The Quilotoa Loop is a difficult yet adventurous and fulfilling hike that takes you between many towns either starting at the crater lake at Quilotoa, or finishing there.
The beauty of hiking the loop is that at the end of each day you reach a new town, where you are able to stay in a comfortable and warm hostel that includes dinner and breakfast in the cost of your stay. This means that you do not need to take heavy camping equipment or food beyond snacks and the occasional lunch (which some hostels can also provide if needed).
For the vast majority, your route will either include Sigchos -> Isinvili -> Chugchilan -> Quilotoa, or the opposite direction. The hike you decide to take will depend on if you would like to go uphill more than down and finish with spectacular views of the Quilotoa crater lake, or if you wish to go downhill more than up and finish in the town of Sigchos. We of course decided on the biggest “bang for your buck” finish and started in Sigchos, so that after 3 days of hiking we would be presented with a fantastic view to be remembered.
Of course as backpackers we needed somewhere to store our big bags and luggage so that we would only have to take day packs over the 35-40 kilometre trail, and this meant firstly heading to Latacunga which is the closest “large” town nearby. It is also very easy to reach Latacunga by bus from Quito, with the price being $2.25US (plus $0.20US as a terminal exit fee) from the Quitumbe (or south) bus terminal in Quito. Buses leave every 15 minutes from here well into the night and take around 2 hours.
Once in Latacunga, you can choose a hotel or hostel to stay the night, but also as a point to store your bags whilst you are gone. One of the more popular places in town is called Hostel Tiana, however this is becoming quite expensive for even a dorm and they also charge you $1.50US per day to store your bags (not worth it!).
Instead, we recommend staying at Hotel Central (or Hostal Central) just down the road from Tiana, which currently costs just $10US per person (breakfast not included) for a private room and they will store your bags for free! They are also lovely people who can give you some information on the hike. Information in the form of paper directions can also be obtained from Hostal Tiana without having to stay there (as long as you ask nicely enough!).
After creating a day pack for yourself (see the end of this post for a recommended list of items to pack), you need to make your way to the bus station to get a bus to Sigchos. Here are the directions for this, alongside detailed directions to hike between Sigchos, through Isinvili, Chugchilan and finally to your finish point of Quilotoa!
1. Latacunga to Sigchos
Getting from Latacunga to Sigchos requires taking a bus from the terminal in Latacunga. This is located over the bridge (outside the town) near the Santa Maria supermarket.
The bus times unfortunately change each day, though you can pretty much guarantee a bus at 9:30am on each day. The schedule posted below (obtained from Hostal Tiana in town) states that Sunday does not have a 9:30am bus, but we found that once at the terminal this was an option.
The bus should cost $3.50 (or less), and will take around 2 hours to get to Sigchos. The reason we say that there should be a 9:30am bus is that we recommend taking this one, or an earlier one if you are able. Depending on the season you may find yourself in the rain if you go later, and the weather tends to be better in the morning. In addition, the hike from Sigchos to Isinlivi will take around 3-4 hours, so you want to get in before dark!
Once you arrive in Sigchos, it’s time to begin hiking!
2. Sigchos to Isinlivi (3 to 4 hours)
1. You first need to make your way towards the right hand corner of the town to find your first point of call: a dirt road that you need to hike down.
2. As the town is surrounded by hills on 3 sides, make your way diagonally through the town from where the bus dropped you off towards the “open end” of town (where there are no visible hills- you are heading towards a valley).
3. Eventually you will come to the fork in the road with the left road going downhill towards Isinlivi (ignore the right road). There will be a sign stating that it goes to Isinlivi as well.
4. Follow the road downhill and you will eventually pass a pink church on your right. Keep following the road down and as the road curves to the left you will see a road that turns to the right. Ignore this but after the left hand curve you will see another road to the right- take it. This road will be marked with a sign for “Llulu Llama Hostel”, which is located in Isinlivi so you know it’s the right direction to take!
5. Continue on this track which will be a relatively flat track that rises slowly and goes past a few farms. When you see the road ahead of you start to turn into an incline and go up to the right, look to your left and take a very small trail (it’s really easy to miss so be on the lookout!), this will take you down into the valley and will wind all the way down to a road.
6. Once you reach the road, turn right and follow it. You will take one left hand curve, and then a right hand curve. After you have taken these you will see a 2nd left hand curve ahead with a small path next to a fence directly ahead (just before you take the 2nd left hand curve). Take this path, keeping the fence on your left.
7. Take this path down until you reach another road, and then turn right. You will follow this path, with the river on your left, for around 30-40 minutes, until you reach two houses that are located on your left hand side. You will know they are the right ones as you will firstly pass one other house, and then start climbing up a hill (to the left).
8. Immediately after the two houses (right next to them and slightly above them) you need to turn left onto what looks like a grassy path / driveway. It quickly turns into a grassy path however, and takes you past the two houses before turning right towards the river and a concrete bridge.
9. Cross the concrete bridge and turn right, and around 20-30 metres away you should see a path (left hand turn) that goes straight up and is covered in rocks. These rocks are handy when it has been raining and there is mud! Make your way up this short uphill until you reach another dirt road.
10. Turn left at the dirt road, and then left again about 20-30 metres further on where you should see a red spray-painted mark telling you the correct path (looks like a mini intersection with houses and farms to the right- do not go right).
11. Follow this dirt road around, taking note of rocks that have been spray-painted red or yellow to help you along. You will eventually reach a school and an intersection- turn right at the intersection, and at the next left hand curve in the dirt road (around 20 metres past the school intersection) there will be a hiking trail to the right. You will know it is the right one as a concrete pole at the entrance to the trail has been spray-painted with the image of a llama.
12. Follow this hiking path as it winds uphill with many switchbacks. This will be the hardest part of the day as it goes uphill for some time, though you will know you’re on the right track as there will be many markings of red and yellow paint along the way.
13. You will eventually come to a road, where you will turn right and follow the road for around 45 minutes as it leads you into the town of Isinlivi. When you reach the town, take the right hand turn at the intersection (the one before the church), which will lead you to your accommodation for the night!
Accommodation in Isinlivi
We stayed at Hostal Taita Cristobal for the night with the price for each person being $15US which included dinner and breakfast. This ended up being for a private room with a double bed which was great for us as a couple, though the price is the same if you are on your own.
We cannot recommend this place enough, unfortunately the other hostel in town, Llulu Llama, gets all of the popularity despite it costing $19US for a dorm room with breakfast and dinner. There is a reason Taita Cristobal (as of April 2017) is number one in Isinvili on TripAdvisor, with the service being amazing and friendly, and the meals being some of the best we have had in Ecuador (large, delicious, and filling!).
3. Isinlivi to Chugchilan (4 to 6 hours)
1. No matter where you slept the night, you need to take the immediate left road leading past Llulu Llama’s kitchen that heads downhill. Continue to follow this down until you see a distinctive turn to the left that looks like it would head towards the river which you should be able to hear. Many guides we saw stated to ignore all left and right turns, but if you went straight instead of left you would not be heading down towards the river at all!
2. After taking this turn, continue going down until you can see a concrete bridge below you, you do not want to walk over this though, instead taking the path to the right which is sufficiently spray-painted with red and yellow paint.
3. Continue following the yellow and red markers keeping the river on your left, until crossing the river using a small log bridge. Keep following the trail as it climbs up slightly higher whilst still following the river.
4. When you see a small farm in front of you, go to the trail on the left. It may seem like you are not really on a trail, but continue through the field and all will come together!
5. On the right hand side of the pasture, turn right and follow the level trail until you reach a fork – take the left turn and not the right over the stream (which may or may not have dried up, just remember to go left!)
6. From here you start to go down in between some dirt based cliffs, which will eventually lead you to an intersection where you can see an electric cable above you. Make sure at this point that you go left, following the trail for about 30 minutes with a view of white cliffs ahead of you.
7. Continue following the trail keeping the river down on your right, ignoring any trails leading down the river. You may encounter a gate or two, continue through them though making sure you are following the red and yellow paint markers. You will eventually make your way down next to the river.
8. Once the trail reaches the river, continue following it (it may seem to taper out, but just keep following the river and you’ll be okay) until you reach a clearing with rocks and eucalyptus trees. Ahead of you there should be a large tree trunk that will allow you to cross the river. When we crossed there was no guide rope or wire, though there is supposed to be one. The trunk of the tree has been shaped however to be flat, allowing you to cross easily enough.
9. Once you cross the bridge, take a left turn and continue following the trail with the river now on your left. You will follow this trail for a while as it slowly rises up. You will eventually pass a suspension bridge on your left, ignore it and continue going straight and up the dirt road you are on. For about another 30-40 minutes you will follow this trail, eventually reaching an intersection and a small cafe/shop. Take a left here and after following the trail for around another 5-10 minutes you will see a church and a small school ahead of you.
10. Walk just past the school you will see a sign for Chugchilan pointing to a trail to the right. Take this trail, which will be the hardest part of your day! This trail will go uphill almost immediately, with many switchbacks as it leads you towards the top of the valley. When you eventually reach the top, there is a nice mirador that the owner of the land has built for all to use. Have a chat with him if you like, he’s a very nice man, though he may ask for a donation for using his mirador (not compulsory).
11. From where you reached the top of the uphill hike, there is a dirt road, take a left to start going towards the final stretch to Chugchilan (around 3 kilometres more). Follow this around and slightly up, following the red and yellow paint marks until you reach what seems to be a new road (sealed bitumen).
12. Turn left, and begin your final 2 kilometre ascent up the road to the town of Chugchilan, where you will be greeted with many options for your nights accommodation!
Accommodation in Chugchilan
We stayed at El Vaquero in Chugchilan, in an attempt to get away from the crowded and similarly priced Cloud Forest Hostel. El Vaquero gave us a secluded room for $15US a night (normally $20US each for a private and $15US for a dormitory but we negotiated), an even better view of the valley than CF, amazing and hospitable staff, and a lovely full dinner and breakfast the next morning.
An additional plus to this place is that it is the beginning point for the final stretch of the hike to Quilotoa, making it even greater in our eyes as you hike less the next day (its highly rated on TripAdvisor for a reason!).
4. Chugchilan to Quilotoa (6 to 7 hours)
1. Starting from in town (depending on where you stayed), make your way up and away through town (away from where you hiked yesterday) until you see a left hand turn with a biblioteca on the corner. Take this turn and follow the road until you see El Vaquero hostal.
2. At this point and just after the hostel, make an immediate left hand turn where you see a sign that states “Quilotoa – 10.24km”. Follow this road all the way down into the valley until you reach another sign that states “La Moya / Quilotoa – 11km”. This is where you have 2 options – either taking the left hand small hiking trail (at this sign), or continuing to the right. We went the left path which will be explained first (followed by information on the other route), though should only be taken by very adventurous folk owing to some prospective landslides and a hard river crossing because of this.
3. To firstly explain this route (as the one we took), take the small hiking path to the left and follow it down and past a yellow farm house. Immediately after passing this you will make a turn to the left and see a sign pointing you to the right down a new track, towards Quilotoa. Take this turn.
4. This track will take you towards the river, which you will eventually need to cross. You will follow the river (it should be on your right), until a very steep track leads downhill zig-zagging down. Take this track, or backtrack to find it if you miss it (if you reach a barbed wire fence you’ve gone too far). Make your way down here, with the warning that this is the biggest area prone to landslides. We had a lot of trouble getting down to the river because of the slides, sometimes having to make new tracks in unstable ground to get to the base of the valley and the river. We also had trouble finding a way to cross the river, eventually using a fallen tree trunk to get across. If you’re feeling adventurous then don’t let this deter you, all a part of the fun!
5. Once you get across the (raging for us) river, you will see a hiking track and a sign pointing you uphill to Quilotoa (8.2km away). Follow this trail uphill, where you will see a big hill / cliff ahead of you that you will be hiking up.
6. The trail will begin taking you up with switchbacks once again, and you may also find yourself crossing previous landslides – take care and move across as quickly as you can. You will continue moving up this trail until you reach the absolute top, where there is a great view of what you’ve just climbed!
7. Once you’re at the top, you will see another sign pointing you to the left stating “Quilotoa – 7.7km”… how we have only gone 500 metres was beyond us, we certainly gained a lot of altitude!
8. Take the dirt road to the left, which will take you to the town of Guyama San Pedro. Walk into town and take the second right hand turn (after the basketball court), and follow this road all the way up until you reach and intersection with a mostly green painted house with a sign pointing to the right for Chugchilan. Do not go right, instead go left and then take the first dirt road on your right (it will only be around 20 metres after you turn left).
9. Follow this new track up and around (you will take a few switchbacks) and eventually through some small farms, until you reach a seat with a sign saying to “Siga a Quilotoa” pointing up a small hiking track. DO NOT TAKE THIS! It is easier to continue going up the road you are on, and it will take less time.
10. After being on this road for while longer, you will do an exaggerated switchback (a long right and then left). Once you have taken this and have turned left, there will be a small hiking trail on your right, with the dirt road continuing straight ahead of you. This track is easy to miss, but is vitally important in making sure you take the quickest route- have a look at the Maps.me image below with the turn circled.
11. Follow this hiking trail up ignoring a turn after about 30 metres which ends in a barbed wire fence. Instead continue up and to the right and follow the trail up and up and up. You will hike next to a barbed wire fence for a while before making your way up towards the crater rim. You will know you’re about halfway up to the crater (from where you took the initial right turn onto the hiking track and off the dirt road) when you reach the sign in the image below. This is obviously looking back down the hill, where people would be hiking down towards Chugchilan.
12. After going up for some time (just keep going up), the trail will eventually turn towards the right. Make sure you follow it to the right, ignoring any trails to the left. You’ll know you’ve gone the correct way when you see the sign below stating “Quilotoa – 2.9km”.
13. Keep following this path (in the direction the sign tells you), passing over some sandy areas until you are on a distinct hiking path- you are now within minutes of your first view of the crater and lake!
14. Continue following this trail around, which will take around an hour for you to reach the town of Quilotoa. Do not stray from the path or go down towards the crater as this can be very dangerous. Eventually you will see the town off in the distance on your left.
15. Keep following the trail which will keep the crater lake on your left until you reach the town of Quilotoa! You can now make your choice for your nights accommodation, or depending on the time catch a bus back to Latacunga (if it is late this can also be done with a colectivo to Zumbahua and then further local transport to Latacunga, though we do not have further details for this method).
Details On The Other Route To Quilotoa:
As we didn’t take this route, it is easiest to look at the map as supplied by Cloud Forest Hostel. This map (HERE) shows a route going down to Rio Toachi, through Guayama San Pedro and then up to Quilotoa. YOU DO NOT WANT TO GO THIS WAY. Ignore the instructions supplied here and instead look at the map and the route that goes through “La Moya”, this is the way you want to go. Follow our instructions above until you reach the point where we mention the sign stating “La Moya / Quilotoa – 11km” and instead of turning left and taking our adventurous route (be safe if you go this way), go to the right on the dirt road instead and continue following it.
We cannot stress enough that the instructions provided on the second page of this PDF are no longer correct and could lead to landslides (that we found). Good luck!
Accommodation in Quilotoa
We stayed at Alpaka Hosteria which when you enter town is around 100 metres after your first right hand turn after entering the town. We negotiated for a private room for $15US which included a double bed each and a fireplace in the room. The price also included dinner and breakfast, both of which were hearty and delicious. Dinner for example was a 2 course meal comprising of chicken and yuca soup, followed by chicken with rice, plantains, vegetables and lentils.
Packing List for the Quilotoa Loop:
As promised, here is a list of essential items in an attempt to keep your bag light:
- Day pack (25-30L is ideal) with a rain cover
- Beanie (cold nights)
- Underwear (enough for the days you spend on the loop)
- Socks (enough for hiking and an extra pair for at night)
- Hiking shoes
- Thongs / Flipflops (for at night in the hostel)
- 1 shirt for hiking
- 1 shirt for the hostel at night
- 1 pair hiking pants (convertible to shorts is also good)
- 1 pair thermals or shorts for the hostel
- 1 sweater or jumper
- Raincoat (a good one)
- Snacks (enough for 3 or 4 days – don’t overdo it!)
- Water bottle or bladder (we found 2L water a day was plenty though this is up to you)
- Other items for the days or nights (for example headphones, a book, camera, phone etc.)
- Toiletries (soap, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste)
This is pretty much all you need. Do not feel worried about hiking each day in the same clothes, you rarely see anyone and can dry any wet or sweaty clothes at the fire of a night time. Hostels also provide most of the essentials including wifi, towels, and most of the time soap (though one didn’t so bring a little just in case for the hot showers).
Overall, we had a great time hiking the Quilotoa loop, but it was also one of the hardest hikes we have done. It was great to complete the challenge and we are very happy we did it as the views were absolutely stunning (think similar to Switzerland in the mountains in summer). Many people have also told us that it was a much better option in comparison to similar hikes such as the lost city hike in Colombia!
Good luck on your hike if you plan on doing it, and we hope our directions can help you along the way!