Some 20km south of the turn-off to Cotopaxi, LATACUNGA (2800m) is a charming, mid-sized market town huddled on the east bank of the Río Cutuchi. With its handsome, colonial-style buildings and bustling streets, it makes an agreeable base from which to organize forays into this part of the sierra, in particular to the not-to-miss crater lake at Quilotoa, or to the hectic indigenous market in nearby Saquisilí. It also makes an alternative launchpad for trips to Cotopaxi, well catered for by the town’s tour operators. If your visit coincides with either of the town’s two famous and colourful Mama Negra fiestas, one on September 24 and the other on the weekend before November 11, you’ll be treated to a riotous display of parades and street dancing. Otherwise, Latacunga’s charms are a good deal more sedate, and can be enjoyed in an afternoon’s wander around town.
Despite its colonial look, most of Latacunga’s architecture dates from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century – a fact owed to Cotopaxi’s repeated and devastating eruptions, which have seen the town destroyed and rebuilt five times since its foundaiton in 1534, most recently in 1877. The focal point of town is the Parque Vicente León, a leafy square enclosed by iron railings that is locked after dark. A cathedral, with whitewashed walls both inside and out, dominates the south side, while the austere municipio flanks the east side. A couple of blocks north the twin-towered Iglesia Santo Domingo is the most impressive of the town’s churches, with its Grecian pillars and extravagantly painted interior covered with swirling blue, green and gold designs. Right in front of it, on the little Plazoleta de Santo Domingo, you’ll find a small artesanía market selling knitwear, shigras and other souvenirs (closed Thurs & Sun).
A highlight of the Latacunga year is its renowned Mama Negra fiestas, commemorated twice in religious and secular festivals within a few weeks of each other. The fiesta is thought to have derived from the expulsion of the Moors from Spain or the astonishment of the local indígenas on seeing black people (the slaves that the Spanish had brought here to work in nearby mines) for the first time. The colourful religious celebration (also called the Santísima Tragedia) is held on September 24, with brightly costumed paraders and various mischief-making characters: the white-robed huacos, the whip-wielding camisonas, and the belle of the ball, a blacked-up man gaudily dressed as a woman – the Mama Negra. In the midst of this, the focus is supposedly the Virgin of the Iglesia de la Merced (known as Our Lady of the Volcano because she is believed to have saved the city many times from Cotopaxi’s eruptions), who is paraded through the town and up to El Calvario, the concrete monument on the hill to the east of town. The flamboyant secular Mama Negra festival usually begins on the Saturday before November 11 (though the big parades have been scheduled for the Friday in recent years to discourage excessive drinking) and features the same cheerful costumes and characters, marching bands and street dancing. The festive mood continues with cultural events and bullfights until November 11, the day of Latacunga’s independence.
Some 90km west of Latacunga and the Panamericana, in one of the most beautiful parts of the Andes, the isolated Laguna Quilotoa is a spectacular emerald-coloured crater lake. It’s most directly approached along the road from Latacunga to Quevedo, via the villages of Pujilí, Tigua and Zumbahua. Once there, you can take a different route back, heading north to the villages of Chugchilán and Sigchos, then southeast to rejoin the Panamericana near the market village of Saquisilí. This route – totalling around 200km – often referred to as the Quilotoa loop or the Quilotoa circuit, can just as easily be done in the opposite direction to that described below. If you can, try to time your stay in Zumbahua with the Saturday-morning market, one of the most fascinating in the sierra, or one of the major Catholic festivals like Epiphany or Corpus Christi; both are wonderful spectacles.
You’ll find accommodation in Tigua, Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Chugchilán and Sigchos, but most of it is pretty basic, with the main exceptions of Tigua and Chugchilán. If you want to sleep in the simpler places, particularly at Quilotoa at 3850m, a warm sleeping bag is a welcome bonus as it gets very cold at night. Count on spending a minimum of two days to do this route; it’s much better to take three or more nights if you want to do it at a more relaxing pace, which will also give you time to explore the magnificent countryside with hikes or horse rides. If you are driving around the loop in your own vehicle, there are filling stations in Sigchos and Zumbahua stocking extra and diesel.
About 11km beyond Tigua, a side road leads downhill to ZUMBAHUA (3500m), a small village set about half a kilometre north of the Latacunga–Quevedo road; if your bus is continuing to Quevedo, get off here and walk for five minutes or so down to the village. It’s a poor place, with muddy, potholed streets, tin-roofed houses and dust blowing about, but the setting is spectacular thanks to the backdrop of sharp peaks covered with chequered fields. Zumbahua’s large central square looks desolate and empty through the week, but on Saturdays is crammed with traders, buyers and produce to make it one of the most enjoyable and colourful markets in the sierra. Among the piles of potatoes and beans, you may see freshly chopped sheep’s heads (along with various other parts of their anatomy), used to make soup that’s often prepared at the makeshift stalls. Other curiosities include a row of barbers and a cluster of tailors who mend clothes on old-fashioned sewing machines.
The best of a selection of cheap and basic hotels is the Cóndor Matzi (t03/2814611; under $10) on the square. It’s got a hot-water shower and small, tidy rooms with bunks and clean linen, and kitchen facilities, but has a slightly abandoned feel to it. If no one’s there to let you in, ask around in the village for the key. Just round the corner, Oro Verde (under $10) has simple rooms with no-frills en-suite bathrooms (with unreliable hot water) and a simple restaurant. A few doors along, Richard (under $10) has basic dorm rooms and one double with concrete floors, and decent hot showers inside and out back. Apart from the hotels mentioned above, there are a couple of very basic restaurants just off the square. The Andinatel phone office is near the church.
There are several daily buses to Quilotoa (last one leaves 1–2pm), or locals will take you there by camioneta for about $5 – just ask around on the square, or in your hotel. The four-hour, ten-kilometre hike to the lake became less attractive after the road was paved, but guides are available from Cóndor Matzi for more interesting páramo hikes.
A twenty-minute bus ride northwest of Latacunga, SAQUISILÍ is a quiet, slightly ramshackle little town that explodes into life with its market – one of the biggest in the highlands – every Thursday morning. It fills seven plazas, each one specializing in different types of goods. There’s an extraordinary breadth of merchandise for sale, supplying just about every consumer need of the hundreds of indígenas who journey here from all over the central sierra. Lining the pavements are mountains of vegetables balanced on wooden crates, sacks full of grain, mounds of fluorescent yarns used for weaving shawls, kitchen utensils, finely woven baskets and curiosities, including stuffed animals from the Oriente. Also on Thursday, about a ten-minute walk north of the centre, dozens of sheep, cows, pigs and the odd llama exchange hands in the animal market (before dawn to around 10am), dotted with women clutching tangled cords attached to squealing piglets.
Away from the market, the church on the main square is worth a look. Its original facade has been preserved, but everything behind it was replaced in the 1970s – the interior is quite striking, with its brightly painted windows, blue-and-white metal roof and minimalist altar. Otherwise, there’s little else to do in Saquisilí, and nothing to draw you here outside market day.