You’re at an altitude of 3900m, shivering in the cold as the sun rises behind you. Below, a saw-edge precipice encircles a still, emerald-green lake 3km in diameter. Lower still, fertile plateaus creased with deep, shadowed valleys are picked out by the golden dawn light and, beyond, snow-capped peaks fringe the horizon.
This is the dormant volcano of Quilotoa, high in the Andes’ central highlands. In the late 1940s, its altitude, beauty and proximity to the equator led a young American here who believed himself to be a reincarnation of John the Baptist. He called himself Johnny Lovewisdom and stayed on the lake shore for a year, pursuing his belief that it’s possible to live on rarefied air and sunlight alone.
There is an undeniable spirituality about this beautiful place, something partly fostered by the culture of the Quichua people, who lead a traditional farming life, and have dotted the landscape with tiny shrines. Their religion is Catholicism blended with indigenous beliefs: the Virgin Mary is identified with Pachamama, the female Earth deity with whom a drop of any drink is shared by pouring it on the ground. A public bus is the best way of exploring the local area and culture on the Quilotoa Loop, a string of Quichua villages a half-day trip from Quito. If you can stomach the twists and turns as it hurtles along the bumpy hillside tracks, the views are much better from the roof. Anyway, when you’re getting squashed between sacks of potatoes and crates of clucking chickens, it’s probably more comfortable.
If you take a bus to the top of the pass, Quilotoa can be tackled as a challenging day-walk down to the villages in the valley below. The trail starts along the crater rim, winding between wild lupins and grasses, descends past farms and fields, plunges down a precipitous canyon and finally ends up by a handful of hostels in the village of Chugchilán. The walk’s not particularly long, but it tells on the lungs, and the steep slopes are hard going. It’s at this point that staying at the Black Sheep Inn, a beautiful ecolodge, pays dividends: it boasts a home-made, wood-fired sauna and a hot tub to ease your aching limbs.