The Quilotoa Loop
What Is The Quilotoa Loop?
The Quilotoa loop is a set of hiking trails that runs through the Ecuadorian Andes, a few hours south of Quito. The pinnacle is the crater lake in the town of Quilotoa – hence the “Quilotoa Loop”. Technically, it is a loop and generally follows the map below (although these are the roads, not the trails). That said, we didn’t meet a lot of people hiking the entire loop. Most people were just hiking between Quilotoa (B) and Sigchos (E) and driving the rest.
The Easy v. Hard Route
A lot of people choose to do the “hard” direction: Sigchos->Isinlivi->Chugchilan->Quilotoa. Doing so means you begin to hike around 8,000 feet, gain altitude each leg, and are rewarded at 12,841 feet with a grande finale view of the crater lake in Quilotoa. That’s all well and good, but a combination of our fitness levels (or lack thereof) and the fact we wouldn’t have much time to acclimate to the altitude, we thought it best to go the “easy” direction: Quilotoa–>Chugchilan–>Isinlivi. I can’t really say how much harder it would have been the other direction – but I can tell you this: it was no cake walk this way. The thing is that, even if you do descend over-all, the hike is packed with ups and downs. For example, we had to climb down to the right side of this gorge to the river just to hike back up the other side. I still really enjoyed it, but just so you know – it’s not some leisurely, downhill stroll.
Setting Up Home Base
I hadn’t really considered picking one of the villages as a home base because I was very focused on the loop aspect of the hike. I mean, right? It’s right there in the name. But, along the way we met people doing the home base option. Mostly in Chugchilan, which is about the half-way point of the main trek. They would day hike/trip from there, including driving to Quilotoa or Isinlivi and then hiking the main route back to Chugchilan. One of the major benefits of this approach is that you don’t have to carry all of your stuff with you on the hike. Because of that, and the fact that you can choose more moderate day hikes, this approach is a good option if you’re feeling a little intimidated to set off on such an intense, multi-day hike.
Day 1: Quito -> Quilotoa via Latacunga by bus
Day 2: Quilotoa –> Chugchilan by foot
Day 3: Chugchilan –> Isinlivi by foot
Day 4: Isinlivi –> Quito by truck/bus
Driving the loop is an option, but we went with the bus. They’re pretty nice and reliable, and very cheap. We took the bus from Quito to Latacunga in the morning. You have to transfer buses there for Quilotoa. But, we also stopped there to store stuff we didn’t want to haul on the hike with us. Hostal Tiana will store your bags even if you aren’t staying there. It has a padlocked basement room with CCTV surveillance, so it seemed fairly secure. And for $2 per day per bag, it seemed like a good investment in our future hiking happiness.
On the way back to the bus terminal, we stopped for lunch. First up was fried chicken, which seems to be quite beloved in Ecuador. The woman running this hole-in-the wall was very friendly and her kids were hanging out there in matching track suits. This was the first of many times we saw this phenomenon. We came to learn that one day each school week is PE-day. And the kids all wear their official track suits. It’s amazing – like a real life Royal Tenenbaums. Then, for dessert, we came across some frozen chocolate-and-sprinkle-covered bananas. They were unwrapped, on a paper plate, in the ice-cream fridge of a bodega. But, somehow, they really spoke to us. And they were delicious.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Quilota, which is…odd. It doesn’t seem to be a real town. It looks like it’s just starting to build up around tourism. There isn’t much there, but there’s a fair amount of construction. It’s certainly worth going for the purpose of seeing the crater lake, but I wouldn’t aim to spend much extra time there. We stayed at the Hosteria Alpaka, which was the only accommodation I found online, although it turned out there were a number of other hostels. This was probably our least favorite place we stayed, but that’s mostly because the other two places were really nice. But, the bed was actually amazingly comfortable.
The best part of staying here, and really any other hostel on the route, is meeting other travelers. Some combination of being older, and traveling as a couple seems to add up to me interacting less with people than I used to. And I miss that. Anyway, there aren’t really restaurants in the towns, so the hostels include dinner. Everyone eats communally at the same time, so you actually get to know each other. And, since everyone is doing basically the same hike – you catch up with them on the trail or the next stop. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
Breakfast is also communal at the hostels. They fill you up for a long day of hiking. It was great. You want to get up and on your way early. The general pattern was clear, sunny mornings, giving way to rainy afternoons. Also, as an aside, these sprinkles seem to be very popular in this area. First the choco-banana and now breakfast!
You also want to leave early because it’s almost inevitable that you’ll do a little back-tracking. Or take a different, longer route than you planned because you started off the day with a sub-optimal map situation (lesson learned: make sure to get a VERY detailed map from your hostel). And, in our case, we got a little delayed because one of our new friends disappeared in the first 10 minutes of the hike. We came across the husband of a couple we’d met the night before and he was looking around for his wife. It did seem strange that she would have gotten so far ahead, and not come back looking for him. So, we helped him look up and down the trails, and yell for her (my voice, as you may know, carries). It got to the point where I was looking down the sides of the crater thinking we were going to have to call in a search party. But, luckily, we found her and all was well. This is Chris looking for her (if you can even find him). Another lesson learned: wear something bright so people can find you.
We dutifully followed signs to Chugchilan, but apparently those mark some alternate path, rather than the one we intended to hike. I think I see the path here in this photo that we meant to be on…oh well. I maintain that we weren’t lost, though. We just weren’t where we wanted to be.
Eventually, we got caught in the rain. If you know me – you know how much I really hate the rain. But, I knew it was likely – so I’d prepared with all the right gear. And it wasn’t coming down THAT hard. So, was I feeling pretty good about my hardcore-edness and lack of complaining. And then we arrived at the bottom of this valley…and it was clear we’d have to climb up the other side before the day was done. It was a low moment. But I felt worse for Chris, who was feeling pretty sick at this point, on top of everything. Some combination of the altitude and a cold/flu. But, he soldiered through.
Mercifully, it cleared up right as we arrived at the Black Sheep Inn in Chugchilan.
This place was really nice. It was a good deal more expensive than the other hostels along the route. Honestly – I’m not sure it was worth it if you were just stopping there for a night. I’d probably stay at the Hostal Cloud Forest if I were on the same schedule again. But, if you plan to spend a few days in Chugchilan, this place is great. It has some extra amenities, including a yoga room that opens onto this deck:
And the guy who runs it is very nice and helpful. Each night after dinner he goes around to ask each group what they want to do the next day and helps them arrange it. All the food is vegetarian, but really good and hearty. And it’s eco-friendly. Which, I think, is related to why the bathroom for the main house looked more like a greenhouse. I don’t know if the plants served a function in the system…or if an outhouse just makes for a good greenhouse. But, there you have it.
Chris was still feeling pretty sick, so we decided to scrap the big hike to Isinlivi and just get a ride there, instead. We were pretty disappointed, but at least we didn’t miss out on the great views.
We arrived at the Hostal Llullu Llama. Everyone gushes over this place, so our expectations were high. And it didn’t disappoint. We’d booked one of the private cottages, which was really nice. We were the only suckers we met only traveling for a week. Most people had at least 3 weeks. But, the flip side of that was that we didn’t feel the need to stay in dorms and could “splurge” for the private cottage with a deck. This is kind of our sweet spot – living large in a cheap country.
Chris was feeling a little better and we decided to head out on a smaller hike. Llullu Llama had a whole binder of hikes with details on distance, time, elevation gain, etc. And they’ll send you off with the map and directions of whichever hike you choose. So, we picked a hike and set out. I felt pretty confident that we knew what we were doing. And even in retrospect, I don’t think this was a particularly tricky route. But, we managed to screw it up by missing a turn at some point around the soccer field. We knew it, but didn’t feel like back-tracking. And we knew that we were just heading up the hill in front of us – so we went rogue.
It was not the most graceful ascent. We did a lot of scrambling straight up. And we almost got attacked by a dog up on the slope with its owner, who was working her field. And no doubt wondering what in the hell we were doing. But, we did eventually get to the summit. In our defense, here is Chris going back down “the path”:
And on the way back, Chris made lots of friends.
We had a great final evening on the loop. A number of people we’d met along the way were staying at Llullu Llama that night, and we met a new bunch of people. There was a great meal, lots of drinks, and some fairly intense Rummikub playing (although, I stayed out of that and just chatted up whoever wasn’t currently playing).
The only bus options directly from Isinlivi to Latacunga were (a) a 3am bus or (b) the milk truck. I was tempted by the milk truck just for the story. But, we ended up paying $40 for a private ride to go the 2.5 hours back. It seemed well worth the price, as we still had the 2 hour bus ride to Quito, an hour taxi ride between Quito’s southern and northern bus stations, and another 2 hour bus ride to Otavalo.
Despite getting lost, rained on, and sick along the way, we actually really enjoyed our time here. It was beautiful, challenging and a lot of fun. We would highly recommend it to anyone. Bye, Quilotoa Loop!
For the entire set of photos from our trip, see the Quilotoa Loop Photo Journal.