The curious case of collapsing volcanic craters

Ecuador travelogue: Chapter 30 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery


↑ At the edge of the crater overlooking lake Quilotoa, in a (rare) contemplative pose

Ecuador is full of geographical fascinations. Take the example of volcanos and crater lakes which are plentiful in the Ecuadorean Andes mountains. These lakes are formed inside volcanic craters that have collapsed because the weight of the landmass formed by the cooling magma was too heavy to sustain. Wikipedia lists dozens of such sites throughout the world, many of them can be easily reached.

As you have probably imagined, most of these lakes are circular, and since the volcanic activity has ceased, its fun to hike around such oddly unique natural formations.

↑ Other crater lakes I visited in Ecuador: The Cuicocha lake with a Guinea Pig -shaped island in the middle; and Mojanda lake triplet with the majestic Fuya Fuya and Black mountains. Great places for trekking!

Quilotoa caldera lake and the spectacular trek around it

About 800 years ago, a catastrophic volacnic eruption occurred at Quilotoa, which is more-or-less in the middle of Ecuador, and as a consequence of this violent eruption, the volcano’s core collapsed forming a caldera of 3 km diameter. Over the years the crater was filled with water from rain and underground springs, forming Lake Quilotoa. The lake is approximately 250m deep and looks greenish due to a number of dissolved minerals.

The lake is situated at a height of 3,914m (12,841ft) so it is very important to get acclimatized to the elevation before arriving here. Altitude sickness can subdue the strongest and the bravest within no time; I learned it the hard way in the Himalayas. Thankfully I had hiked portions of the Quilotoa loop (with a three other travellers I met at a hostel) and spent time at higher elevations throughout Ecuador earlier in this trip.

Tip #1: Do not attempt to do this trek without sufficient acclimatization! Villagers will tell you stories of overconfident tourists getting sick.

With that preparation, we proceeded to walk around the periphery of the volcano, starting at 9 am. The loop is approximately 9.5km long, with lots of ups and downs (three major hikes if I remember) and lots of chances of getting lost. Overall, the trek is not technical at all and there is a clear trail most of the time.

Tip #2: For better pictures I suggest, doing the trek clockwise if you are starting before 10 am, otherwise start anti-clockwise. That way the sun might aid proper lighting of the lake, although between 11 am and 2 pm when the sun is powerful, I don’t think it quite matters.

Delightful rural sights await you – villagers herding sheep, random llamas grazing on the slopes, patches of farms being cleared by fire, wild dogs running around – the crucial advantage being that you can watch all this from the top of a volcano.


↑ Colour of the water keeps changing and appears especially brilliant in direct sunlight!

Breathtaking scenery

  • Twin peaks of the Illinizas: The Illinizas are a pair of volcanic mountains that are visible from the northern periphery of Quilotoa lake. The snowcapped peaks are among the highest in Ecuador, with the southern peak slightly taller than its northern brother, at 5,228m (17,152ft) and 5,126m (16,818ft) respectively.
  • The symmetrical Cotopaxi: The active Cotopaxi volcano looks very sexy and colourful as it rises to a height of 5,897m (19,347ft) in the middle of a lush green agricultural zone. The mountain is perfectly conical, has a snow-capped glacier at the top and a rocky terrain on its slopes. Patches of red and purple igneous rocks are randomly visible, and between wisps of cloud against a blue sky the volcanic peak looks like an artist’s portrait.
  • Andean villages: All around the crater but especially on the northern side, gushing streams of water appear deep blue as they crisscross the rugged – almost arid – terrain dotted with patches of farms and little settlements in between. At some points in the trek, sounds from surrounding villages are carried by the wind, playing mind games because you are quite quite far from the village. There are lots of hills – large and small – but they all appear tiny from the Quilotoa lake. Overall, the Quilotoa loop, with numerous villages and hiking trails, is a beautiful place for trekking, and that is quite evident from this vantage point.
  • Chameleon lake: The actual lake is approximately 400m below the trail along the volcanic crater and as the day passes, the color of the lake appears to change shades. Different points in the lake have different elements such as fumaroles or hot springs and algae. When the sun strikes the lake, it radiates a jaw-dropping lustre.

↑ Numerous volcanic peaks are visible from the Quilota lake, I could only name two: the twin Ilinizas and Cotopaxi; but I suspect the other peaks were Chimborozo and Tungurahua near Baños!

Logistics

Getting to lake Quilotoa is straightforward and can be arranged as a day trip from the town of Latacunga. But what’s the fun in being a checklist tourist? I recommend visiting this lake as part of a 3-5 day Quilotoa loop hiking trail starting from Latacunga. Start in an anti-clockwise fashion – although you’ll be climbing up throughout, the climax will happen at at Quilotoa, which gives a very accomplishing feeling. That way you can get sufficiently acclimatized and also spend an entire day trekking along the lake’s perimeter. The trek is straightforward and takes about 5 hours if you do it fast. However, we went off trail, got lost and had to scramble back on a path that ended up being 7 hours long – so budget that time in your schedule.

Extraterrestrial calderas


↑ Volcanoes on Mars: L to R: Olympus Mons, Mars’ youngest and tallest volcano. Tharsis Montes, three volcanoes with their craters being several hundred kilometers in diameter. (Source: NASA’s public domain repository)

These phenomena is seen on other planets and satellites of the solar system as well. We can’t trek around volcanic craters on other planets and satellites, atleast not yet. Mars, our nearest neighbour (and my favourite planet) has volcanic features that cover large portions of the its surface. Due to lower gravity and thinner atmosphere compared to Earth, Martian volcanoes typically have larger magma chambers, eruptions have more ash, plumes rise higher and lava spreads further. Eruptions are voluminous and thus less frequent compared to Earth. With the Mars rover mission in full swing, I am always excited (curious?) to see what the probes find.


↑ Laguna Quilotoa

Hope you enjoyed this tour!
-Priyank

Ecuador travelogue: Chapter 30 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery