The quest for the cheese factory in the Andes

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Andean youngsters near Chugchillan on the Quilotoa loop

A blind, barefooted old woman is garbling loudly at me in incomprehensible Spanish. She stumbles and falls into a muddy ditch.

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“The cheese factory is closed.”

I try to help her up but she shrugs me off.

Speaking a fraction more clearly I make out that the little Andean cheese factory we have just spent three hours hiking to is closed.

For that crushing piece of information she now wants five dollars.

I place a note in her hand and she wanders back to her isolated hillside shack.

It’s the second time we’ve been stung for money on the trek.

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Water cheek: After chipping in for the community water bill

Earlier we were beckoned over to a small hillside community that we had happened upon and asked to contribute a dollar each to the water bill.

It’s an interesting tactic, which I might start doing with random strangers when I return to England.

“Hi there, I don’t know you, but my phone bill is huge this month, I don’t suppose you’d care to slip me a couple of quid?”

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“Say cheese!”

I digress. Back to the cheese.

The Swiss couple we are hiking with are particularly distraught by the revealation that the ‘factory de fromage’ is currently closed.

The sign at the entrance boasts of the use of Swiss technology in the production process – a definite sign of quality according to our new friends.

Reluctantly we trudge back down the dirt track as the mist rolls in and the temperature drops.

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“Could I get egg and chips please?”

Our spirits lift when we stumble across some tarpaulin tents housing youngsters and old women all huddled around gas stoves where some kind of cooking is taking place.

After carefully considering the options I plump for potato chips with fried egg – the only thing on offer.

Costing only a few pence these staples of the Andean diet do a surprisingly good job at filling the hole in my rumbling stomach.

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Youngsters play in the fog

As the noise in my belly subsides and the fog lifts we are able to once again enjoy the dramatic scenery.

The previous day we had spent five hours walking through this stunning landscape as we hiked from the remote outpost of Isinlivi to the village of Chugchilán more than 3,000 metres above sea level.

At lively Saquisilí, we had been lucky enough to stumble into the weekly market.

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A chicken is slaughtered in front of us at Sasquilli market

In addition to the usual fruit and veg stands, chickens were being slaughtered before our eyes and bags of live guinea pigs were being bought and sold to the loudest bidder.

I was offered the chance to squeeze out a pure cane sugar juice drink which tasted surprisingly good.

Back at Mama Hilda’s hostel, just as we are getting over the cheese factory debacle, we are dealt another blow when the stove in our icy room fails to light and we shiver our way through the night.

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The emerald hues of Quilotoa lake

After thawing out over a hot chocolate the next morning, we pile into the back of a truck and head for the famous Quilotoa lake on the final part of the “Quilotoa loop” trek we have been walking for the previous two days.

We pass small children looking old before their time as they lead donkeys, goats and sheep to new grazing pastures.

Round other bends on the mountain roads we see weatherworn women wearing thick colourful tights and porkpie hats – the traditional costume of the central highlands region.

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Climbing up the steep hill to the top of the crater

When we arrive at the top of the giant bowel above the stark emerald-coloured lake the wind is biting. Sophie and I opt to take the steep, hour-long descent to the bottom of the volcanic crater.

Once there we discover the water is finger-numbingly cold and after a short recovery we nobly decline the horse taxi option to the summit to try and make it on our own steam.

It’s a hard scramble over dark grey ash and jagged rocks.

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A small girl pulls horses down the steep hill

Local youngsters as young as ten regularly sprint past us as they tug their passenger-laden horses up the hill.

Finally back at the top we are told the bus back to the nearest major conurbation of Latacunga has already gone and that we need to pay an additional 15 dollars for a taxi.

We question the honesty of the locals who often seem to be economical with the truth in order to try and make an extra buck or two.

Sure enough the bus that has already left rolls up 20 minutes later and we finally bid farewell to this spectacular, cut off world.

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“Thanks for coming, eeh-awww fully good of you”

About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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One Response to The quest for the cheese factory in the Andes

  1. Pete says:

    Just love this witty illuminating blog. Fascinating people and fellow travellers seem to pass like clips in an “otherworld” movie! Great photos too.

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