Lots of projects are being executed around the world that reinforce natural tourist attractions and are also appreciated by the critics. But projects in which the interventions of the client(s), users, and designer(s) fully reach expected outcomes remain rare.
One such successful project is the Quilotoa Shalala Overlook in Zumbahua, Ecaudor, a magical platform that enables visitors to step out over an active volcano or to quietly observe the natural beauty.
Sometimes the designer’s greatest challenge is not what to do, but what not to do. How an already perfect natural site can be changed to meet human needs and still not be compromised is the real lesson here.
Quilotoa Crater Overlook: The enchanted beauty
The crater is located in the Andes, 3,974 meters above sea level and some 170 kilometers southeast of Quilo. The untouched natural beauty and geographical peculiarities have made the site a tourist attraction of growing popularity. What makes the site most beautiful and distinguishable is the turquoise-colored lake that has formed inside the crater thanks to the natural minerals dissolved in the water. The diameter of the crater is about three kilometers.
Another important feature of the site is the Andean Paramo ecosystem that prevails here.
WATCH: Quilotoa Crater Lake
What is Andean Paramo?
Only found in the Andes, this high-altitude mountain region of mostly wide-open grassland possesses a distinct flora and fauna, making it the most interesting of the life zones of the Andes. These regions have been inhabited by humans for approximately 15,000 years.
Paramo regions are very sensitive lands for a designer to touch. From that point of view, the overlook was a great challenge that could have been a failure in a blink. The designers had to be as concerned about the variety of mammals, birds, insects, amphibians, and reptiles as with the Paramo vegetation, such as large and small shrubs, stunted trees, cushion plants, herbs, and rosette plants that provide shelter to the wildlife.
Does the overlook deserve to be here?
After understanding the site and its ecosystem, we must question the justification of building the overlook. When asking that question, it is vital to understand the people who are going to use it and, most importantly, who will benefit from it.
Indigenous people of the Ecuadorian sierra have traditionally inhabited this area. There are still some scattered communities close to Quilotoa. Shalala is one such community, whose inhabitants have an age-old connection with the volcano. They are the people who initiated the tourism here by offering guided visits, accommodations, and restaurants.
The Quilotoa Crater Overlook is a response by the Ministry of Tourism of Ecuador to aid the community-scale entrepreneurship by creating a gazebo and an access trail that connects with the existing tourism infrastructure on the slope of the volcano. The project was executed on the site in 2013, and it is already paying off. The tourist flow has significantly increased and the Shalala community is receiving revenue from the tourism business.
What are the special considerations that made the project successful?
The project’s main objectives were to:
- Accentuate the tourism business to support the Shalala community
- Complement nature and educate the people to preserve the Paramo
- Find a design solution that was least disturbing to the surrounding natural areas
So, let’s see what was done to achieve them.
The gazebo is a structure that has two major platforms that give two totally different visual and physical experiences. The upper section extends far over the edge of the crater, giving visitors the chance to float over the volcano and experience a vertigo-like sensation. Below that, the other platform follows the natural slope, offering a place to sit, rest, and contemplate the landscape.
The camouflaging access trail
The access trail guides visitors to the viewpoint from the slope of the volcano. The trail had to be safe and walkable, while not altering the natural qualities of the Paramo landscape. So it was made by edging with stones and filled with gravel, which is not overpowering at all.
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Materials and colors
The decision to use simple, uniform materials throughout the overlook gives the whole site the same aesthetic presence. The total structure is composed with an internal steel truss system, while the outer surface is dressed with teak wood that has a pre-weathered finish to easily blend in with the overgrown landscape. All the open edges are blocked with safety glass to ensure maximum uninterrupted views.
Each and every gesture of this intervention is an attempt to keep the present harmony of the site in place. That’s why the structure is designed in a way to be dismantled and removed if is is no longer needed.
The Shalala community appreciated the project and is committed to keeping it in good condition. This is also an indicator that the intervention has been successful.
The designers faced a major conceptual challenge in this project. While the total surroundings offer such magnificent views, what extra value can an overlook add? This question actually drove the design to complement nature, not to be a showcase of its own. It’s actually not trying to be attractive or overpowering; some design components are even hidden, making more room for the natural views.
Photo Credits: Lorena Darquea – Pablo Puente – Javier Mera – Daniel Moreno Flores – Cynthia Macias Leiva – Santiago del Hierro