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QUILOTOA LOOP GUIDE: HOW TO PLAN & HIKE THE 3 DAY TREK

The central Andean region of Ecuador is a mass of rolling mountains, fertile farmland, and sparse rural communities, all located on a bed of ancient volcanic activity that has created impressive crater lakes such as Quilotoa. Although many travellers skip this region, instead heading south for the popular backpacker hub of Banos, this spectacular part of Ecuador is not to be missed and neither is the epic multi-day hike known as the Quilotoa Loop. If you want to tap in to that primal sense of adventure we all feel, escape the guided tour and embark on one of the most challenging yet fulfilling treks you will likely ever experience – hiking the Quilotoa loop is for you. Here’s everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE QUILOTOA LOOP?

The Quilotoa Loop is the not so loopy trail that carves through three indigenous towns in the Andes from Sigchos to Isinlivi to Chugchilan, ending at the epic Quilotoa Crater.

 

The loop is one of the most popular treks in Ecuador and is a must for backpackers and trekkers looking to get off the Pan American highway and see more of the remote indigenous cultures of the central Andes.

 

This is a multi-day self-guided hike known for its challenge.

 

During the three-day trek you’ll traverse up and over three valleys experiencing amazing scenery, passing through remote villages, ending at the scenic prize of the Quilotoa Laguna.

 

On each of the three days hiking you’ll descend to the bottom of the valley and then climb up the other side. The ascents are are c.400m on the first day, c.500m on the second and the final climb of 900m to reach the volcano crater in Quilotoa. The route is a mix of road and trail with no rock climbing, although there are one or two small scrambles along the way.

 

The main challenge is the distance and some of the steep climbs out of the valleys whilst at altitude.

 

At the time we were two relatively inexperienced hikers and found it challenging but achievable. One of the best things about this hike is the accomplishment felt at the end as well as doing it on your own, or at least in an unguided group.  If you are someone that worries about unguided tours, don’t be. It’s very difficult to get lost and even if you do the locals will help you find the route, the only tourists that pass through these areas are on the trail.

QUILOTOA LOOP PACKING LIST AND WHAT TO BRING

Our biggest recommendation is to pack light.

 

We did the opposite and suffered as a result, see our 7 mistakes to avoid the struggles faced. You will be trekking an average of 15km each day, you really don’t want to make this more difficult by adding extra weight to your bag. We brought our laptops with us as we thought we could get some work done in the evenings – huge mistake.

 

By the time you arrive to your hostel, you’ll be exhausted. All you’ll want to do is shower, eat and get into bed.

 

There are also other travellers hiking the loop, so the hostels are sociable in the evenings with lots of new friends to make, with everyone discussing the trials and tribulations of the trek that day, so no need to bring a laptop.

 

Clothes and Toiletries

  • 4 pairs of socks (or 2 pairs of hiking socks if you have them – merino wool lasts longer before it starts to smell)
  • 4 underwear – one for each day, it’s only fair on your fellow hikers.
  • 1 pair of hiking shoes (if you have them but sports shoes worked for us)
  • Long trousers (it’s high altitude so gets cold at night)
  • Warm layers (again, the nights are cold and at the crater it’s very windy)
  • Windbreaker
  • 2 hiking t-shirts for trekking or a good base layer
  • 1 pair of walking shorts or trousers if you prefer
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellent
  • Other toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, the usual).

The hostels on the route provide towels so that’s one less thing you need to worry about packing.

 

Electronics

  • Camera – an absolute must for all the incredible nature and scenery
  • Phone – essential for maps
  • Headphones
  • Book or kindle (there’s no internet so something to keep you occupied in the evenings)

Apps

Maps.Me –  make sure you download the app and the map for the Eastern Ecuador region.

 

The trail is well pathed and signposted, but some signposts can be missed if you aren’t paying attention like we were. We took a couple of wrong turns but having Maps.me on hand allowed us to quickly correct course.

QUILOTOA LOOP GUIDE: HOW TO PLAN YOUR ROUTE

Whilst the loop takes 3 days to complete, you will want to have 5 days free.

 

One day either side to include getting there and leaving. Another important thing to know is that the hostels you stay at in each village include dinner and breakfast or a packed lunch so no need to worry about buying food to take!

DAY 1 - LATACUNGA

Whether you are coming from Banos in the South or Quito in the North, your first stop is in the town of Latacunga.

 

As we were arriving on the bus from Cotopaxi late in the afternoon, we booked ourselves in to a hostel to get some much-needed rest before starting the journey. The most important thing to do on your first day is to find a hostel which allows you to leave your bags free of charge and ideally with breakfast.

 

Our recommendations are:

 

  • Hotel Rosim – beds from £12 with good breakfast – we stayed here and left our bags free of charge
  • Hostal Café Tiana – offering breakfast – beds in a dorm room range from £13 to private rooms for £35
  • Hostel Tierra De Fuego – cheap dorm beds from £7 and includes breakfast

DAY 2 - LATACUNGA TO SIGCHOS TO INSINLIVI

This is the first actual day of the loop.

 

Waking in Latacunga, you need to take the bus to Sigchos – this is a 2/3 hour bus ride and the morning departure times are around 8am and 11am but be sure to ask your hostel for updated times when you arrive.

 

Or better yet if arriving to the bus station in Latacunga ask there. We can’t remember the exact price of the bus but it was around $5.

 

We would recommend getting the earliest bus possible and taking one no later than midday because as soon as you get off the bus you will have to start 4-5 hours of trekking. This is to make sure you don’t arrive at your hostel late or end up trekking in low light.

 

Also, the central bus station in Latacunga is located next to a supermarket which is perfect to stock up on snacks and water for the first days trekking.

We recommend at least 1.5 litres of water and a few cereal bars to get you through the day.

 

We had had breakfast that morning and you will get fed once you arrive at the hostel that evening so a few bars did the trick for us but it’s up to you if you want to buy more food, but remember to keep it light! See the station location below:

Once you arrive in Sigchos you will want to get maps.me out and put in your next hostels name (see below for our recommendations).

 

The route from the station is obvious and will lead you onto a dirt road where the trail begins.

 

Whilst we recommend using maps.me to navigate, be sure to keep your eye out for signs along the way. Some of the hostels have very kindly signposted the route to ensure you take all the shortcuts. The best way to make sure you don’t miss them, like we did, is at every point when there’s an alternative route off the trail, look at the map and keep an eye out for signs.

 

The entire route is a mix of a dirt road and shortcuts which are a bit more off-road. Along the route be sure to take regular water breaks and snacks and keep the sun cream topped up. During our entire journey the sun was blaring and certainly added to the workout.

 

Once you reach the town of Isinlivi you’ve reached your destination, and this is where you will stay for the night. Congratulations on completing the first day of the Quilotoa Loop!

 

Where to stay in Isinlivi

The two main places to stay in town both include breakfast and dinner as all the hostels are catering towards travellers completing the loop.

 

Whilst they will claim to have WiFi this will not work, and this is true throughout the ‘loop’ as these towns are so remote. We recommend coming to terms with this before you leave and having 4 or so days away from the outside world.

 

  • Lullu Llama – beds from £15 and rooms from £38 – the most popular choice due to the hot tub, morning yoga and resident llamas.
  • Hostal Taita Cristobal – beds from £13 and rooms from £27

How long it took us: 3 hours 30 minutes*

 

How many Km: 15.12km

 

*please don’t look to our hiking times as the average, we tend to hike pretty fast due to long legs and being typical men who think we can do it faster than the guides say! The average hiking time each day is between 3-5 hours.

DAY 3 - INSINLIVI TO CHUGCHILAN

Assuming like us you passed out and slept like a baby you should wake up feeling refreshed and eager to get going. We recommend leaving your hostel soon after breakfast to avoid walking too long in the midday sun.

 

You can buy a packed lunch from the hostel ($3) or buy snacks from the store outside Hostal Taita Cristobal. Be sure to buy water before you set off again, 1.5-2 litres is recommended.

 

The route will initially take you down past Llullu Llama and start off-road. In a similar vein as the day before, the first part of the day is downhill until you will reach the bottom of the valley where you follow the river most of the way.

 

An alternative route is to go up and along the ridge of the valley, but this requires a climb at the start and a very steep descent to cross the valley. This is the route I took and whilst the view was amazing, you can get the view from the other side so don’t bother.

 

You will reach a small town with a church and about 10 or 15 houses at which point you start your ascent up the valley. 

 

Once at the top, turning left back towards valley will lead you to a seating area and a viewpoint where you should take a well-deserved break. From here you will walk for another 15 minutes or so before reaching a paved road. Following this road all the way will then lead you to the town in Chugchilan.

 

How long did it take: 4 hours 40 minutes

 

How many Km: 15.52km

 

Where to stay in Chugchilan:

  • Cloud Forrest Hostel beds from £14 for a dorm room with private rooms available. Towels and hot shower included. We stayed here and it had everything we needed – a nice dinner and breakfast, games room with pool, table football and table tennis, and a comfortable communal space to relax in after a long day
  • Hostal el Vaquero beds from £13 for a dorm room with private rooms available. Towels are an additional charge. This hotel includes a fitness room with sauna, Turkish bath and swimming pool which will make for a nice relaxing evening
  • Hotel Laguna offers single rooms from £13 and has larger rooms available for up to 3 people. This place is good for families with the children’s playground on the land.

The pueblo has a local bar with a number of different beers available. Again, there are a number of trails and treks available if your legs are up to it. Check these out on maps.me.

DAY 4 - CHUGCHILAN TO QUILOTOA

We left first thing after breakfast and Cloud Forest hostel provided a useful map with written instructions for the final leg of the journey.

 

There are two options to get to Quilotoa:

 

  1. The extreme route which is a steeper decline and longer climb on the other side
  2. A less steep route which is quicker

Regardless of the options, this leg of the trip is the longest as well as having the largest ascent (900m) it’s a tough day but worth it in the end. For this section of the route you spend a bit more time getting to the valley.

 

Once you reach the valley the route down is steep and then as soon as you reach the bottom you immediately have to start climbing back up the other side.

 

There it’s a relatively steady incline until you reach the base of the crater.  Again, a steep winding path leads you to the Laguna edge. Here you will find a shop to buy drinks or snacks and a bench to rest.

 

Once you reach this point there are two options around the crater to the town of Quilotoa:

 

  1. Long route – 3-4 hours
  2. Short route 1.5 hours

The choice will depend on the time and your energy levels. If you stay one night in Quilotoa there is time to take the longer hike the next day, but the full loop takes about 5 hours.

 

How long did it take: 5 hours and 30 minutes

 

How many km: 17.93km

 

Quilotoa is 3,900m above sea level, the views are amazing but it’s very cold at night.

 

Where to stay in Quilotoa

DAY 5 - QUILOTOA TO LATACUNGA

It’s safe to say that after trekking 40km over three days, we were suitably knackered.

 

In the morning after breakfast we ventured out to the Laguna for a casual walk and to take some pictures. We recommend spending the night there as it means you get the chance to see the crater on two different days, where you may get better weather or just to be able to enjoy it with fresh eyes and legs.

 

Following this we walked out of the town to the main road where took the bus to Latacunga. The bus took 2.5 hours and cost around $5. Buses in Ecuador are cheap.

 

The majority of people tend to head straight to their next destination after collecting their belongings in Latacunga. This is certainly doable as anywhere in Ecuador is relatively close. If you’re feeling fresh and up for travelling we recommend this option. However, we still wanted another days rest so we checked ourselves back into Hotel Rosim, slept a good 10 hours and caught the bus to Banos the next day!

 

That should have you covered for the memorable Quilatoa Trek.  Again, check out 7 mistakes to avoid so you have the best time. 

Where to next after Quilotoa? If you’re heading south then check out our guides for the Montanita and Banos.

 

Heading North? Then considering staying at one of Ecuador’s best hostels.

 

Or if you haven’t got your Ecuador route planned yet, our month long itinerary can help!