“Hike through an Andean Valley on your way to Laguna Quilotoa, a crater lake in an extinct volcano.”
— David McCormick
River/Creek · Waterfall · Wildlife · Commonly Backpacked
The Quilotoa Loop is a popular trekking route for travelers and backpackers in Ecuador. While it doesn't receive as many visitors as other areas in South America, it is an excellent way to see the Ecuadorian Andean landscape and hike through a mix of wilderness, farmland, and pastures. Most of the people who live in the villages along the route have lived in the region their whole life and maintain traditional practices.
The route will guide you from the low end of the valley in Sigchos, crossing the valley floor and a river each day before climbing to the reach the other side. Over the full route, you'll ascend from 10,000 to 12,500 feet after ending at Laguna Quilotoa, a crater lake inside an extinct volcano.
It is theoretically possible to complete this in one day, but it is more enjoyable if broken into three sections, with each as day hikes. There are hostels or campsites in Sigchos, Isinlivi, Chugchilan, Quilotoa, and Zumboahoa. The hostels at Isinlivi, Chugchilan, and Quilotoa all offer day hikes/runs and excursions/farm tours, so slowing down and taking a few extra days to explore the valley is possible.
There are many variants on the Quilotoa Loop, with no "official" route, but the trail presented here is emerging as the standard route, and if you ask for directions, this is the route to which you'll be directed.
Full directions can be picked up at the following hostels: Hostal Tia (Latacunga), LuLu Llama (Isinlivi), Hostal Cloud Forest (Chugchilan).
Buses connect Latacunga (the nearest major town) with Sigchos, Isinlivi, and Quilotoa. They run approximately every two hours and the journey takes two hours.
Need to Know
Bring cash (American dollars are the official currency in Ecuador) as there are no ATM's along the loop and no hostels or shops accept credit/debit cards.
It is helpful to bring small candies for the children you'll meet along the way, who are eager to help guide you on the trail.
There are many dogs along the trail, some stray, but most owned by local farmers. They can be aggressive, and it is helpful to hike in a group or bring a trekking pole to help scare them off if needed.
Be mindful and respectful of private property as you'll cross many farms. Close all gates so that livestock cannot escape.
Signage along the route has improved markedly in the past year, and there are clear directional signs and helpful red/yellow blaze markers along the route. However, the route may change or be washed out in areas due to storms and you should always check with a local before starting the day's trek.
Most of the route is above 9,000 feet, so acclimatize for 1-2 days.
Day 1: Sigchos to Isinlivi: Starting in the town's central square, head southwest to the edge of town. Here you'll see a sign pointing to Isinlivi. Follow this sign and the red/yellow blazes along a dirt road, heading roughly south and moving downhill toward the valley floor. There will be a marked trail to your right, which you should follow.
Alternate between trail and road until reaching the valley floor, cross the river along a bridge, and begin making your way uphill. Approximately 0.25 miles after crossing the river, there will be a poorly marked trail going sharply uphill to your left. Take this trail, and wind up the canyon wall until reaching the road, which you'll then follow to Isinlivi.
Day 2: Isinlivi to Chugchilan: Follow the dirt road leading downhill on the southside of the LuLu Llama hostel. The trail will slowly wind downhill until reaching the valley floor, where you'll cross the river on a log bridge with a handrail. Continue to follow the trail along the valley floor, keeping the river on your left hand side.
A shady spot along the river makes an excellent lunch break. After the flat section ends, you'll reach a small village with a church - turn right and follow the trail up the steep canyon wall. On reaching the top there is an excellent viewpoint. Continue on to a paved road and follow this to Chugchilan.
Day 3: Chugchilan to Quilotoa: There are two major variations to this route, both of which are well-marked. The route presented here follows "Option 1", which takes a detour through the town of La Moya and overlooks a waterfall. Follow the road leading out of Chugchilan until reaching a sign pointing to Quilotoa. There will be a route map in town showing the two main routes.
Continue going downhill on the dirt road until you see a sign for La Moya—take the trail to your right, which winds uphill through a farm. You'll follow along the edge of a canyon, keeping the river to your left. When you see the waterfall ahead of and below you in the canyon, the trail will start to wind down the canyon. Cross the stream (requires fording, water levels may vary) with a large waterfall to your right. You'll then climb the canyon and reach a small town.
Following the road leading south from town until reaching a marked trail after ~0.1 miles. The trail will rejoin the road, and slowly climb up to the volcano crater. Upon reaching the crater rim, stop to enjoy the excellent views. There is a small shop with snacks, coffee, tea, and water, as well as an outhouse.
From here, follow the trail to the south along the crater rim to Quilotoa village. Always take the trail closest to the crater, as some of the markings are for hikers making the trek in the opposite direction and can bring you to the valley floor. After following the trail for 1.5 miles, you'll reach Quilotoa village and complete the trek.
An optional extension is to continue for another 12 kilometers to the village of Zumbahoa. Buses are available from Quilotoa and Zumbahoa to both Quito and Latacunga.
Flora & Fauna
Typical Andean highland flora. Most of the fauna are domestic animals, but keep an eye out for birds, including raptors/condors.
History & Background
The trail roughly follows the Inca Road, a historical route linking the Inca Empire along the spine of the Andes.