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Laguna Quilotoa, Ecuador

Also known as: Lake Quilotoa

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A special treat awaits travelers who venture off the beaten track to visit Laguna Quilotoa. This amazing turquoise lake lies in the caldera of a dormant volcano. The last major eruption occurred about 800 years ago, although there have been eruption-type events several times since then. The lake lies 1,300 feet below the rim of the collapsed dome and maintains a blue-green hue due to dissolved minerals in the water. No fish or aquatic life exist in the water other than a few types of micro-organisms and algae. Locals say you can swim in the water, but it remains exceedingly cold at 11,483 feet elevation. Some hot springs appear in the form of escaping gas bubbles in some areas of the lake. Visitors can take a motor boat tour across the lake or rent a kayak to do their own exploring.

Visitors often view the lake from the edge of the caldera, where the water is framed by the snow-capped peaks of Ilinizas and Cotopaxi in the distance. A hiking path will take the ambitious to the lake's shore in about half an hour. Enterprising local residents provide mules for rent to make the return climb to the rim easier, and many people take advantage of this less strenuous method of return. A hiking path around the rim is moderately strenuous and can take from three to six hours, depending on the hiker's physical condition and ability to acclimate to the altitude. Although there are several spots to camp along the rim, veteran hiking sites recommend against unaccompanied camping due to some safety concerns. There is also a spot to camp and a rustic overnight shelter at the bottom along the lakeshore. In recent years Laguna Quilotoa has become a part of the new Ilinizas Ecological Reserve, administered by Ecuador's National Park Service. The 370,400-acre Reserve encompasses the caldera, the Iliniza Twin Peaks and a large tract of the Cloud Forest, the Andes high-altitude.

Laguna Quilotoa and the Ilinizas Ecological Reserve sit at the far western edge of the Andes upon the western cordillera. Beyond this mountain range, the elevation rapidly drops to the Pacific Lowlands 10,000 feet below. Within the Reserve are several different types of ecosystems, from the rare high-altitude jungle to windswept moorlands and evergreen forests. Mostly roadless, the Reserve is open to hiking and horseback riding. It is estimated that more than 290 species of plants are native to the Reserve, including many of the orchids which flourish in the cloud forest, clinging to the trunks of trees together with bromeliads. A number of large mammals live here, including the white-lipped and white-collared peccary, opossums, agoutis, Andean fox, rare pumas and endangered spectacled bears.

The 255+ bird species listed in the Reserve include many species which are considered endangered on an international level, such as wood quails, puffleg hummingbirds and antpittas. To date, the Ecuador government has done little to protect this environmental treasure, and many of the local residents aren't even aware that they now live in a Reserve. It is hoped that international efforts to prevent deforestation, particularly of old-growth forest, will gain momentum as more visitors become aware of these treasures.

Laguna Quilotoa is 102 miles south of Quito by road. Most visitors take one of the local buses from the small village of Zumbahua a bit over 10 miles to the south. The bus will dislodge passengers at the even smaller village of Quilotoa which exists primarily to cater to tourists coming to see Laguna Quilotoa. The local Quichua people who operate the several hostels and restaurants here came from the lower valley to benefit from the increasing tourism trade and operate hostels, guest houses and guide services.

Because Laguna Quilotoa is often obscured by clouds in the afternoon, most visitors opt to spend the night in one of the hotels and get an early start toward the caldera in the morning for the best views. Although more modern facilities are being built, many of the older establishments are somewhat rustic. Most include breakfast and dinner in the price of a room, and most have in-room fireplaces as nights can be extremely cold at this altitude. A few actually have such amenities as central heating and internet, but many visitors prefer 'roughing it' in the more authentic locally-operated hotels. Near Zumbahua, the small village of Tigua has a population dedicated to producing colorful paintings of local scenes on dried sheepskin. These make unique souvenirs of a visit to Ecuador and are unlike paintings found anywhere else.

A bit more is known about Laguna Quilotoa since scientific studies were performed in 1993. After the disastrous carbon dioxide eruptions of Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun in Cameroon in the late 1980s, scientists began to study the gaseous composition of crater lakes to pinpoint possibly dangerous lake conditions around the world. Because Laguna Quilotoa had at least four eruptions of some type since 1797 which left no evidence of magma on the surrounding surface, scientists suspected that an explosive carbon dioxide escape had been responsible for the death of cattle, noxious fumes and flames reported after an earthquake centered nearby. From that study it is known that the lake is made up of two basins, the deeper of which reaches 840 feet and that gases escape from a fault below the surface. The scientific team determined that, at least at present, there is little danger of such an explosion of gases in the near future. Monitoring will continue to see how these gases escape and whether they build up during changing weather conditions.

Visiting Laguna Quilotoa and Ilinizas Ecological Reserve are a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that should make any world traveler's bucket list. The rustic lodgings at Quilotoa and several more modern ecology-based resorts in the area offer a unique opportunity to view the Andes Highlands and high-altitude jungles in relative comfort. Opportunities for photographic expeditions are numerous, and horseback or mule packing trips can be arranged in several locations. Although efforts to preserve this natural habitat are underway, visiting soon is the best way to assure you don't miss a thing.


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