The Quilotoa Loop - Ecuador
The village of Quilotoa is famous for its water-filled volcanic crater, and is a common starting point for the Quilotoa Loop – a multi-day village-to-village hiking route, most commonly used by the indigenous Quichua people.
Hiking around the crater’s edge and to the nearby villages of Chugchilan and Insinlivi, crossing green paddocks and golden corn fields, up and over mountains and canyons is SPECTACULAR! I’ve never ever done a hike like it. I think this will soon be the next ‘Inca Trail.’ It’s beautiful, it feels undiscovered, it feels like the world’s best kept secret.
Below I have included a complete itinerary of how we completed The Loop (with scrolling photo galleries).
Our hostel at Latacunga gave us written instructions and maps for hiking but some of it was a little inaccurate so I’ve amended it as best I can and included pictures. I’d recommend saving this page if you’re planning to do the loop because there was not much out there by way of guidance and the route is not sign posted.
People approach The Loop differently, starting their hikes in different villages, taking the roads or travelling by car, but from my experience I recommend this:
1. Start at the town of Quilotoa
This is the coldest and windiest part of the trek. It is a good place to buy additional clothing (hats/gloves/scarves) if you need them. If you make Quilotoa your last stop nothing will really prepare you for the weather conditions and you’ll be so tired from days of hiking you may not appreciate the lake as much, especially as the weather up there can be quite rough. If you start at the crater you can take more time to appreciate it (and it is beautiful). It is also a good place to get used to altitude.
The walk to the village of Chugchilan from Quilotoa is stunning! When you get to the town of Chugchilan you can look back over the mountainous landscape you came from. It’s breath-taking and incredibly rewarding. I got the impression that hiking back the other way would definitely be more tiring – with steeper climbs at the end when you least want them. Ordinarily you may assume that the harder it is at the end, the more rewarding the experience will be when you reach the summit. I think the winds will prevent you from enjoying it as much. At some points they really knock you off your feet!
2. Start every days walk EARLY!
We left our accommodations no later than 9:00 am every day, allowing for at least 6 hours hiking a day. You definitely don't want to be stuck out after dark. Locals may tell you a walk to the next village is only 4 hours but you’ll be surprised at how fit these people are. One lady on her way home, over took us on a steep hill. She was in her 80s and wearing heels! Allow 6 – 7 hours at least, including decent breaks.
3. Follow the natural path and keep away from the roads
It would be a real shame to take the option of public transport between villages. In following the natural path, you follow the same path as the indigenous people. You will hardly see another tourist in sight.
4. Aim to stay at Chugchilan for a few days
The treks around here are very beautiful and there are terrific accommodation options.
5. Stick to the 4 main villages
Your route should include the villages of Quilotoa, Chugchilan, Insinlivi, Sigchos.
There are other villages you can walk to, to really complete the loop but the landscape is nowhere near as stunning. Locals advised us to just stick to these villages and to include more hikes around the Chugchilan area for a longer hiking experience.
MY GUIDE TO HIKING THE QUILOTOA LOOP
Day 1: Travel from Latacunga to the village of Quilotoa
We took a 9:30 am bus from Latacunga. The buses seemed to be very frequent but aim for an early bus to beat the day trippers. The journey took 2 hours ($2) and you need to pay $2 to enter the village.
Just by the lake mirador (viewpoint) is a fantastic little hostel - Hostal Chukirawa. If you book in advance it’s about $45 a night with breakfast and dinner included ($22.50 pp). We just turned up without booking and got a room cheaper. A double en suite room cost us $30 a night with dinner and breakfast included ($15 pp). The bedroom had a wood burner and the food was pretty good. At $15 it was a complete steal.
Hike - The Lake
After buying a hat for $5 we hiked down the Quilotoa crater to the water’s edge. The steep hike down takes 30 minutes, but back up takes up to 2 hours including breaks (altitude takes some adjusting to). You can ask for a horse to take you back up but if you break regularly enough it’s ok, and boy do you feel fit afterwards! It’s a good way to exercise your lungs before starting the Loop.
The views are incredible.
Day 2: Hike Quilotoa to Chugchilan
11 km; 4 - 5 hrs
It took us 6-7 hours as we stopped off a lot for breaks and took pictures/had lunch. This was my favourite hiking day.
From the lookout point in Quilotoa (at the top of the crater) take the left path where there is a sign for Chugchilan. It takes you around the crater.
Your goal is to make it almost halfway around the crater and then descend away from the lake into the valley.
You will reach a series of sandy areas. Our instructions told us to go to the second sandy area but we found about four areas we considered to be sandy so we got a bit confused. The second sandy area is really sandy though. There is probably about 100 m² of sand, if not more.
Make a left at the ‘second sandy area’ and take the steep path down the side of the volcano.
In the distance you will see a large blue roof of a stadium like structure in the town of Guayama. You’ll need to reach this.
Once on the steep path keep walking down, you will pass through tree-lined fields. You should come across some signs pointing to Chugchilan.
The trail will hit a dirt road. Follow it until the village of Guayama.
At the end of the dirt road make a left to the entrance of the village.
Turn right to get into the village (where you'll find the big blue structure)
Walk straight across all intersections until the other end of the village.
Make a left and follow the dirt road out of town. You’ll soon reach a canyon with a lookout point.
Left from the lookout/mirador there is a trail going down into the canyon.
Follow the path down to the left of the lookout point.
Follow it all the way down until the river at the bottom (maybe an hour or so walk with a small break)
Cross using the worn out bridge.
Take the steep trail going up, ignoring any paths veering left or right. You will soon reach a road/large path and at this point will be about 15-20 minutes walk away from your destination.
Take the road right. There were no road signs to Chugchilan that we could see, so we asked a local who happened to be passing for directions, who confirmed we were going the right way.
We headed up towards a white house, in the direction of what I would describe as the hill on the hill – a tiny looking hill with a few trees on top of the big hill.
Follow the road past the house. You will arrive at the hostel El Vaquero before you reach town. This is by far the best accommodation option. We wandered down to the popular Cloud Forest Hostel but it was just so crowded, and at the end of the day, didn’t have these views...
Stunning views from the living area of Hostel El Vaquero, Chugchilan. At the far centre/right you are able to see the spikey tips of the Quilotoa crater.
We paid $15 each for dinner, bed and breakfast all included. It’s cheaper if you just turn up and negotiate than if you book online. This is a family run hostel and the hosts are just wonderful. You could stay here for a few days at least.
Day 3: Chugchilan to Insinlivi
12 km; 6 hrs
Follow the main road out from Chugchilan. After about 30 minutes you will see a road going left to a cheese factory, pass it.
At the end of the road you will see a green park bench and a road going left and a road going right.
Take the right road. You’ll pass a white house.
Follow a large trail going down, just off the road after the white house. There should be a big blue sign post pointing in the direction of Insinlivi.
You will reach a few houses. These are the first houses of Chinalo (watch out for guard dogs here – pass quickly and quietly).
You will then come to a small intersection.
At this intersection, standing with your back to the trail you just walked from, you will see a large path going up on your right and another one going straight ahead. Take neither of these. Instead get closer to the right hand side in front of you – you will see a steep and narrow grassy path going down. This will take you to the small village of Itualo.
As you walk down this path you will be able to see a nice view of the canyon and of Itualo. If you look down you should be able to see the village’s football field and church.
Just before the village, take the left fork in the path. This will lead you down into the village and the church.
When you get down follow the road going left out of the village for about 10 minutes until you walk into a curve in the road with a sandy cliff.
Continue on this curvy road for 150 m. On the left you will see a house with a sign ‘information, coffee…’ etc. – grab yourself a coke here. You’ll need the sugar!
After the snack stop and BEFORE the next house there is a (not too visible) path going down towards the river (on your right). Follow it.
Your objective here is to get down to the river. Our instructions said there was a clear path going down but when we went (2015) that wasn’t the case. There were lots of cornfields.
A local lady told us how to get down: Follow the field down heading left. You’ll come to a series of small corn fields.
Cross them and work your way through them about 20 metres or so. Watch out for cows and bulls. They should all be tied up.
You will eventually get down to the river. Follow it left all the way, through paddocks and small woods. Keep going, you may need to climb over a few rocks in the river. Your aim now is to find some bridges.
After maybe about 30 minutes you will PASS a suspension bridge (don’t cross it). Keep walking on the left side of the river until you reach a log bridge. It’s huge so don’t worry about missing it.
Cross the river using the log bridge.
The next part of the trip is quite physically demanding, so use this point to refuel.
As you continue left you should see a yellow marker on a rock or a tree, pointing you in the right direction. Follow it.
You will walk through a stand of eucalyptus trees. Go left through the clearing.
You will find a small path that will take you a bit further to the right of the river. Follow it and go up.
You will very quickly come across an opening to a large field that will most probably be fenced off with bits of wood to stop the animals from leaving the field. Climb over it, remaining cautious of the animals.
This is the tough bit:
The field will come to an end and you will no longer be able to follow the river.
You will need to find the path that goes up and crosses over until the river comes back into view (scroll through above pictures)
Our instructions told us we had to keep going up, which was impossible.
Here’s what we did:
Once you see the river again your objective is to try and find a way that goes back down again.
As soon as the river comes back into sight, you’ll see a small boggy pasture and a small cluster of trees in the river. Just before this small cluster of trees you should be able to spot a big rock with a yellow arrow painted on it. Get down to that.
When you do, the trail to the village is fairly simple and you will find lots of yellow markers leading the way.
After about 30 minutes maybe, you will be directed to a set of cliffs and a path will lead you up. You’ll need to climb all the way up.
We just followed the yellow signs and at some point we had to refer back to the directions that were given to us, which read:
Then you will reach a fork; there is a red painted sign which isn’t clearly visible. Make a left at this fork. You will then cross a river using a bridge; on the other side take the path going up the hill (not the one going along the river). Follow this path up the hill, there are some rocks, you will shortly get to a large dirt road; go left and up following it. Ignore the small path leaving it on the right. This large dirt road will take you up into the village of Insinlivi and will take about 30 minutes.
The above extract from the original instructions is a little vague – but we managed to reach the village in one piece. The point at which we needed this direction was about an hour away from town. You will pass a farm or two and possibly some locals working in the fields. Never hesitate to stop and ask for directions.
When in Insinlivi ask what times the buses leave from Sigchos to Latacunga so you can plan your final days travel.
There were 2 main accommodation options when we visited: Hostal Llullu Llama and Hostal Taita Cristobal.
Taita Cristobal was the cheaper option we went for and wasn’t and was lovely. The food was delicious but we didn’t have hot water in our room – which I’m sure isn’t the case all the time, we were just unlucky.
Day 3: Insinlivi to Sigchos
14 km; 4 hrs
Walk out of town on the main street and follow a grass path down.
Ask in town for the directions out before you leave. Eventually you’ll come across the yellow and red markers again.
After about 30 minutes you’ll come across 3 power poles standing together, pass them and keep walking 200-300 metres.
There will be a steep narrow path on your left just before a stand of eucalyptus trees, follow it down the hill to the village of Cochalo, ignoring any other secondary trails.
From above you will be able to see the small church and school playground. In Cochalo the road will get to lead you to them.
Walk towards the church and turn left before the school
Follow the road on your left that passes in front of the school
Continue on that road until you see a trail leading to the right down to a concrete bridge
Follow that trail and cross the bridge. The trail to the bridge may not be so clear but don’t worry if you miss it. We did. As long as you stick to the river route you’ll come to the bridge, you may have to climb down and come back on yourself
Once on the other side take the path going to the right passing along the side of a house up to a road.
On the road make a right and follow it for about 30 minutes until you see a trail going up on your left. You should see more yellow markers at this point. Follow them up.
Follow the trail on the left up the hill until it comes out once again on to the road.
Follow that road left until you come to another trail on the left, opposite a house with a large brick wall, large drive way, and a swimming pool.
Take this path and follow it up until it comes out on to another road.
Take this road to the right and walk past a few houses until you come back out onto the main road.
Follow the main road left.
Keep going until you come to a church on the left of a dirt road/ Follow this dirt road left, uphill. This road will take you to Sighos.
Walk into the main square in the centre of town. Buses back to Latacunga pass by the side of the main square with the covered seating. Ask any of the locals which side you should wait on.
Have you completed the Quilotoa Loop?
Did you do things differently or start your journey in Sigchos?
Were these instructions helpful?
I’d love to hear about your experiences! Please share them in the comments below.