to the bus stop.

The bus was packed! We spend the first hour and a half standing. Eavesdropping on a group of students as they flirted and bickered.

It took us two hours to get to the Quilatoa village. The wind almost took us away as we climbed off the bus. I wrapped my scarf tighter around me, and we walked up to the lakes edge.

The lake was spectacular. It seemed so strange just nestled there in the middle of the mountain.

We tossed up whether to walk the steep, sandy path down to the water, or circle our way around the summit. The wind up the top was strong and freezing cold. We decided to trek down and avoid it.

The walk down was pretty difficult. It was steep, and the sand made it a challenge to stay upright, but the view was an easy distraction. We finally had sunshine and we were totally protected from the wind.

It took about half an hour to get to the bottom. Made much slower by my constant photo taking, and the pauses to give way to donkeys and ponies taxiing people to-and-fro.

After much slipping and stumbling, we arrived at the bottom and found a totally empty spot on the edge of the water. Hot, from the climb down, I pulled off my shoes, rolled up my pants and stepped into crystal clear water.

I was beautiful.  If the water weren’t so cold I would have dived straight in.

We sat, splashed around for a while and explored around the bottom of the lake. Trying our best to delay the dreaded walk back up.

We decided to walk up to the top, despite all the friendly looking horses and donkeys that were lined up ready to take us.

As we struggled up, trying somehow to get a grip on the sandy ground, we watched the locals leading mules, overtake us, in sandals, with ease. We were left behind in a cloud of their dust which, by then, completely covered us.

Just under an hour of scrambling finally got us to the top. Our water bottles were drained, we were out of breath, filthy and starving. With a last glance behind us, we said goodbye to the big, beautiful lake and crowded into one of the local restaurants for lunch.

Ecuador amazed me. Funny, little, cement towns nestled in such grand and dramatic scenery. It’s a country that surrounds you in natural wonders and leaves you awestruck.

Quilatoa, was packed with colour, wonder and every type of weather. I could have stayed and stared for a lifetime but, for now, just one day will have to do!

Jardín: So Worth the Adventure

I had heard the legends about Jardín. A beautiful, colourful, cowboy town hidden amongst the banana plantations in the middle of the Colombian Andes. I knew I had to go there.

So, when I found myself with a bit of spare time in Manizales, I made a last minute decision to jump on bus and duck up to Jardín.

If only it had been that easy!

Most people head to Jardín as a side trip from Medellín, but being that I was in Manizales, seemingly nearby on the map, I figured we could find some quick way to get there.

Everything I could find online talked about the need to take a van to a little town called Riosucio, and then a chiva or second mini bus across the mountains from there. It sounded like a bit of an adventure, but no one had really suggested it was too challenging.

The internet travellers spoke of three daily buses leaving Riosucio, one at 8am, one at 2:20pm and one at 3pm. We wanted to spend the day exploring, so, we decided to get up early and aim to be in Riosucio to make the 8am bus.

When we arrived at the Manizales terminal, though, (at 5:30am), we were told that no buses left early enough to get us to Riosucio in time for the 8am bus.

The man selling us the ticket told us that things weren’t completely hopeless, there was another bus leaving from Riosucio at midday. We wouldn’t have to wait too long.

We finally left Manizales at about 6:45, after waiting for our little bus to fill up, and set off on the two hour journey to Riosucio. We were both frustrated and sleep deprived but the journey through the mountains was gorgeous enough to cheer anyone up.

When we arrived at the Riosucio terminal, at around 9am. A hoard of incredibly cheerful bus company men told us that there was definitely no midday bus. The buses always, only left to Jardín at 8am, 2:20pm and 3pm. We should have slept in!

We bought a ticket for the 2:20 bus (26,000 COP), left our bags with the jolly bus drivers and headed into the Riosucio with five hours to kill.

Riosucio actually turned out to be a pretty cute stopover, with a couple of nice squares, multiple restaurants and far too many casinos for such a tiny town. We had coffee, breakfast, lunch and people watched in the square.

Finally 2pm came and we headed back to the terminal and crammed back in a van, waiting again for it to fill up.

The second trip through the mountains also was stunning, but unexpectedly long. We arrived in Jardín finally at around 5:30pm. Just in time to watch the cowboys drift in from the outskirts of town and fill the square.

Little Jardín, with it’s colourful, toy-like tables and chairs buzzed with atmosphere, as locals gossiped, sipped beers and waited for the sun to go down.

We checked into our hostel, Sgt Peppers, and after finding (some fairly average) dinner, turned in for the night, exhausted from spending almost 12 hours trying to get to Jardín. For anyone coming from Manizales, my advice is to sleep in and aim to be in Riosucio for the afternoon buses!

In the morning we set off to explore around the town. We were advised on a number of good walking spots and set off to track down the first of the trails, a short walk just outside town to Charco Corazon.

On the way we passed a small waterfall which told a legend of everlasting love for those who kissed in front of it. My friend Georgia and I kept walking.

Charco Corazon, a small sandbar in middle of a fast-running river, was a great spot for us to stop and swim for a while. The water was icy cold, but was welcomed after our walk in the sun.

Later, after a quick stop in the back in the town square we headed off down another pebble path on the edge of town and soon arrived at a little bridge and another tranquil river spot.

Surrounded by mountains, rivers and valleys, Jardín was full of picturesque places to explore we just needed follow the inconspicuous paths hidden at the end of the streets.

We had been told about the old, wooden cable car that takes travellers up into the mountains to a colourful cafe that overlooks the city. We headed up there in the late afternoon.

After buying our tickets we waited for the cable car to be sent down. Soon a small, yellow, wooden box, which looked more like an outhouse, was bumping down the cable toward us.

While the view from the cable car was fairly obscured, the novelty was definitely worth it as we were dragged up through the banana trees.

We stopped for some beers on the side of the mountain and admired the view. After getting some advice from a couple of other travellers we headed, walking, back down the mountain, just before the sun went down.

The walk was easy and we were back in the square again in time to see it fill up with big hatted, thirsty locals.

I was up early the next morning for another huge day of travelling. Trying to make my way back to Cali. The road Jardín to Cali is fairly under travelled and it took me ten hours and 3 buses to get home.

The traveller legends about Jardín were all true. A picturesque little cowboy town, nestled between the banana trees in the Colombian Andes. I would happily take on the mini buses, the early mornings and the too many hours again, to spend another perfect day following the pebble paths of Jardín.