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The Trail of Death, Quilotoa to Chugchilan

It was probably karma. I read a blog called “Practical Wanderlust” and couldn’t stop laughing. It was part of my research into hiking the Quilotoa loop. I read several blogs about our upcoming hike and tried to learn from the mistakes of others. But, Practical Wanderlust was by far the funniest because of their hilarious missteps.

One of the reasons I found this blog so humorous was because I could see Ol and I in a similar situation. Also, they are great writers. We thought surely they are exaggerating some of their predicaments to make it funnier.

A reoccurring theme on all of the blogs about hiking the Quilotoa loop was how easy it was to get lost. It seems to be part of the charm of the hike. The directions go something like this: “Walk 20 meters until you reach a clump of eucalyptus trees follow the trail going down.” Or, “You know you are at the right house, if you see an old lady sitting by a white gate and she asks you for $1 to cross her property.” The directions sound crazy, but somehow they seem to work.

We received a set of printed directions at Hostal Tiana, where we stored our gear. I really wasn’t interested in reading these directions after learning that they almost killed the bloggers at Practical Wanderlust who ended up getting lost, crossing a deadly landslide and then crawling on their hands and knees up a near vertical cliff with a big drop off. We certainly didn’t want to follow those directions.

Instead, Practical Wanderlust promised a fail proof set of directions by subscribing to their blog, So, I downloaded the directions and took several screen shots and sent them to Ol. I told him that this would be our bible for the next three days. I vowed that we would not make the same mistakes that they had made.

I also decided to let Ol do the navigating. I did all of the planning to get us here and now I would enjoy the hike. I would let him worry with the details of the directions.

And so on that morning we set off to hike the Quilotoa loop. According to everything that we read the hike should take six or seven hours and would be about 9.5 miles.

We began by hiking around the rim of the Quilotoa caldera. It was beautiful. We could see the mountains and the clouds reflected in the beautiful green waters of Lake Quilotoa. We passed three wild horses grazing on the mountain grasses.

The directions stated that we were to look for a patch of sand. The trail that we were to follow was on the left after we came to the third patch of sand. We knew we wouldn’t take that. After stopping for lots of photos, we finally came to the third sandy spot on the trail. This was where we would descend down the mountain. The Practical Wanderlust directions were spot on.

Ol, being the brilliant navigator that he is, pulled out his printed directions. The directions were so faint that we could barely read them. They were a copy of a copy of a copy. I decided that we should put those directions away and follow the instructions downloaded from Practical Wanderlust.

So down, down, down we went. We found the bench that was mentioned in the directions and stopped for a snack. We then continued down the mountain until we reached a town. It almost seemed to be deserted, except for two old women selling snacks alongside the road.

A tip that we learned from reading other blogs was to purchase candy to offer as gifts to the local children we would meet along the trail. We opted for bags of lollipops. We handed some to the women as we walked by.

We passed an old cemetery and several farms as we continued our descent. It was now early afternoon. We were following a dirt road that, according to the directions, would come to an end with a scenic viewpoint and another bench. At the end of this road we would take our final descent into the valley.

The weather was perfect and this hike was the perfect way to see rural Ecuador. We walked past farmers working in the fields, harvesting potatoes. We saw women in traditional dress herding sheep on the hillsides. We saw no machinery, only hard working people. It seemed that we had stepped back in time as we breathed in the clean crisp mountain air and looked at the pristine countryside.

When we finally reached the end of the dirt road, a sign pointed to the trail that led to the bottom of the valley. We stopped at the rim of a canyon and could see we had a hard afternoon hike ahead. The canyon was extremely deep and we could barely make out the river below us. We had never hiked a trail as steep as the one we saw ahead of us. It was almost straight down. And, along the side of the trail was a sheer drop-off that would result in instant death if we missed a step. A trail like this would not be allowed in the United States. This trail was dangerous and deadly.

When I looked at the entrance to the trail I told Ol that this can’t be right. The trail was much too steep and it was not well maintained. We noticed a house near the beginning of the trail and an old woman was out on the porch. We asked If this was the correct trail to Chugchilan. She nodded, pointed down the sheer drop-off and said “si, si.” We thanked her for the help and reached into our backpack and pulled out lollipops for the woman and her daughter.

Ol assured me that the trail would probably not be as bad as it looked. It had to get better after a treacherous beginning. So, we started our descent.

Long story short, it never got better. The trail was brutal. My knees, messed up from years on the tennis courts, were soon quivering. This trail was not just unsafe, it was dangerous. Life threatening dangerous. One wrong step and we would easily plunge to our death on the rocks far below us.

I knew that this couldn’t be right. Ol stopped and looked again at the Practical Wanderlust directions and encouraged me on. We continued on and came to bench alongside the trail. We stopped to rest. We could catch our breath and look at the rest of the trail ahead. And, that’s when we saw it. A landslide had wiped out a large portion of the trail in front of us. It appeared that there was no way that we could safely cross that portion of the trail. The sheer cliff that we had been walking along had eaten into the trail. The trail had become a cliff.

After staring at the cliff and trying to figure out what to do we noticed that there was in fact a very narrow trail across the landslide. However, it just didn’t look safe. Our only other option was to turn around and attempt to go back up the trail we had just come down. What was extremely difficult to come down would be nearly impossible to go up. The trail was much too steep and the condition much too bad to go back up. We had been descending for at least an hour. An ascent would take three times that if it was even possible.

Just when we didn’t know what to do, we saw two young girls in the distance coming toward us from the bottom of the trail. We watched as they hopped and ran along the trail approaching the spot where the landslide had wiped out the trail. The girls skillfully traversed the blown out portion as if it was noting unusual. We just looked at each other in amazement.

Ol assured me that if these two little girls could skip across this deathtrap then we should be able to do so too. He said that It must be wider than it appeared from this distance. I stalled for time and told Ol to wait on the bench for the girls to pass us. I was trying to get enough courage to go on.

Finally, the girls reached us. They were no more than ten years old and were wearing school uniforms. Incredibly, they must walk this trail twice a day to get to and from school. We were stunned to realize the difficulty these kids must endure in order to get an education. Ol reached into his backpack and handed each girl a lollipop. We spoke to them and learned that they were studying English, so we visited and shared a laugh before going on our way.

Knowing that these girls travelled this trail twice a day in order to go to school gave me the courage to go forward. We continued downward toward the area of the landslide, As we approached the blown out portion of the trail, I looked up and saw the girls sitting on the bench watching us. It seemed as though they were watching to see if we would make it across the trail of death. I suddenly felt like their afternoon entertainment.

Because we are writing this you know that we survived. It wasn’t pretty. The trail didn't get wider. The footing was nothing but sand. For every step forward, I would sink or slide a half step towards the sheer cliff and certain death to the valley below. I cried. Ol made it over the treacherous crossing and then gallantly came back and took my backpack. After sliding again, I was petrified and could barely move. Ol crossed the gap again and began to talk me through the crossing. I had to walk fast to keep from sinking or sliding over the edge of the cliff. Ol came back over the landslide a third time, this time to help me. He extended his hiking pole behind him. I grabbed it for support and he pulled me across on the ravine of death. On the other side, my legs began to shake I let out a sigh as tears of relief streamed down my face.

We had been descending mountains for nearly five hours when we finally made it to the bottom of the valley. Now, I knew that our final hurdle was to cross a small river and make our way to the town of Chugchilan.

We came to another sign and then we saw the bridge. We were almost home. And the we saw it. The vertical ascent.

The directions couldn’t be right. After crossing the bridge it was a relatively short, but impossible vertical ascent to the top. Another landslide had wiped out the trail to the top. The trail was straight up and one misstep would lead to a fall 30 feet to the river below. For the second time in my life and both on the same hike I cried. I told Ol there was no way that I could do this. He said we didn’t have a choice and pointed to the darkening sky. I argued that we should just hike down and follow the river and look for a safer crossing. I just couldn’t physically do it. I could see that it was the same soft sand with no firm footing. Was it possible to have PTSD in less than 15 minutes?

At this point, I realized That Practical Wanderlust wasn’t exaggerating in their blog. This was dangerous. This was Karma. I should not have laughed at them, but somehow they had made death by hiking funny.

Ol went first. He struggled. He would take two steps up and slide back one. He literally crawled. He made it about a quarter of the way and when he got to a spot that he could stop he tried to talk me through it again. I crossed the bridge and tried to find a place to plant my hiking poles. It was nearly vertical and I knew that I would need to pull myself up with my arms. There was no footing.

I begged Ol to come help me. He was exhausted but removed his pack and slid down to where I was. I removed my pack and handed it to him. He put it on and crawled back up. It took me about 15 minutes to make it to where he was and I was exhausted. He took both packs and tossed them ahead of him and then crawled up after them. I gathered my courage and left the little ledge that gave me a little footing and tried to follow him. I made it about ten feet and started sliding back. I began to panic. I was no longer above the bridge, I was over the sheer cliff. Just when I thought I wouldn’t stop, my pole hit a vine in the sand and I was able to grab it.

I was hanging on for my life. I called out to Ol who had now made it to the top. He calmly talked to me as I dug deep within myself. I knew I had to move. I was able to get a firm grip with my pole. My knees and toes dug into the side of the cliff. I tried to pull myself up. I was exhausted. With every step forward I would slide back down towards the ledge. The sand was like the sand in an hour glass. With each step I took the sand quickly disappeared beneath my foot and poles. I did this for about 10 minutes. Just when I didn’t think I had any more strength left, Ol yelled for me to grab the 30 foot long tree he was holding. I scrambled up one more time and grabbed it. Ol pulled me to safety.

I was too tired to do a happy dance, but I did find the strength to hug and kiss my rescuer. For the third time in less than an hour there were tears. But this time they were tears of joy.

The rest of the hike up the hillside was a breeze. Our muscles welcomed the change of direction. When we finally made it to the road, we looked back and could see where we started our day. We could see the ridge of the caldera, the steep descent to the valley and the landslide area that we had just crossed. On the left of the mountain we could make out a nice new wide trail that started at the top and zig zagged down the mountain. It was the trail that we were supposed to take. I knew there was a safer way. It was anger that fueled the final hour ascent until we finally made it into Chugchilan and our hostel, Cloud Forrest.

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