Written by Lucie
The Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador isn’t really a loop (unless you include the bus travel) but it’s a lovely, and very flexible, multi-day walk.
The walk can be done north to south – in which the hike finishes at the crater lake at Quilotoa and slowly gains altitude over the duration of the walk – or south to north. ‘Trailheads’ are the small hamlets on the path: Sigchos, Isinliví, Chugchilán and Quilotoa. There is some transportation (pick up truck taxis and milk trucks) between the hamlets, and the main buses go from Latacunga to Sigos, Isinliví and Quilotoa.
Before starting the walk we’d searched online and found differing opinions on how long each section took. The general consensus was that you need a minimum of three days and that each section took up to 6 or 7 hours. We booked our hostels accordingly (not really necessary, unless it is a public holiday, in which case the village of Quilotoa can be very busy) but as it turned out the information grossly over-estimated the difficulty and length of the walk. As such, we had an extremely leisurely few days at the end of April 2018.
Sigchos to Isinliví
We stayed in Latacunga the night before we started walking and left our non-hike stuff in a locker in the hostel. After breakfast we walked to the bus station and took a two-hour local bus along some very windy and bumpy dirt roads to the town of Sigchos, and set off along the road to Isinliví at about 12:15pm.
The walk was very straightforward. It was well-signed for the first section and after that it was pretty obvious where to go, and Maps.me was useful too. The walk went along a dirt road, then a small grassy path and then another dirt road past a small church. There were great views of the hillsides, with exposed rock faces and precarious terraces for crops. The path dropped down to a river, where we stopped to have a sandwich and look at the surrounding mountains. Towards the end of lunch some farmers herded a group of cattle and horses down the road to the grass where we were sat, but we were nearly ready to leave so we finished up and moved on.
After lunch we walked for a short while more on the dirt road next to the river and then crossed a small concrete footbridge. The track wound up hill, past some small farms and then we turned left off of the road to climb up the hillside, along a steep footpath. There were a few switchbacks and a couple of interesting gates that were made of strands of wire attached to a branch and held in place at either side of the path by string. In fact, most farm fences were just spindley branches or young trees, with some wire looped around them.
The path throughout the day often went past lots of eucalyptus trees and it was quite a nice reminder (even though eucalyptus is an introduced species to Ecuador) of Australia to smell the gum trees and crunch over leaves and ribbons of bark. We walked right next to people’s farms, crops and livestock at frequent intervals along the walk too.
After trudging steadily uphill, the path reached another dirt road where we turned right and the clouds started to really drop down and dust us with a fine mist. A short way along this road we turned off onto a little grass path to the right and walked through a group of sheep and chickens. We also met a llama and a bit before 4pm we arrived in the village of Isinliví and our hostel for the night – the raved about Llullu Llama.
It had been a really easy, short walk and we were very tempted to combine the first two days, walking Sigchos to Chugchilán via Isinliví. However, we had heard so much about Llullu Llama that we had to stop there for the night. It was a good decision. First of all, we dropped off our bags, looked around the gorgeous place and met the resident dog and llama (a different llama from the one we met on the path). Then we got two beers and went to the spa where we spent 1.5 hours in the hot tub and steam room, getting to know the other hikers who were arriving. After the spa time we all sat around a large table for a long very communal dinner: spinach soup with delicious homemade bread, quiche and salad, and homemade banana bread with strawberry sorbet. It was very tasty and amazing to have really fresh and reasonably healthy food. After dinner, we sat around the fire talking before bed.
Isinliví to Chugchilán
We woke to beautiful views across the hills, whereas the night before we were in the clouds. We had a morning yoga in the hostel, followed by a delicious breakfast. We left Llullu Llama at about 9:30am or so and walked down a path right next to the hostel to reach the river. We crossed another concrete bridge and started walking up the hill on the other side. A short way along a small grass path turned off to the right, cutting the corner of the dirt road.
On this new path we had amazing hill views and went past more exposed rock faces. We almost reached a white house where a little boy shouted out to us to turn right and go down the hill before the house – very useful! In fact, on all of our walks everyone we met was so friendly it was a real treat. Also, many people in rural areas were in traditional clothing, which was interesting to see.
The path went downhill and after bearing right we reached a fork, with no signpost or information. We checked Maps.me and took the right hand path further down the hill, and the tiny path quickly became tinier, with a stream running through it. Then, the valley opened up in front of us, with a river running down it and farms to the right. We turned left and started walked upriver, next to some other farms, over a makeshift stile and another wire gate.
After following this path for a while we reached a clearing with two horses and then dropped down to the river bank and walked over a bridge, made of a fallen tree with a piece of wire on one side for a handrail. We kept walking upriver, past a suspension bridge that our instructions ordered us to ignore.
We reached a small shop and turned left to reach a tiny village with a church and school. After these building we turned right and started a very steep climb, straight up the side of the mountain. This short section gained some serious altitude and we paused several times on the switchbacks. At last, we reached the top and had a snack at the viewpoint. The last section of the walk followed a dirt road to the left of viewpoint and then another left turn onto a proper road. It was a bit of a boring end to a beautiful walk, although we did speak to lots of school children who all asked if we had candy for them.
By 1:45pm or so we had reached the village of Chugchilán, and, despite feeling very undeserving of stopping walking (see the intro!), we pulled in to Hostal Cloud Forest. The place was nice, although nothing compared to Llullu Llama. After showers we reclined in hammocks, wrapped up warm as the sun started to set, chatted with people, had dinner and played pool before bed.
Chugchilán to Quilotoa
We woke up to discover that we were in the clouds. After breakfast it hadn’t changed much but it was fairly warm. We set off just before 9am and because the first section of the walk was downhill to the river we soon dropped below the clouds and had good views of the valley. After dropping a few hundred metres we crossed the river and started up the other side. The path was very loose, almost sandy, and very steep, which made the climb a good workout. There was evidence of a lot of landslides in the area.
At the top, we took in the view and the assortment of animals around us and continued on our way, through the next small hamlet and up another small path. At this point it started to rain a little, but it was quite light rain and the air temperature was still warm. However, a very short while later the rain got very heavy and also pretty cold. We kept slogging uphill towards the crater rim at Quilotoa. When we reached the rim we were immediately hit by a very strong, very cold wind. It was very misty across the lake and we dived into a small shack to shelter from the elements while we decided what to do next. It was only noon and our original plan had been to walk clockwise around the rim, covering about three quarters of the path (3-4 hours more walking), before reaching our hostel. However, given the low visibility, rain and extremely unpleasant wind, we opted for the shorter route to proper shelter.
Back out in the elements we marched forwards, and Lucie practically ran across the exposed sections to minimise her time in the full force of the wind. We knocked off the last 3.5km in about 35 minutes and dived into Hostel Chuquirawa. Even after a shower and in several warm layers it took us a long time to feel warm again. However, we eventually felt comfortable again and when the skies cleared we went out to take in the view.
We woke up to blue skies. After breakfast we weren’t in a rush, mostly because our shoes were still wet. But we packed up and went for a walk around the crater, making up for what we missed the day before. We quickly got very warm in the sun and our shoes started to dry out. By noon we were back in Quilotoa and went to catch a bus to Latacunga to collect our things.