|Lake Quilotoa: I created this panoramic photostitch from 40 RAW images, the original file is enormous|
Quilotoa's eruption sliced away the top of the mountain like a soft-boiled egg at breakfast. Standing at the summit and considering the weight of rock blasted away is ineffable. The largest nuclear weapon ever detonated had a power of 50 megatons, Quilotoa had 12 times this force. Even more astonishingly, archaeologists unearthing medieval graves in Spitalfields, east London believe they've found volcanic debris from Quilotoa's eruption.
But this devastation created something spectacular, a perfect aquamarine mirror to the sky. Every shade of blue and green flickers across this basin. Silvers sparkle on the soft, wind-blown ripples as the natural minerals suspended in the water catch the light of the intense Equatorial sun.
At the summit of Quilotoa are a motley collection of hostels, a few crafts shops and restaurants. The best bet is the community restaurant run by the local Kichwas and set-up with development funding. The hot quinoa soup was just the ticket after my climb out of Quilotoa.
On the subject of mist, it's best to arrive to Quilotoa earlier rather than later. There would be nothing more disappointing than a long drive and no view at the end. Mornings tend to be brighter than afternoons - so says local folklore.
There's a viewing platform overlooking the lake, but the best way to experience Quilotoa is hiking down to its base. It's a slippery, half-hour walk down and a wheezy, red-faced hour back (if you're fit).
Amazingly, a hostel exists at the base of the volcano. It's hard to imagine a more isolated bed. Conditions are basic but what a view to wake up to in the morning. It costs 12 dollars a night, including dinner. Camping is also allowed at the base, but there's no running water and the toilet at the hostel is a pit so it's no place for pampered princesses (like me).
Getting back to the top is hard work. Luckily there's a herd of reluctant mules on hand who will carry you back for eight dollars. The mules are led by the local Indian children, who bound up the mountain with dusty faces without raising their pulses. Lucy took a horse but I thought I'd benefit from some exercise. Also, the horses aren't very big and I thought I'd look a bit of a tit swinging in the saddle of a pit pony with my feet dragging along the ground.
Walking anywhere at 4,000 metres is unpleasant, walking uphill at 4,000 metres is a Sandakan death march. My hike was made all the more arduous because I was matching the pace of Lucy's horse and the Kichwa girl, who was thrashing the sorry mule into compliance. My heart went out to the poor horse; we were both suffering - only he had a rope stinging his rump every time he wanted to catch a breath and I had a cold, bottle of Guitig mineral water.
That ten-year-old girl had an uncanny strength in her legs. I consider myself reasonably fit but I just couldn't get enough oxygen in my lungs to keep up with her. It was only because Lucy's horse kept refusing to budge that I stood a chance.
I've run half-marathons in respectable times and at the ten mile stage my lungs burn, my legs burn, my head is light and every neuron of sense in my head is telling me to stop. After crossing the line my muscles are numb, pounded into atrophy, and I am bent-double in exhaustion. But I can honestly say climbing the 400 metre ascent to the top of Quilotoa was just as challenging. The problem isn't aching muscles or sheer exhaustion, I just couldn't physically get the breath into my lungs. It's a slow strangulation. I should probably have taken it steadier, but that's not what idiotic, young men do when a ten-year-old girl is pulling away.
Quilotoa is a 90-minute drive from Latacunga - the nearest town on the Pan American highway - passing through breathtaking Andean canyons and other-worldly, rock formations that jut defiantly from the valleys. En route is the Indian village of Tigua famous for its resident indigenous artists; there's a small gallery if you want to break up the journey.