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A secret just being discovered by visitors to the northern Andes is the Mojanda Lakes. Only a few miles north of the equator, the lakes were formed by the collapse of twin volcanoes. Mojanda volcano and Fuya-Fuya volcano both exploded between 200,000 and 165,000 years ago, allowing water to collect within the resulting calderas and forming three separate lakes. At approximately 12,250 feet in elevation, the air temperature is quite chilly at times and the area often surrounded in fog, so tourists didn't visit the lakes often until recently. These Andes Highlands were long inhabited by the local Quichua tribe, the altitude limiting the numbers of outsiders who saw the picturesque crater lakes. Named Caricocha (considered the 'male' lake and largest of the three), Huarmicocha (the female lake) and Yanacocha (the black lake), the lakes are only a few hundred feet apart, but getting from one to another still takes some physical exertion on individual trails. The largest lake is known to reach a depth of about 330 feet, but there are few statistics known about the other two.
The Mojanda Lakes are surrounded by high Andes grasslands and shrubs and is now used for some cattle grazing. Towering over the lakes, the peaks of Fuya-Fuya and Yanahurco mountains offer a number of trails for the physically-fit. There are no villages along the shore and the nearest town of any size is Otavalo, a little over 10 miles to the north. Visitors can hike from Otavalo along a cobbled road, but even the gentle incline to Mojanda is a struggle at this altitude for the un-acclimated visitor. Those wishing to visit Mojanda Lakes often take a taxi from Otavalo and save their energy for trekking near the lakes. The lakes have been held in protected status since 2000, but visitors are allowed to camp for one night in the area. There are no designated campsites or services, and a good high-altitude tent is strongly advised. The only fish in the lakes are introduced rainbow trout, but some tour operators can arrange fishing trips to the lakes. Mountain bike treks can be arranged from Tabacundo to the south but require strong riders for the six-hour uphill climb. Biking from Otavalo is far shorter, but those unsure of their abilities in the thin atmosphere should work with a recognized tour operator for safety. The government of Ecuador advises visitors to these isolated places to travel in groups of four or six people; although the native people are friendly and welcoming, the occasional robbery does occur.
The trail to the Fuya-Fuya Peak begins at the shore of Caricocha Lake and leads hikers on a trek of 1.2 miles that rises in altitude 1804 feet. Trail markers keep hikers on the trail until they reach the summit at 14,045 feet. In order to travel from one lake to another, it is necessary to take separate paths from the trailhead due to the terrain, even though the lakes are close together. The area contains some of the last remnants of high-altitude forests, most having been cut. The remaining trees are protected. Although trees are few, a number of wildflowers thrive along the trails, and the endangered Andes Condor can sometimes be seen soaring near the peaks. Cloudbursts are a nearly daily occurrence during the hiking season, and failure to carry rain gear often results in cold, wet and unhappy hikers. The rains usually are of short duration but can ruin an otherwise peaceful and scenic day-hike for the unprepared.
The unique ecology of the Andes Highlands surrounding Mojanda Lakes has recently come under study by several groups of environmentalists. One nearby lodge dedicates much of the profit from its rentals and tours to educating visitors, helping the nearby village obtain school books and supplies, and assisting in providing health and dental care to the indigenous population. Casa Mojanda offers gourmet meals featuring local produce, cottages crafted from natural materials by native craftsmen, interpretive discussion of the surrounding countryside, and horseback rides to the Mojanda Lakes-a far easier prospect than hiking for many visitors. Many of their visitors pledge funds to the various projects underway in the nearby village. A number of interesting tour opportunities exist in the area including Saturday shopping trips to the traditional marketplace at Otavalo. With 4000 years of history in the area, the local Quichua are known worldwide for traditional textiles, leatherwork and handicrafts. Some of these crafted items have found a firm place on the growing world market.
An extremely important archeological site near Mojanda Lakes, the pyramids at Cochasqui are located near the village of Cayambe just off the Pan-American Highway. Built by the pre-Incan Caranqui, the series of 15 truncated pyramids and multiple funeral mounds were constructed between 950 AD and 1550 AD as a residential, ceremonial and astronomical center. Trench alignments mark the solstices here at the equator. The Cochasqui complex aligns with a series of other archaeological sites and natural elements, called Inti-Yan (the sun paths), alluding to the sun's movement during the March and September equinoxes. At night, visitors can camp out in a designated area and see the stars of both the north and south hemispheres simultaneously. The Caranqui apparently purposely buried the complex in advance of the approaching Inca. Recent excavations have begun to uncover the base pyramids, although the buildings that once graced their apexes are long gone. Local shamans still arrive to perform harvest-blessing ceremonies for the locals on designated astronomical alignment days. This important center of sun-worship was designated a protected site in 1977; research is on-going. A small museum on-site explains the lay-out and assumed function of the various parts of the complex, with displays of pottery and household artifacts. A botanical garden and a llama reserve are also located on the grounds. Situated at the foot of Mojanda Mountain, the complex is only 45 minutes north of Quito and easily reached from both the capital city and Otavalo.
The area surrounding Mojanda Lakes is full of volcano and ecological reserves, including Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve, Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve and a number of others. Visitors to Mojanda Lakes can easily make a full holiday of visiting cultural, ecological and geological sites in the area. Working with organized tour operators can facilitate getting to some of the more remote sites. A variety of lodgings can be found, from modern hotels and motels in Quito to smaller and often unique resort haciendas located around the area. Otavalo holds a youth hostel, hotels and private lodging possibilities. Some camping is available, although usually primitive. Real estate opportunities may exist in the cities, but private properties are somewhat rare in much of the area around Mojanda Lakes. Casa Mojanda is in the process of building and selling a small number of cottages for sale within their compound. For the near future at least, Mojanda Lakes will likely stay remote, somewhat hard to access, and entirely special to the few visitors who can reach it. Will you be one of the special few?
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