Walking the Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

Once upon a time (16 months ago to be precise) four good friends exchanged some hearty hugs, some slaps on the back(pack), and wished each other Bon Voyage. For the four friends were going in two very different ways – two (who we shall now call Marcito and Coggleito) were bound for a South American journey while Matty and the Monk (that’s me – I’m now talking about myself in the third person – awkward) were embarking on our Silk Road journey.

But all four carried something in common as they trotted in different directions across the globe. For in the depths of their backpacks each had a small sandstone rock, swaddled layers of cling-film and buried in clothes. The rocks ‘may’ have come from behind the urinal of their favourite Nottingham pub, which is built into the sandstone caves of Nottingham. It may just have been removed by one of the four friends who, armed with his Swiss Army knife, cut it from the wall before being breaking it into four mis-shaped pieces, already crumbling in his pockets, to give to his three friends before they went their separate ways. That might be where the rocks came from, but obviously I can’t be sure, nor can I be held to any account regarding any of the rocks’ complicated and ambiguous history.

As they hugged and put their heads together, the rock-cutter cried: “This is not goodbye, the rocks will soon be together again.” Matty and the Monk went east. Marcito and Coggleito went west.

Proof that the rocks went East: Matty and I on the highest highway in the world; the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

Proof that the rocks went East: Matty and I on the highest highway in the world; the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

—————————————————————–Fast forward 16 months-———————————————————

After many eastern adventures and a hard summer of working in Europe, Matty and I finally made it west. Specifically Ecuador. And we were not alone. Our much-anticipated reunion with Marcito and Coggleito had been a frantic one as Matty and I rushed to the airport to surprise them (cursing at the local bus as it slowly chugged up the high altitude hills of Quito as if oblivious to our imminent reunion) but also an emotional one as we caught them at an ATM machine at arrivals.

A couple of days later of sampling the local beer, route planning and squealing, and we were on the road; headed for what is known as the Quilotoa Loop – named after the beautiful high-altitude Quilotoa Lake.

We got off the bus to this view and wondered if we had perhaps peaked too soon.

We got off the bus to this view and wondered if we had perhaps peaked too soon.

We walked for about an hour or so around the lake in an anti-clockwise direction before somewhat begrudgingly leaving the beautiful view and entering what felt like an isolated sand-dune scene looking down into the valley below. The wind picked up and Coggleito, who had chosen the exact same moment to run down the sand dune, found her legs being carried by the wind until she found a grassy patch to slow down.


The Coggleito pre-sand storm

We spent the next two days climbing down into valleys and up out of canyons, passing dusty small Andes villages and doe-eyed cows as we trekked over green, luscious hills, crossing snaking springs and gushing rivers. It was one of the most varied landscapes I’ve ever encountered and made all the more pleasant by our much awaited reunion with Marcito and Coggleito (who are actually called Marc and Gemma by the way, but when in Rome…)

The boys being turist... ahem.

The boys being turist… ahem.


Another beautiful valley only marred slightly by knowing we had to cross it.

Sublime scenery with some smashing faces.

Sublime scenery with some smashing faces.

Coggleito and me hiding in the aloe vera

Coggleito and I hiding in the aloe vera

Coggleito's 'camel pack' was much appreciated by the locals

Coggleito’s ‘camel pack’ was much appreciated by the locals


And when I said crossing rivers, I meant walking across precariously high logs.

Pole dancing, I mean sign dancing, and all.

Pole dancing, I mean sign dancing, and all.

Our guide book warned that dogs can give walkers a bit of trouble on the route and sure enough as we passed remote farm houses we were greeted with barking and aggressive looking dogs that sent us scrabbling in the dusty ground for rocks and sticks to arm ourselves. Apart from the time when Matty was growling on all fours brandishing his stick at a particularly ferocious look dog that had been following us, we emerged relatively unscathed.

After two long days of trekking we checked into a hostel that felt more akin to a luxurious ski chalet in the Alps than a backpackers pit-stop in the wilderness of Ecuador. Tired and weary after taking two wrong turns on the six hour walk, we climbed up the last mountain to reach the Llullu Llama hostel in the tiny village of Isinlivi. A friendly Swiss couple who were volunteering to run the place at the time, greeted us with  big grins and proudly pointed out the hostels’ namesakes – two happy-looking, fluffy llamas that were trimming the grass outside.

Our brief tour of the hostel revealed the cosy dorm room, which had beds set into the rafters of the roof; cosy, bright and clean double rooms; a sparkling clean bathroom boasting a hot shower and a log-cabin-like communal room with a burning fire and huge dining table from which we were to eat a delicious feast of mammoth proportions a few hours later.

But better yet, in the grounds of the hostel, which is perched on the side of the mountain we had just climbed up, was a spa fully equipped with a jacuzzi hot tub, sauna and steam room. We could not think of a finer way to relax our aching bones and immediately went for a pre-dinner soak (not before a scenic beer of course).

And of course breath-taking beers with not-so-shabby-scenery to round off each day.

And of course breath-taking beers with not-so-shabby-scenery to round off each day.


The next morning we woke, feeling refreshed and scrubbed clean, and set off for the last section of our walk, a 14km trek back to the village of Sigchos to catch a bus to Latacunga, where we had begun the journey three days earlier. As we scurried down dusty donkey trails and across green pastures, we continued to catch up on the last 16 months and exchange tales of travel and adventure.

As we paused on a  bridge to frolic for the camera, the rock-cutter cried: “Rocks reunited!” We all reached into our backpacks to pull out our cling-film wrapped nuggets of sandstone. Carefully unwrapping the stones, sand spilled from the wrappers, as if each grain had its own story – of another bump in the bag, another bus ride, another adventure.

We held up our somewhat shrunken rocks and were amazed they still fitted together like the missing pieces from a jigsaw. It was perhaps a little bit like the four travelling friends – yes, time had passed, stuff had changed, adventures had been had – but they were still all cut from the same rock, so to speak.



Travel Tips

The Quilotoa Loop is the name that is given to the villages and towns that loop around Quilotoa Lake in the Andes, Ecuador.

We started at Latacunga, where we stayed for a night and left our main backpacks. The next day we caught the bus to Quilatoa, which runs from 9am in the morning. and takes a couple of hours It is only a short walk to the lake from here (be warned, it’s extremely windy and cold up here as it’s at 3,914metres above sea level and very exposed). At the lake we walked anti-clockwise and followed the trail to Chugchilan, which took about four and a half hours – here we stayed at a lovely hostel called Cloud Forest, which cost $15 for a dorm bed with dinner and breakfast.

The following day we walked to Isinlivi and stayed at the wonderful Llullu Llama hostel ($21 for a double with dinner and breakfast per person or $18 for a dorm bed). It cost $7.50 to use the spa for an unlimited time and was worth every penny.

On our last day we trekked to Sigchos, which although was the furthest distance (14km) it was the shortest trek as there were more flat stretches. We left at 9am and then caught the 1.30pm bus to Latacunga to be reunited with our belongings and complete the circuit.

Most hostels offer packed lunch for the following day’s walk but we stocked up on tins of tuna and snacks in Latucunga and then bought the odd boiled egg and bread rolls from hostels.

The terrain is mixed an incredibly beautiful – wear decent walking shoes as there are plenty of steep uphill and downhill stretches. It’s quite easy to get lost on the route but most hostels have trekking instructions and maps available – don’t set off without these! Look out for the red marks on stones but we didn’t really notice these on the first leg of our journey.

Giving up Alcohol: The Diary of a Gin Lover

So after two rigorous days of flipping tyres, swinging off ropes and generally grunting a lot, I am back from boot camp. On the last night our lovely trainer Kyle offered to buy us a glass of wine. It was the third night of abstinence (boot camp rules) and we all looked at each other unsure of whether we were ready to slip back into our boozy ways.

‘Nope, I’m going all the way,’ cried Lucy, one of my co-boot campers, which prompted some sniggers from the boys. But I knew what she meant, we had been healthy for two days now and surely it would be easy to just carry on, the hard bit was done, the camel’s back was well and truly broken, or whatever the phrase is.

‘Me too,’ I cried, inspired by Lucy’s passion. ‘I’m giving up alcohol!’

Well this got a few looks.

‘For how long?’ asked Simon, another lovely co-boot camper, from Sheffield.

‘Until my mother’s birthday and I go to Bali,’ I declared boldly. ‘Next Saturday,’ I added.

People started laughing and shaking their heads. I was confused, that included one and a half weekends, I had never gone without booze for so long. Turns out a week and a half isn’t very long according to a lot of people. But this was my Everest and here’s how I got on…


I won a bottle of wine at work. How’s that for a bit of irony. And to make matters worse it was a bottle of Tempranillo, my favourite. Or at least one of. I looked at it a lot today, wondering if because it was free, and in fact a prize, perhaps it didn’t count. I left it at work.


I’ve had a long day, 12 hours in the office, tackling a challenging story. I could murder a G&T… We have a beautiful gin in our cupboard. So beautiful you could, and should, drink it without tonic. Although it also goes beautifully with a Fever-Tree tonic water and a slice of cucumber. I touched it, just so I could take a photo you see.


Matty was cooking a delicious daal when I got home, with a beetroot and yoghurt raita and everything. He casually broke the news, while chopping coriander, that he has been given a promotion. Currently working as a district nurse he has been promoted to matron for the Hucknall area. ‘Oooooh, Matron,’ I cried, ‘We must drink some champagne!’

It was an empty offer. I poured us a glass of sparkling water each. (He’s working tomorrow and says he doesn’t mind, I feel guilty.)


It helps that I am skint this weekend. I can’t really afford to go out. Instead my good friend Gemma blagged me a day pass to her Virgin Active gym in Nottingham (much posher than mine – it has air conditioning, lanes in the swimming pool, conditioner in the showers and get this, make up remover in the changing rooms, not to mention the plastic bags they give away for wet swimming costumes). I am impressed. If I was rich I would join this gym. Or if I gave up drinking forever I could probably join this gym and have personal trainer sessions. I thought about this while I swam in the gym’s beautiful pool, which I think must have been the main lobby of the former Great Northern Railway Station, with it’s impressive architecture and high ceiling. I pretended I was an Olympian athlete for a while and attempted a length of butterfly. A lot of the water left the pool and I didn’t quite finish the length. I am better at drinking gin.

Afterwards, Gemma suggested a drink at our favourite bar, the Jam Cafe in Nottingham(that’s my review for the Nottingham Post). I am worried, they have the wonderful Kwak Belguim beer (8%) you see, a heart warming brew that’s deliciously strong. Gemma even offers to buy me an alcoholic beverage. I watched her drink her Sauvignon Blanc, while I sipped my sparkling water. I was not bitter.

I was however, appeased by a delicious board of warm, crunchy bread served with a beautifully nutty homemade pesto and a hummus that had a wonderfully sweet flavour. We also munched on a reassuringly large bowl of olives. If you have never made it to the Jam Cafe you must go, I don’t care where you live.


Check out Gemma with those olives.

We moved on and had a drink in the beer garden of The Lion in Basford. I upped my game, had a diet coke and a water. Crazy times.

Tonight is actually fine. I am writing this, organising photos, doing ‘stuff’. Matty is working and it’s just me and the kettle. I’ve had about five cups of tea so far, but hey, who’s counting?


I won’t lie, I feel smug. The rest of the world woke with banging heads this morning but I woke feeling refreshed and did something I have never done on a Sunday before… and may never do again. I went to the gym. I barely recognised myself walking in and I’m sure even the staff even raised their eyebrows. As the receptionist swiped my membership card she gave me the why-aren’t-you-in-bed-with-a-raging-hangover look. I felt the need to tell her I wasn’t drinking. Must get over this desire to tell everybody who crosses my path.

So I went and pumped some iron, or something like that. Went to a ‘super circuit’ class, and if I’m honest now it hurts to pick up a full pint of water. A wine glass would be much lighter…


Mondays have never been a drinking day for me. The day of rest and recovery, it’s how the Big Man planned it. However this Monday was a bit different. Firstly, I was definitely perkier at work (was chatting to colleagues before even 10am) and secondly, I started craving beer and cheese at about noon. That’s strange, even by my standards and I can’t really explain it.

I went to see Michael McIntyre tonight, a funny man who is funnier live because he swears and is slightly less ‘prime time’. The interval was a strange affair, without a belly full of beer the was no need to queue for the loo, and with my water bottle only half empty there was no need to go to the bar. Intervals are a boring affair for tee-totalers.


Tonight as I cycled home from work I was greeted with perhaps one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in Nottingham yet. Like a child I threw my bike down at the Forest Recreation Ground and excitedly took some photos. Every few minutes the colour of the entire sky shifted, it was as if buckets of paint had been poured down on the clouds, and they were slowly mixing the colours together as they glided across the sky. I do love an urban sunset.

And this was just taken on the manual setting with no Photoshopping…. beautiful.


So I’ve skipped a few days. I was worried it might turn into a ‘Dear Diary, today I drank water. It was sparkling’ kind of journal if I wasn’t careful.

To summarise, Wednesday was tricky. Have you ever gone to a Chinese BYO and not drunk? I wasn’t even sure if that meant you also had to bring your own soft drinks. I fought the peer pressure. Thursday, I don’t even remember Thursday.

And then suddenly it was Friday, aka the-day-before-the-night-I-could-drink. I bounced home from work, I was extremely excitable, not just because it was the-day-before-the-night-I-could-drink. No, I was excitable because this weekend we go to Bali for our long awaited three week holiday.

I wanted to celebrate. I wanted toast the backpack, I wanted to toast my flip flops, my bikini, my passport. I wanted to toast the sun, which has not been out to play all that much in the UK this year. I wanted to toast my list of things to pack. You get the idea, I very much fancied a cheeky tipple, I was in holiday mood.

Matty did tell me that he wouldn’t tell anyone if I shared his can of Boddingtons. I’m not sure if it was my morals or my distaste for Boddingtons but instead I treated myself to some sparkling elderflower juice instead. And wow, I was a productive packer. No trying on random stuff that I always believe I will look nice in after a few drinks, no temptation to pack that thong bikini from Tenerife circa 2000 and no spilling wine on my clean holiday clothes. I was efficient.

And finally, at about 5pm today, after one week and six days of not drinking a single drop of alcohol, the time had arrived. It was time to break my sobriety. It’s my mother’s birthday so I had already decided that bubbles would be appropriate. A nice cold flute of Prosecco. For her you see, not for me. She couldn’t start her 63rd year any other way, I insisted. We held our glasses up and toasted to her good health and as I lifted the flute to my mouth I could feel the bubbles breaking against my nose.


It was perfect, the sun was setting and all the family was there. A chilled wind ran over us and I shivered.

‘We’ll be alright,’ said my brother’s girlfriend Becky.

‘We’ll just get our champagne jackets on.’

I nodded happily. My favourite jacket.

Diet Tips from a Boot Camp Virgin

For the very first time in years, about 10 years if I’m honest, I have eaten out without consuming any wine. That is right, there was not even a Holy-Communion-sized thimble of wine. I enjoyed a three course meal in a restaurant and there was no wine.

I, Delia Jane Monk, drank water. My body is a temple. I am at fat camp boot camp.

This is not me, it is the lovely Lucy who is also on boot camp and just so happens to be behind my water

Some of you who don’t know me very well might think that this is an exaggeration, but I can assure you it is not. I live in a city where I do not need to drive a car, and I have never been pregnant, why would I have ever forgone wine with dinner?

However, I am currently residing at Clumber Park Hotel and Spa near Worksop in Notts where I am trialling a new boot camp session they are planning to launch next year. My meals have been planned by a nutritionist (get me!) and only water will pass these lips. In for a penny, in for a pound.

I know my love for wine and food makes me an odd guinea pig choice for a boot camp trial but it comes with my job you see. I shall be reviewing the boot camp for the Nottingham Post, and for that reason I shall stay fairly tight-lipped about the muddy, sweaty details of what I am enduring. However, I thought it was wrong not to share with you a few healthy diet tips I’ve picked up.

1) Beer has ’empty calories’. Best fact of the day. This means that after a squiffy night on the ales you just need to work out the next day, apparently beer calories burn off very, very easily and don’t take much trouble to shift if you do it in the next couple of days. Told you this one was good eh?!

2) White wine has less calories than red wine. A small glass of white has about 125 calories compared to about 180 in a cheeky little red glass.

3) When you drink ice cold water, the water sticks to your fat. It’s always better to drink water at room temperature so your body doesn’t waste time trying to deal with all that cold water. Don’t forget the other little things – always take the stairs instead of the lift, walk or cycle to work if you can.

4) Waking up in the morning and just doing five minutes of exercise will speed up your metabolism for the day. Just a minute of squats, sit-ups, press ups, star jumps or whatever takes your fancy could make all the difference if you do it every day. Also have a glass of water first thing… Apparently this is another metabolism booster..

5) If your fitness is not improving then you need to mix it up. Instead of that same old four mile run, try running up a hill and walking down it four times. Allow your body to recover, then do it again five more times.

6) Eat dinner between 6pm and 8.30pm, try to eat your carb intake at lunch time instead of at your evening meal. Apparently your meat should never be bigger than the size of your palm, and it is better to eat five small meals a day than three large ones.

7) It is true that eating celery burns of more calories than you put on eating it. That’s why supermodels are skinny.

8) Eating hot food is good for your metabolism but…

9) You should not eat takeaway curry once a week. Worst fact ever. Kyle, our wonderful trainer, has even informed me (curry fans log off now) that if you are really committed to a hard workout then, and only then, is it ok to have curry once a month. Once a month?! I guess I’ll just have to make them hotter…

Disclaimer: If any of these facts are found to be incorrect it is because I a) am slightly hard of hearing and was sitting at the end of the dinner table and b) because I now have too much blood in my alcohol system.