We had heard from fellow travellers and read in many travel blogs that the Quilotoa Loop is incredible and can’t be missed. There was no way we were going to skip this self-guided hike through the Andes mountains while we were in Ecuador! The loop is a combination of hiking (sometimes it seems more like climbing), busing, sight-seeing and magic. The Quilotoa volcanic crater Lagoon makes up the magical bit and you can either start or end there. We decided to save the best for last.
After some breakfast at the local market in Latacunga, we made our way to the bus terminal and in no time at all we were on a bus heading for Sigchos. Since we had recently lost our phone (which was also our map) we found an internet cafe in Sigchos to review our route to the next town. We fueled up with some lunch then set out along the highway heading for Isinlivi.
The first few kilometers of this walk was along a scenic gravel road. While these views were beautiful, they pale in comparison to what we would find on our following days. Since we were map-free and had no directions at all, our plan was just to follow the road. About halfway to Isinlivi, we ran into some travellers who were coming the opposite direction and pointed out a shortcut. This of course is where things got interesting. The shortcut lead to a dirt road where we luckily ran into a couple of German hikers going in the same direction as us. They had been provided with written instructions from their hostel in Latacunga so we followed along with them for a while. We eventually left the dirt road, climbed down through a farmers field to a river, across a bridge and back up to another dirt road.
Despite being at relatively high altitudes (for us) for about a week beforehand, we were still having a hard time catching our breath on our uphill ascents. The two Germans had recently climbed Cotopaxi (a volcano near Quito that reaches almost 6,000 m above sea level) and were not phased the same way we were; they continued on while we caught our breath. The remainder of this days hike was pretty straight forward – find the path leading up to the road and then follow the road until you come to Isinlivi. That was our plan until we ran into a farmer who said he knew of yet another shortcut. Past his farm (in the opposite direction the Germans had gone) he told us to continue along the path then climb up the trail to the road and continue on to town. Well, this trail was easy enough to follow until it disappeared and all we had in front of us was a wall of green. It was a tough 90 minute ascent in which we only retraced our steps a couple of times. We had to cut through some farm fields and scale near vertical hillsides, but fortunately we finally made it to the road and Isinlivi (3,078 m above sea level) before the rain started. The Germans who chose the same hostel as us only made fun of us a little bit for going the wrong way again and taking twice as long as them. New rule: no more shortcuts.
Day two seemed straight-forward; the hostel owner (of Hostal Taita Cristobal – an excellent place to stay for $15/night PP) in Isinlivi told us to follow the yellow markers along a trail that would lead us to Chugchilan. Similar to day one, we started with a long downhill descent to the river below and knew eventually we would finish with another uphill climb to our next town. The sun was shining and we were in no rush so we took our time following along the trail looking for the yellow (and sometimes red) markers leading the way. The hike between Isinlivi and Chugchilan was our favourite. It rewarded us with spectacular views of the valleys between the mountains. Rivers and streams marked the lowest points while the rocky peaks soared to the highest. The photos of day two are the only possible way we can attempt to give this gorgeous part of our Earth justice.
The final climb on day two was much more manageable (perhaps because we were on the right path and more mentally prepared) and we arrived to our next town, Chugchilan (or Chucchilan, 3,105 m above sea level), after about 5 hours of hiking. Hostal Cloud Forest gave us a great two-storey room with a heater and a second level balcony (travelling in low season has it’s perks). The blogs we had read said there was great hiking around Chugchilan and it was worth an extra night. Immediately we decided we would spend a little more time around this mountain town.
Our third day of the Quilotoa loop was a relatively easy one. We took a nice walk along a road that wound higher still into the mountains and led to a lookout point. The heavy clouds prevented any panoramic views but we loved walking through the dewy grass of the páramo (high altitude grassland) as the clouds swirled around us.
Finally the big day came, the day that we would arrive at the Quilotoa Lagoon. We still hadn’t adapted completely to the altitude and Rebecca had some lingering stomach problems that weren’t quite cured, so we opted to take the bus rather than doing the hike. A bus picked us up outside our hostel before the sun came up and we arrived in Quilotoa (3,914 m above sea level) around 7:00am. It was a chilly morning with a brisk breeze coming over the crater rim, but we were the only people in sight. We climbed down into the crater to get closer to the magically blue water of the Lagoon (taking time for lots of photos). The weather cooperated perfectly as we had an incredibly clear day. Only two days prior we had heard from a Belgian man that he couldn’t see anything through all of the clouds. This isn’t uncommon for the region – especially at this time of year – so we definitely lucked out! The clouds broke up as the sun rose to light our way. It was a beautiful morning that was SO worth the 5:00am wake-up call. For about an hour we had the volcano completely to ourselves. As the campers (who slept overnight inside the crater) started to rustle, we began our climb out of the volcano taking in as much as we could before grabbing a warm cup of tea at one of the family-run restaurants and caught a bus back to Latacunga, completing our Quilotoa loop.
This hike and the scenery provided an unforgettable experience. It definitely challenged our bodies and our minds as we coped with the highest altitudes we’ve ever hiked at and the coldest temperatures we’ve experienced on this trip. For more information on how you can plan your adventure around the Quilotoa loop, click the link below.