It is not an everyday situation for 3 Greeks to meet up in a small Latin American country, moreover outside the frame of an organized holiday. But life is full of surprises and this is exactly what happened when 2 of my favorite people attended a convention in Quito, during my Ecuadorian stretch of self-imposed exile. Since we had made it that far, we decided to take it a notch further and create a common memory to forever unite us: to go on an express road trip across the Eastern Cordillera of the Ecuadorian Andes. Our mission was treble: to visit Laguna de Quilotoa, explore the nearby villages and set foot on the legendary Cotopaxi – one of the world’s highest active volcanoes.
We opted to go full local and hired a heavy duty truck to ride from Quito to the Latacunga region of Ecuador.
We set base at the picturesque Hacienda La Cienega – a mini colonial heaven in the middle of nowhere. Built in 1580, and now officially classified as a historical monument, the mansion has been the scene of important events in the country’s history. The serene and majestic aura of the place makes you feel as if you have taken a journey through time.
We wandered around its beautiful gardens and enjoyed settling in our rooms. We had booked 2 suites but in view of how gigantic they were, we dropped the second one as redundant. We spent the rest of the day discovering the grounds. Inside it was full or regal living-rooms and mini hidden lounges. The surrounding estate was magnificent and everything you’d expect from a proverbial hacienda. We tested the in-house restaurant and bar and were happy with both. After than, early retirement was a one-way street.
The next morning we headed off to Quilotoa. It was really worth the hassle. The Laguna is STUNNING – like something out of a Game of Thrones episode, a thing of other-worldly beauty. We did not however feel the need to walk down the edge of the lake. We settled for admiring the unreal landscape from above and taking a billion photos.
The surrounding area doesn’t offer much in the way of entertainment. A couple of small shops selling indigenous arts & crafts, a mini-market, a random coffee shop. It is fair to say the locals haven’t milked the attraction for all it’s worth. This is probably good, except it made the whole venture last little. After seeing the Laguna there was nothing more to keep us there. We hopped on our truck and set out to discover nearby locations.
We made a stop in Tigua, a small farming community on the Quilotoa loop. The place was rather remote, not just location-wise – it appeared divorced from contemporary reality. The indigenous locals follow simple patterns, quite distanced from the comforts of modern day life. We attended a community meeting at the local church; it was fascinating, although we didn’t understand much of what was going on.
Tigua is famous for its self-taught artists. They exercise their art on masks and objects, as well as beautiful miniature paintings that depict everyday activities and scenes in the most vibrant of colors. We bought a couple of precious souvenirs, delighted with our purchases (although we knew we could get identical ones cheaper in Quito).
We made a couple of stops in places the names of which I failed to register. Tiny, nondescript villages and communities that looked super-foreign to us, although it is fair to assume if there was a fish out of water, it was us in the eyes of the locals and not the other way around.
We kept on driving without really having a plan – just stopping to admire the landscape wherever it seemed interesting. The vast expanses of land were mostly deserted and completely unspoiled. We would encounter the random farmer every now and then, alone, on foot, or accompanied by llamas – animals that seemed to be hard at work. There were little or no other vehicles on the road. Renting a truck proved to be a solid inspiration.
Our last stop was Pujili – another non-touristic place, populated mainly by indigenous Ecuadorians. The small town doesn’t offer much in the way of attractions, it is however famous for its local market. We were impressed with the no-frills vibe and the downright authenticity of the set.
We wandered around the fruit and food stalls, surrounded by an explosion of color and pattern. The bravest of the three tried some local delicacies, generously offered by the friendly vendors. This is generally not recommended for untrained European stomachs but, luckily, there were no unwanted side effects.
In the evening we drove to the nearby Hacienda San Agustin de Callo – a place that has served as an Inca fortress and Augustinian monastery and is in fact the only lived in museum of Inca Imperial & Spanish Colonial style. We had made dinner reservations at the grandiose private dining room and enjoyed a five star experience in its imposing environment. We then wandered around the hacienda and marveled at its grounds. It made me wonder how these massive establishments sustain themselves throughout the year. The place seemed rather deserted.
The next morning, before heading home, we roamed a bit more. The weather had turned and the infamous Ecuadorian fog had taken over everything. Driving towards destination unknown under the circumstances further enhanced the fairy-tale adventure feeling. The drive back was picturesque. An ongoing panorama of serene vast expanses of land, alternating one after the other. Our cameras were full of photographs, the “once in a lifetime” variety.
The trip was a huge success, except we never quite made it to find Cotopaxi! Despite its almost 6000m elevation, we never even got to get a glimpse of it. Too little time coupled with too many wrong turns I guess.
We returned to our Quito headquarters delighted with the experience and with the fact that we had access to proper hot water again!
P.S.: This happened a little earlier during self-imposed exile but I am sure nothing much’s changed in the meantime.