How To Visit & Hike Laguna Cuicocha From Otavalo

Otavalo is home to one of Ecuador’s best hikes – a 14km loop around the stunning crater lake know as Laguna Cuicocha. It’s a great place to get your first taste of Andean countryside and to test out your hiking ability at higher altitude. Here’s the complete guide to visiting and hiking Laguna Cuicocha from Otavalo.

What Is Laguna Cuicocha?

Laguna Cuicocha is a beautiful crater lake just outside of Otavalo that is perfect for a full day hiking adventure.

 

The name translates to Lake of Guinea Pigs. The lake was given this name due to the shape of the two islands in the middle of the lake that apparently look like two Guinea Pigs. 

 

The lake was created around 3,000 years ago when Cotacachi Volcano erupted. The two islands in the middle formed from the cooling lava and then the crater eventually filled up with rainwater creating the spectacular lake.

 

A circular trail goes around the lake, and you can hike around the entire thing for amazing views of the islands and Volcano Cotacachi.

 

It’s one of the best hikes in Ecuador and great for beginners looking to get used to the altitude.

How To Get To Laguna Cuicocha From Otavalo

There are two ways to get from Otavalo to Laguna Cuicocha: organised transport or public bus/taxi.

 

Here’s a summary of both methods for reaching Laguna Cuicocha:

Public Transport Organised Transport
Cost
$15 max
$25-30
Timing
1 hour one way
30 minutes one way
Advantages
• Cheaper
• Quick and easy
Disadvantages
• More admin/planning
• Takes longer
• Potential for taxi on the way back to not turn up
• More expensive

How To Get To Laguna Cuicocha By Bus

Take a bus from the central bus terminal in Otavalo to the town to Cotacachi.

 

The central bus terminal can be found here on the map to the right. Cotacachi is around 12km from Otavalo and the journey should take 20-25 minutes by bus. Buses should be frequent with around two every hour.

 

From Cotacachi, you will then need to get a taxi to the Laguna Cuicocha Visitor Centre which should cost you around $5-6 (one way) depending on your haggling skills.

 

You will be able to find taxis in the main square once you get off the bus. The taxi will take another 20-25 minutes to get there.

 

Top Tip – Ask the taxi driver to meet you where he drops you off at an agreed upon time as there won’t be any taxis waiting around once you’ve finished to take you back. Leave at least 5 hours for the hike.

This is one of the downsides of taking the bus to Laguna Cuicocha. If your Spanish isn’t that great you may find it difficult trying to organise a pickup time, however most taxi drivers in Cotacachi know the deal and will have done this before so it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

 

Alternatively, if your taxi driver decides to not turn up for some reason you may find yourself stuck at the lake with no way home.

 

Finally, after a 3–4-hour trek the extra admin and 1 hour journey back to Otavalo on public transport might not be for everyone.

How To Organise Your Own Transport To Laguna Cuicocha

The second way to visit Laguna Cuicocha is to organise your own transport. You can do this in a couple of ways: either ask a taxi driver in Otavalo to take you or speak to your accommodation and see if they can arrange it for you.

 

A taxi from Otavalo to Laguna Cuicocha should cost around $15 one way.

 

We stayed at La Rosa Hostal and the owner of our hostel offered to take us to the Laguna and back for $25. After a little math we worked out a round trip by ourselves would cost around $13 total (public bus – $1 there and back, taxi from Cotacachi to the Laguna and back – $10-12).

 

So, ask yourself if it’s worth the extra $10 for the convenience of being taxied all the way there and back to avoid taking buses and taxis. The journey there is also shorter and takes 30 minutes door to door compared to an hour.

 

We were shattered after the hike and knowing that we didn’t have to mess around with public transport on the way home, and that we were heading straight back to the hotel was worth the extra price.

Laguna Cuicocha FAQs & What To Expect

How High Is Laguna Cuicocha?

The lake sits at 3,246 metres above sea level (10,650 ft).

How Long Is The Hike Around Laguna Cuicocha?

The loop around Laguna Cuicocha is 14km and should take between 4-5 hours for most people, even beginner hikers.

Is The Laguna Cuicocha Hike For Beginners?

Yes, it is a moderate to easy hike and beginner hikers can easily complete this trek.

 

Whilst the elevation is high and altitude sickness may be a concern for some, the trail is well marked and easy to follow, and the total gain in elevation over the whole loop is around 600m.

 

There are one or two steep parts of the trail but you will only be climbing for a few minutes at a time before it flattens out again.

Should I acclimatise before hiking Laguna Cuicocha?

If this is your first time trekking at altitude then yes you should acclimatise first. If you have been in Quito or Otavalo for a few days before this and have not had any trouble with altitude sickness, then you should have acclimatised.

What is the best route around Laguna Cuicocha?

Once you get to the lake you can either go left (clockwise) or right (anticlockwise).

 

Most people recommend going anticlockwise as you get the best views first. However, we decided to go clockwise as it is a slightly easier hike. If you go clockwise there is less of an incline and the elevation gain is more gradual.

 

Going this way means you will see the amazing views at the end as you reach the highest point of the trail, with the lake to your right and Imbabura volcano off in the distance.

 

Download maps.me or use the All-Trails app if you want more detailed information on the trail.

 

 

What is the best route around Laguna Cuicocha?

You should spend a maximum of 6 hours at Laguna Cuicocha.

 

The hike can take anywhere between 3-5 hours depending on your fitness and how many times you want to stop. We stopped 4 times for about 20 minutes each to take photos, have lunch and play with the drone and ended up doing it in around 5 hours in total.

 

You may want to have another hour at the lake after the hike to eat at one of the restaurants.

Laguna Cuicocha Packing List & What To Wear

Packing for hikes in Ecuador can be a nightmare. Because of the countries position on the Equator, the weather can vary greatly from day to day.

 

Typically, the rainy season falls in the months of October-May and on average, April is the wettest month.

The dry season is from June-September and on average, July is the driest month.

 

Regardless of the seasons, there is always the potential for rain, especially when trekking at higher altitudes so we recommend the same packing list whether it’s the dry or wet season. The temperature will vary a lot whilst hiking so the key is to pack layers.

 

Here’s the simple suggested packing list for Laguna Cuicocha:

  • Hiking Boots – The trail is well pathed and changes between gravel and sand. If you have hiking boots then wear them, but we did this hike in trainers and didn’t have any issues apart from them getting a little dusty. Wear hiking boots if there’s potential for rain as the trail will become slippery.

 

  • Shorts – we always prefer to wear shorts whilst hiking. Usually, sportswear but if you have hiking specific wear then great. We didn’t experience any issues with mosquitos or biting insects, but this may be season-specific.

 

  • Layers – take a t-shirt and a thermal jumper. Whilst hiking you will get hot and sweaty so it’s best to be able to take off or put on layers easily. Once you reach the highest points on the trail it can get colder and windier so take a thermal jumper which you can chuck on.

 

  • Packable Waterproof – take a lightweight waterproof jacket that packs down easily into your bag. You never know when you are going to get caught in a shower in Ecuador, so you need to be ready.

 

  • Sun cream – if the sun is out then you will easily get burned hiking at such high elevations. Take factor 30 or 50 for your face.

 

  • Lunch/Snacks – there are no shops selling snacks at Laguna Cuicocha so make sure you prepare your lunch and bring snacks to keep your energy up. The best place to do this is in Cotacachi if you are taking the bus.

We have some more specific gear and clothing recommendations in this post here that applies to backpacking the whole of Ecuador:

 

 

Tips For Hiking Laguna Cuicocha

Here are our top tips for preparing for the Laguna Cuicocha Hike:

 

  • Organise your own transport there and back rather than taking public transport. Most hotels will help you to do this with a driver they know. It costs maybe $10 more but saves you a lot of time and effort

 

  • Don’t hike Laguna Cuicocha unless you have acclimatised to altitude first. Make sure you spend a couple of days in Quito or Otavalo first and go for a long walk to see how you react to exercise at altitude.

 

  • Go clockwise instead of anti-clockwise around the lake. The elevation gain is more gradual.

 

  • The highest point on the lake is about halfway around. From here you will get the best views of the two islands in the middle as well as Otavalo and Imbabura Volcano. Plan your lunch stop for here.

 

  • But be sure to take lots of water, stay hydrated and take lots of breaks if you feel like you may be suffering from altitude sickness. If you start to feel ill, return to the visitor centre and ask them to call you a taxi so you can return to a lower elevation.

 

  • In terms of food, there are two restaurants at the lake. We ate at the one down on the waterfront because we were so hungry after the hike and had an hour to waste waiting to get picked up. It was $8 for chicken with rice and chips which is obviously not the cheapest meal in Ecuador. We would suggest preparing a substantial lunch and then eating back in Otavalo for dinner where it is cheaper.

 

  • Bring a packable lightweight rain jacket – the rain in Ecuador is unpredictable.

 

  • If you do decide to take the bus and then a taxi, make sure you only pay the taxi driver for the first trip to Laguna Cuicocha. Some drivers will ask you to pay for the return as well but you have no guarantee they will show up.

 

  • When arranging a pickup time – aim for around 5-6 hours after you have arrived. This gives you enough time to get around the lake without rushing, including a couple of rest stops for snacks and lunch.

 

  • If you visit at the weekend, the beginning of the trail may seem busy, but most people aren’t completing the full trek so not to worry. If you do want the trail completely to yourself then try to visit on a weekday.

Can You Visit Laguna Cuicocha From Quito?

Whilst you can visit Laguna Cuicocha from Quito, it will be a long time spent on public transport and we wouldn’t recommend trying to do it all in a day.

 

You would have to leave Quito early (around 7-8 AM) to give you enough time to get to Otavalo and then Laguna Cuicocha. The bus from Quito to Otavalo takes 2 hours and then you would have to take another bus to Cotacachi. We would recommend staying the night in Otavalo so that you don’t have to do the return journey on the same day.

 

However, we think Otavalo is best visited for a couple of days to get the most out of it. Apart from the hike, you also have the famous indigenous market and Peguche waterfall among other great things to do.

For more on the best things to do whilst in Otavalo:

 

 

How To Visit Otavalo From Quito

Visiting Otavalo from Quito takes 2 hours by public bus.

 

The bus leaves from the northern bus terminal in Quito called Terminal de la Ofelia. The bus terminal is in the north of the city and takes around 45 minutes to get there in a taxi or uber (costing $8) or you could take a metro bus from the central terminal in town.

 

The bus from Quito to Otavalo costs $2 and you can just turn up at the station – no need to book. You shouldn’t have trouble finding a bus as they leave frequently.

For more information on Quito, check out our backpacking guides:

 

 

Is A Tour From Quito To Laguna Cuicocha Worth It?

A tour to Otavalo from Quito isn’t worth it in our opinion.

 

They are over-priced, and you go on a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of Otavalo rather than getting to spend a decent amount of time at each one.

 

Tour companies will only take you to the observation deck at Laguna Cuicocha and they won’t allow you to complete the full trek as there isn’t enough time.

Here are two tours we found online:

 

Most tours run from 07:00 AM, arriving back between 16:00-17:00 and will take you to the market, a brief stop at Laguna Cuicocha for photos, a lunch stop and a couple of other places along the way.

 

So, whilst you will get to see all the highlights of Otavalo, a minimum of 4 hours of your day on this tour will be spent on transport going there and back.

 

If you decide to visit Otavalo and stay there, then two nights in a hostel will cost anywhere from $20-30 along with a few extra costs to get yourself to the Laguna but that’s it. It seems the better option for us.

 

This way, you can spend as much time as you want at the waterfall, market and Laguna Cuicocha which are all great experiences.

For more information on the best day tours from Quito and whether they are worth it, check out our guide below:

 

 

WHERE TO STAY IN OTAVALO

Your typical backpacker hostel hasn’t reached this region of Ecuador yet but because it’s off the beaten track, prices for private rooms are rather agreeable.

 

Most places with ‘hostel’ in the name are small family-run hotels and you should be able to find a private room for the same price as a dorm in Quito.

 

We stayed at Hostal La Rosa which was in the centre of town, a few blocks from the market and it cost us £14 for a twin room for one night with breakfast included. We would recommend staying here as the owner runs a private taxi service which we booked to take us to the Laguna Cuicocha hike, making the day much easier.

To see how a trip to Otavalo fits in with a full Ecuador backpacking itinerary over three weeks, check out the post below:

 

 

PLACES TO EAT IN OTAVALO

We ate at local places with most offering the menu of the day (menu del dia) costing $2-3. You’ll eat soup, meat beans and rice and if you’re lucky you may get a juice or tea.

 

If you are looking for some western comforts then try Yannuk Café for great brunch options.

 

Try ‘The Pie Shop‘ for the perfect treat after a long day of hiking at the Laguna.

Where are you going next after Otavalo? Mindo is another great town just outside of Quito that backpackers love. Check out our guides for more information:

 

 

And for more great guides for the whole of South America, make sure to check out our extended backpacking itineraries and route guides: