The Quilotoa Loop is one of Ecuador’s biggest attractions in the region near Quito. Quilotoa is the most Western volcano in the Ecuadorian Andes. Today, everyone heads there to see the emerald crater lake—the laguna. The loop is a circuit that many travellers choose to traverse. It is a multi-day hike which leads through villages and canyons in the surrounding area.
Despite being such a popular attraction, actually getting to and from Quilotoa (and the Loop) can be a confusing venture. To make it a little bit easier, here are some of the details.
The Quilotoa Loop in three days: From Quilotoa to Sigchos
While many choose to start in Sigchos and end with the grand views of the laguna, the truth is that it’s probably a harder hike. Quilotoa is the highest altitude along the route, so ending there means a grueling uphill hike (much of it through sand) for the last few hours. Since I started from Quilotoa, the details will be more geared around that, though some of the info is the same.
Catching The Bus From Latacunga
If you want to get to Quilotoa, you’ll first have to head to Latacunga—a city of around 90,000 that is about a 2-hour bus ride to the south of Quito. Getting to Latacunga is the easy part. Just head to the Quitumbe terminal in Quito (via taxi) and get a ticket. There will likely be guys asking you “A dondé vas?” They’ll lead you to the bus where you need to go.
Unless you arrive very early to Latacunga, you’ll likely stay overnight. Hostal Tiana is a pretty popular option among backpackers. For $12.50 per person per night (all prices in USD, the currency Ecuador uses. Also, a dorm bed will be cheaper than this), you get a nice clean bed, free wifi, and a continental breakfast. A taxi to and from Hostal Tiana will cost around $1.25 each way.
The bus from Latacunga to Quilotoa leaves at 9:30 and 11:30 in the morning. Be there at least 15 minutes early. Again, guys will be asking you where you are going and directing you to the appropriate bus. This bus will take around 2 hours and cost $2.
Arrival in Quilotoa
There are plenty of places to stay in Quilotoa and many people will be asking you if you need a room and trying to drag you to their place. The prices will likely range from $10 to $15 for a bed with supper and breakfast included. Don’t be afraid to say no if they try to charge you $20, they’ll lower the price if you refuse.
The First Hike
There are a couple of options for your first day in Quilotoa.
If you arrive early enough, you can attempt the rim walk. This walk is a tough one that takes about six hours to complete.
I didn’t do that one. Honestly, the Laguna looks great from every angle, and the walk is probably quite beautiful, but I don’t think it’s a requirement. Anyway, you’ll be walking part of the way when you leave Quilotoa tomorrow and head to Chugchilán.
The other walk is the one actually down into the crater. It takes 15 or 20 minutes to walk down the sandy path and you can get right down to the water. In the crater you can rent kayaks or just take your photos and head back up. Getting back up is tough. It took me about an hour to make the slog uphill. Of course, you can get a ride on a donkey if you prefer, but why miss out on the challenge?
Hiking from Quilotoa to Chugchilán – 10.24 km or 4-5 hours
This hike begins with the crater rim walk. You wind for about an hour or so around the rim, following the signs that point to Chugchilán along the way. Eventually, you’ll reach a sandy plateau and a sign that points you down and to the left.
There are plenty of footpaths that weave in and out here. It may be confusing and you may be drawn in other directions—don’t do it. Keep following the main path. It might not feel right all the time, but it is. You’ll pass through a small village, Guayama San Pedro. Keep going straight down the main road, there’s a sign at the end that points left to Chugchilán, 6.6 km.
Toward the end, you’ll find yourself going up a winding road. Keep going and you’ll make it to the town. Here, Hostal Cloud Forest is a good option—supper and breakfast, with a room, for $15 per person. Plus, they have maps and will help you with your directions when you leave in the morning.
You have a couple of options here. You can hike to Isinlivi or Sigchos. They are both around 13 km away, but the paths slightly diverge. If you want to extend the hike by a day and have one more overnight, head to Isinlivi. It you want to catch the bus back to Latacunga at either 2:30 pm or 4 pm, head to Sigchos. I chose the latter.
Hiking from Chugchilán to Sigchos – 13 km or 5-6 hours
From Hostal Cloud Forest, walk downhill for 2 km until you see a sign pointing to Isinlivi on your right—follow this path downhill. You’ll come to a lookout, and just past that you’ll have to turn right again and head down into the valley. This path on the right can be hard to see, but it is right next to the lookout path—don’t keep following the wide main path!
You’ll reach another small village, and eventually an outdoor café/bar on the left. There’s a path right across from this, heading down towards the river on your river—follow it.
From here, it’s easy, as long as the river is to your right, you are heading in the right direction. You’ll be following this for a couple of hours. Eventually you’ll come to a Y and veer left, up the winding hill to Sigchos.
There are a couple of shortcuts, but you’ll be heading uphill for at least the next hour and a half. The first shortcut is past a bare wall with three crosses in it. The next is just past a church on your left, where you’ll veer left up the hill.
The Bus Terminal in Sigchos
The bus terminal can be tricky to find, but you’ll know it when you see it. Honestly, the easiest way to find it is to ask every second person you pass: “¿Dónde está la terminal?”
Tickets to Latacunga cost about $2.40, the ride will take about 2 hours, dropping you back to the terminal in Latacunga.
A couple of notes
This is no easy hike. The path isn’t always obvious, and you’ll be hiking down and up steep valleys. Also, the rim walk isn’t necessarily the best option if you are afraid of heights.
Your pack will feel heavier during each hour of the hike. Seriously, store most of your stuff in Latacunga with your hostel for a couple of dollars. Quilotoa is cold and windy in the village, so you will want a couple of layers. But, the hike will get hot when the sun hits. Keep it minimal—bring one outfit for hiking and a couple of layers for the cold nights as well. You can wash your clothes later, no one cares if you smell.
Also, the air here is dry, so be sure to bring plenty of water on these hikes.
Hiking in reverse: Isinlivi/Sigchos to Quilotoa
Some people choose to hike in the opposite direction. Honestly, that was my plan initially. That way you end with the rim walk, the grandest section of the whole thing.
But, bus schedules can get confusing. It’s easy to figure out how to get the bus to Quilotoa from Latacunga, since so many people go there. That’s mainly why I chose to start there. However, during the hike I realized something else—the hike in reverse is much more difficult. The uphill sections are steeper and longer. Sure, in each direction you will get some downhill and some uphill, but the direction I chose seemed much more gentle.