A Trekkers Guide to the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador

The Quilotoa Loop is a multi-day trek through the Ecuadorian Andes, culminating at the incredible crater of Quilotoa Lake.  There is no need to book an expensive tour as this trek can be done cheaply and easily by using this detailed planning guide.

We opted to trek the Quilotoa Loop on the classic three day route, which starts in Sigchos and ends at the lake.  This southerly direction means more climbing on average, but makes Quilotoa Lake the grand finale.  While some people opt to do the trek in reverse for ease, the views in this direction become less impressive each day.

Things to Know Before Trekking the Quilotoa Loop

We trekked the Quilotoa Loop in September of 2018.  This is dry and low season, meaning that weather was perfect and the trail was uncrowded.  Skies were mostly sunny and we had no rain.

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Quilotoa is located very near the Equator and sits at relatively high elevation, meaning that the sun is very strong.  Bringing plenty of sunscreen is essential, along with a hat or other sun protection.  During the day it can be very warm, especially during many of the steep climbs, but it gets quite cold at night.

We read many stories about unsavory experiences on the Loop, including aggressive dogs, scamming children and loss of direction.  On our trek, we had nothing but a very positive experience.  We encountered no unfriendly dogs, and were asked solely for candy by children, which happened only twice (they were cute).

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While it is true that navigation can be a challenge at times, signage has recently become improved from the past.  There are still areas which lack trail markers, but overall we found our way without too much trouble.  Every hostal along the way provides basic maps and will talk through directions for the upcoming day.  We used these in conjunction with signs and the maps.me GPS app, which kept us mostly on track.  As long as you check the app often, it would be tough to get very lost.  (Specific areas of difficulty are noted below.)  In addition, every local we encountered was happy to help point the way.

The Trail

The route switches between dirt road and hiking trails.  The trails tend to be very rocky, steep and at times covered with deep sand.  During our dry season visit, we were also treated to frequent dust and sand clouds, meaning that sunglasses and mouth covers are helpful.

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The path crosses at least one small stream each day, but otherwise water sources are limited.  Even these are often in close proximity to livestock, so would not be advisable for drinking.  We carry a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, but opted to use it solely for the tap water at each hotel before our hikes.  This not only saves money on bottled water, but also keeps plastic from going into the trash.

Safety on the Quilotoa Loop

In general, we felt very safe on this trek.  Definitely take basic safety precautions, but this isn’t an area with the risks of bigger Ecuadorian cities.

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Accommodations in Latacunga

We stayed at La Posada in Latacunga prior to our trek.  While the rooms have seen much better days, the owner is extremely friendly and will spend time going over the route options and other info before leaving.  He has completed the loop seven times.  They will also store your extra bags without charge while you are hiking.

Accommodations Along the Loop

The towns of Isinliví, Chugchilán and Quilotoa each have two or more large-ish hotels or hostels.  These make the trek very enjoyable and eliminating the need to carry camping gear.  Beds are typically rented for $15 per person per night, and always include dinner and breakfast.  In the low season, we were also treated to private rooms with bath each night, although in high season these rooms will likely be shared dorm style for that rate.  There are some higher end accommodations in each town which charge more, and may include additional amenities such as spas or hot tubs and have better views.  Private rooms generally cost more as well, especially in high season.

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We did not need reservations during September and could easily have shown up and booked a room.  In the other season, it would be prudent to reserve a bed ahead of time.  All hotels are found on Booking, although they typically advertise higher prices online.  We had our hotel in Latacunga, La Posada, call ahead and reserve our spots.  This not only got us a better rate and ensured our space, but also excluded the required VAT taxes which are added online.

We stayed at Taita Cristobal in Isinliví the first night, which is the slightly cheaper option than the famous Lulullama next door.  The hotel was immaculately clean, and our room included a nice view, hot water and surprisingly reliable WiFi.  While we did not visit Lulullama, we heard from most every trekker that it was amazing.

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On the second night in Chugchilán, we stayed at Cloud Forest.  This hotel is also a very decent option and well located on the road into town.  The food was excellent and shower very nice, although the view and WiFi were subpar.  There are several other hotels in town, including Black Sheep, Hostal Mama Hilda, Doña Clarita and the popular Vaquero.

Cost of Trekking the Quilotoa Loop

This is one of the most budget friendly activities in Ecuador.  The lake and trekking areas are free to enter and food and accommodations are extremely reasonable.  Almuerzo lunches are available for $2.5-$3 in each town, with snacks priced accordingly.  The going rate for most accommodations along the way is $15 per person per night, which always includes a filling dinner and breakfast.  In total, we spent around $100 as a couple for our three day trek, including bus rides to and from Latacunga, all food and accommodations.

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How to Get to Sigchos

Most Trekkers begin their trip from the nearby town of Latacunga.  Buses to Sigchos leave from the terminal in Latacunga several times per day.  The first several depart at 5:00, 6:00, 8:00, 9:30, and 10:00.  Tickets cost $2.35 for the 2 hour trip.

How to Get Back to Latacunga After the Trek

Most Trekkers complete the Quilotoa Loop with the lake being the final stop and return to Latacunga later that day.  Buses leave every 30 minutes from the road a short walk east of Quilotoa town.  We heard many different opinions as to the time of the final bus, but consensus is somewhere between 4:00pm and 6:00pm.  Any of these times means that leaving the lake following the final day of trekking is very possible.  The trip back is around 2 hours and costs $2.  We managed to get back to Latacunga to retrieve our extra backpack and still get to Riobamba the same evening.

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Keep an eye out for views of Cotopaxi on the trip back to Latacunga

How to Get to Latacunga from Quito

Buses leave from Quito from the Quitumbe terminal in the south.  The companies are located at stall 20-22.  We left from our jungle adventure in Cuyabeno, and got direct bus from Lago Agrio to Latacunga with Baños company for $14, which departed at 2:30pm and took 8 hours.

Before you hop on a coach in Ecuador, read up on how to keep your belongings secure. This country is known for theft on buses.


The Trekking Route:

Trek Day 1: Sigchos to Isinliví

The first day starts in Sigchos after a two hour morning bus ride from Latacunga.  We hopped off a few blocks before the terminal which got us closer to the trailhead.  The trail starts down hill for the first hour before meeting up with the river.  While there is generally good signage on the way down, keep an eye on maps.me for a few paths that cut off corners.

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At the river, we chose to turn right and stay on the west side instead of crossing immediately.  A little ways upstream there is a sign marking the way to Isinliví and a concrete bridge.  Afterwards, the trail begins a long steep climb up the mountain to regain and surpass the starting elevation.  After the first part of the climb, watch maps.me closely so as not to miss the trail which cuts off the dirt road to the left.  There is no sign and many hikers walk right past.  The path cuts through pastureland with fences that must be opened (and re-closed) en route.

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Looking backwards from the unmarked and easy to miss trail

Once at the top, you will find the dirt road again with only another 20 minute mostly flat walk to town.  Here, you can either find a sandwich lunch at the hotel or head to the only restaurant in Isinliví, a tiny establishment which is opposite the church.

Distance: 11 kilometers / 6.7 miles
Time: 3 hours
Starting Elevation: 2,860 meters / 9,385 feet
Ending Elevation: 2,950 meters / 9,680 feet

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Trek Day 2: Isinliví to Chugchilán

There are two options for routes to Chugchilán.  The first is shorter but much steeper, crossing the ridge in a more or less straight line.  The second follows the river and wraps around the valley.  Despite the second option being longer, most trekkers choose this way to avoid the drastic drop to the river.  The owner of Taita went over the routes with us and recommended this option.

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The day begins down.  We had some slight confusion with trails, as the entrance to the longer route shown on maps.me did not match exactly with the path.  Regardless, following the posted signs kept us on track.  After heading down for a ways on a steep and narrow sandy gulley, you reach the river and shortly a log bridge for crossing.

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It’s works best when your wife carries your backpack

After a moderate climb up the valley, the signs direct you to the right for the steepest climb of the loop.  At the top, you will be rewarded with impressive views into the gorge from a lookout point on the left, and a greeting party of children wanting candy.

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The final section is on a paved road for another 20 minutes before reaching Chugchilán.

Distance: 11.5 kilometers / 6.9 miles
Time: 3 hours
Starting Elevation: 2,950 meters / 9,680 feet
Ending Elevation: 3,184 meters / 10,450 feet

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Trek Day 3: Chugchilán to Quilotoa

Again, there are two route options this day.  The first heads through San Pedro, with the second curving through La Moya before the two meet back up for the climb to Quilotoa.  We had heard that the views are better through San Pedro, but a recent landslide had made that option dangerous.  At the advice from our hotel in Chugchilán, we trekked though La Moya.

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The day starts with a few hundred meter drop into the valley before regaining the elevation with a short but steep climb to the opposite ridge.  The trail then wraps the edge of the gorge before starting the long ascent to the crater rim.

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There are several trails that make their way to the top.  We opted to follow the one shown on maps.me until we met up with the dirt road.  From here, there is the option to follow the switchbacks on the road or take a straight path up the mountain.  We chose the dirt road after seeing no traffic and preferring the less steep grade.

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We reached the crater rim and trekkers lookout point after 3.5 hours.  The wind is extremely strong starting here for the rest of the hike, which whips up sand at high velocity.

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After time for shaky pictures, there are two ways to reach the end point.  The lake can be looped either clockwise or counterclockwise depending on your thirst for adventure.  The trail in either direction has treacherous spots near the cliff, especially in high wind conditions.  The eastern clockwise route is longer and significantly more dangerous and there have been hikers who have fallen to their death in the wind.  We chose the western edge going counterclockwise.

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There are a number of trails and false trails on this portion of the rim, many coming from animals.  Make sure to take the initial path behind the first peak to avoid a very thin and dangerous line over the tip.  Even following the map and the few signs, we found ourselves following false paths often.  Keep an eye out and turn back if you find yourself somewhere too dangerous.

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After another 1.5 hours on sketchy cliff sides and the occasional sand field, we reached Quilotoa town and the main tourist lookout.  Here there are some 20 hotels, plenty of restaurants and a handful of lookout points.  There is even a way to hike down to the lake shore, which takes 45 minutes, although the steep return is twice that.  After three days of climbing, we decided to forgo this descent.

Distance: 12 kilometers / 7.2 miles
Time: 5 hours
Starting Elevation: 3,184 meters / 10,450 feet
Ending Elevation: 3,930 meters / 12,895 feet

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Other Trekking Options:
  1. Start the trek in Isinliví.  Stay the first night there and hike to Chugchilán the next day.  This skips the first day of trekking but does not save any time as the bus to Isinliví does not leave from Latacunga until around 12:00.  The bus is 2.5 hours, so the late arrival almost requires a night stay.
  2. Start the trek in Chugchilán.  This skips the first two days of the trek but still keeps the day with the best views.  It also allows for a hike to the lake, which is more rewarding than simply taking the bus to the viewpoint.  The night would be spent in town with an early hike out the next morning.
  3. Start the hike in Quilotoa and trek to Chugchilán, Isinliví or Sigchos.  This is somewhat less difficult as the altitude is generally decreasing, but puts the main event first with decreasing scenery afterwards.

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Packing List for Quilotoa Loop Trek

With this hike including lots of steep climbs and relatively high altitude, it is smart to carry as little weight as possible.  Most accommodations in Latacunga will store extra bags free or for a small fee.  We brought only one 38 liter backpack, which had at least 10 liters to spare, and took turns carrying it throughout the trek.

  • Hiking boots
  • Hiking socks
  • Jacket (warm, light and packable)
  • Raincoat
  • Thermal top
  • Long hiking pants
  • T-shirt
  • Evening shoes / sandals
  • Sunscreen
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Sunglasses
  • Camera
  • Spare batteries
  • Charger and converter
  • Backpack
  • Sun hat
  • Gloves
  • Water bottle (at least 1 liter)
  • Water filter (we carry a Sawyer Squeeze)
  • Toiletries
  • Ibuprofen
  • Snacks

Optional:

  • Trekking poles
  • Headphones
  • Book

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If you are looking for other amazing things to do in Ecuador and South America, you will love these posts from our trip:

If you are heading to Peru next through the Aguas Verdes border, you will want to read our detailed experience.


Have you had it with normal?  Maybe it’s time to get more out of life.  How about starting with a detailed planning guide to help prepare for your own world trip, but only after you are financially prepared.  Once you’re ready, save yourself a backache with the world’s best minimalist packing list.

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