The Quilotoa Loop is one of Ecuador’s best hikes. This epic journey is a rewarding adventure for travellers who want to see a less-visited side of one of the most beautiful parts of the country. The loop is generally pretty beginner-friendly (once you’re used to the altitude) and can be completed independently.
If you’re planning to embark on the Quilotoa Loop, our guide will tell you everything you need to know to plan your trip. So, grab a cuppa, we’re going to dive into when is best to do the hike, where to stay en route and we’ll even provide an itinerary for your journey.
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A Guide to Hiking the Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
Quilotoa Loop Stats
- Duration: 3 days – 5 days
- Distance: 36km
- Difficulty: Moderate
- High point: Quilotoa Lake (3,915 metres above sea level)
- Start point: Sigchos
- Endpoint: Quilotoa
Quilotoa Loop Itinerary
The following itinerary for the Quilotoa Loop is the most popular option chosen by travellers. It is also the hardest way to do the hike.
As Quilotoa Lake is the highlight of the trek, it makes for an epic finale. However, it is also the highest point of the hike, meaning that if you begin in Sigchos and end in Quilotoa, you will be travelling uphill for the majority of the hike. The altitude can be tough, so don’t underestimate this.
Warning: The highest point of this hike sits at 3,915 metres above sea level. Make sure you have allowed yourself time to acclimatise before you start the trek. Latacunga and Quito are good places to base yourself while you get to grips with the thin air.
If you fancy a more relaxed hike, we recommend doing the route in reverse, beginning at Quilotoa Lake and finishing in Sigchos. This way, you will spend the majority of the route going downhill.
Although the Quilotoa Loop officially begins in Sigchos, most people will stay the night in the city of Latacunga, before embarking on the hike the following day. Some of the hostels and hotels in town will give you the option to store your bags there which means you won’t have to carry your main luggage with you for the duration of the trek.
Day 1 : Sigchos – Isinliví
- 11 km
The Quilotoa Loop traditionally begins in the southeast of Sigchos. Although the route is much better signed now than in the past (look out for the red and yellow arrows), it is still advisable to download maps.me for navigation purposes. Many of the guesthouses in the area are also able to offer maps and route instructions.
The first day is arguably the easiest and trekking at lower levels will allow your body more time to acclimatise before you reach the finish point at Quilotoa Lake, the highest point of the hike.
Once you reach Isinliví, you will spend the night here. There are a few accommodation options but we recommend booking your space in advance to ensure that you don’t miss out.
Day 2: Isinliví – Chugchilán
- 11 km
There are two route options for hikers to get to Chugchilán from Isinliví, a longer one and a shorter one. According to the local hostel staff, the longer one is much more beautiful and therefore, this tends to be the one that is most recommended.
You’ll finish the day in Chugchilán. Aim to arrive here no later than around 4 pm if possible because the weather turns cloudy in the afternoon.
Day 3: Chugchilán – Quilotoa
- 14 km
The final day of the Quilotoa Loop is also the hardest. It is pretty much all uphill which can take its toll on already weary legs! Hikers can either head to Quilotoa via San Pedro or La Moya. The two trails then meet again for the last push into Quilotoa.
Although a lot of people opt for the San Pedro way, this is an area regularly impacted by landslides so it can get a bit hairy. When you get your map from your hostel, it is always worth asking the staff which way is best as they’ll be able to update you on any recent weather events.
The trail finishes at the breathtaking Quilotoa Lake, a natural wonder that needs to be seen to be believed. Don’t forget your camera!
Once you’ve arrived at Quilotoa, you can either catch a bus back to Latacunga or stay the night in one of the accommodation options in Quilotoa.
When to Hike the Quilotoa Loop
The best time to hike the Quilotoa Loop is during the dry season which spans from June to September. Don’t be too put off if you’re visiting during the wet season though as Ecuador’s position on the equator means the weather tends to be fairly predictable year-round. And, even if you visit in the dry season, always make sure you pack a raincoat – just in case!
Where to Stay on the Quilotoa Loop
Over recent years, the Quilotoa Loop has become more popular. This has had a knock-on effect on the availability of accommodation in the area, although options are still fairly limited when compared to other popular treks around the continent.
Many of the accommodation options on the route offer dinner and breakfast inclusive of the room rate. This is music to the ears of a shoestring backpacker!
Backpackers love the cheap and cheerful Hostel Café Tiana. It benefits from a central location and there is even a rooftop terrace to take in the views of the mountains from. They allow you store luggage here if you’re heading off to do the loop, just remember to bring a padlock! Bag storage costs around $1USD a day.
This budget-friendly option is popular with those choosing to stay in Sigchos. Breakfast and dinner are included in the price and although rustic, the place has a real traditional feel to it. The inn is family-run and the owners can offer lots of advice about the Quilotoa Loop hike.
Hostal Taita Cristobal, Isinliví
If you’re looking for a welcome retreat in which to recover after a long day of hiking, look no further than Hostal Taita Cristobal. This option also includes breakfast and dinner which is rated highly by guests. Don’t forget to say hello to the resident llamas during your stay!
Llullu Llama Mountain Lodge, Isinliví
This idyllic mountain stay is a favourite of many seeking comfort while walking the Quilotoa Loop. The rooms are comfortable and spacious and the facilities are everything you could ask for. The shared lounge has a log burner for those chilly evenings and there is even a jacuzzi. If you want to spread the hike over more days, take a rest day here.
Rave review: “Heating in the hostels at night is important and the Llullu llama Mountain hostel (with sauna) is the best I saw in years!” – Uri.
Cloud Forest Hostal, Chugchilán
This colourful and cosy option is a favourite with many hiking the loop. Much like the majority of the other accommodation options along the route, breakfast and dinner is offered to guests inclusive of the rate and there are hot showers which are a welcome addition after a chilly day on the trail.
It is the friendliness of the staff and the attention to detail that make this hostel stand out. The views of the surrounding area are wonderful and exactly what you need if you are looking for motivation to drag your weary butt back onto the trail.
Located a couple of minutes walking from Quilotoa Crater Lake, this lodge is ideally placed for those finishing their hike. The staff are very welcoming and will do whatever they can to make you comfortable. If you’re looking for somebody to take care of you, Runa Wasi is a great choice.
This place gets great reviews from travellers who love its warm vibe. Some of the rooms feature log burners, a welcome treat after a blustery day exploring the trails of the Andes! It is a good option for those on a budget who are craving the privacy of their own room.
Quilotoa Loop Budget
It is very easy to do the Quilotoa Loop on a budget. As you’d expect, perhaps the most cost-effective way is to take your own tent and camp along the route. We understand that this won’t appeal to everybody though – especially because there are some stray dogs en route that may be intimidating!
The main expenditure will come from your accommodation. Most of the options in between Sigchos and Quilotoa will include dinner and breakfast inclusive of the rate. The only additional costs you need to consider are the following:
- Luggage storage costs
- Transport to/from Latacunga
Of course, expenditure will vary per person but if you’re careful, you can do the full 3-day Quilotoa Loop for under $100USD per person.
It is worth noting that nearly all of the hostels on the loop will only accept cash payments. There are no ATMs along the journey so make sure you prepare in advance, by taking cash out, either in Latacunga or in Quito.
What to Pack for the Quilotoa Loop Hike
The following are the must-have items that you need in order to complete this trek:
- Hiking shoes/boots
- Stowable waterproof jacket
- Hiking trousers/leggings
- Quick-dry t-shirts
- Swimwear (If you want to make the most of the jacuzzis en route!)
- Phone – Download maps.me for the route
- Passport – To check in at accommodation
- Camera – for those picture perfect moments!
Getting to and From the Quilotoa Loop
Most people choose to travel to Latacunga before heading off to Sigchos. The town is a convenient stop to grab cash and arrange luggage storage. There are also more accommodation options available here than in Sigchos.
You can reach Latacunga by bus from Quito’s Quitumbe terminal. Buses run regularly (usually every half hour or so) and only cost a few dollars. Once you’re in Latacunga, you can either stay the night there or jump on a bus from the station to Sigchos. This journey takes between two and three hours and costs around $2-3USD.
If you wanted to do the Quilotoa Loop in reverse, you could also catch a bus directly to Quilotoa from Latacunga. The buses depart hourly and drop you within walking distance of the crater lake.
One Backpacker’s Experience Exploring the Quilotoa Loop Trails
Backpacker and travel writer, Regina Röder spent a few weeks hiking the trails of the Quilotoa Loop and spending time with the indigenous communities of Guayama Grande, a small village in the Ecuadorian Andes. Here she describes her unique experience getting to know the women of the community and what it taught her about harsh mountain life…
Note: Regina wrote this article back in 2015. Since her experience, much has been done to improve signage on the Quilotoa Loop and the hike has steadily attracted more visitors over the years. The Quilotoa Loop trails may no longer be as quiet as they are described in this account!
My journey started off in Latacunga. From here, I took a bus to a place called Zumbahua where I camped for one night in the mountains close to the town. Zumbahua is a small place known for its market on Saturdays, which is great for stocking up on fruit and vegetables but also a good choice if you want to buy handicrafts and souvenirs. If you are hungry, you can grab breakfast or lunch at the market for as little as $1.25USD!
From Zumbahua, it is possible to take a truck to Quilotoa for $1USD. However, I wanted to explore the area so I walked the full 12km to the lake, enjoying the amazing views of the Andes en route.
Laguna de Quilotoa was formed after a volcanic eruption 800 years ago. In the crater, water accumulated, creating a 250m deep lake. Thanks to the minerals dissolved within its waters, it shines a spectacular greenish colour today.
To me Quilotoa is a magical place – I went three times during my stay with a local indigenous family and camped right on the lake. You can basically put up your tent anywhere for free! Be prepared for cold and windy nights though.
Weekdays are usually very quiet and I happened to be the only person camping. On the weekend it can get a bit busier with Ecuadorian tourists, but in general, Quilotoa is a very tranquil place.
Quilotoa Crater Hike
If you want to hike down to the crater, it will take around half an hour. The climb back up is likely to take much longer because of the altitude and can be tough, especially if you carry all your gear. Plan about 1 – 1.5 hours for the return journey.
If you’re really feeling the effects of the thin air, you can ride to the crater on a mule for a small price. At the lake, it is possible to rent a kayak which costs around $3USD for half an hour.
Quilotoa Rim Hike
If you are into trekking you can do the rim hike around the crater, which takes around 5-6 hours and provides spectacular views of the lake as well as the surrounding landscapes. Personally, this was one of the highlights of my trip. If you catch a really clear day you will be able to see many of the volcanoes close by such as the Illinizas and Cotopaxi in ‘La Avenida de Los Volcanes’.
Quilotoa Loop Sections
Another great way to get to the lake is to walk one of the shorter sections which make up the Quilotoa Loop. The most rewarding section of this hike starts in Chugchilán, a lovely place in the Andes with lots of hiking trails. I highly recommend the Cloud Forest Hostal here. It is a cosy place to stay and the Ecuadorian owner gives you lots of tips on what to do in the area. The hike from Chugchilán to Quilotoa is pretty tough as it is largely uphill but provides stunning scenery.
I sometimes found it tricky to hike in this area as there were no signs or route descriptions. Make sure you ask for directions beforehand and confirm them with locals along the way. Also, don’t be surprised if the trail is very quiet, this is quite normal.
There are a couple of restaurants and little shops in the small town of Quilotoa. By using them, you can support the indigenous people of the region and grab lunch for less than $3.50USD. I recommend bringing some snacks along too because the stores do not offer a lot of variety besides drinks and sweets.
On your journey, you may meet indigenous people wearing traditional clothes. They speak a different language from most Ecuadorians, known as Quechua. During my travels, I learnt a couple of words in Quechua, but it is very different from Spanish and difficult to understand. Quechua was the language of the Inca empire which was destroyed by the Spanish in the 16th century.
After hiking the Quilotoa Loop trail in sections, I became fascinated by the culture of the area and decided to live and work with the indigenous community in the small village of Guayama Grande for a couple of weeks. It was a tough but rewarding experience. Getting used to working in very cold conditions 4,000 metres above sea level was a culture shock, to say the least!
If you like nature and are interested in learning about traditional Ecuadorian culture, the area around Quilotoa is fantastic for spending a couple of days or even weeks exploring. There is so much to learn from the indigenous people who have worked the land here for centuries.
Food for Thought…
During my stay, I met some of the most hard-working women that I have ever encountered. Life is different in the Andes and the men work in the cities during the week, which means the women take care of the farms and the children at home. Some of the girls I met were only 17 and had their first child strapped on their back while working in the fields. On average, a woman in this area will have six children of her own!
Living such a simple life and working long, hard days in this unforgiving, high altitude environment was an incredible experience. Every day we were out in the fields carrying goods such as potatoes, maize, wood and stones up and down the mountains.
The women in Guayama Grande work as long as it is light outside, which equates to roughly 12 hours a day. On the weekends, the men come home from working in the cities and usually spend their weekends getting drunk while the women take care of them!
Observing these scenarios made me realize how lucky I am to have grown up in a western society where I can make choices for myself as a woman. These girls do not have the choice to pick a different path.
Staying with the women in the community was physically and emotionally a very tough experience for me, which made me appreciate the little things in life and the freedom I have as a young woman, to be able to travel the world and choose my own destiny. I truly hope that future indigenous generations in Ecuador will have more opportunities. And for the women, I hope that they will eventually have more freedom than today.
Have you hiked the Quilotoa Loop before? What was your experience?