The Quilotoa crater lake is mind-blowing. It glows with a strange blue luminescence as if some nuclear reactor lies hidden beneath that menacingly still surface. Perhaps it hides the subaquatic lair of some supervillain. Perhaps it truly is a bottomless gateway to the underworld, as the locals believe. We trek right down the crater to make sure, but it does appear to just be a lake. We have a picnic beside it and try not to think too much about the impending hike back up the sheer goat path to our car at the top. We are at over four thousand meters of altitude here and breathing is not easy.
Eventually we have to face up to our destiny. The hike up the cliffs is every bit as lung-busting as we feared. Every hundred meters we halt and pant and suck on one of the old Lifesaver sweets that I have found in my jacket pocket. Around one bend in the path we come across a toothless old indigenous lady brewing tea. She commutes here by bus from a far away town, she tells us, and walks down the mountain to this lonely path every day – with all her cooking equipment on her back – to sell refreshments to passing hikers. This is how Ecuador works. We bought a couple of cups of coca leaf brew with my last dollar, and thus fortified we find strength to make the summit.
You can trek the Quilotoa Loop over about five days. It is a meandering circuit through a string of traditional Andean villages that encircle the crater. We are short of time though, and we have wheels, so we decide to drive around the loop over the course of an afternoon.
The landscape is fascinating in the way that photos and descriptions can never quite capture. It’s something about the altitude, the beauty, the excitement, the lack of oxygen, the proximity to the sun. It all combines to give a bubbly visceral feeling, a heightened sensory awareness. Or maybe it was just the coca tea. The pastures are greener than we have seen before, the canyons deeper, sudden drop-offs loom where there is nothing beyond the road-edge but air and gravity. We take in winding rivers, winding roads, huge birds of prey, prismatic sun effects. We pass through tiny villages of white plaster where livestock wanders out of yards and onto the roads. We see men in traditional dress working those chilly sunlit mountain top fields
For a couple of hours we meander along hairpin roads where every turn shows the mountain in new light, folded like origami, some faces bright, others in shadows. We roar down steep descents and then inch up long climbs, grumbling in the low gears. Vultures float on the updraft. The wind roars.
Then we hear a new sound through our open windows. A throaty gutteral whine, a cry of distress and pain.
It grows louder and more urgent.
Our van is singing a sad song, choking and shuddering.
The whine becomes a roar, a scream, then a metallic death rattle.
Smoke pours out of the bonnet.
There is a grinding vibration, a cough, a muffled explosion.
The engine cuts out.
We coast in sudden silence.
Birdsong flows back in through the open windows.
Acrid fumes of burnt oil and solvents float around us.
The wheel gets very heavy in my hands and I have to drop one shoulder and wrestle it.
We roll back down the hill and onto the verge, leaving a mess of oily tracks smeared on the tarmac.
The wheels crunch over gravel. Then we stop.
We hop out and take a look under the bonnet, as if we understood engines, as if we were going to perform some miracle roadside repair using twigs and stones. All we see is a mess of black pipes and pistons shaking and smoking and smelling, a fan still turning, oil dripping down onto the road.
We are in a fix. This is remote mountain territory and Menna’s phone has no signal (mine has not worked for weeks). Our map shows the nearest village is about 20km away and the bunched contour lines suggest that this will be a steep uphill trek. We are on the equator, so the sun sets just after six o clock every day. It is now approaching five. We know that darkness will fall very quickly once the sun drops below the mountain line.
Ecuador is not the most dangerous of all the Latin American countries but it is certainly not somewhere you hang out alone on the roadside after dark
There is a shared memory that floats unspoken between Menna and I. We have been here before. It was back in 2005, up in the northern Nicaraguan badlands near the Honduran border. That day we had driven down from El Salvador, twelve hours straight, with still another four hours to go before we made Managua. Darkness was falling then too when I crashed our jeep into the back of a truck which had abruptly stopped on a hill top and had no brake lights. The impact left our front grill and radiator smashed, the bonnet crumpled, the axel off kilter. The truck had no plates either and it took off again soon after, once the driver had given me some frank opinions on my driving.
We were left deep in bandido territory with all of our worldly possessions in the car. There was no other option but to leave Menna guarding our stuff – armed with our machete and an iron bar we carried for security – while I headed off down the road to find help.
This time we have no iron bar with us, nor a machete. Arthur has his bush knife though. This will have to do.