The Quilotoa Loop is a hiking trail that ends at ‘Laguna Quilotoa.’ That doesn’t sound super exciting until I tell you that the Quilotoa Lagoon is inside a massive caldera- aka an exploded volcano! The caldera is 3 km wide, which is the perfect size. Its not so big that you can’t see the other side and not so small as to be unimpressive. The ‘loop’ in Quilotoa Loop refers to the hodgepodge of trails, lodges, hostels, and villages that, when combined, make a 3 to 5 day journey around the lagoon, starting and ending in a town called Latacunga. Latacunga is accessible from Quito and most other major cities in Ecuador. From there, the route usually goes: Sigchos > Isinlivi > Chugchilan > Quilotoa > Zumbahua > back to Latacunga.
We hiked the Quilotoa loop because… we had to. We decided to volunteer at Llullu Llama, a hostel on the loop and (Dedicated Post Coming Soon!) part of volunteering was going around the loop, so the volunteers knew the route and could relay that information to the guests. It definitely was super helpful as we worked to quell the guests fears and give some helpful tricks to avoid getting lost, which was very common.
The Quilotoa loop is one of the more unique backpacking experiences I’ve had due to the ‘Build Your Own Adventure’ nature of the trek. Normall, we would get to choose where we started, where we went, where we slept, and where we finished. I think this is one of the coolest part about the Quilotoa Loop. That said, we were doing the trail in a strange order because we chose to leave our bags in Isinlivi instead of Latacunga, which led to us doing a back track on day 3 instead of going in a proper loop, but it worked out very well for us (more on that in a bit).
Aside from being required to do it, the loop appealed to us because it’s the Ecuadorian Andes with a peak elevation at the caldera of 3,914 m above sea level. We were looking forward to a nice walk through farms and cattle pastures as well as the breathtaking views at the end. Little did we know, the altitude also meant that every step was breathtaking; we were huffing and puffing the whole way.
We started with breakfast. A unique thing about the hostels on the loop is that the nightly price includes breakfast AND dinner. Breakfast and dinner were a great time to socialize. We read that its normal to get lost on the loop, so we wanted to find a group of people to go with. This was was not a problem as everyone wanted to group together.
The trail from Isinlivi to Chuchilan is not well marked. Occasionally areas would have a few bits of spray paint on rocks but most of the way was completely without signage. All of the hostels handed out paper directions. Allison and I took the directions provided by Llullu Llama so that we would really know them when it came time for us to explain them to guests later. Someone else in our group had the directions provided by a different hostel and, of course, the directions didn’t match. Our group followed the other hotel’s directions, despite spray paint on the rocks that said ‘NO’ and we got lost several times, but we, eventually, found the trail.
We walked for several hours through a valley, mostly along a river. There were gorgeous views in all directions. We passed farms and grazing cattle. We went through pastures and wooded areas. We walked over regular bridges and tree stump bridges. The whole 4 hours in the valley was extremely beautiful and extremely peaceful. Even though I was in a group, I felt like I could hang back just a little bit to really take it in.
Near the end of the hike we reached a school in the valley. School was in session so, immediately, kids started coming out of the school and asking for candies, sweets, anything. They are very aware of the backpackers coming through every day and they knew how to work us with their limited English and bashful smiles.
From the school, we started the absolutely hardest part of the day which was a massive ascent from the valley on an endlessly switchbacking trail. When we finally made it to the top, we found a nice gazebo, on a lookout, which provided beautiful views of valley. There, we ate lunch and rested a bit before starting the final leg of the day.
The last section of the hike was bit of a slog. We had to walk away from the beautiful valley and into Chugchilan via a paved road. The road was fairly busy and had no sidewalk. It was also slightly uphill and was much hotter along the black, sun-baked, road. For this last 3 kms we asked each other “are we there yet” about a thousand times.
We made it to Cloud Forest hostel, got a room for super cheap and had a really nice shower. We had a beer while chatting with hike-mates and waiting for dinner. The hostel was completely uneventful. Dinner was fine. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad. But it did the trick.
Something I hadn’t mentioned about Isinlivi, but its also true with Chugchilan and most of the other villages on the loop; there is basically nothing in these towns. There is sometimes a family run convenience store, but don’t bet on them having what you want. Luckily, the dinner at Cloud Forest was sufficient for our backpacking hunger. The hostels on the loop are not party hostels; people are there to hike. This usually means everyone is in bed by 10 or 11pm. And we were no exception.
We woke up at a reasonable time and had breakfast at Cloud Forest, joined our group, which had shrunk by 3 people over night (the other people decided to take a taxi straight to the lagoon instead of the hike). We quickly found out that we were in for a much warmer day, so immediately we were a little more sweaty, and a lot more covered in sunscreen. Because the weather in that part of the Andes is always fairly comfortable, it can be easy to forget that the altitude, combined with being on the equator, means there are few other places on earth where the sun is more powerful. With my fair skin, I like to be wearing sunscreen and to be mostly covered. I have a big, nerdy, hat and hiked in long sleeves and pants. All of my clothing was light, but still, its a lot of covered skin. I am proud to say I did not get sunburnt. Allison mostly made it out alive with just a few patchy burns.
Also, almost immediately we noticed day 2’s hike was very well marked. There were official looking signs and we passed more locals who were eager to give us directions. We started off immediately heading down a steep hill which would be the first of several throughout the day. As with the day before, everything we saw was breathtaking. This section was less open farmland and more of a walk along a steep ridge that at one point even led us past a small waterfall.
The last hour and a half of the hike was an uphill grind to the rim of the caldera. It was unfortunate that this part of the hike was up a vehicle access road, so the path was long and not particularly pretty. It was a rough climb but we knew we were in for a reward at the top.
Once we made it to the top, everything changed, we had arrived. We had achieved our goal for the multi-day hike, and it was spectacular. We stopped at a bench at the top of the trail to eat our lunches and take photos of the incredible view.
After that, we started the last hour of the hike along rim towards our final destination, the town of Quilotoa. This part of the hike was absolutely gorgeous albeit slightly treacherous. There were a couple of sections of the path that were along sheer cliffs and a lot of steep ups and downs. It was a nice final few kilometers to end the loop.
The town, Quilotoa, has more in the way of restaurants and shops than Chugchilan, Isinlivi, or Sigchos, but its still a small tourist oriented village. When people choose to forge the hike and just visit the caldera, they come to Quilotoa. Often they’ll choose to walk down a steep sandy path and then catch a ride on a donkey back up.
Even though our group had been hiking all day, we really wanted to go down to the lagoon to get a better look but it was nearing sunset so we had to do it quickly. Allison wasn’t feeling well, so she decided to stay at the top as the rest of us walked down. The walk was fairly tedious but I really couldn’t get enough of the beautiful view. Once we reached the lagoon, we looked around a bit, took some photos, and enjoyed the silence. I found out that its possible to rent kayaks, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to do any kayaking.
Eventually we forced ourselves to take the 50 minute slog up hill all the way back up to the top of the rim. It was quite hard to safely navigate because the donkeys and horses were constantly going up and down, often taking over the entire path. I felt so bad for these animals. It was clear they were not treated well.
Allison was as cool as a cucumber. She had used the opportunity to meditate overlooking one of the best views in the world.
This is where the day’s journey ended. We said goodbye to our hiking mates who took a taxi collectivo down to Latacunga. Allison and I decided to go back to Chugchilan and repeat the first day of the hike instead of going back to Latacunga then taking a bus back to Llullu Llama. We also really wanted to stay at a lodge called Black Sheep Inn in Chugchilan. Again, this isn’t normally how the loop is done, but since we were starting and ending in Isinlivi, rather than Latacunga, we improvised.
Black Sheep Inn is an all vegetarian eco lodge on the loop. Its a lot pricier than the other hostels on the loop, but had rave reviews online so we decided to treat ourselves after two days of hiking. It was a lovely place to stay and immediately we were impressed by how welcoming the staff and other guests were. We checked into our dorm room and were introduced to the composting toilets which were in large rooms overlooking the valley below. Then we made our way to the cozy living area with a wood fire and treated ourselves to a glass of wine each which was on a self-serve honor system. We enjoyed the intimate nature of lodge and had a delicious vegetarian dinner around a long wooden table as we chatted the night away with the other guests.
On day 3 we had a leisurely, relaxing, morning before we made our way back. The hike to Isinlivi was really pleasant. I was able to pay more attention to the hike because I wasn’t as worried about getting lost. We were able to get back most of the way completely by memory. Even though I’ve been going on about how fun it was to hike in a group, it was really nice to be able to spend some alone time with Allison. We got to discuss how our trip had been going and how we thought it was going to go at Llullu Llama. We got to enjoy some incredible views and even better weather than the first two days.
The only part where we got lost was near the end. Because we hadn’t gone the right way the first time, we weren’t sure about the final leg on the way back. We eventually found the road, but were disappointed that it was also just a painful uphill slog (a theme of the hike, it would seem), as the approach to Chugchilan had been. The height made us feel like we were so close yet so far and that it would never end.
This was made slightly worse because I had followed a local on, what I thought was, a shortcut. It turned out to be an entirely different path that was shorter but much steeper. For the bad-ass locals, the hills don’t slow them down at all but we were hurting.
We eventually make it back to Llullu Llama, feeling so accomplished and so grateful to finally be done. We treated ourselves to a dip in the hot tub and a few hours reading by the fire to rest up and mentally prepare the start of our volunteering the next day.
In my experience, most hiking experiences are either very touristy or require serious equipment and skills. I find the touristy trips are guided so much so that they feel commoditized and the multi-day hikes that can be done independently require skills and equipment that I don’t have.
The Quilotoa Loop sits right in the middle. We weren’t strictly guided with a group of strangers and we didn’t need to carry massive amounts of equipment. A day pack that can hold water and a pack lunch was plenty. We guided ourselves and slept at hostels that were plentiful at every stop. I found the level of independence offered by Quilotoa very rewarding.
This flexibility is so cool because we got to decide how long we wanted to spend doing the loop and how much money we wanted to spend. It is possible to do a 4 day trek for less than $100 USD (Ecuador uses USD) which is far less expensive than most trips we saw in Ecuador.
I also liked that we could be as social as we wanted. We showed up at breakfast and within 15 minutes, we had a hiking group put together. Or if we had wanted, we could have gone alone. We did occasionally run into other hikers but the trail was by no means, busy. All that, combined with the amazingly beautiful landscape and pretty good weather year around- its hard to go wrong with this hike.
Quilotoa Loop was the best hiking experience I’ve had on the trip, and I would highly recommend pretty much everyone include this in their itinerary in Ecuador.