Coming into the Northern Sierra of Ecuador, just over the border from Colombia, is a breathtaking experience. You find yourself zooming on a bus through the most imposing and scenic mountains and volcanoes you can imagine, utterly dwarfed by the enormity of it all, and, if you’re me, staring with an open mouth for a few hours.
Well, the whole of the north is like this. It is a natural treasure box of mountains and lakes and gorges and all things bright and beautiful. In fact, you can get a bit overwhelmed by it all, and it’s astonishing that many people heading over the border into Ecuador go straight to Quito and don’t stop here.
You can climb volcanoes and acclimatize yourself for bigger and better things, or you can go full speed ahead into ice-climbing with pick-axes and crampons and that sort of technical stuff. But if you fancy something a bit more sedate, yet still spectacular, I can fully recommend La Laguna de Cuicocha. One of Ecuador’s most photographed lakes, apparently, and yet we saw all of about a handful of people in the whole six hours we were there, and this is supposed to be the high season. This is such a peaceful and beautiful place to be.
Cuichocha is easily reachable from the cute and touristy town of Otavalo, only a few hours north of Quito. You can do all sorts of things with guides, such as mountain-biking down from there to the village, but it’s also a great thing to do by yourself, because you can’t possibly get lost and from there onwards you can have some introspective, calm time. Buses leave from Otavalo terminal every fifteen minutes or so – the most helpful instructions were to look for the green bus to Quiroga. It’s all of twenty-five cents to get to Quiroga, and then you get a taxi or camioneta for the remaining 14km to the lake itself. And from there? Well, you can be well and truly lazy and just get a boat out to the two green islands in the lake, which sit there like semi-covered turtles… or you can do as we did, and go for a stroll around the edge of the crater. For five hours.
Seriously, that walk is a lot longer than it looks. It’s also a lot harder than it looks: the peaks are high enough to make breathing a little more difficult than normal, and there are a couple of occasions on which you have to go all the way down – only to then come all the way up again. But the scenery is stunning all the way around, and I found myself stopping every few minutes not only to catch my breath but to actually exclaim aloud at how beautiful everything was.
Here are the things to remember, which we didn’t: you’re going to need a LOT of water. That is a long walk, it gets absurdly hot, and the lake, with its tantalisingly thirst-quenching water is a long way down. Sun block, even SPF 45, isn’t going to cut it here. You’re just too high up for too long, with absolutely no shelter. You need a hat. Even if you look stupid in hats. The sunburn just isn’t worth it.