One of the most rewarding, enjoyable, and cheapest(!) things that we did while in Ecuador was spend four days hiking town-to-town to the crater lake of Quilotoa. Think a Nepalese teahouse trek or jaunt through the Cotswolds – but set in the Northern Andes and each day is a race to arrive under shelter before the afternoon rains come to drench the landscape. An escape from the cities and buses for a few days into a limitless rocky landscape.
After reading Along Dusty Roads’ 2015 post(s) on hiking the Quilotoa Loop on a budget, I hope this post can provide an update, share what worked, and provide some insights on what we did differently.
Staying in Latacunga
Quilotoa lies a few hours outside the Cotopaxi capital of Latacunga. From Quito, we took a quick 2-hour bus from the city’s Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe (Google Maps), which is right off the city’s Metro line. Buses leave every hour or so and cost $1.50.
Latacunga is a bustling regional capital with a lot of industry but not much to do. We, like nearly everyone hiking the Loop, stayed at Hostel Tiana. Hostel Tiana has several advantages over the other local budget options: 1) intimate knowledge of the Quilotoa Loop and other trekking, options, 2) bag storage while you are gone for $1/day in a room with lockers and CCTV, and 3) a solid free breakfast with free coffee and tea all day long.
Pack light. I can’t emphasize this enough. I took a 18L pack for the full trip and still had items with me that I didn’t use. Sure, I didn’t smell amazing on our last day heading back to Latacunga but at that point I was on my way to the shower anyway.
Here’s what you need:
- Warm Jacket (down, synthetic, or fleece-lined)
- Rain Jacket (if the one above isn’t waterproof)
- Base Layers (tops and bottoms)
- Non-cotton tee (it gets hot and sweaty in that Andean sun)
- 1 pair hiking pants or convertibles (shorts aren’t a necessity but it gets hot during the day)
- 2 pairs underwear (1 and 1 extra)
- hostel clothes (long-sleeve top and bottom)
- 1 pair hiking socks
- 1 pair hiking shoes/boots
- Book or Kindle
- Phone or Camera
- Sun hat or baseball cap (it shouldn’t get cold enough while you’re hiking to need a warm hat)
- Toiletries (no need for soap or towel – all hostels provide both)
Everyone is overplaying the cold.
While you need to be prepared with warm clothes, we were prepared for an Arctic blast! Maybe it was ADR’s line “At night, expect to fall asleep under a mountain of blankets whilst still dressed in most of your hiking clothes, including hat.” This is NOT true.
Day 1: Latacunga -> Sigchos -> Isinlivi
Getting a Bus
With a dozen other trekkers from our hostel, we walked about 10 minutes to the Latacunga Bus Station (Google Maps) and took the 9:00 a.m. bus to Sigchos ($2.30). Buses run hourly (more or less) beginning at 9 a.m. and continuing through the afternoon. The bus was full, which I heard was unusual and it took nearly three hours to get to Sigchos bus station. It stops to pick up passengers along the way and several of us Gringo backpackers ended up swapping our seats to the more seasoned locals who joined our ranks.
When to get off the bus.
While it may be difficult to convince those with you, don’t take the bus from Latacunga all the way to the Sigchos station. The bus enters Sigchos by the Northeastern Road and you will be packing out from the Southeast. The bus station is on the West side of town and getting off there will require a (not unpleasant) trek across the entire town before you begin on the road to Isinlivi.
The Road to Isinlivi
We were carrying some shitty photocopied directions from Hostel Tiana that would ostesibly get us to Isinlivi but what we soon discovered was that Hostel Llullu Llama has graciously provided trail blazes along the trail each time you need to make a turn. Even without Llullu Llama’s accompanying directions, these guided us in good stead to arrive in Isinlivi with minimal head scratching.
Stay at Llullu Llama
As you will hear from… everyone, Llullu Llama is the best hostel on the Loop and maybe in all of Ecuador. It’s run by two guys from Quito in their thirties. While they don’t speak perfect English, they take on “interns” who generally do. There are private rooms and a cool attic (loft) with mattresses spaced out along the floor that works as their “dorm.” It has the feeling of a boutique escape with free coffee and tea, a reasonable barwith cocktails, a cosy main room, and a finished patio that looks out over the valley. The house dog, Balou, and house llama, Llullu (obviously), are welcomecompanions to an afternoon of sipping Pilsener and watching the clouds roll in. A three course dinner and extensive breakfast were the highlights as they nourished us after a long day of hiking and fueled us for the day ahead.
Oh, and there’s a spa. If you want to shell out the ten bucks, Llullu now has a beautiful spa, complete with a solar power heated Jacuzzi, a dry sauna and a turkish bath, it might sound good at the end of a day of hiking. We’re broke so we passed.
Included: Dinner, breakfast, towel
Beer: $3 ($2.50 on Happy Hour)
Coffee & Tea: Included
Day 2: Isinlivi -> Chugchilan
Leaving from Isinlivi, the llama-shaped blazes from Llullu Llama are still with you and continue to guide you along through a long descent and even longer climb on day two. The orange and yellow blazes also continue. If you remember to take pictures of the Llullu Llama directions with your phone before leaving, you will be fine.
About two-thirds of the way through the hike, there is a Parador or rest stop that serves food, cold drinks, and snacks. While we all passed on Llullu Llama’s bag lunch, we were happy to have a place for some peanut butter, granola bars, and a beer.
After making a final steep decent out of the valley, don’t miss the beautiful lookout point to your right that provides sweeping views of the whole valley. The last couple of miles are unexciting and are on a newly paved road through Chugchilan. If you’d like, you could easily hail a bus or truck to carry you the rest of the way in.
Chugchilan is the biggest town you stay in along the Loop and there are two primary lodging options available. As soon as you arrive in town, there are signs for Black Sheep Inn – a higher-end option and, thus, not the one we chose. Black Sheep Inn enjoys a sterling reputation for providing three stellar meals to their guests (including a bag lunch). They have also painstakingly compiled excellent photograpjic directions to Puente del Cielo and other breathtaking local hikes that branch off from the Loop. Most who stay here take an extra night to take advantage of this.
We and the majority of the group with whom we were hiking chose to stay at the massive Cloud Forest Hostel near Chugchilan’s town center. The rooms were new, fairly basic, but every group gets a private, as there’s no dorm. Many rooms come with an ensuite bathroom and some have heating pipes that run with steam through the rooms during the night. This heating process is nice but not necessary as there is a 8-inch pile of blankets on each bed.
Dinner and breakfast at Cloud Forest were good but basic with rice and little meat for dinner and eggs, granola, yogurt and fruit for breakfast. While I did not have any problems, some in our group believed they had some stomach issues from the food.
Cloud Forest Specs
Included: Dinner, breakfast, towel
Black Sheep Inn Specs
Included: Dinner, breakfast, lunch, towel, directions for hard-to-follow nearby hikes
Day 3: Chugchilan -> Quilotoa
This day is the hardest, hands down. While some may debate whether the hiking is the most enjoyable or scenic, it is certainly the most challenging and has the greatest payoff with sweeping views of Lake Quilotoa greeting you at the end.
There are two (really, three) ways to trek from Chugchilan to Quiolota: the hard way, the harder way, and the “who does that?” way. Members of our traveling caravan took all three routes but Noah, Bruno, and I – as you might imagine – found ourselves somewhat unintentionally on the most difficult route. Here’s a rough overview:
Route 1: Primarily on dirt and gravel roads and trail. Circumvents going down into the canyon and back up. Passes the waterfall.
Route 2: More trail and more “up and down” than Route 1. Still minimal washouts and technical climbing or scrambling. You pass the waterfall.
Route 3: Cuts off distance by going straight into the canyon and straight back out. Many steep climbs along creek beds with repeated switchbacks. All railings have been washed out. Trail is washed out in many areas and requires scrambling. Sandy dirt is unstable in many areas. Does not pass the waterfall.
Once you finally arrive at the rim of Lake Quilotoa, the lake is splayed out before you in Panorama.
Stay at Chukirawa Hostel
Included: Dinner, breakfast, towel
Day 4: Quilotoa -> Your Life, Continued
There are many ways to return to Latacunga or move on once you have reached Quilotoa. We chose to take a shared truck back for $5 each (about twice as much as the bus would have been). The truck did drop us right back at the hostel (as opposed to the bus station) where we were able to gather our things and begin our move toward Guayaquil.
Bus or Truck back to Latacunga
Starting at 9:00 a.m. and hourly afterwards until 4:00 p.m., you can catch a bus from Quilotoa to Latacunga for about $2.50 (this is the rough going rate for most bus rides in the area). The bus schedules are notoriously off so you, like us, may end up taking a truck. The truck had the benefit of taking less time and getting us directly to our destination for $5. It picked up locals along the way but this didn’t change the pace at all.
Bus or Truck to Zambahua
If you’re not ready to go back to Latacunga or want to continue your journey somewhere that does not require going to Latacunga, you can head to Zambahua for about $1.50, where buses leave to a plethora of regional destinations. As it turns out, this would have been the better choice for us, as we were headed to the Pacific coast. However, our big backpacks were still resting in the dungeon-like basement at Hostel Tiana. What we didn’t know was that Hostel Tiana will send your bags to many local towns for an additional cost, just contact them 24-hours ahead of time.
Hike to Zambahua, Bus to Latacunga
You’re not really hiking toward anything at this point but if you’re not all hiked out at this point, you can take a few hours on this last morning to hike the 12km to Zambahua. It’s primarily on road, so not as scenic. The bright side is that you can catch a truck to Zambahua (about $1.50) whenever you want and then catch the subsequent $2.50 bus back to Latacunga or on to your next destination. As mentioned above, if you don’t plan to go back to Latacunga but have your bags stored at Hostel Tiana, contact them 24 hours ahead of time to have your gear sent to Zambahua for pick-up.
Tips for the Trail
Just a few extra thoughts for your days on the Loop.
Get good directions/maps.
As you can tell, we were lost or at least misdirected at many times along our trek. While it never led us to be truly lost (almost impossible in an area as populated as Cotopaxi) it can delay you, especially if you’re not a strong hiker. Hostels like Llullu Llama and Black Sheep Inn have very good directions for all legs of the route with color photos of landmarks. Take photos of these directions on your phone before departing from your hostel in the morning and they will serve you well all day.
Follow the Trail Blazes
While people told us to follow certain paths and certain directions, what nearly every local failed to mention was that the trails along the Quilotoa loop are marked with VERY consistent trail blazes. As were mentioned above, Llullu Llama does an excellent job of marking the two legs that lead to its hostel. Cloud Forest also employees some less-frequent markers to reassure you that you are on the trail. However, the most helpful markers are also the simplest. Yellow and Orange blazes (just dots or lines on rocks and trees) are every few hundred yards for almost the entirety of the trail until you begin hiking up to the crest above Lake Quilotoa. If you follow these blazes closely, you are much less likely to get lost.
Lunch: go without.
Hostels like Llullu Llama offer a packed bag lunch for $5 (sandwich, fruit, etc.). You don’t need it. There is at least one Parador (rest stop) along the trail each day that will offer some provisions and comida topic to give you a boost. Load up on breakfast and carry some granola bars from Latacunga for the trail ahead and you should be find.
Be ready for water balloons.
This was something that we were in no way prepared for but as we hiked out of Sigchos on Day 1, a water balloon came lofted from a roof above and nearly caught Noah in the head. Not sure what was going on at the time, we kept going. However, in the subsequent days we found that kids in the towns got a lot of joy from tossing these balloons at the passing gringos. If you can find some water balloons to take with you, it’d be a lot of fun to provide some return fire 😉