Lake Quilotoa is a crater lake that was created after a volcanic eruption, about 800 years ago. The beautiful lake is surrounded by mountains and diverse fauna. The water is bright blue, especially on clear days. Lake Quilotoa is located at an altitude of more than 3,914 meters and about 3 kilometers in diameter. You can take a day trip to the lake and walk around Lake Quilotoa. This is about 10.5 kilometers and takes about 5 – 6 hours. Lake Quilotoa is not only known for its beautiful location and clear water, it is also the start or end point of the Quilotoa loop. How do you organize the Quilotoa loop and what do you need? And how do you get there and back?
What is the Quilotoa loop?
The Quilotoa loop is a multi-day walk from village to village in the vicinity of Quilotoa and through the Toachi valley. A walk that is seen by many travelers as one of the highlights of the trip through Ecuador. The walk starts or ends at Lake Quilotoa. The villages you will visit are Chugchilán, Isinliví and Sigchos, which means 2 or 3 walking days. So you can walk in two directions, from the lake to Sigchos or from Sigchos to Lake Quilotoa. In the meantime you sleep at nice accommodations in the villages (see below).
In principle, the walk can be divided into 3 parts. The section between Lake Quilotoa and Chugchilán, from Chugchilán to Isinliví, and from Isinliví to Sigchos.
Between Lake Quilotoa and Chugchilán is seen as the most challenging walk of the three. You bridge a height difference of 900 meters during the day and you walk a lot up and down. However, this is the day that you walk a part around the lake and you have a great view. The route is about 12 kilometers long and takes about 6 to 7 hours.
Between Chugchilán and Isinliví you bridge more than 500 vertical meters. The route is about 12 kilometers long and you can walk the route in about 5 to 6 hours. You walk right through the valley and have beautiful views. This is the only part that cannot be covered by bus. Between Isinliví and Sigchos is considered the easiest part. The route is quite flat and therefore a nice route to start or end. The route is 11 kilometers and takes about 4 hours. You can also travel this part by bus if you have less time.
Which parts you do or don’t walk depends on the number of days you have the time. If you have 2 days to spare, you can walk the part of Isinliví to Chugchilán and from Chugchilán to Lake Quilotoa or vice versa. The part between Sigchos and Isinliví can be done by bus. This also applies to the part between Chugchilán and Lake Quilotoa, which can also be covered by bus.
What are the differences?
The difference in the direction you walk is mainly the difference in height. If you walk from Lake Quilotoa to Chugchilán, Isinliví and Sigchos, you walk proportionally more downhill. Lake Quilotoa is at 3,914 meters and Sigchos at 2,824 meters. It is good to know that every part of the route runs through the valley and you have to walk down and back up the canyon at the end every day. Walking from Lake Quilotoa to Sigchos is therefore certainly not all about descending. The advantage of starting at Sigchos and ending at Lake Quilotoa is that you save the highlight (the lake) until last. Keep in mind that, especially the last day to the lake, is a long walk with a lot of ascent.
Where do you stay?
In the meantime you will stay in the intermediate villages. Quilotoa, Chugchilán, Isinliví and Sigchos are best suited to hikers and offer very nice accommodations. Some are very luxurious with a sauna, Turkish bath or jacuzzi to relax after the walk. Dinner and breakfast are also included in the price and you can get a lunch to take away for a small extra charge. You often pay around $35 for a double room, and for 2 people. Dorms are also available.
Recommended accommodations are El Vaquero or Cloud Forest in Chugchilán and Llulla Llama or Taita Cristóbal in Isinliví. But there are many options and possibilities to recover from the walk.
What do you need?
You don’t need much, and that’s a good thing, because you take all the stuff with you. It is important to bring enough cash with you, because you can’t pin and neither can you at the accommodations. Also recommended are good (mountain) shoes (some parts are muddy) and hiking socks, a nice backpack and some drinks and snacks for the road. Take all weather conditions into account, such as rain and cold. An extra sweater or even thermal clothing for the evening can be nice, because then it can cool down considerably. In terms of toiletries, soap is often present in the accommodation. You do not need to bring towels or meals, as these are available at your accommodation. You can often fill your water bottle there or buy some extra in the villages.
For the route it is useful to have an offline route map on your phone with offline maps. The route is indicated with signs (from Sigchos to Quilotoa clearer than the other way around), but an offline map is extra nice. Maps.me has clearly marked the hiking trails, download the map of Ecuador in advance. The Alltrails app is even clearer and more detailed, it is paid only.
How do you get there and back?
A nice base for the Quilotoa loop is the city of Latacunga. This town is centrally located and from here you can easily take the bus to either Quilotoa or Sigchos and back. Latacunga is also a convenient place to go to Cotopaxi National Park. Many travelers settle here for a few nights to prepare for the trip. As a result, many hotels also have the option to safely store your belongings that you do not take with you. This can be free or you pay $1 or $2 per bag per day. For example Hostal Café Tiana.
If you want to start at the Quilotoa lake, you can take the bus on the same day that you start walking. The bus departs from Terminal Terrestre Latacunga. There is a bus from bus company Vivero at 6.00/7.30/8.00/10.00/11/13.30/14.30/15.30/18.30. It is advisable to take a bus early in the morning if you are going to walk part of the route. The bus takes about 2 hours and costs $2.50.
If you want to start in Sigchos, there will be a bus at 05:00 and 06:00 (but only if there are enough people), then at 08:00/09:30/10:00/11:00/12/14.00/16:00/17.00/18.00 (only Saturdays) and at 19:00. This bus takes about 2 hours and costs about $2.65.
From Isinliví to Sigchos or vice versa takes 40 minutes and costs $1.25. From Sigchos you can take the bus to Latacunga (2 hours) and Quito (2.5/3 hours). You can also choose to take the bus to Quilotoa or Sigchos the day before so that you start the first day of walking more relaxed. If you want a day trip to Quilotoa (lake), then bus company Vivero will also return to Latacunga. The bus goes back 14 times a day, the times vary a bit between once every 1 and 2 hours. The first bus goes back to Latacunga at 6:00 AM and the last one at 7:30 PM.
You arrive in Latacunga from Quito from Terminal Quito Sur (also called Quitumbre). There are several bus companies per hour. If you go through the multiple counters, multiple destinations are called. If you indicate where you want to go, people will tell you where you should be. It is advisable to ask what time the bus leaves and how much it costs. If you have time, it may be worth checking with another bus company to compare times and prices. Bus company Cotopaxi costs $2.75 and the ride from Quito to Latacunga takes more than 2 hours.
From Latacunga you can go to Baños (the Agua Santa). You can get from Latacunga to Baños in three ways. There is one direct bus daily from Latacunga Terminal to Baños, at 12:00 PM, and costs about $3. Another way is to go to Paso Lateral on the Panamerican Highway. That is along the side of the highway and every 30 minutes from 07:00 a bus comes by and goes to Baños. You get to Paso Lateral by taxi from Latacunga, 10 minutes for $3/4. Or you travel via Ambato. Every 10/15 minutes there is a bus to Ambato from the Terminal in Latacunga. This journey takes about 1 hour and costs $1.30. You will arrive at Terminal Norte in Ambato. For the bus to Baños you have to go to Terminal America, by taxi for $4 (15 minutes). The bus from Ambato (Terminal America) to Baños leaves about every 15 minutes, takes about 1.5 hours and costs $1.25.