Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
Quilotoa Loop – Put it on your list
The Quilotoa loop is a 2 to 4 day trek with the centrepiece of Quilotoa Crater Lake. There’s a number of ways to do this depending on your budget, time and desire to explore some impressive scenery beyond the lake itself.
The most expensive is by organised tour which could be around $200pp.
The cheaper way is by public bus to either end of the trek at Quilotoa or Sigchos and stay overnight in cheap hostels at Isinlivi and Chugchilan to get to the other end. Quilotoa to Sigchos is a mostly downhill direction whereas Sigchos to Quilotoa can be used as an acclimatisation trek for bigger hikes with Quilotoa standing at over 3,800m above sea level.
Quito to Quilotoa
We chose to start at the top of the hike and with the main view point at the town of Quilotoa. This is a tricky place to get to independently, so bring along your patience. The first step was a $0.25ea metrobus to the southern bus terminal of Quitumbe. Toby had a directional failure trying to take us North instead of South. We were helped out by a polite woman who explained our problem and needing to be on the other side of the street.
We then almost immediately boarded a bus to Latacunga ($1.70ea). We were expecting to arrive in a bus terminal, but strangely we were at a busy roadside stop. In broken Spanish we found out the terminal was a 10 minute walk away, but buses would come past to pick us up on the other side of the street. We ventured towards the terminal, because we knew there were very few buses going directly to Quilotoa and we were earlier than we expected to be.
We got some misinformation at the bus terminal with several buses supposedly going to Quilotoa. Online we seemed to find information saying that there was only one direct bus per day at 11.30am. Our bus ended up only going so far as Zumbahua for $2ea. We were not happy that we were lied to again as the conductor was adamant the bus we were on went to Quilotoa. We then needed to negotiate a ride in a pickup truck. The tried and tested rule of walking away during negotiation of price worked like a charm here. The price changed from $5 to $3 total for the ~12km drive to Quilotoa. Still not exactly cheap, but it was quick and convenient.
Useful information for independent hikers
Rodora was lucky enough to meet some people over breakfast at the hostel on our day of departure that had just done the trek and they gave us the instructions they received from various hostels along the way.
Entering into Quilotoa we needed to pay $2ea entrance fee. We then immediately went on the hunt for a hostel as it was freezing (around 10-15C) due to the high altitude (3800m). There were two hostels right opposite the entrance to the Quilotoa Lake viewpoint and path. Typical of this area, the hostel includes dinner and breakfast in the price of accommodation. The main reason for this seems to be a lack of restaurants open for these meals. We chose to stay in hostel Pachamama which we negotiated for $10pp as it is currently low season. It’s very cosy and had many locals hanging out watching football in the main room. It’s crazy how much the locals love football here and with the World Cup starting in less than two weeks, we’re hoping for some great local atmosphere. It was only a warm up match against Mexico, but the locals were intensely watching the game. The owner was very sweet and instantly welcomed us into her house. She had the most amazing smile; however the indigenous don’t smile for photos. The owner is also wearing the traditional dress of her village.
We then had lunch at a local comedor, ordering lunch of the day ($2.50ea). There was a little two year old girl who was the daughter of the owners that was playing with the cups and saucers as we ate.
After lunch it was time to check out the main attraction of the Quilotoa Crater Lake. This is a water filled caldera 3km wide, formed by a volcano. The first viewpoint was less than a 2 minute walk across the road.
Wow what a sight! Not only is the crater huge, but the lake at the bottom of the crater changes colours each time clouds rolled over. When the sun shone on the lake it was a bright turquoise, however when the clouds rolled over the lake was more of a dark blue.
We then walked to the bottom of the crater, on a very clearly marked trail winding slowly down the crater. Each turn we took, the lake looked completely different, not only from the changing colours but also the surrounding scenery, and being able to look at the magnificent crater from different angles.
It took us around 30 minutes to get to the bottom where there were a few people kayaking in the clear turquoise water. After taking in the scenery it was time to climb back up again. We were offered horses and we can honestly see why people pay the $10ea to go back up as hiking in altitude is difficult. We have spent the past few weeks in high altitudes and we’re quite physically fit so at first it was relatively easy. After a while however, we noticed how quickly you ran out of breath, as we were climbing from 3500m to 3914m. It took us around 45 minutes to get back up, which is fairly slow, but proved in our minds that altitude does slow you down.
We were exhausted after this climb and we didn’t feel like taking the 4-6 hour hike around the crater rim (nor did we have time). We then put every warm layer we’d brought with us on, crawled into bed and had a nap, trying not to think about how cold it was. We actually measured the room temperature and it was about 10C. This is probably the coldest it’s been on our whole entire trip of 9 months so far. There is no heating at many of the hostels; however they give you a mountain of blankets (5-6) which feel really heavy on you when you sleep.
It was time for dinner where we had potato soup which was fantastic as we used the warm bowl to warm up our hands. The main dish was chicken, rice and vegetables. In Ecuador, they seem to serve plain rice without any sauce, lentils or beans to give the rice flavour. After dinner we helped ourselves to coffee and tea. The family was watching the fast and the furious in Spanish so we sat down with them on the lounges and warmed ourselves by the wood heater. We found the fast and furious hilarious in Spanish (I think it’s the language barrier) but it was definitely more funny in Spanish than English, for example a quarter mile is literally converted to 400 metres.
We then went to bed early under our mountain of blankets exhausted from the day of travel and hiking.
In the morning our original plan was to see the sun rise over the lake, however, we could hear rain falling on the roof so we decided to sleep in instead. Breakfast consisted of granola, yoghurt, fruit, bread, coffee and tea.
We were worried at first as we did hear rain all night and it was still raining, however, after breakfast it seemed to clear just in time for the start of our hike.
Quilotoa to Chugchilan
With our basic instructions we headed in the direction of Chugchilan (4-5 hours / 11km). The first part of the hike was absolutely breathtaking and the highlight of the trek. We walked around the crater via a narrow trail, with multiple view points along the way.
We also passed beautiful brightly coloured wild flowers along the way. Toby (the flower photographer) couldn’t help but stop multiple times along the way to capture their beauty.
After reaching a sandy spot with many footprints we descended down towards the town of Guayama San Pedro. It was quite sandy so we were able to run down a lot of it really quickly. Along the way there was a sign posted to Chugchilan so we knew we were going the right way.
When we were in town quite a few of the locals stopped us to have a conversation. It’s so great to be in a place where the locals are genuine and just want to get to know you. We do hope this place doesn’t get too touristy in the future. During our trek we hardly passed anyone and were walking mainly on our own. At this town we noticed there were quite a lot of locals lining up buying food that smelled delicious. Being sticky beaks we went over to take a look. They were selling hot potato chips with a fried egg on top ($0.50). Of course we had to try this. The crowd was full of high school students on their morning break. We were told that they only went to school on Saturdays and Sundays.
Continuing out of town towards Chugchilan, we weren’t sure when the next turn off was as the trail is not marked at all and there are many stories online of people getting lost, so we asked local farmers along the way where to go. We then came across a beautiful view point of the canyon. This is when we had to head down.
There was a tiny little trail heading down into the canyon towards the river. Firstly we followed this trail through a narrow gorge.
It then opened up and winded down the valley until we reached the bottom where we needed to cross the river. This is when we came across a “bridge”. This term should be loosely used as it was just a few logs tied together and looked as though it could collapse at any moment. Luckily the water below was shallow and not too intimidating.
We were later told that the original bridge had been washed away in a recent storm. Rodora was petrified of crossing the bridge so decided to cross it on her hands and knees.
The river seemed to have also washed away the trail on the other side. We had to grab onto slippery rocks and climb the muddy steep cliff. One wrong step or slip could mean falling into the river. When we finally reached the top of the river bank, the trail seemed non-existent. We finally came across a trail that we then followed through farm land and eventually reaching a long windy road heading up. There were various trails heading straight up avoiding having to go round long bends. We unfortunately missed one of them and passed the trail sign on the way up. Not too much of a detour though. It took us about 4 hours in total including a long snack break, taking lots of photos and chatting to the locals on the way, without this it would have probably taken us 3 hours.
We decided to stay at the Cloud Forest Hostel as it’s the main hostel listed in the Lonely Planet. This is an awesome hostel as it has a games room with pool tables, foosball and table tennis. It even has gym equipment if you feel like you need more of a work out after a hike. The only downside is it appears most tour groups come here so it can get quite busy.
We then went into the main part of the village for lunch. We walked around and could not find one comedor selling the typical menu of the day. A local did offer Toby a pigs head for $1 and mentions of sacrificing her son standing next to her.
We eventually decided to eat Ecuadorian fish and chips which is identical to the egg and chips dish but instead they put a fried fish on top of the chips and at 75c is a bargain.
As this was more of a snack rather than a proper lunch we also ordered Ecuadorian style donuts which is fried dough with cheese in the middle covered in sugar. Mmm delicious! We earned it though as we hiked for 4 hours.
At the hostel we met an English guy who that same day had attempted going from Chugchilan to Quilotoa, but had got lost at the bottom of the canyon not being able to find the path on the way up until he gave up. We also heard that a few of the hostels have tried to put up trail markings but the locals take them down as they want tourists to pay for guides. We saw little evidence of trail markings as we made our trek, although we may well have taken a wrong turn along the way.
Dinner consisted of soup, and a main dish of meat, rice and plantain chips with a desert of a pastry with sweet merengue on top.
Chugchilan to Sigchos
The next day we departed around 8.30am, straight after a big breakfast. This was going to be the longest and hardest day of the trek. We decided to skip the town of Isinlivi as we wanted to give ourselves an extra day to do Cotopaxi on the way back to Quito. The day would be about 5 hours and 20km of hiking following the river along the canyon.
The hike started off relatively easy, again heading back downhill towards the river. We then followed the river passing the bridge that crosses towards Isinlivi along the way. The bridge was a large suspension bridge that was not connected to the ground via poles; so it easily swayed as you walked on it.
We came across a minor challenge at one point where the path had been washed away by the river. The only way we could see was either walk in the river, or hold on to rocks and rock climb across. We opted for the latter and luckily made it across safely. We then came across a field that was a muddy swamp. We tried to avoid it by going under a wire fence but this is when Toby realized the wire was electrified by holding onto it for too long. No damage done, but it sure was a shock. It wasn’t until we got to the other side of all the paddocks that we found a warning sign. Where was this earlier? Rodora decided she was going to crawl under the wire fence instead of over because she was afraid of getting electrocuted.
This is when we may have come off the planned trail. There was no visible trail following the river, so we decided to go on the road. The rest of the way was then up and down a windy road until we reached Sigchos. This took a couple of hours and the most frustrating thing was when you turned a bend you could see where you had to get to on the other side of the valley, but needed to follow a long and indirect road to get there.
Disaster strikes – what’s the plan now?
We had a quick lunch opposite the bus station with meal of the day for $2; which came with an amazing strawberry dessert. This is when Rodora couldn’t find her phone and realized she must have left it in our last hostel in Chugchilan. What a disaster! It’s hard to explain just how hard and irregular transport is in this part of Ecuador. We’d missed the afternoon bus to Chigchilan, with the next one not until the next morning. The only way back was to walk on the same trail we’d already taken or negotiate a private pick-up truck to take us. Luckily we found a pick-up that offered to take us to Chugchilan and back for $15 so we could make it in time for the 4pm bus to Latacunga.
Wow what a ride! Our driver understood our dilemma and went really fast so we could make it back to Sigchos in time. There was a couple of nerve wracking moments as he almost ran over chickens, dogs and even an oncoming motorcyclist. Rodora now had her phone and we were just in time for the next bus. Arriving into Latacunga near 6pm and exhausted, we opted for Hostel Los Andes ($16) which was located a couple of blocks from the bus station. We also found street food along the way of a man selling chicken with chickpeas and rice for a bargain of $1.50, so we sat down on a tiny little bench next to his stall eating with locals.
The hostel we stayed at was unfortunately next to the Pan American Highway, so it was really noisy during the night. We were both so exhausted from the past few days that we slept right through it.
The Quilotoa trek is a relatively untouched secret. If you want to see the local indigenous, hang out with farmers and at the same time be surrounded by mind blowing scenery then this is the trek for you. The best thing about this hike is on both days we barely saw any tourists and were stopped by locals multiple times just wanting to have a chat with us.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/