Hiking the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador

The Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador is a multi day hike taking in Lauguna Quilotoa, a large crater lake sitting at almost 4000m above sea level. You can walk the hike either starting at the Lagoon or finishing at the lagoon, the latter being significantly harder. Being the daring adventurers we are we decided to take the more challenging, but hopefully more rewarding route.

The main base for the hike is a town called Latacunga, around 2 hours South of Quito. It’s here where we left our bags. From here we took the morning bus out to a small town called Sigchos, around 2 hours west of Latacunga. It got us to Sigchos and leg one of our journey at around 11am.

Stay at Hostel Central, at the time of writing they had free luggage storage

Day 1 Sigchos to Isinlivi 3.5 hours

View from the first day hiking on the Quilotoa Loop
The view from the start of the first days hiking

We knew the days were supposed to increase in difficulty as they went on, so expected a reasonably easy walk today. The hike started from the South East corner of the town and instantly headed down into the valley. The views were already spectacular, as impressive as I’ve seen anywhere in the world. I could tell we were in for a pretty special 3 days! We had read beforehand that some of the trails can be easy to miss and although they are supposed to be marked with spray painted rocks we quickly found out this wasn’t the case. After walking along the valley for around 30 minutes we realised we had hit a dead end, the dead end being a small farm. Knowing we needed to be down in the bottom of the valley we retraced our steps, checked the map a few times and eventually found the path down the side of the mountain. A fantastic start, less than an hour in and we’ve already gone wrong.

Following the river up the valley for another hour or so was the easiest part of the day, easy walking on paths and roads and a small river crossing. We found out that evening that by the time the group behind us had crossed the bridge a small lady had setup ‘shop’, charging them $1 each to cross. The benefits of being speedy walkers!! After crossing the river the ‘easiness’ of today quickly evaporated. We knew we had to get back up to the top of the valley, but the only way up seemed a pretty sheer hike up the side of the valley. Why, I asked myself, did we clamber all the way down into this valley to hike all the way back up the other side? Anyway, 45 rather sweaty and breathless minutes later we reached the top, now we just had a simple walk down the road into town. All things considered, a pretty easy start.

All hostels on the route include dinner and breakfast as standard, most of which are very large and very filling

We spent the night in Isinlivi in Hostel Taita Cristobal. Most people stay in Llullu Llama, but Taita Cristobal is $4 cheaper and the only real difference is the lack of a hot tub! A worthwhile saving in my book. We had an amazing dinner before getting some shut eye before another day of hiking.

Day 2 – Isinlivi to Chugchilan 4.5 hours

We started the morning bright and early with breakfast at Taita Cristobal. Just the same as the dinner the previous evening the breakfast was large and just what was needed before another long day of hiking.

Setting off with a well rested spring in our step we very quickly took a wrong turn that made today probably our most interesting day. The instructions we were following gave us the rather vague direction of ‘take the first significant left’, after starting down into the valley there were plenty of left turnings, each of which seemingly significant. We watched a group of locals head off down one of them and, given the path seemed to be in the right kind of direction, we set off after them.

At first it seemed like we were on the correct trail, it soon transpired that we were walking along the ridge of the valley when our instructions told us most of today’s hiking should have been next to the river. A quick questioning of a group of local kids told us we were going the right way towards Chugchillan, but still a few hundred metres too high. Eventually we found a path that seemed to lead down into the valley, this turned out to be quite the expedition. The path itself was quite steep and all shale and loose rock, after eventually clambering our way to the bottom we were still on the wrong side of the river. Luckily, just downstream, there was a suspension bridge. Brilliant was our first thought, after reaching the bridge that soon turned to nervousness. The bridge itself consisted of wooden slats between the wires of the suspension mechanism, this sounds ok apart from the fact most of the slats were either broken or missing completely. Pulling out my hat and whip and doing my best Indiana Jones impression we set off over. Luckily all the planks held and it gave us a nice little story about why staying to the marked paths is way too mainstream.

Suspension bridge with missing planks
The rather ‘ropey’ suspension bride we crossed

After the steepest uphill climb so far and a bit of a rest at an excellent viewpoint the final few kilometres of today’s hiking was mostly up paved road, this was made a little more exciting from a hummingbird sighting just off the main road! Arriving in Chuchillan the hostel options are plentiful, the most popular of which being Cloud Forest. We however, decided to stay at El Vaquero based on recommendations’ in our hiking directions and other walkers we had met. It was at the far end of town which added an extra bit of distance to this second day, but it was right at the starting point for the third and final day which saves us a tiny bit of hiking the following morning.

The food was amazing just as it was the night before and extremely filling, just what was needed before the third and by far the hardest day.

Day 3 – Chugchilan to Quilotoa 6 hours

Sign showing distance to Quilotoa
A long slog of a day

WHAT A DAY! Setting off in the morning down into the valley (for the 4th time now I might add) we thought it wouldn’t be all that bad. After around 20 minutes of downhill the uphill began and didn’t really let off until around 5 and a half hours later. The first climb was probably the worst and it left us basically scrambling up rock faces. From there on in it continued at a pretty constant rate, not overly steep but a combination of the altitude and near constant uphill left us both struggling slightly. We did meet a small dog on route which had walked from Quilotoa to Chugchilan the previous day. It seemed this stray spent his days hiking backwards and forwards between the 2 towns, following hikers and hoping for scraps of food. As it turns out, he loves crisps but really turns his nose up at apple! Never have I met a picky stray.

We met another 3 hikers just below the summit and climbed up onto the rim together! The view was immense, and made the pain of the day worth it. However we couldn’t hang around for long, the wind was extremely strong! So strong in fact that you could almost fall forward and be kept afloat by it. This wouldn’t have been a massive problem, apart from the fact it was blowing up lots of dust and small pebbles. Not the most pleasant thing to have bashed into your face and exposed skin.

View of Laguna Quilotoa
Our first view of Laguna Quilotoa

Once reaching Laguna Quilotoa the hike is absolutely not over, far from it actually. The bus that goes back to Latacunga leaves from the town of Quilotoa, which is around the crater edge. There are 2 options at this point, either a 1 hour hike around the right hand edge or a 3 hour hike around the left. This was a no brainer in our books, so off we went skirting around the edge of this huge crater lake. The rim itself keeps with the ongoing theme of almost constant uphill, just when you think you’ve done the final climb another one rears it’s ugly head. Eventually we dropped down for the final time and arrived into the town of Quilotoa.

A quick refuel stop ensued before we made a mad dash for the bus stop. I had read a lot of information online that read the bus timetable back to Latacunga only left once a day at 5am, fellow hikers told us most days there was another bus that left at 2pm. We had arrived into the town at 1.30 so quickly power walked to the far side of the town and made the bus just in time.

So we had made it, after 3 days of hiking and 2 very sore bodies we had completed one of the best hikes South America has to offer. It was gruelling at times and the last day was definitely the hardest day hike of my life. Would I do it again, absolutely! However I would start from the lagoon and head the other way. My recommendation if you’re reading this and thinking of doing the hike, make sure you have acclimatised for a few days in Quito beforehand and think long and hard about your levels of fitness/which way round you want to hike.

Tags

3 day hike, another on the list, backpacking, chugchillan, cotopaxi province, ecuador, ecuador travel, hiking, isinlivi

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