There are a handful of bloggers that have posted about the grand Quilotoa loop and how it was one of their favorite activities while traveling in Ecuador. It is an adventure that is still relatively uncommon, so you won’t find anyone else on the hiking paths during the days, but completed often enough to have excellent lodging in between the hikes. I was a little concerned about the trekking as every blog I read indicated that we would get lost, the trail was not well marked, the directions were poor, and that there were aggressive stray dogs. Fortunately, we did not have any of those issues. But when we met up with others at the hostel some people still got lost and a couple had some issues with dogs. We were fortunate to have our poles for defense (just in case) and we took the time to download some maps so we felt secure the whole time.
You can walk in either direction, but we opted for a 3 day route: Latacunga>Sigchos>Isinvilí>Chugchilan>Quilotoa. This route starts with the least amount of elevation gain (about 1,100ft) and gets progressively steeper/more difficult. We thought it would be best to ease ourselves into it.
How to start: Like many others we stayed at Hostel Tiana in Latacunga ($20 for a private room.) For $1/day they will let you store bags that you don’t want to take with you on your hike. We decided to take our backpacking packs and leave our daypacks. This was probably a mistake as we were the only fools with huge, heavy packs, all the other travelers opted for light daypacks, but you just never know when you’re going to want sandals, conditioner or that extra, extra t-shirt. Basically… no regrets. We opted to stay in Latacunga and bus into Sigchos to start the hike, but you could also stay the night in Sigchos and start from there.
Day One – Sigchos to Isinvilí: We spent the night in Latacunga and then woke up bright and early to catch the 6AM bus to Sigchos. The hostel called us a cab and for $1.50 we arrived at the bus station at 5:30AM, right on time and according to plan. However, when we went to purchase tickets all of the ticket sales counters were closed. We had a full minute of panic thinking we were going to miss the bus since we couldn’t buy tickets, but then we remembered we were in South America and things operate very differently here; you don’t need to buy tickets until you are on the bus and well into the journey. About halfway through the bus ride they collected our $2 fares. The route was very windy with hairpin turns through the mountains. One of the bus employees was kind enough to hand out barf bags- full service! It was certainly enough to keep us awake without needing any coffee.
The Hike: We were dropped off in Sigchos around 9:15 AM right by a bakery, just our luck! We loaded up on croissants, empanadas, and water to get us through the day and we started our trek. The starting elevation is about 9,190 ft/ 2,800 masl. The trail starts at the edge of town and is a dirt road. About ten minutes into the walk we came across an amazing vista, and little did we know, you can actually see most of the hike from this vantage point. For the entire first part of the day we went downhill through farm land and brush until we reached a river. This was concerning to both of us, because we know what goes down must go up. And up didn’t sound so good, especially in the hot afternoon sun with bellies full of pastries. After following the river we made our climb into the mountains. At that elevation it was a hard push to make it to the top. I made lots of excuses to take in the views so I could catch my breathe, and I was secretly relieved when Sergei kept wanting to stop to fly his drone. Win-win. Once we made it to the top of the mountains we hit a dirt road that we walked for about 45 minutes until we made it to Isinvilí where we spent the night.
Stats: Distance: 7.5 miles/12km Elevation gain: 1,600ft Time: 4.5 hours
The Accommodations: Actually, calling Isinvilí a town is fairly generous. There is a church, 2 hostels, and a handful of kiosks. There is not even a bakery and bakeries are everywhere! There were maybe 20 or so buildings, you could walk around the entire town within 7 minutes. Fortunately we had everything we could want at our hostel. We stayed at LluLlu Llama which is an eco-friendly lodge and by far the nicest hostel on the loop. Originally we had opted for the shared dorm, since it costs $19 per person, per night, which up unto this point was by far the most we had paid for any lodging. This shared dorm was about $10 more expensive per night than our upscale condo in downtown Quito.
Since we got an early start to the day we were the first to arrive at the hostel giving us first choice of the beds and the patio all to ourselves. We rejuvenated with coffee and (more) pastries which was the perfect pick-me-up after a long day of hiking. Once happy hour began trekkers started rolling in, there were 8 of us in total. Unfortunately, also right at this time I got exceptionally ill. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to stay in the dorm, so we splurged and upgraded to a private cabin, for double the price. It was worth every penny, and I would strongly recommend going for the cabin unless you’re ballin on a budget. We had our own balcony, bathroom, and a shower with a view. Water in the region is sacred and fairly scarce. There are times that the water will run dry or the piping will be damaged and all of the surrounding villages will come together to find the leak and work together to repair the damage. Because water is so special Llullu Llama works diligently to save water in any way that they can, including with eco-toilets. It was an adjustment.
Day Two – Isinvilí to Chugchilan: Since I was too sick to hike I took a cab from Isinvilí to Chugchilan. It was $25 and took about an hour. All of the private transport vehicles in the highlands are 4×4 trucks to make it through the sometimes difficult terrain. I was so disappointed that I wasn’t able to hike as this was the one activity that I had actually planned, and if you know me, you know I don’t plan. I generally either let Sergei plan everything or I just head into the day thinking all will be right with the universe and it will be a nice and interesting day. While I was riding in the truck I did notice that the terrain looked exactly the same as the day before, and I was exceptionally thankful to gain all of the elevation in the comfortable seat of a truck.
During our overnight stay, while I was sick, Sergei was able to make friends with the other hikers staying in the hostel. The opportunity to meet other travelers was the best part of the loop. It gave us a chance to meet new people, get some traveling advice, and have some companionship on the trail. There were 5 others that were also headed to Chugchilan so Sergei stayed with them while I got a princess ride. No shame in my game.
Each hostel provided us with updated directions on the trail before heading out and bagged lunches are available for purchase. There is nowhere to get food along the way so we recommend buying the bagged lunch. Sergei and the gang headed out from Llullu Llama at 9AM and arrived in Chugchilan around 2:30 PM and were thoroughly exhausted. The views looked very similar but the uphill portion from the school to the top of the hills was an absolute slog. Additionally the hike winds through private farmland and it is customary here to burn the crops to fertilize the soil. So aside from the thin air, it was also very smoky which added an additional challenge at times.
Stats: Distance: 7.5 miles/12km Elevation gain: 1,873 ft/571m Time: 5.5 hours
The Accommodations: We stayed at Hostal Cloud Forest. in Chugchilan. When we arrived at the hostel the cemetery across the street was on fire. It was horribly smoky and who knows what kind of particles were in the air. Because of this we opted to stay inside our room for most of the night, coming out just for dinner. After dinner we experienced our first earthquake. At first, we thought someone was trying to break into our room, but it turned out to be a 6.4 earthquake. Fortunately there wasn’t any reported damage in any of the surrounding villages.
Day Three: Chugchilan to Quilotoa
The trail from Chugchilan to Quilotoa is supposed to be the most difficult. You have about 1,800 feet of elevation gain over 6 miles to make it to the lagoon and then an additional 4-5 hour trek around the lagoon should you opt to do that. Unfortunately, I was still too sick to trek and knew that I was going to have to take a bus to Quilotoa. Sergei and one of our new hostel friends, Abby, thought that I had it pretty good (aside from being sick) so they decided to join me on the bus route. After breakfast in the hostel we headed down to the road at 8:00 AM to try and catch a bus; we had heard that they come every hour. Unfortunately, we were provided some false information. There is a bus that comes at 6 and 7 AM and again at 1PM. We couldn’t wait until 1 PM so we set out to try and find ourselves a ride. Fortunately one of the hostel employees flagged down a villager and for $20 we got a ride. We opted for the bed of the truck for optimal views (sorry, mom). Rather hilariously after the driver negotiated our fare with the hostel employee he drove us out of sight and then told us his son would be taking us.. which was fine.. but the kid couldn’t have been more than 13.
We were actually very pleased with ourselves for getting a ride to Quiltoa because the landscape looked exactly the same and we were already exhausted. Once we arrived in Quilotoa the views did not disappoint.
From here you can go all the way down to the lake and hike all the way around. I was too weak for this option and Abby and Sergei decided they had gotten the best of the views anyway so we decided to head back to Latacunga.
We received conflicting information on when the buses left Quilotoa for Latacunga, we were told they come between every hour and every hour and a half. We had just missed the bus so the three of us grabbed a truck for $2 per person to take us to Zumbahua. Buses run from Zumbahua to Latacunga every 15 minutes. As soon as we arrived in Zumbahua there was a bus idling so we hopped on for $2/pp and had about a 2 hour ride back to Latacunga.