Lake Quilotoa and the Quilotoa Loop

Luminous green water fills the caldera of an extinct volcano.

Located in an extinct volcano, Lake Quilotoa is perhaps the most breathtaking sight in Ecuador. Photo © Mihai, licensed Creative Commons Attribution

The road northwest of Latacunga loops through a series of remote indigenous villages. The spectacular scenery in this region—in particular the incredible beauty of Lake Quilotoa—makes this a very popular hiking destination. The lake itself can be reached on a day trip, or you can spend anything from a couple of days to the best part of a week hiking through the undulating landscapes.

Transportation around the entire loop is limited to two direct buses per day, and less than half of the 200 kilometers of road are paved, with the remainder made up of rough dirt tracks that are sometimes impassable in the rainy season. While this makes getting around a little complicated, it’s also part of the reason why the loop remains refreshingly remote and unspoiled. In addition to the breathtaking scenery, the indigenous communities have held on to their traditions. Along with the villages around Otavalo, this is one of the best regions in the Andes to experience thriving Kichwa culture.

Getting There and Around

There’s no escaping that getting around the Quilotoa Loop can be a challenge. There are only two buses daily, often jam-packed with locals and even the occasional animal. If you miss the bus, you can try your luck at hiring a pickup truck to take you to the next town.

Two regular Transportes Iliniza buses travel the entire loop daily...
Two regular Transportes Iliniza buses travel the entire loop daily, one in each direction. All times listed below are the official times. You must arrive on time or risk missing the bus (and most likely not getting a seat). Bear in mind that the bus is often late. The bus traveling on the most popular route leaves daily at noon from Latacunga’s bus terminal, heading clockwise around the loop. It passes Zumbahua at 1:30 p.m. ($1.50), Quilotoa at 2 p.m. ($2), and arrives in Chugchilán at about 3:30 p.m. ($3). The other bus heads counterclockwise around the loop from Latacunga to Chugchilán, leaving from the Latacunga bus terminal at 11:30 a.m. It passes Saquisilí at 11:50 a.m. ($0.50), Sigchos at about 1:30 p.m. ($2), and Chugchilán around 3 p.m. ($3).

Both buses stay overnight in the plaza at Chugchilán, leaving before dawn the next morning as they head in opposite directions back to Latacunga. The counterclockwise bus leaves at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., passing Quilotoa at 5 a.m., Zumbahua at 5:30 a.m., and reaching Latacunga at 7:30 a.m. In the other direction, the bus leaves Chugchilán even earlier at 3 a.m., passing Sigchos at 4 a.m., Saquisilí at 7 a.m., and arriving in Latacunga at 7:30 a.m.

If you miss the daily bus, all is not lost. Going clockwise from Latacunga, there are hourly buses to Zumbahua (2 hours, $1.50) bound for Quevedo near the coast. From Zumbahua, you can hire a pickup truck ($5 pp, $10 minimum per group) to Quilotoa. Hiring a truck to Chugchilán is more difficult because of the quality of the road, and it costs at least $25 from Quilotoa and $35 from Zumbahua.

Going counterclockwise, there are several buses hourly from Latacunga to Saquisilí (20 minutes, $0.50), and seven buses 9:30 a.m.–6 p.m. to Sigchos (2 hours, $2). Getting to Chugchilán from Sigchos is tricky, but you may be able to hire a pickup truck for about $25.

Pujilí

Some 12 kilometers west of Latacunga, this bustling little market town springs to life on Sundays and Wednesdays when Plaza Sucre, a couple of blocks from the main squares, fills with market stalls. It is not aimed at visitors, but it is pleasant to visit.

Of more interest are the multicolored steps just up from the bus terminal that lead up to the mirador (lookout) at Cerro Sinchaguasín. It’s a steep 15-minute walk to the top, which commands spectacular views of the valley with Cotopaxi in the distance.

Tigua

West of Pujilí, the road climbs higher, offering stunning views over the valley below. After about 40 kilometers, you reach the village of Tigua (elevation 3,600 meters), a cluster of indigenous communities famed for their artwork. Hundreds of artists in town paint bright depictions of Andean life onto sheep hides. On the main road, one of the best galleries in town is Galería Tigua-Chimbacucho (no phone), run by Alfredo Toaquiza, whose father pioneered the art form.

There is not much else to do in Tigua, but if you want to stay, the best place is La Posada de Tigua (Hacienda Agricola-Ganadera Tigua-Chimbacucho, Vía Latacunga-Zumbahua Km. 49, tel. 3/281-3682 or 3/280-0454, $30 pp, breakfast and dinner included), a working 19th-century ranch with cozy guest rooms, fresh food, and horseback tours available.

Zumbahua

About 15 kilometers west of Tigua, the town of Zumbahua becomes the weekend hub of the region during its busy Saturday market, when indigenous people flock to town with livestock and various wares carried by llama. The town gets surprisingly noisy on Saturday nights, and most travelers just pass through, but you could be stuck if you miss the bus and can’t find a pickup truck to take you to Quilotoa. Note that it can be hard to find a room on Friday night.

Of the basic hotels around the main plaza, Hotel Quilotoa (Plaza Central, tel. 8/614-0686, $6–7 pp) is a dependable, friendly place with private baths and a rooftop terrace. Tigua painters have a gallery next to the new community Samana Huasi (Vía Latacunga-Zumbahua, tel. 3/282-4868, $6), on the main road toward Pujilí.

Laguna Quilotoa

The luminous turquoise water of this lake in an extinct volcano is perhaps the most breathtaking sight in Ecuador. On a clear day, the spectacle of the sky reflected in the mineral-rich waters 400 meters below the rim, with the snow-capped peaks of Ilinizas and Cotopaxi in the distance, is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Laguna Quilotoa was formed about 800 years ago after a massive eruption led to the collapse of the volcano. Locals believe that the lake is bottomless, and geologists estimate its depth at 250 meters.

Now part of the Iliniza Ecological Reserve, the entrance fee is a mere $1 pp to enter the village of Quilotoa (elevation 3,900 meters) and access the lake. Note that the lake is sometimes shrouded in mist (most commonly in the afternoon), so it’s best to plan an overnight stop here to avoid disappointment.

The hike around the rim (4–5 hours) is the best way to appreciate the stunning views. The walk down to the lake (under 2 hours round-trip) is also spectacular. Donkeys ($5) are sometimes available to carry you back up, and canoes ($5 pp) can be rented on the lake.

Accommodations can be found along the turnoff from the main road, where a few Tigua artists run humble hostels with fireplaces, wool blankets, and simple home-cooked food. It gets very cold at night here, so bring plenty of warm clothes. Local artist Humberto Latacunga’s Hostal Cabañas Quilotoa (Vía Quilotoa, tel. 3/281-4625 or 9/212-5962, $8–10 pp, breakfast and dinner included) has simple guest rooms with fireplaces and hot-water showers. Humberto’s beautiful paintings and carved wooden masks are for sale in the restaurant. Another option farther up the hill is Princesa Toa (tel. 9/455-6944, $8–10 pp, breakfast and dinner included), which offers cheap set lunches ($2.50).

The only mid-range lodging in town is the Quilotoa Crater Lake Lodge (tel. 2/252-7835 or 9/794-2123, $40 s or d, breakfast included), which overlooks the lake and boasts panoramic views. Guest rooms are warm and comfortable, and the restaurant is the best in the village.

Chugchilán

One of the most popular trails on the Quilotoa Loop is the five-hour hike to Chugchilán (elevation 3,180 meters), 22 kilometers to the north. The dramatic route skirts cliff edges, passes through the village of Guayama (the only place for refreshments), and descends into the precipitous Río Toachi canyon at Sihui before making the final uphill push to Chugchilán. Maps are available at the Black Sheep Inn in Chugchilán and at Cabañas Quilotoa. It’s not advisable to do this hike alone, and it is best to leave no later than 1 p.m. It’s possible to do the return trip between Chugchilán and Laguna Quilotoa in one long day, but you would have to start very early. Doing it in the opposite direction, from Chugchilán, involves more uphill hiking, but the advantage is that you can time your trip to catch a bus back from Quilotoa at 2 p.m.

The hike west to Isinliví or Guantualó, which has a traditional Monday market, starts on the road about three kilometers north of Chugchilán. Take the path opposite the road to the cheese factory or the turnoff at Chinaló to reach Itualó, and cross the bridge over the Toachi River.

Chugchilán itself is a poor, remote mountain village, home to about 25 families. There’s a women’s knitting cooperative selling clothing and a small cheese factory outside town on the road to Sigchos. There is a small Sunday market and a few small shops in the center, good for stocking up on provisions for hiking. The phone service in town is quite unreliable, and your best bet is the Andinatel office on the main plaza.

The best budget accommodations in town are found at the homey Hostal Mama Hilda (tel. 3/270-8075 or 3/270-8005, $17–21 pp, breakfast and dinner included). Run by the friendly owner, Mama Hilda, the building dates from the 1850s and used to be the town’s schoolhouse. There are simple but comfortable guest rooms with shared or private baths, and some have woodstoves to keep warm.

The nearby Hostal Cloud Forest (tel. 3/270-8016 or 8/270-8181, $12–15 pp, breakfast and dinner included) has expanded recently and now has 80 guest rooms. It’s another good budget option with guest rooms that have shared or private baths, a popular restaurant, and a living room kept warm by a fireplace. Volunteer placements to teach in the local school are available.

Both hostels offer horseback riding (4–5 hours, $15 pp), and guides to hike from Laguna Quilotoa to Chugchilán cost $15 per group. Transportation can be hired on local trucks to or from Laguna Quilotoa, Zumbahua, or Sigchos ($25–30).

The town’s most famous accommodations used to be found at the award-winning Black Sheep Inn (tel. 3/270-8077). In 2011, however, the inn, run by founders Michelle Kirby and Andres Hammerman, was converted into a retreat center specializing in hosting group events and is no longer open to visitors. The inn has been a model of ecological sustainability and self-sufficiency for many years, with composting toilets, organic gardens, a greenhouse, and a full recycling program. There’s a gym, a yoga studio, a steam room, and a hot tub as well as a solar-powered waterslide and a 100-meter-long zip-line between two eucalyptus trees. Llamas, ducks, dogs, chickens, and, of course, the odd black sheep wander the grounds, which spill down the hillside above the town. For further information on organizing group events, which must be booked well in advance, consult the website.

Sigchos

About 24 kilometers north of Chugchilán, the road undulates down to the little town of Sigchos, which fills up for its Sunday market but is otherwise unremarkable. If you’re hiking from Chugchilán, you could opt to stay here at La Posada (Galo Atiaga and Las Ilinizas, tel. 3/271-4224, $6 pp), which has small but clean guest rooms and a good restaurant (7 a.m.–9 p.m. daily) downstairs offering set meals ($2) and chicken, meat, and fish entrées ($3–4).

Isinliví

A worthwhile detour from the traditional Quilotoa Loop is 12 kilometers southeast of Sigchos to the village of Isinliví, which boasts a beautiful setting and is home to an Italian-run cooperative of artisans specializing in woodcarving. There are many excellent hiking and mountain-biking routes in the area, including trails to Quilotoa (7 hours’ hike), Chugchilán (4 hours), and the colorful Monday market in Guantualó (1 hour).

A good place to stay is Llullu Llama Hostal (tel. 3/281-4790, $18–21 pp), run by the same Dutch-Ecuadorian couple that runs Hostal Tiana in Latacunga. The name means “new flame” in Kichwa. Set in a renovated old country house are five private guest rooms, four loft rooms, and a dormitory. Breakfast and dinner are available, along with box lunches on request. You can rent horses with local guides and obtain clear hiking maps with instructions.


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Ecuador.


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