Manuela de Mendonça is a 23 year old geographer, traveller, writer and runner currently backpacking through Latin America. She is documenting her adventures across the continent and sharing her experiences of food, history, culture and nature with us. Expect to read about ancient temples, local restaurants and the best places in the world to go walking.
13 March 2019: Somewhere in Latin America – Trekking the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador
The Quilotoa Lagoon, spanning over two kilometres in the crater of a massive volcano, is the subject of many a classic photograph of Ecuador. It’s easy enough to catch a bus from Latacunga or from Quito to Quilotoa village and to take such a photo from the vantage point, but if ‘easy’ isn’t your style then there´s another option: a three day trek rather inaccurately called the “Quilotoa Loop”.
The Quilotoa Loop takes you from Sigchos in the North through the small towns of Isinlivi and Chugchilan before ascending to the rim of the crater on the opposite side of the vantage point. After three days hiking at altitude, the sight of the lagoon is a great reward.
One of the great advantages of this hike is that it is very feasible: You don’t need to take a tent or carry cumbersome camping equipment, nor do you need masses of experience.
From Quito, head to Terminal Quitumbe which is in the south of the city. There are buses every 20 minutes or so to Latacunga which is a springboard for some of the best hiking in the country.
Latacunga has a range of hotels and hostels which are well set up for those wanting to hike in the area and have everything you need to get you round the loop. Three friends and I stayed at Hostel Tiana before we started the hike. The most useful thing they offer is a secure storage room where you can leave your main bags or suitcases while you hike with a smaller pack for the nights you are away. Storage is free the first night and costs a single dollar per night after that (Ecuador is pegged to the US dollar). They have round-the- clock CCTV as well as individual lockers for valuables. You can order up a sizeable plate of pasta and a hot drink before packing and tucking up in bed.
Isinlivi and Chugchilan will be your stopovers on this hike and both villages have a couple of extremely well-equipped hostels, so a small backpack is all you will need. Although we had pared down our bags to very little, it would have been possible to take even less than we did. Items such as towels, soap, snacks, water and packed lunches were available at each hostel we stayed at.
It would be sensible to take some warm clothing for the evenings and a waterproof jacket in case of rain. The lagoon is a punchy 3914m above sea level although you might climb higher depending on your route around the crater. Sun or no sun there is a brisk breeze at this altitude and the nights are cold.
The route is as follows:
Latacunga to Sigchos by bus.
Sigchos to Isinlivi on foot.
A map and written day by day instructions are available from Hostel Tiana’s reception and they will be happy to show you the bus timetable.
In Sigchos, the starting point is the bakery where we purchased two empanadas each for a grand total of 30 cents and started walking. The first day takes you down into a valley reminiscent of something from Tolkein’s Middle-Earth, through a small collection of farms and then back up the other side. For the final stretch to reach Isinlivi you will walk along contours the top of the valley, giving you a last mile of views over terraced, glacial landscape.
There are two places to stay in Isinlivi: Llulu Llama and Taita Cristóbal. Llulu Llama has a hot tub and a morning yoga class but it’s significantly more expensive than Taita Cristóbal, where we stayed. The rooms, a choice of dormitory or private bedroom, are warm, clean, comfy and have towels rolled neatly on the bed. Dinner was a community affair, with all guests seated on long tables busy comparing their hikes and talking about their travels. We ordered a packed lunch for the next day too, $3 for a sandwich, chocolate, fruit and water.
Isinlivi to Chugchilan on foot.
We got off to a slightly wobbly start. The trail is marked every few hundred metres or so with red and yellow marks painted on trees and rocks, but after about an hour we were at a loss as to where the next one was. We looked at the instructions: all the buildings that should have been on the left were on our right, and the tall trees we were supposed to be aiming for could have been any of those we could see. We were in the middle of an excellent performance of “Lost Tourists”, which is when you revolve on the spot staring about in a puzzled manner and which, in Ecuador at least, is certain to bring about the legendary kindness of rural strangers. Sure enough some farmers stepped in to save us, gently turned us around and put us on the right path.
After this things went much more smoothly. During the afternoon we passed through a small village selling water, snacks and coffee, where we topped up on provisions before tackling the days biggest hill. This is a 45-minute climb during which we were overtaken and thoroughly beaten by several school children between the ages of 5 and 9. Don’t let this get you down, it’s at over 3000m and they do this walk to and from school twice a day. The final stretch of the day is along a tarmac road which seems to go on forever, but there are hot showers, soft towels and a cup of tea when you reach your hostel.
Despite not leaving until mid-morning and spending a hour wandering in circles, we’d arrived at Cloud Forest Hostel with plenty of time to relax. We sat on a balcony warmed by the late afternoon sun. The WiFi was strong enough for a quick conversation with my family but not fast enough to watch a film so we drank camomile tea and compared sunburns until dinner. After dessert we placed orders for lunch the next day, which was another box of sandwiches, fruit and snacks.
Chugchilan to Quilotoa lake on foot.
Quilotoa Lake to Quilotoa village on foot.
Quilotoa to Latacunga by bus.
This part of the hike is the hardest and at the highest altitude. Most of the day was spent ascending the crater. The views are spectacular.
One thing to note is that there are two routes to the top: The overwhelming feedback from those who’d chosen the shorter but harder route was that it was a tough journey to make it to the top. We chose the ‘easier’ route and could say very much the same thing, except that it was longer. That said, Quilotoa lagoon viewed from the crest of a hill you’ve just climbed is a thousand times better than when viewed from Quilotoa village after two hours on a bus. No photographs ever quite manage to convey just how staggeringly big it is. At around two kilometres in diameter at its widest point it is almost too big to fit into the frame of a phone camera.
Again, there are two routes for the next leg of the journey: you can circle the lake clockwise or anticlockwise to reach Quilotoa village from where you can get a direct bus to Latacunga. The Anticlockwise route takes around an hour and is considerably easier than the clockwise route which takes you well above 4000m on a four or five hour hike. If you have to take a bus back to Latacunga and are pushed for time then this rocky trail will be tugging on your heartstrings. Alternatively, you can opt to stay a third night in the town of Quilotoa and hike it through the late afternoon or the next day.
Once you’re back in Latacunga there’s the chance to explore more of the Valley of the Volcanoes including hiking to either the summit or snowline of Cotopaxi itself which is at a whopping 6000m. Whether you’re touring the valley as part of a group tour or travelling under your own steam, The Quilotoa Loop should be up near the top of your list.
Previous Blogs: http://latinamericarevealed.co.uk/somewhere/
Manuela’s blog: https://run4thehills.com/