Lake Cuicocha is a caldera lake formed inside a collapsed volcanic crater with an island that looks like a guinea pig.
It took me a while to visualize the guinea pig, or “cuy” as it is locally called (hence the name cuy-cocha), that they talk about. However, if you notice the two humps on the big island inside the lake, it does allude to the shape of a cuy.
Hitchhiking to Cuicocha lake
I took a bus from Otavalo to a village called Quiroga, near Cotacachi. The Cuicocha lake and the Cotacachi Cayapas natural reserve are closest from this village. A taxi costs $3-$4 and takes about 20 minutes to the start of the trail about 15km away.
Tip: If you hang out at Quiroga for a while, especially on weekends, you’ll find more tourists arriving which is great for splitting a taxi.
I got off the bus, circumvented all taxi drivers who approached me, and started walking towards the lake as I heard them drop the taxi price from $7 to $3. But I wasn’t trying to negotiate so it was irrelevant. In no time, I flagged down a pickup truck and the guy gestured me to get in along with three other villagers. He dropped me at the park entrance where you pay a $2 fee. Sweet.
From the park entrance, one can choose to go either clockwise or anticlockwise around the lake and I turned left looking for the trail head. The road winds around the lake and I missed the trail head, ending up at a village that was a further hour away. A park ranger drove me back and showed me where the trail start was.
Tip: The trail entrance is near a thick patch of pine trees, very easy to miss, about 20 minutes from the park entrance. You can see this patch from the entrance. If the dirt road from the park entrance to the trail head start’s turning to the left, you have gone too far (like I did!)
Trek along the rim of this crater lake
I spent the next 4 hours waling along the edge of the crater on this scenic trail. This lake had formed inside a collapsed volcanic crater nearly 3,000 years ago. Starting at an elevation of 3,246 m (10,650 ft) from the sea level, the trail passes through a thick forest of native pine and non-native eucalyptus trees that have adapted to high altitudes. There are lots of blueberry and redberry bushes on the way, not to mention the large number of flowers and colourful butterflies that flutter from one flower to the next.
The trail gains and loses elevation rapidly on the initial part of the circumnavigation, if you are doing it clockwise, which I recommend. During the middle portion, it climbs quite high, to two refuges in on the way that could provide bare minimum protection if it starts raining, which it did when i was hiking. There are numerous locations “miradors” with excellent panoramic views of the lake, to stop, catch a breath, hydrate and snack. I met like half a dozen fellow travellers, none of them were Ecuadoreans, around this middle section and we collectively marveled at the sight of the lake and the fact that we were above (or maybe inside) some rapidly moving clouds.
After this semi-strenuous hike, the reward is not far. Last hour of the trail is pretty smooth as it descends gently back to the park entrance. That’s the reason several people prefer to trek counter-clockwise, its easier, but then you won’t feel the same sense of achievement of hiking to the refuges. On the other hand, if you do this clockwise, the end point of this spectacular trail is very ordinary, an observation that some other bloggers also note.
Waiting for a ride back, cold, wet and drenched
My next task was to find a ride back to either Quiroga or Cotacachi. Since it appeared dangerously close to a thundershower, I weighed my risks and decided to wait for a taxi. Unfortunately, none showed up in the next half-hour and the park ranger expressed his unhappiness at me for not booking in advance. Well, I just have to deal with it, I thought, and started walking back on the paved road to Cotacachi.
Tip: If you don’t want to be stranded, especially during rainy season, book a return ride in advance.
It didn’t rain for the 30 minutes I spent waiting for a taxi. But, as these things typically work, it started raining within minutes of me starting to walk. Also, in full accordance with Murphy’s law, I had also forgotten to pack my rain jacket that day. So by the time I ran towards the edge of the road to hide under a huge boulder sticking out from the hill, I was somewhat soaked. The wind did rest of the job of giving me a free cold shower in the middle of nowhere.
After I was sufficiently cold, wet and had hurled enough curses at Indra the god of rain, it stopped raining. (Try saying, “Stop messing around with the ladies, don’t you have anything else to do?”) And a car appeared, giving me a sympathetic look. Thus, the conditions of making me miserable had been satisfied and I got a ride back to the town of Cotacachi by late afternoon. My next task was to find a place to sleep.
Guinea pigs reproduce rapidly and need a minimum of food and care to survive. They make for a high protein meal especially for populations living in high altitude. It’s quite popular food in most Andean regions. The indigenous cultures have always respected animals and nature and when they discovered this lake, they immediately thought that the guinea pig shaped islands are a message from the gods. During the second day of Inti Raymi (or Sun Festival) every summer solstice, indigenous shaman use lake Cuicocha as a bath for ritual cleansing and purification.
The Cuicocha lake is a caldera lake, i.e. a lake that was formed inside a dead volcanic crater that has collapsed. Ecuador has a lot of volcanic activity and I was excited to visit two other lakes such as this: Mojanda lakes and the Quilotoa loop lake.
Hitchhiking is like guaranteed fun and memorable experiences, isn’t it?