Ecuador's Quilotoa Loop

by Asurah on July 12, 2011

Ecuador's Quilotoa Loop

If you've read my past two articles published here, you know I have a passion for the mountains and also a little taste for the extreme--climbing, trekking, jumping off planes and places, you name it. But one thing I've never been too keen on is cycling. When I was in La Paz, I did pay the mandatory visit to the Death Road, but didn't really like it. I never ride my bicycle back home, and I'm not even sure if I've got one at all. But after failing to climb Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador due to winds of over 150kmph, I wanted to try something different.

My next destination after my failures in Riobamba was Latacunga, the starting point for the Quilotoa Loop, or Quilotoa Circuit, as some call it. This is a 200km route that goes through very rural Ecuador, the one you see mostly in tourist promotional posters. The main attraction of this loop is the Quilotoa Lake, a beautiful and enchanting lagoon nested in a volcanic crater. This is perhaps one of Ecuador's most well-known attractions and is featured in most tourist itineraries to the country in one way or another.

After doing some online reading, I decided I would cycle this route. It looked like a fun alternative to my previous five months or so of trekking and hiking, a little change in method. The biking blogs I read online said the route is possible to bike in four to five days, depending on which towns you plan to stop at on the way.

In Latacunga, the only big city around the loop, I got me some maps, a general idea of my route, and some supplies for the way--bread, tuna cans, and a bucket load of caramelos for the swarms of Ecuadorian children I knew I would encounter on my way. After walking around for a few hours, I found Joaquin from Bici Life, a bicycle shop around the main square in Latacunga. Joaquin was really nice and informative. He speaks decent English and told me everything I needed to know. He had a very decent bike to rent me for $10/day, complete with a good helmet, a kit for repairing flat tires, a chain and a lock for security and other tools for various repairs. He even agreed to meet me 6am the following day to deliver the bike, and agreed to guard my belongings during my trip. If you plan to do this kind of thing, I would suggest you go straight to him. Not an advertisement, just a good advice.

So, I went on my way the following morning. My first destination was the town of Pujili, about 20km from Latacunga on a very good asphalted road. What everyone forgot to mention is that this asphalted road is mostly uphill. And biking 20km uphill at 3,300m+ altitude is not an easy task. Combine that with the fact that the road was pretty busy with trucks, buses and cars flying up and down in a very dangerous way, and the fact that I had two flat tires before I reached Pujili, made me a very frightened, frustrated, and tired man. Then I did what I usually never do, I gave up. I turned my bike around, rolled down the hill straight to Latacunga, and returned my bike to Joaquin.

Surprisingly, he was very understanding and said it's probably better if I do it by bus and hiking, and even gave me some more instructions on how to do that. So, starting again, I walked to the bus terminal in Latacunga and got a bus direct to Zumbahua. The two-hour bus ride was fantastic, even though the bus was packing 60 people on a 30-seat bus. The sights and views on this road were absolutely amazing, one of the best views I've seen in my trip.

We arrived in Zumbahua around 1pm, just in time for the main event in their Corpus Christi celebration. As a very secular Jew, I had no idea what Corpus Christi is, and couldn't really get a clue from the mainly Quechua-speaking folks in Zumbahua. But, apparently, it's a week of celebrations in this area, where the communities get around the main square and dance in very colorful and interesting costumes. When I got there, in addition to the normal celebrations, they also celebrated the 39th anniversary of Zumbahua, and I got to see some really neat dancing performed by various schools and communities in the area. There was also a very big market around the main square.

After I was fed up with dancing, indigenous costumes, and the market, I took a pickup truck for $3 to the little town of Quilotoa, right next to the famous crater lake. You can also hike this 14-km road, but I was running late and really wanted to visit the lagoon before sunset. I got there, threw my stuff into some hostel, and went down to the lake, and it was indeed beautiful.

Once you get there, there are a few options for hiking. You can go down to the lake in about half an hour in a steep, slippery trail (the walk back up can take up to an hour, but there's no rush). Down there you can rent a kayak and row around in the lagoon. You can also rent a horse going back up to the rim of the crater, if you feel you can't walk it. Another option is to walk around the crater, which can take up to six hours. Better be prepared for some steep ups and downs, and know your trail before you go. There will be no one to confirm your trail other than other hikers, and even those are rare.

One thing I suggest is to spend the night at Quilotoa. The weather is almost always better in the early morning, and later in the afternoon, it can get cloudy and even rainy. Seeing the lagoon in sunlight is a totally different experience than seeing it when it´s cloudy or rainy, and you will enjoy it more that way. I went twice down to the lake, once in the afternoon and once the following morning, and it was a lot better the second time. After that, I went halfway around the crater's rim on my way to Chugchilan, the next village on the loop. I tried to be a smartass and avoid the steep hills of the crater's rim, but ended up on a different trail to Chugchilan. Or at least that's what the shepherd I met on the way told me. Either way, I got totally lost on this track, got down to a river, which had almost no trails around, and had to remember my Army navigation training. When lost, always go down the river. You'll meet someone eventually.

And in my case, someone ended up being three Ecuadorian kids playing in the river. I bribed them with some caramelos to show me the correct way to Chugchilan, which turned out to be right around the corner. After I found my way, I stopped for lunch (couldn't eat while I was stressed and lost), and later I continued along the trail, which was now very very clear. On this road, I passed some lady, carrying her body weight in dry wood for making fire. I suggested to help her carry it, and after I put down the pile in front of her home, she invited me in for tea. I gladly accepted, but then we couldn't really communicate since she spoke mostly Quechua. I think at one point she offered me her daughter, no more than 14 years old, and I kindly refused. After this interesting encounter, I kept on going, reached Chugchilan at around 5pm, and checked in to Mama Hilda´s Hostel, one of the only three in Chugchilan. Dinner was served in the hostel, and I met some interesting people for a chat there. There I used the heaps of information available at the hostel to plan my next day, which involved catching a ride with the milk truck to the next village, Sigchos, and then to Isinlivi.

The milk truck ride the next day was a lot of fun. Riding in the back of the truck while seeing all the magnificent views of this part of Ecuador was a nice experience. The milkman was nice and didn't charge us, but we still gave him a couple of dollars for his bother. He does this every day for travelers, and he deserved a thank you. In Sigchos, you can catch a bus at around 2:30pm straight to Latacunga, which will allow you some time to hike around Sigchos. We (I met a nice American couple during the milk truck ride) decided to take an earlier pick-up to the next town of Isinlivi, where there are a lot of hiking options, including a hike to the Toachi Canyon, a beautiful place indeed, though it takes a couple of days to complete. We just visited through, as we couldn't afford to spend two to three days there, and then we hitchhiked back to Latacunga. The rest of the road is just as impressive, going through a beautiful pass on the way with changing scenery during the ride.

And so I finished the Quilotoa Loop, not the way I had planned to, but it was a wonderful trip nevertheless. I could have easily spent a week or two there, since the towns are charming and the people are very nice. And also, the hiking and horseback riding are endless. If you can, I suggest doing the full loop, and an even more expanded version compared to what I did. A four-day trip with a few hikes and less hitchhiking would be ideal in my opinion. If you're not much of a hiker, you can take a tour from Quito or Latacunga, or just go to Quilotoa and back the same day via Zumbahua, which has a bus back to Latacunga every 15 minutes or so. If you can, go on a weekend, as these towns have some very interesting markets and celebrations. I was lucky to get the Corpus Christi experience by chance, but if you are around the area at this time of year (mid-June), don't miss this. Quilotoa is one of the most beautiful places in the world, in my opinion, and if you can soak up some native Ecuadorian culture on the way, all the best.

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by Laura
About 5 years ago

What was the name of this hostel Mattimperial?

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by darli
About 6 years ago

Hi Akanksha, how did you get on with your hiking? Can you recommend a tour company and rates? I had not planned on being in ecuador so im a little unprepared and would like go go to cotopaxi or at least get to some mountains without too much effort planning.. And suggestions most welcome. cheers

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by akanksha
About 6 years ago

Hi, I need some advice! It'll be great if you could help :) I'm planning to go to Quito on 10th feb. I'm wondering if it will be ok for me to climb the cotopaxi on 11th feb itself ? Keeping in mind the acclimatization etc. Also, what tour company did you use ? I'm trying to book in advance. Thanks!Akanksha

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