Ecuador’s Quilotoa Loop may be South America’s most underrated adventure. Many people flock to Peru to hike the Inca Trail or even scale one of the snow-capped peaks in Bolivia, but if you enjoy hiking and getting off the beaten track then this hike is for you. The Quilotoa Loop is a set of trails linking small villages with Quilotoa Lake situated in the basin of an old volcano that lies west of the famous Cotopaxi Volcano.
While some people might prefer to bag Cotopaxi’s peak for bragging rights, the trek to Laguna Quilotoa will get you up close and personal with the rural landscape and the friendly locals and makes for an authentic experience you won’t forget. It can also be done easily on your own without a guide and this article outlining my experience can help you plan to do just that.
LOGISTICS AND ITINERARIES
The trek begins in a large town called Latacunga around two hours south of Ecuador’s capital, Quito. In Latacunga, I would recommend staying at Hostal Café Tiana where they have both dorms and private rooms available and the staff can provide information on the Quilotoa Loop along with maps and directions.
The trek can actually be done in either direction and, although I met more people completing the trek by beginning at Quilotoa and hiking back, I personally think that doing it that way is more of an anticlimax as you are actually beginning at the highlight of the whole trek. In that case, this guide details the trek as finishing at Quilotoa and the incredible crater lake, although you could easily follow this guide backwards if you wanted.
The name ‘Loop’ is actually a bit deceiving as it has mostly become a three-night trek that either starts or ends in Quilotoa where most people take a bus from or to Latacunga, although it is possible to hike back if you feel the need. The trails are not exactly signposted, however, the locals you will see out tending to their fields are more than happy to point you in the right direction and the lodges you stay at along the way can provide some sort of map or directions for the following day.
DAY ONE – SIGCHOS TO ISINLIVI (3-4 HOURS)
I caught the morning bus from Latacunga to Sigchos and the two hour drive through the mountains was just a taste of the scenery I would see over the course of the next few days. There were a couple of other foreign solo hikers and we decided to team up for our journey to Quilotoa. We had notes given to us from Hostal Tiana in Latacunga and we began our hike following the dirt road out of Sigchos.
We followed the rural roads only passing the occasional house, although much of the land we could see was being cultivated in some way, as the local people relied very much on the land for their livelihood. We were looking for a bridge to cross the river as indicated by our notes and we started to doubt whether we were on the right track. We spotted an older couple working in their field off the side of the road and we yelled out, “Camino a Isinlivi?” (The way to Isinlivi?). The man looked up and pointed us in the direction we were already going, “Gracias!”.
We soon found the bridge and had a steep climb up the other side of the hill to reach our first stop on the Loop, Isinlivi. We stayed at Llullu Llama, a cosy, wood-fired lodge which was beautifully decorated in Andean colours and patterns and felt like the perfect retreat after a long day of hiking. The lodge can cater to everyone’s needs with cottages, private rooms and a dormitory available. I stayed in the dormitory where for USD$20 I got a bed, hot shower, dinner and breakfast the next morning. The afternoon flew by as other hikers started to roll in and we all cozied up to the fire sharing travel stories until the smell of food lured us into the dining room.
DAY 2 – ISINLIVI TO CHUGCHILAN (4-6 HOURS)
We left the beautiful lodge behind with maps and directions in hand for our next destination. The weather was perfect with blue skies and the cool mountain air to keep our bodies from overheating too much. It was so peaceful knowing that we were miles away from the nearest motorable road and we only met a few local dogs along the way.
We passed through a tiny village with only a handful of small houses and we stopped to look at a small church. Many Ecuadorians are devout Catholics and even out in the villages, we spotted churches amongst the scattered houses.
From the small village, our big climb for the day began as we followed a goat track up the side of the mountain having to stop briefly to catch our breath and admire the view. At the top of the hill, we could look back down below through the beautiful valley from where we’d come. For our last few kilometres of the day, we followed a dirt road into the village of Chugchilan, which was much larger and livelier than Isinlivi.
There were a couple of guest houses to choose from, however, we stayed at Cloud Forest for the night which also seemed popular with other hikers. We had a traditional Ecuadorian lunch of soup, rice, plantains, salad and chicken with a juice drink before each claiming one of the hammocks on the balcony and resting our tired legs for the next day.
DAY 3 – CHUGCHILAN TO QUILOTOA (5-6 HOURS)
We got up early the next morning ready for our big day to the crater lake. We collected the day’s notes from the lady at reception and she pointed at the steep mountain across from the town and said, “Crater rim”. So the beautiful steep wall I had been admiring from my hammock the afternoon before had actually been the very mountain we had to climb if only I’d known.
We headed in the direction of the crater and first dipped down into the bottom of the valley where we could admire the 1000 metre climb ahead of us. We began the long ascent which plateaued after a while to where a small town was found and a local game of football was going on. The whole town was out to watch and the women were all dressed in their traditional clothing of black heels, bowler hats and beautiful velvet skirts. Although the villagers spoke their native Kichwa rather than Spanish we communicated through a simple smile and nod as we walked on through.
We followed a zigzagged road out of town and up the side of the crater. The toughest part of the three days ensued as we had to stop and catch our breath as the altitude started to take hold. We got closer and closer until finally, we clambered to the top of the magnificent crater rim known as Laguna Quilotoa.
The sight was absolutely breathtaking, both because of the beauty and literally because of the altitude. The water was a perfect blue colour and the dramatic crater rim surrounding it made for an otherworldly view. The cold wind whipped into us as we stood vulnerable on the edge of the old volcano and so we pushed on around the edge of the crater until we reached the town of Quilotoa.
There were a few hotels to choose from again, however, we went with the cosy Hosteria Alpaca. We weren’t sure whether we wanted food or a hot shower first but in the cold air at the altitude of 3914m, we opted for the shower first to warm our bodies. We headed out for some food at one of the restaurants and then observed the sunset over the lake from the man-made platform in town.
DAY 4 – BACK TO LATACUNGA
The bus came through town early in the morning to head back to Latacunga and so we were up early enough to catch the sunrise over the lake before jumping on the bus back to Hostal Tiana. I watched the landscape and rural villages disappear out the window on the bumpy ride back into the urban area of Latacunga and I couldn’t help but smile.
The Quilotoa Loop had far exceeded my expectations and was able to get a true and authentic experience of rural Ecuador that no tour could really provide. It had also given me a chance to switch off, take a break from technology and just enjoy the basic necessities of life with a couple of great fellow female travellers I happened to meet on the first day.
QUILOTOA LOOP: KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
The trek is at a reasonably high altitude and so you need to be aware that this can impact on your ability to complete the trek. However, if you have spent a few days prior to beginning the hike around other parts of Ecuador you should have acclimatised a little.
FOOD AND WATER
Food and water are available at the villages you stop in for the night and the lodges and hostals all offer meals and water (usually included in the room price).
The Loop is very flexible and can be done in sections or in reverse. There are usually early morning buses that service each of the towns, but you would need to check these times either before you depart or at the hostals along the way as they can change often and usually only operate once or twice a day.
There are other day hikes and local cultural experiences that you can do along the way. If you have extra time and want to explore more of the Andes region the hostals can usually offer recommendations and give you the information you need. The Llullu Llama Lodge in Isinlivi and Cloud Forest Hostal in Chugchilan both have decent websites with some information about their surrounding areas.
WHAT SHOULD YOU BRING?
A daypack should be enough to carry everything you need for the few days, so it’s advised to keep your main luggage stored in Latacunga. You should definitely take a warm jacket as the nights get quite cold, especially at Quilotoa which is perched right on the edge of the crater.
Carry some snacks with you as there are hours of hiking between villages where there are no shops, although the meals at the lodges are hearty and filling. Also, bring a book or some cards as although the lodges and hostals advertise WiFi, don’t expect that it works all that well. Plus it’s nice to be able to disconnect for a few days!
I hope this guide has inspired you to trek the Quilotoa Loop for yourself!
Have you been hiking in Ecuador? If you have any questions about the destination please leave these in the comments below.
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