The Quilotoa Loop – Hiking through remote indigenous towns in Ecuador

Laguna Quilotoa, as seen from the lookout point

The Quilotoa Loop is a spectacular multi-day hike between tiny farming villages in mountains of Ecuador, where the mostly European backpacker crowd makes way for the locals – indigenous families, herds of sheep, mules, and donkeys. The gem is the lagoon – Laguna Quilotoa – where an inmense stretch of turquoise blue water, shifting in color with the clouds, sits neatly in an enormous volcanic crater. A day trip from Quito to Quilotoa is a popular day-trip tour, but a hike through the mountains of Quilotoa is an adventure! Here’s how I did my trip:

Day 1: Arrival  in Quilotoa and hike down to the water

Laguna Quilotoa, as seen from the lookout point

Laguna Quilotoa, as seen from the lookout point

Latacunga is a mid-sized city which is the jumping off-point for the Quilotoa Loop, located an hour and a half south of Quito. Directions and maps to do the Quilotoa Loop are available at Hostel Tiana in Latacunga, which is also a convenient place to store bags which you do not want to take on the trek.

We took the first bus from Latacunga to Quilotoa (2.5 hrs, $2.50) and arrived around mid-day. Dropping off our bags at a hostel, we walked over to the Mirador (look-out point) and was immediately floored. It was freezing cold, with an icy wind blowing clouds over the lake, causing the water to shift color from dark blue to turquoise and emerald green, like a mood ring. You can hike down to the waters edge to enjoy the scenery or kayak around the lake. Hiking back up to the top along the steep dusty trail really makes you feel the elevation (13,000 feet) and it took me a good hour and a half (embarassingly). But to my credit, a lot of tourists rent horses at the bottom to take them back up. Alternately, other people made the trek around the rim of the lake, which reportedly takes around 3 hours. At night, the weather turns absolutely freezing cold, making chilling out at the hostel the only feasible thing to do. (Just so you get a feel for how cold it is here, each room was equipped with no less than 7 blankets, plus a wood-burning stove.)

Where to stay

Looking online before the trip, we couldn’t find any hostels in the area  on hostelworld  for a reservation, so we just showed up and walked around town. We stayed at Hostel Pachamama, which offered very basic accommodation in a private room, dinner, and breakfast included for $15 per person.

The fun part about Hostel Pachamama, is that you might just get a cultural experience. At night the only 4 guests huddled in the common area around a wood stove, along with the hostel owners and their friends. Hearing the locals speak Quechua and not understanding a word is surprisingly fun.

Day 2: Quilotoa to Chungchilian, (10 km, “5 hrs” 8 hrs)

Waking up to a big breakfast of oats, yoghurt, eggs, bread, juice, and coffee was absolutely awesome, and we ate a leisurely breakfast after reading that the road to the next city was only 10 km away, and takes about 5 hours.

In reality, the trek between Quilotoa and Chungchilian is the hardest day of the hike and rather easy to get lost. It starts off circling the rim of the crater, descends to Guayama, down a steep canyon and back up.

We set off hiking to the left of the crater, clockwise around the rim, looking for a sandy path down the mountain as stated in the directions. When we came upon a sandy area, we hiked down. Eventually we came upon a couple other tourists and a guide, who were heading back up the mountain. All of us had turned too soon, and the guide had found the lost tourists and directed them back up the mountain (and requested a tip of course!) Ughhhh.

Continuing along the ridge of the mountain, we came to the second sandy area and saw the other tourists descending, without the guide. I followed them, but after a while, they hiked back up to meet me, to report that we were going to a dead end (someone’s driveway essentially!). Back up the mountain, ughhh.

Coming to the third sandy area, we were relieved to see that someone had made an arrow out of stones in the sand, pointing down the mountain.  Following the sandy path down, we arrived to the tiny town of Guayama. Hiking hint: Take the path at the third sandy area, not the first! You can see Chungchilian perched on the hillside from Chungchilian, but going down into the canyon was a challenge as my worn out shoes slipped on the trail. The hike back up is arduous and long, but the view from Chungchilian over the green valley makes up for it. And to my personal relief, was much warmer than Quilotoa.

Path to Guayama, then Chungchilian

Path from Quilotoa to Guayama, then Chungchilian

Where to stay

In Chungchilian, there were 3 choices for hostels. I stayed at Hostel Cloud Forest which was a blast, charging $15 per person, dinner and breakfast included,with a common area with a ping pong table, billiards, foosball. Hostel Mama Hildy had a more upscale atmosphere, but no games, and the Black Sheep Hostel at the edge of town was absolutelybeautiful (complete with sauna, zipline, disc golf course, and yoga studio) but significantly more expensive.

Day 3: A failed cheese quest in Chungchilian

At our hostel’s suggestion, we took a day in Chungchilian to visit the cheese factory on a Saturday and take a tour there. You can rent horses to take you out there, or the more common way is just to walk in a loop (2 hours each way). The path was uphill nonstop for two hours, and we arrived panting at the cheese factory, hungry and ready for a tasting. Two other tourists were there too, bread in hand, ready to make some cheese sandwiches for lunch. But they were closed, and we were only able to drool at the gate, scream LET ME IN half a dozen times, and fantasize about breaking and entering. FAIL. We did at least see some friendly cows and herds of sheep on the route which was really cool.

We didn't get any cheese, but we saw the source of the cheese.

We didn’t get any cheese, but we saw the source of the cheese.

Sheep on the road near Chungchilian

Sheep on the road near Chungchilian

Day 4: Chungchilian to Isinlivi (12 km, 7 hrs)

This was the most beautiful day of the Quilotoa hike. Descending into the valley from Chungchilian, you reach the tiny town of Itualho. From there you walk along a stream, surrounded by trees and mountains on both sides. Ascending through the mountains again, there are spectacular views of cliffs and the valley below, before you descend to a small stream, and then push on to the town of Isinlivi.

Bromeliads on the trail from Chungchilian to Isinlivi

Bromeliads on the trail from Chungchilian to Isinlivi

Where to stay

The most popular hostel was Llullullama, which had beautiful common areas, rather cramped rooms and dorms, with shared bathrooms, and significantly more expensive than the other hostels ($21 per person for a private room, shared bathroom, dinner and breakfast included). In contrast, Hostel Taita Cristobal had beautiful, spacious clean rooms with private bathrooms ($13 per person, dinner and breakfast incuded!) The food there was by far the best I’d had on the entire trek, and the hostel was run by a super-friendly family. I would highly recommend them.

Day 5: End of the Quilotoa Loop – Isinlivi to Sigchos (14 km, 4 hrs)

This was the easiest though least spectacular day of the hike. With small exception, the way to Sigchos is a wide dirt road which trucks occasionally pass by. The road winds through the mountains, with green on all sides, but it is less inspiring than the other legs of the hike.

Arrived in Sigchos!

Arrived in Sigchos!

Getting out

There were a couple hostels in Sigchos, but it didn’t seem to be a very interesting place to stay, so the easier way is simply to catch the 2:30pm daily bus back to Latacunga. Buses run from Latacunga back to Quito. I took the overnight bus to Cuenca (just outside the main bus terminal, look for Colectivo Santa).

Traveler’s Tips:

  • Make sure you’re acclimatized. The Quilotoa Loop varies between 10,000-13,000 feet.
  • I somewhat wish I had done the Quilotoa Loop in reverse (Sigchos to Quilotoa) so that the jaw-dropping sight of the Laguna Quilotoa is the final destination (rather than the dusty town of Sigchos). Attempt this knowing that it is way harder (ascending in elevation rather than descending).
  • Time the hike right. A fun way to do it would be to make sure you are in Sigchos on a Thursday because there is supposed to be a huge market that is fun to see (we missed it). Also, Chungchilian has a cheese factory tour. If you want to see it, make sure to be there on a weekday. We hiked there on a Saturday (2 hours each way) and it was closed!
  • On day 1 (Quilotoa to Chungchilian) make sure you take the THIRD sandy path down descending the mountain (I got lost here)
  • Bring shoes with a lot of traction. I thought I’d be fine with worn-out sneakers since part of the hike is along dirt roads, but there are times the trail descends very steeply.
  • Bring snacks for day 1 at least. There aren’t good places to buy apples, nuts, etc, until you get to Chungchilian.
  • Bring a deck of cards for the nights in the hostel. Some of the hostels are fun and very social, but if there aren’t cool people staying there, there is zero nightlife.
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