At the time of our trek, this September, the Quilotoa Loop felt like one of Ecuador’s best kept secrets. But the scenery, camaraderie, and (amazing!) hostels we found along the way were too good not to share. It’s a trek that attracts adventure-types and we don’t think that will change anytime soon – that’s the beauty of it.
The Quilotoa Lake can be done in one day, but for those looking for adventure and some amazing off-the-beaten-path scenery, taking a few more days to hike Ecuador’s Quilotoa Loop is a must. It’s an especially great escape after spending a few days in the bustling city of Quito (only 2 hours away) or as a combination with other volcano treks like the popular Cotopaxi tour. The ability to store your big packs away for only a few dollars, the hearty dinners and breakfasts provided by hostels marking the route, and the lack of organized tours mean that you can focus all of your energy on the trek itself – and the spectacular landscapes.
Included: About | Getting There | Accommodations | Towns along the way | Traditional Markets | Food & Safety
What is “the Quilotoa Loop”?
The Quilotoa Loop is a high-altitude hiking route that runs through a series of small indigenous villages in the Ecuadorian Andes. While some travel companies can organize group tours, the Quilotoa Loop is most often done as a self-guided hike (what we did and what inspired us to write this post!) The highlight of the route and its namesake is the Quilotoa Lake, a dramatic crater lake formed in Ecuador’s most western volcano. For every day on the trail there are unique sights and experiences to be had: traditional markets, mountainsides dotted with sheep and their shepherds, winding rivers, eucalyptus forests and of course: the mountains. The Quilotoa Loop does not have an official route; it is a series of connecting footpaths from village to village, marked by hostels that are ready to point you to the next destination. Because of that, there is flexibility for this trek to last anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks; it’s length and difficulty are up to you. By getting to know the route and stopping points, you can put together the best version of “the Quilotoa Loop” for your time frame and budget. We’ve put together all of the essential information you’ll need based on our own trek and input from others who loved it just as much as we did. Don’t miss this hike, it’s one of the top experiences we had in Ecuador!
How to get to the Quilotoa Loop
Buses generally leave for Latacunga every 30 minutes from the Terminal Quitumbe, and the trip only last 1 hour 15min. However, the Quitumbe station is quite far from the more touristic parts of Quito so plan accordingly – it can take up to an hour to get there. If you take the trollebus, it is the last station to the South. If you are on a direct bus you will arrive at the bus station which is 15 minutes walking to the area where most hostels are located. If you are on a bus that drops you off at the bypass, you can take a short taxi ride to the center of town.
If you’re on a day trip from Quito or the surrounding areas to visit the Cotopaxi volcano, you can conveniently ask to be dropped off in Latacunga – it is on the way for many tours. Many of the busses stopping at Cotopaxi are on their way to Latacunga – flag one down or ask when they stop to drop off passengers. Equally, if you would like to visit Cotopaxi after your hike, you should be able to ask any bus headed for Quito to let you off at the Cotopaxi National Park entrance.
The Hostels of the Quilotoa Loop
One of the most memorable aspects of hiking the Quilotoa Loop was experiencing the quaint hostels and cabinas that mark the path. Their rustic architecture, amazing mountain views and tendency to get the details right: hot chocolate, toasty hearth rooms, and well-marked route maps, make them great places to rest and get to know the area. We especially enjoyed the fact that hostels include dinner and breakfast in the cost, making the need to pack in food minimal. The hostels in Latacunga, the start/end point of the loop offer baggage storage services, meaning that hikers can carry only the essentials with them and pick their big backpacks up when they finish the loop. See specific accommodation suggestions under each town if you, like us, decide to take the hostel-hopping option.
*It is also possible to do wild camping along the route – the scenery is fantastic and we regretted having left our tent and gear behind when we saw some of the would-be camping spots (but endless hot coffee and fireplaces made up for it). If you decide to camp, remember that you’ll need to bring water filters or bottled water and there are no official campgrounds.
Towns and places to know along the Quilotoa Loop
*distances and hiking times are based on a north to south hiking itinerary, with the Quilotoa Lake being the destination.
The “base camp” where travelers can choose to store their backpacks and get connecting buses to the trail head. If you hike the trail north to south (highly recommended!) this will be your stating and end point of the loop. It’s the capital of the Cotopaxi province and has all the amenities you’ll need for your trip: an ATM, grocery stores, bus station, hostels, and restaurants. Grab a hearty lunch or dinner of Chugchucaras; a local dish consisting mainly of delicious roasted pork and choclo – there’s an entire street dedicated to restaurants who sell it but “Mama Negra” is the Lonely Planet suggestions,and locals supported the claim! (It was closed when we went but we were still able to find a big serving of the dish at a small comedor). For bag storage, most backpackers chose Hostal Tiana for their camera-monitored security room. It costs a couple dollars a day per bag and is free the first night if you stay there. Other hostels in town like the clean and budget friendly Hostal Central (less than a block away) will store bags for free if you stay with them, but they offer less security – bags are kept in a locked storage room near the front desk. We kept our bags there with a friendly reminder that the owner “always remembers the faces” of the people whospend the night, and had no problems. We bought chocolate cake and coffee for the road with the money we saved!
Where to stay: the Hostal Tiana (same owners as Llullu Llama Hostal) $10-16pp dorms and $25pp for privates, price includes breakfast. Hotel Central is clean, friendly service, budget option – especially for couples. $10pp private rooms/baths, breakfast not included. We paid extra for their breakfast in the morning and regretted it… great hotel, but save your dollars and take a stroll to one of the local cafes, or walk to Tiana’s for their breakfast and take advantage of your visit to get maps to the next destination.
The beginning of the Quilotoa Loop for hikers working their way north to south. Very small town; if planning to spend the night it is better to do so in Latacunga then get an early bus to Sigchos to begin the hike. The hike is 10.7 km / 6.7 mi long and should take 3-4 hours to arrive in Isinliví. If choosing to begin your trek from Insinlivi then a (very windy, slightly scary, and even more scenic) bus can be taken from the Latacunga terminal.
A tiny town best-known among trekkers for it’s sweetheart hostel, the Llullu Llama. Day hikes abound and the hostel can arrange an early morning cow-milking tour, cheese factory tour, and there is a wood-carving workshop that we heard good things about. The hike is 12.5 km / 7.7 mi to Chugchilan and should take 4-6 hours. It’s a great hike along the river and the majority being in the valley with one major up-hill near the end.
Where to stay: The Llullu Llama hostel lived up to its hype – book in advance to try and secure a spot here. Good endless coffee and tea, a generous happy hour, and the unusual luxury of a hot-tub spa make this a good hostel. Included-in-the-price gourmet dinners and breakfasts along with a knack for attracting interesting travelers make it a great one. Dorms from $19pp, privates from $23pp and Cottages from $33pp (breakfast, dinner included – prepare to disconnect and soak in the views – no internet).
A larger town than others on the hiking route, and one that offers activities ranging from a cheese factory, to horseback tours and treks to local communities and markets. The hike is 4-6 hours again today but this route is the worst-documented route in our opinion. Mud slides have shifted the route so old landmarks are sometimes unrelevant – it’s worth setting out with a group from your hostel on this day or making sure to ask locals along the way. It’s the hardest of the days, but definitely the most rewarding. Catch your breath and take in the stunning lake near the end of the hike – you still have some incredible ridge-hiking until reaching the actual town of Quilotoa!
Where to stay: The Cloudforest Hostal is a great option not only becasue it’s the first one you will (literally) stumble upon, but becasue it’s rooms are large, beds comfortable, and it’s hearth room is toasty-warm. They also have some of the best hot chocolate we had in Ecuador and a ping-pong table for bonding with other trekkers. Food is good, filling, but basic. Dorms are $15pp, privates are $20pp (breakfast, dinner included). El Vaquero is another option and located directly next to the starting point for the next day’s hike.
A small town characterized by – you guessed it – the Quilotoa Lake! Great viewing decks give you sweeping views of the lake, and this is your starting point if you want to do the entire ridge hike around the lake. It’s a challenging but absolutely scenic 3-5 hours. For a different perspective, hike down to the steep sandy trail to the lakefront (45 minutes going down, but plan for double coming back up). On a calm day kayaks can be rented, and for those whose legs are still recovering there are mules to bring you up/down for $10 each. Busses or truck-taxis back to Latacunga can be easily reached, and local eateries offer hearty potion of Andean style food.
Where to stay: Unfortunately, none of the hostels in the area blew us away so we settled on the one (Hostal Chukirawa) with a few fellow hikers. While the service wasn’t very warm, the wood-stove heaveters in each room madeup for it and a very unique common area provided excellent views of the mountain range. Food was lower quality than prior hostels on the trail. Privates are $20pp (breakfast, dinner included).
A worthwhile stop on your way back to Latacunga. Famous for its community of artists who produce colorful depictions of rural life in the Andes using chicken-feather paint brushes and painting on sheep hides as their canvas. Busses and truck-taxis can be taken from Quilotoa, and from there another bus can be taken to Latacunga.
Planning the Quilotoa Loop hike around market days
*As a general rule of thumb, market days in Latin America are early-morning days. Most markets will be done or winding down by 12pm so plan accordingly.
*The majority of these markets are not intended for tourists; they are part of the daily lives of the locals who attend them and sell their products at them. Make sure to be respectful when taking photos, bartering, and walking around.
Mondays – Guantualo Morning Market
Visit from Chugchillan – 3 hours hiking each way, buses available but limited, make sure to ask hostel for the bus schedule the night before
A small traditional and non-touristy market. See how rural Andean communities have been trading for hundreds of years.
Thursdays – Saquisilí Market
Visit from Latacunga – 20 minute drive by bus or taxi. This is a great market to plan for your first or last day.
Known to be the most important market in the Cotopaxi region with a huge variety of items for sale, including llamas! Go early to see the most variety and people buying/selling.
Sundays & Wednesdays – Pujilí Market
Visit fro Latacunga – 20 minute drive by bus or taxi. Markets are not touristic but are a great place to see thriving Kichwa culture. There are also very interesting and picturesque colored stairs in town; ask for the mirador at Cerro Sinchaguasín (it’s close to the bus station).
Saturdays – Zumbahua
Visit from Quilotoa – 15 minute bus or taxi ride. Go early to see the market and catch a connecting bus back to Latacunga to end your hike, or combine this with a visit to the artist’s village of Tigua.
Colorful local market whose vendors travel from small towns nearby and transport their goods on llamas.
Food Considerations along the Quilotoa Loop
Nearly every hostel on the Quilotoa Loop offers breakfast and dinner, with some offering a boxed lunch. To save money it is worth stocking up on hiking snacks at the big supermarket next to the bus station in Latacunga. If camping, you will need to pack in all food.
Safety on the Quilotoa Loop
The safety of the Quilotoa Loop is what makes it one of the best self-guided treks in South America. Despite this, hikers do need to be aware of bulls and stray dogs along the route – hike with a stick to shew them away and make sure that you’re never too close to a cow or bull and give them the right-of-way when crossing paths. As always, having a good travel insurance will give you some added peace of mind.