The Quilotoa Loop is the unmissable self-guided trek in Ecuador. Taking 3 to 5 days hiking in the Andes, visiting the small towns along the way and standing in awe inside the Quilotoa volcano is an experience you will never forget. There are lots of ways to tackle the Loop and most sections can be done by bus if you don’t want to hike. The Loop is typically done starting in the south, from Quilotoa and hiking to Sigchos because it’s slightly more downhill (with lots of ups and downs along the way). While the scenery is stunning either way you do it we think it’s best to start in Sigchos and head south, leaving the spectacular Quilotoa crater as the perfect ending. In general, the hikes are about 4-6 hours each day, with a long descent into a valley followed by a long climb up the other side. To read about our experience hiking the Quilotoa Loop, click here!
The route we took was Latacunga-Sigchos-Isinlivi-Chugchilan-Quilotoa-Zumbahua-Latacunga.
The beginning point is usually the large town of Latacunga on the Pan American highway south of Quito. It has everything you could need including hostels, cheap hotels, plenty of food and warm or wet weather gear. Most hotels or hostels will store your gear for about $1/day, make sure to only take the essentials with you and leave the rest behind. Hostal Tiana offers maps and instructions on their preferred route, but as we opted to stay at a less expensive option in town, they wouldn’t sell us a map or provide any advice. Not to worry though, we found our way around the Quilotoa Loop and you will too! Whichever hostels you stay at along the way will be happy to provide information on your next hike and/or maps.
What To Bring (the essentials)
Hiking boots or sturdy shoes. Pants and long sleeves, preferably a sweater, t-shirt and warm socks (it gets cold at night – single digits Celsius – but can also be in the mid-20’s during the day when the sun is out). A warm hat and sunscreen. Rain gear – jacket or poncho. Snacks for the first day of the trail (more available in each town). At least 1 liter of water. Money (no ATM’s outside of Latacunga). A book or deck of cards. Passport. Anything else you consider essential for hiking, or being remote.
Most hostels are $15-$17/night per person and are great quality. They also include a home cooked dinner and breakfast. There are more expensive accommodations as well, about $30/night+ that include perks like a hot tub. Most hostels will pack you a lunch (for $2-$6). Water refills are $0.50. Beers are $2. $5/day is more than enough for snacks. Coffee/tea (if not free) are about $1.00-$1.50. A bus ride from one town to the next is $1-2 and back to Latacunga is about $3. A budget of $30/day per person should be enough.
The Quilotoa Loop (heading south)
From Latacunga (2800m) there are regular buses to Sigchos (2880m), about 2 hours away (also regular buses to Zumbahua or Quilotoa). Taking the road out of Sigchos (following the sign for Isinlivi) is an amazing 5 hour walk through the mountains, past sheep grazing in pastures, down into a lush valley and back up the other side, over a mountain and on to Isinlivi (2960m) 14km away. Keep an eye out for foot-worn paths that cut straight from one bend in the switchback road to the next. There is the odd vehicle on the road to Isinlivi, so if you get too tired or stuck in the rain, you should be able to hitchhike the rest of the way. In Isinlivi there are two hostels, both are excellent, The $17-$30/night PP Llullu Llama, and $15/night Hostal Taita Cristobal. We stayed at Taita Cristobal, which has amazing views over the valley, great quality rooms and served delicious food (dinner was the best meal we had in Ecuador). The owner was very helpful as well. Isinlivi is tiny, with no restaurants other than the ones operated by the two hostels and we could only find one shop in the town selling snacks and water and it was connected to Hostal Taita Cristobal.
NOTE there is no road to follow from Isinlivi to Chugchilan 15km away, but the trail is marked with yellow or red paint every few hundred meters and is fairly easy to follow. The yellow markers are generally most visible if you’re heading north and the red markers (which are older and more faded) are generally more visible if you’re heading south, but both are good identifiers. If you want to be on a road so you can hitchhike or flag down a bus, then go from Sigchos to Chugchilan and skip Isinlivi.
Leaving Isinlivi and heading to Chugchilan (3180m) is fairly strait-forward. There is a trail that leads out of the town going down the hillside and to the valley below. There is yellow and red paint on trees and rocks along the trail which makes it easy to follow. If you come to a fork, or take a wrong turn and walk a few minutes without seeing any markers then just retrace your steps and look for the marker down the other trail. For the most part the trail is wider and more obvious than the numerous little overgrown paths that branch off. When you make it down to the river, you turn left and follow the riverbank until you come to a log bridge with a wobbly railing. This is where you cross the river. On the other side go left and continue following the river (and the paint markings) until you come to a tiny little community with a green and white church. To the right of the church there is a dirt “road” that heads up the mountain, past a small power station, and connects with the main road heading to Chugchilan. Follow that main road left into Chugchilan. We recommend staying at Hostal Cloud Forest as they have excellent rooms, good food, many hammocks, very helpful staff and a games room with a pool table and ping-pong, all for $15/night including dinner and breakfast.
Chugchilan is one of the larger towns on the Quilotoa Loop with around 7000 people. It has several hostels, a few small restaurants and a gorgeous Andean setting. There is great hiking through páramo and cloud forest, the opportunity to get out on horseback and a unique cheese factory close by. With all these options we decided to stay an extra night and do some exploring as well as just swing in a hammock and watch the clouds. From Chugchilan there is a loop that goes up to a lookout point, through the cloud forest, past the cheese factory and back into town which takes about 4-5 hours. Maps are available at Hostal Cloud Forest.
From Chugchilan you can go either via road or trail to the Quilotoa crater lake (3850m) 17km away. We were feeling pretty exhausted from the three previous days of hiking in the higher altitudes of the Quilotoa Loop and so we decided to catch the morning bus. The bus passes Hostal Cloud Forest at 6am and drops you off at the Quilotoa volcano around 7am. This ended up being great for us because we were the only ones there and got that beautiful setting all to ourselves. Watching the sun rise over the crater rim was a magical experience.
In Quilotoa there are several great hostels and restaurants just beyond the crater rim. On the edge of the crater rim there are a few platforms that provide amazing views of the lake (as long as the clouds aren’t too low). It is possible to walk all the way around the jagged crater rim, getting different perspectives of the lake and the mountains that surround it. To hike all the way around takes 4-6 hours. Alternatively, you can hike from the observation platforms down the man made trail to the lake 300m below. It takes about 30-40 minutes to climb down. There is a dock that goes out over the water, a huge swing at the edge of a cliff and a small shop selling snacks. You can pitch a tent here for the night or stay at the small hostel. It is also possible to rent kayaks and paddle out onto the lake. Hiking back up is a steep 1+ hour.
From Quilotoa it is possible to hike on to Zumbahua (3450m), 12km away, through some of the most impressive mountains on the loop. Zumbahua is also the main town to catch a bus to or from Latacunga. From Quilotoa there are a few buses to Zumbahua, but if you don’t want to wait around you can take a taxi for $5.
There are many other options and routes to hike the Quilotoa loop including visiting the towns of Saquisili, Toacazo, Guayama, Tigua and Pujili.
If you have any questions about hiking the Quilotoa Loop or any other tips please let us know in the comments below!