The Quilotoa loop is a self-guided hiking trail, high in the Andes in the Cotopaxi region of Ecuador.
Type: Trek through Mountain towns
Time: GMT – 6hrs
Currency: US Dollars $
Exchange rate: €1 = $ 1.10
Number of days: 6
Accommodation: Mountain Lodges
Average daily temperature: 17°C
You can choose from many different route options depending on how many days you’d like to be on the trail. Our itinerary looked like this:
Day 1: Public bus from Quito to Isinlivi (via Latacunga & Sigchos)
Day 2: Hike from Isinlivi to Chugchilan
Day 3: Hike from Chugchilan to Quilotoa
Day 4: Climb down to the Quilotoa lake and back up
Day 5: Public bus back to Isinlivi
We boarded a bus from Quito to Latacunga, the main gateway for getting to and from the Quilotoa Loop, then another to Sigchos.
We didn’t need much to keep us occupied. The Andean country side and music blaring on the bus provided plenty of entertainment. Friendly faced locals boarded and embarked every few minutes. The view of the Cotopaxi volcano, which had been dominating the landscape, was now changing every few seconds with clouds clearing from its snowy summit, revealing all of its impressive 5943 metres.
As we pulled into Sigchos, the bus driver’s assistant clarified we were looking to carry on our journey to the small town of Isinlivi. He explained we were too late for a connecting bus and our only hope of getting there today was a ‘camioneta’ (a jeep like van). With little choice in the matter, we nodded. With the bus moving and the door open, he hung out and started shouting for camionetas on the street.
After travelling a few hundred metres down the road he had arranged the next leg of our journey. We quickly scrambled off the bus with our bags and ran for the camioneta. This situation left us little room for negotiating our price or actually assessing the situation we were throwing ourselves into.
Within forty-five seconds, we’d discarded every piece of information we’d learned from the Lonely Planet safety section and boarded a jeep with two very young men and set off up extremely dark country roads with no phone signal and no clue where we were going. We tried to suss out our new captors from the back seat while every possible outcome of our present situation ran through our minds.
Forty-five minutes later we found ourselves in the most likely of scenarios – safely at the door of our lodge. We were very grateful to see the receptionist waiting for us with the front door open. Given the hostel’s vantage point in the mountains, he’d probably seen the vehicle on the winding approach road from several miles back.
Santiago proved himself to be even more saint like as our stay went on. The first words out of his mouth after greeting us were “we have upgraded your room and your dinner will be on the table in fifteen minutes”.
Our room was a beautiful cabana in the gardens of the lodge with views of the mountains, its own terrace and a fireplace. Our only regret was not having more time there. So the next morning we booked more nights at the end of our hike, knowing we’d appreciate it more then.
Ready, Set, Go
With our backpacks stowed in the lodge, we set off on our first day of hiking with only the essentials. It was a four to six hour hike, covering 12.4km with an ascent of 600m. Not having measured any hikes previously, these stats meant little to us, but we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Our greatest concern was getting lost.
The route was well marked and we had loose instructions on a piece of paper. Apart from one wrong turn taking us five minutes off the trail, we managed to stay on track. Along the way we encountered extremely friendly and chatty locals. Now able to hold a basic conversation, we were extremely grateful for our two weeks of Spanish lessons. We met an elderly couple who were out for a walk with their horse and two dogs. We were able to learn where they lived and of their delight at having a recent influx of people walking through their area.
By the time we reached Chugchilan five hours later, we were ready to collapse. The final leg of the journey was an uphill walk on the side of the road and we counted down every last metre. We walked up to our accommodation for the night and found a very quiet and peaceful mountain lodge. It appeared we were the first arrivals of the day and there wasn’t a soul to be found. We made ourselves at home and plonked down on the couch. We could see everything we needed in sight already. A stove fire, free coffee, cake and biscuits in the kitchen and a small wooden stairs leading to a reading area with views of the mountains.
When we caught our breath we discovered a large bell hanging outside the door and gave it a ring. Our host came unhurriedly down a path from the hills above and greeted us. We were shown to our room and then left to explore. The entire lodge was made up of many different buildings perched on the hillside consisting of cabins, a gym, a yoga studio, sauna and spa, zip line, and several wooden tree house style decking areas all perched at different levels with stunning views of the surrounding mountainside.
The dinner was served family style with the fire lighting and we enjoyed a well earned beer and chatted with some of the other guests. The huge map of South America hanging behind us provided the focal point for the evenings conversations as we learned a little more about Ecuador from some exchange students who were living in Quito.
Eat, Sleep, Hike, Repeat.
We set off the next morning towards the Quilotoa crater lake. Our instructions said we were in for another four to six hour hike, covering a similar distance, but with more of an incline, about 1000 metres this time. It took us over seven hours, mostly traipsing through volcanic sand, which is very much like regular sand, difficult to walk on. We eventually got to the top of the crater.
We sat on a bench outside a closed wooden shed of a shop perched at the top. A few minutes later we could see a local man and woman following up the same route we’d just come from and heading straight in our direction, clearly keen for a chat. The man told us his mother owned the shop we were sitting outside but unfortunately he didn’t have the keys on him, so if we’d wanted refreshments, we were all out of luck. Clearly in the mood to deliver more good news, he told us we were still one hour and a half from the town of Quilotoa. We had a brief chat with them exchanging info about our countries. They’d never heard of Ireland before. “Is it a rich country?” he asked in Spanish.
The rest of the way took us about an hour and had spectacular views of the crater lake all the way around. We arrived at our hostel and promised ourselves we were retiring from hiking.
The next day we walked down to the crater lake and back up again, taking a total of about 2 hours. There was the option to kayak around the crater lake, but happy with the view from the shore, we sat and took it all in and prepared ourselves for the climb back up. Happy we had seen the lake from all angles we were ready to leave early the next day.
Navigating the Andean “public transport service”
We intended taking a public bus from Quilotoa to Sigchos and then a camioneta to Isinlivi. A simple enough plan which started to look less so when the bus failed to show up. Having already burned our bridges trying to haggle too much with the only camioneta hovering about town, we were low on options.
Luckily about an hour later, a bus came careering around the corner headed in our direction. Unable to decipher its destination, we hailed it anyway. With little option, we jumped on, happy to make even a part of the journey on a cheap fare.
Suddenly the bus pulled over and threw us out on the side of the road. In an area where there is only one road connecting all of these towns, the only thing that can possibly go wrong when boarding a bus heading in the right direction, is that it turns around and heads in the wrong direction. It proceeded to do a u-turn. We cursed the driver for the whole 4.5km involuntary walk all the way to Chugchilan.
Next we hailed a bus in Chugchilan headed to Sigchos. Much to our relief, this time we arrived. Then we boarded what essentially was the school bus for the area and were taken on perhaps the windiest and most nerve racking and scenic bus journey of our whole trip.
Five hours later we were finally back in Isinlivi. After all that, taking the bus proved only slightly less of a challenge than hiking.
Santiago says Relax 🦙
To our delight, we received a room upgrade again by Santiago, now officially Saint James, and this one was even better than the last. We enjoyed a simple lunch and a cold beer from the local corner shop from our terrace overlooking the rolling hills, this time more aware of the paths and people beyond them.