Visit to Cotacachi: a Volcanic Lake, a Historic City and
Bargain Leather Goods
(page 1 of 2)
COTACACHI. JUNE, 2003.
Secure in our bright orange life savers, we departed from
the docks of lake Cuicocha in a small outboard motor boat.
We were headed towards the volcanic rock islands that
arise in the lagoon's center. Ahead, we could see the
crater's looming sheer cliffs plunge into the deep blue
water. Above, clouds stubbornly clung to the peaks of
Mt. Cotacachi, removing its shark fin-shaped pinnacle
from our view. Our adventure tour of the Cotacachi canton
of Ecuador's Northern Andes had begun in adrenaline pumping
The canton of Cotacachi is frequented due
to its proximity to Lake Cuicocha and for its authentic
and affordable leather goods. More recently, Cotacachi
has received attention for its progressive indigenous
mayor, Auki Tituaña, and his efforts to revitalize
the region through eco tourism.
Lake Cuicocha is located 15 minutes from
the city of Cotacachi, on the lap of Mt. Cotacachi (elevation
15,000 ft) and is part of the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological
Reserve. Lake Cuicocha sits inside a large crater which
was left behind from a volcanic eruption which occurred
some four thousand years ago. Two small islands, the Yerovi
and Teodoro Wolf islands, arose in its center. These two
islands are products of minor volcanic upheavals which
took place following the main eruption. The Yerovi island
is named after a certain Monsignor Jose Maria de Jesus
Yerovi, who drowned in the lake while fleeing in a drunken
state from angered parishioners. In testimony to Ecuadorian's
forgiving nature, a statue of the monsignor now decorates
the lake's docks.
Before the Spanish conquest, the lake was
named Achicocha, which, in the indigenous language
of Quichua, means "Lake of the Gods." Local
shamans considered this lake to be sacred, and used its
waters for their purification rituals. Every year, around
the time of the summer solstice, ritual baths would take
place at the lake.
The mountains surrounding the lake also
have special significance for the locals. Legend has it
that the volcano Cotacachi, which natives refer to as
"Maria Isabel Nieves Cotacachi," is the wife
of Taita Imbabura (also known as "Manuel Imbabura"),
a looming volcano hovering over nearby Lake San Pablo.
The colossal pair are said to have given birth to "offspring,"
which are represented in the hills and cliffs of the region.
We bought our tickets for the boat ride at
the docks of the Lake Cuicocha. Simply decorated, the docks
are positioned in front of a reception center which is complete
with restaurant, bathrooms, guest rooms and a small observatory.
Outside, local vendors sell arts and crafts typical to the
region. The price, per person, for the ride is $2 USD, and
a minimum of eight people are needed for the boat to make
the round trip to and from the Yerovi islands.
A local guide (who only speaks Spanish) accompanies
each 30 minute boat ride, pointing out interesting details
about the journey. Our guide informed us that the lake is
located at an altitude of 3100 meters; Its depth varies
between 180 and 200 meters, and the temperature of its water
is 12- 14 degrees Celsius.
The highlights of the trip include the boat
getting close to the islands, which we were surprised to
discover are completely made of rocks piled one on top of
the other. Somehow, on this harsh landscape, trees, shrubs
and bromelias have made their home. The islands host a consortium
of mammals, including mountain guinea pigs, rabbits, servicabras,
armadillos, Andean foxes and an Andean bear which has recently
been introduced to the island. The lake is named after the
guinea pigs ("cuy" means guinea pig and "cocha"
means lake in Quichua).
Along the island's perimeter, in a meshwork
of sigsigs and other aquatic reeds, two closely related
species of garrota's (duck-like creatures) make their
home. We were able to see these unique species in numbers,
as they scurried in out of the reeds diving for food. The
sight of the garrotas brought out a "National
Geographic" sensation of discovery within us. On this
trip, we even had the luck of observing, from close distance,
a nest with five small garrota eggs.
On the far side of the islands, our guide
navigated the boat to a spot where we could observe bubbles
arising from the lake bed. This gaseous activity, he explained,
was evidence of the volcanic cauldron that lay deep below
us. The bubbles were sulfur gas escaping through small cracks
in what is considered an otherwise extinct volcano.
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