Central Highlands -- Chugchilán and the Quilatoa Loop, Ecuador

July 11-16, 2007


We had heard the Saturday market at Saquisili was not to be missed. And what an amazing event it is! Townsfolk come from far and wide to hawk their wares at eight separate plazas. Everything is for sale: chickens, pigs, and goats; leeks, carrots, bananas, potatoes (so many different varieties!); freshly ground corn and wheat flour; pots, rope, buckets, and clothes. But more than that, it's a chance to wear your finest brightly colored shawl and those lovely gold beads, get your fedora spiffed up by the town hatter, check out your distant neighbor's newborn baby, flirt, and generally strut your stuff. The market is the weekly social event that keeps folks connected, drives a vibrant rural economy, and is a heck of a lot of fun!






Just down the street from the poncho market, we find the Iliniza bus marked Chugchilán. Three guys are standing on the roof tying on piles of cargo. Just then a box comes crashing down onto the dusty street from the rack above and someone yells at me to hand it back up. Climbing up the bus ladder, hoisting the box, I'm surprised to feel a shifting weight and then notice plaintive mewing from the pile of cuy inside! Women are handing up bundles of chickens, their feet bound together in groups of five. Instead of using a box or container, the guy on the roof is threading a rope through through their legs and they are left hanging over the side, their necks craning upwards to look around. Pretty soon there are fifty chickens strapped to the roof and we wonder how they will survive a bumpy four hour bus ride up there in the baking sun.

Suddenly it's time to go and everyone piles on the bus with their assorted market goods purchased that morning. The aisles are jammed with stacks of eggs in cardboard trays, plastic barrels full of food, boxes of baby chickens, sacks of potatoes, and bags of bananas. We climb through the chaos, pile our backpacks into the aisle and wedge ourselves into the narrow seats. But no, we are not leaving yet. Instead, for the next twenty minutes food sellers somehow clamber over the cargo in the aisle carrying bags of fried fava beans, double-fisted handfuls of frozen ice cream cones, and bottles of brightly colored soda. Opening his briefcase, a man stands at the front of the bus and proceeds to show us pictures of skin lesions and mangled limbs as he goes through a lengthy explanation. Then he pulls out little plastic containers of salve and yells out: Un dollar, solo un dollar! Amazingly, a couple people produce crumpled dollar bills (US dollars are the official currency in Ecuador) and exchange them for the valued snake oil. Another lady climbs over the debris carrying a tray of sewing needles, oil, scissors, pliers, and rolls of thread.

Finally, the driver revs up the motor, the sellers step off the already moving bus, and we are on our way. The potholed dirt roads are unforgiving and we bounce along as clouds of dust filter in through the cracks. We stop frequently to drop off and pick up passengers (always room for one more!) at isolated thatched-roof adobe houses set out in the remote verdant mountainous hill country. After three hours of bumping along, a family gets off, claiming ten of the roof chickens. Startled by the yelling, we climb over the seats to have a look out the starboard window. Two women are engaged in a tug of war, each pulling on opposite ends of a bundle of chickens. Apparently some of them had expired along the way and the dead ones certainly did not belong to the lady getting off here! Everyone starts yelling vamos, the conductor somehow resolves the dispute, and again we are off. Eventually we roll into Chugchilán, drag our backpacks off the bus, and wave goodbye to the driver. Gracias! Definitely the most entertaining journey we've had yet...









In Chugchilán, we spent four days at the Black Sheep Inn eco-lodge, hiking the local trails and visiting the spectacular Quilatoa caldera.


Cuenca (bus)Latacunga (taxi)Saquisili (bus)Chugchilán (truck)Quilatoa (truck)Chugchilán