Did you know that one of the most spectacular crater lakes in the world is a mere bus ride from Quito or Latacunga? It may seem too good to be true, but it’s not – it’s an easy day trip to the breathtaking Quilotoa Lake from either city.
Located in the western Ecuadorian Andes, Laguna Quilotoa is actually a collapsed volcano. Known as a caldera lake, the area boasts jaw-dropping panoramic views, ethereal electric-blue water, and the opportunity to hike, kayak, or even just gaze down at the water from the viewpoint. Visitors of all ages and activity levels should prioritize a visit here while in Ecuador for a one-of-a-kind day in nature.
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A Guide to Quilotoa, Ecuador
An Introduction to Quilotoa Crater Lake
The Andean Volcanic Belt comprises about 150 active volcanoes, 55 of which are located in Ecuador. The Quilotoa volcano is actually the westernmost volcano in Ecuador’s Western Cordillera. About 800 years ago, the volcano erupted, and the force of the eruption led to its subsequent collapse, forming what is now the lake. Over time, the caldera formed by the collapse filled with water, which gets its beguiling blue-green color from minerals dissolving.
One of the things that makes Quilotoa so marvelous is its proportions. The caldera lake is 3 kilometers in width, and its walls reach 400 meters in height from the surface of the lake to the viewpoint area. The lake in turn is an astonishing 240 meters deep. Between the water, surrounding peaks, and intriguing rock formations, your eyes won’t know where to look next!
While there are other volcanoes surrounding the perimeter of the lake, it is totally safe to visit. Historic data is spotty at best, but no eruptions have been mentioned in historical texts since the late 1700s, and the area is a major tourist site.
Quilotoa Lake Altitude
While you probably won’t have to worry too much about volcanoes erupting, there is one risk to keep in mind while visiting this part of Ecuador, and the Andes in general. Quilotoa and its surroundings sit at about 3,915 meters above sea level. This definitely qualifies as high-altitude, and it can be really dangerous to not take it seriously.
No level of physical fitness can fully mitigate the effects of altitude. While most people will just feel a bit ill (nausea, weakness, fatigue), altitude affects everyone differently. It is crucial to rest and adjust prior to attempting the hikes in this area.
Altitude sickness usually goes away on its own after a few days, but if you push yourself too hard it can lead to pulmonary edemas, which can cause heart failure – pretty scary stuff. However, there are several tried-and-true tips for adjusting to high altitudes:
- Drink lots of water.
- Chew coca leaves. They aren’t psychoactive and are a tried-and-true local method for mitigating the effects of altitude sickness quickly. This is the best solution for most people. You can also brew them in tea, but this dilutes their strength compared to chewing them directly.
- Load up on carbs.
- Bring any prescribed altitude sickness medication with you.
- Avoid further increases in altitude until you’ve adjusted.
Best Time to Visit Quilotoa
Many visitors flock to the Quilotoa area between June and September, which tend to be drier and somewhat warmer months. The rainy season runs from October to May, which can make your trip a bit more unpredictable. Though it can be rainier, the off-season has the perk of far fewer tourists. Given the crowds on the trail in peak season, this is definitely something to consider! It often rains in the afternoons, so early morning hikes are still largely doable.
Keep in mind that the weather can fluctuate pretty dramatically year-round in the Andes, and pack those layers! Temperature-wise, the area is fairly temperate, but the winds can be fierce, even in summer.
Things to do at Quilotoa Lake
- Crater “down-and-back” hike
Certainly the most common activity, this hike begins at the viewpoint and goes down to the surface of the lake. The round-trip is around 560 meters, but keep in mind that it can be fairly slow going at some points.
The trail is often crowded with mules and other hikers progressing at different speeds, and the soft, sandy trail surface is very slippery. There are a lot of opportunities to stand to the side of the trail for fantastic photos, and the contrast between the views from the top and bottom is really neat.
- Kayaking and/or swimming in the lake
When you reach the bottom, you can rent kayaks for around $2USD per hour. This is a fabulous way to see the water up close! While swimming is allowed (depending on who you ask), the water is absolutely frigid year-round, so perhaps not an activity for the easily chilled!
- Quilotoa Loop
One of the premier multi-day hikes in the region is the 40-kilometer Quilotoa Loop, which takes 2 to 4 days to complete. it is considered doable even for amateur hikers, provided they’ve acclimatized that is! It is possible to do it self-guided or with a guide, and you can start or end at Laguna Quilotoa.
Also read: A Guide to Ecuador’s Best Treks.
Tip: Consider starting at the lake, as it is the highest point on the trail and you will lose elevation from there.
- Rim hike
A happy middle ground between the Quilotoa Loop and the down-and-back hike is the rim hike. If you’re fairly active, it should take about 3-5 hours, and you can circumnavigate the full rim of the lake, seeing the water below from all angles. This is a less crowded option than the down-and-back, and doable in a day if you don’t have time for the Loop.
It is possible to pay to ride a mule down to the waterfront and back, and this will be a common sight when you’re on the trail. However, the mules often seem malnourished and exhausted– a poignant example of animal tourism that you may want to think twice about participating in.
If you’d rather have a less active day, you don’t have to hike to enjoy the marvelous vistas of the water– there is a great viewpoint located right near the parking area. Even if you are planning to do one of the hikes, factor in some time for the viewpoint, as it offers absolutely spectacular views of the full caldera that you won’t get elsewhere.
How to Get to Quilotoa, Ecuador
Independently from Latacunga
Most transportation options to Quilotoa connect in Latacunga, and it’s an easy transfer to do by bus. From Latacunga, you can catch a bus that goes to Zumbahua, the closest town to the lake. The bus costs $2USD and takes about 2 hours, and you will have to catch a local bus or pickup truck to the entrance from there. Keep in mind that the bus doesn’t run very often and the schedule is subject to change. Make sure to ask when the last bus departs if you don’t want to risk having to stay overnight.
If you’re flexible on time and prefer to take public transport, you may want to consider staying the night in Quilotoa or Zumbahua. One option popular with backpackers is the Runa Wasi Quilotoa, which includes breakfast and dinner and is quite close to the lake entrance.
Independently from Quito
There are a few ways to get to Quilotoa from Quito as well. You can still take public transportation, which is by far the cheapest option, but this requires some advance planning. Most public transport options require you to stop or transfer in Latacunga– there are no direct buses from Quito. Buses depart from Quito’s Quitumbe station and are really comfortable and easy to figure out.
Buses from Quito to Latacunga leave super frequently, about once every 10 minutes. The ride should cost less than $3USD, and takes about an hour. Once you arrive in Latacunga, you can follow the instructions above to reach the lake.
Lastly, many people rent a car to reach Quilotoa from Quito, Baños, or other destinations in Ecuador. The distance from Quito is only about 178 kilometers, much of which is on the Pan-American Highway. There is ample parking available upon reaching the lake, and the trip takes about 3 hours.
Day Trip from Quito
There are several day tours available from Quito, often in the $50USD range per person for the full day. They often include pickup and dropoff at your lodgings, as well as a hearty breakfast and full-day guide. Depending on the day of the week, the tour also stops for a bit at a local market. If you go on a Thursday or Sunday, you will get the chance to visit the markets at Saquisilí or Pujili. This is a great place to grab some delicious local snacks!
Note that the tours often pick up at around 6:30 AM and drop off fairly late in the evening, so be sure to pack a lunch, snacks, and water because it can be quite a long day. You can book your day trip to Quilotoa Lake here.
Lastly, many tour companies also offer a combination trip that includes one day in Quilotoa and one in Cotopaxi, which would give you the opportunity to see the laguna and hike up the magnificent Cotopaxi Volcano to the glacier. Both sites are absolutely worth visiting and are easily doable in combination with each other if you’ve adjusted to the altitude.
Tips for Visiting Quilotoa Lake, Ecuador
- Wear layers. As in much of the Andes, the temperatures can vary wildly based on several factors: where you are on the hike, the time of day, whether you’re in the sun or the shade, the clouds, etc. You’ll likely be taking your jacket on and off all day and it can be quite chilly, even in summer.
- Wear comfortable shoes with good tread. Consider wearing shoes that you can slip on and off, like cross-training sneakers. The soft, sandy trail surface sometimes reaches ankle-depth and is very slippery. There may be times when taking your shoes off altogether is best, but prepare for a lot of sand.
- Bring lots of snacks, water, and sunscreen. Whether you take the bus or a tour, it can be quite a long day. The altitude and exposure can easily lead to sunburn, fatigue, and dehydration, and the restaurants near the viewpoint can be quite pricey. Consider packing a lunch bag and some nuts or other energy-boosting snacks.
- Take the altitude seriously. Consider waiting a few days before attempting this hike, as the walk back up is quite steep and strenuous even if you’re fully adjusted.
- If you chose to take a tour, don’t forget to tip your driver and guide!
The Quilotoa Crater Lake is one of the most spectacular natural wonders in South America, with the bonus of being a super easy excursion from Quito or Latacunga. There are several options for visiting, easily customizable for any amount of time or budget.
The really adventurous among you will love the option to hike the Quilotoa Loop, but Quilotoa Lake is also an eminently doable day trip, either on your own or with a tour.
Have you visited Quilotoa? Tell us what you thought in the comments!