Hiking the Quilotoa Loop wasn’t something on my bucket list. To be honest, I had never even heard of it until I saw a picture posted on Instagram through the Matador Network account and then afterwards while doing some research on “must dos” in Ecuador. It was something I was looking forward to but not overly excited about. Interestingly enough, hiking the Quilotoa Loop ended up being a complete trip highlight. One of my favorite things about travel are these surprises. Places, people, and experiences that completely exceed your expectations and astonish you to your core.
The Quilotoa Loop can be a 3-5 day hike depending on how quickly you go or how many towns along the way you stop in. The main attraction is the Laguna Quilotoa which is an extinct volcano now filled with a turquoise lake. Somehow a volcano crater wasn’t cool enough and someone decided it needed to be filled with a gorgeous lake. Anyways, day trips can be taken to Quilotoa directly from Quito, Latacunga, and many other major cities but Dan and I jumped at the chance to do a hike since we haven’t done much since Patagonia.
One of the great things about hiking the Quilotoa Loop is that there are hostels along the way that provide accommodations so carrying a tent, sleeping bag, and all that other stuff is not necessary. The hostels are all very affordable and offer dinner and breakfast included in the price. Also, the hike can really be started anywhere and it is possible to take buses, cars, or even horses in between all of the towns. Therefore, it is easy to create your own schedule and visit the places you’d like. You can start at Quilotoa and work your way backwards but we wanted the reward of the lake at the end!
Dan and I decided to stay the night in Latacunga at Hostal Tiana before heading out the next day on the loop. Hostal Tiana stored our big back packs for $1.50 each a day so we didn’t have to worry about bringing them along with us. They were also very accommodating when we had to change our reservations when Dan was sick and breakfast is included. Latacunga doesn’t really have too much going on (not a place I’d stay in for more than a night) but it’s not a bad city. It’s bustling, there’s restaurants, bars, a market, really not as grungy as everyone makes it out to be (maybe my standards are being lowered?)
Outside of Hostal Tiana.
Dan navigating the busy streets in Latacunga.
The next day we opted to take a bus to Isinlivi instead of starting the hike in Sigchos to Isinlivi. There are one or two buses a day that leave Latacunga for Isinlivi (ours was at 12:15 p.m. on a Sunday with 14 de Octubre bus company). The bus also stops in Sigchos for anyone that wants to start the hike from there. This bus ride was hell. Up and down, in and out mountain roads. I was laying on Dan’s lap most of the ride counting down the seconds until it was over but on the bright side the scenery (from what I could take in) was incredible.
Arriving in Isinlivi on a Sunday (or any day really), feels like a ghost town. I had that feeling that we were the last people on earth and only the few other people who got off the bus with us were spared. We made our way to one of two hostels in town, Llulu Llama. We opted to stay here for two nights instead of the traditional one night so we could do some hiking around the area the following day. Llulu Llama was great – hot showers, beautiful location, good food, and they handed out the best instructions and maps of the whole loop.
There are quite a few different hikes and loops to do around Isinlivi but the one we opted for is called Guantualo. Guantualo is a small town which has a market until 12 p.m. on Mondays. The loop took us about 3.5 hours and was a great warm-up for our bodies and it gave us practice for following the crazy directions that are available on the rest of the hike (more on that later). The scenery is super beautiful as you rise up above green, rolling farms on hills. It was also very interesting to see how the people in this part of the country live. Most of them are farmers who work off the land. Life seems tough but they were so friendly and very willing to give us directions. We didn’t see any other people hiking except for the occasional cow standing in the path.
After two days of delicious food and great conversations with other travelers we met at Llulu Llama, it was time to make the hike to Chugchilán. We heard from many other travelers that they had gotten lost somewhere along the way and either ended up taking a car to their next destination or spending an extra hour or two walking. Dan and I were determined not to be one of these people. Thankfully, we had no problems and somehow escaped getting lost. Llulu Llama provided us with excellent written instructions but they are seriously so arbitrary that I can completely see how people get tripped up. For example:
- You will descend and come to a flat area with a large field on your right and a steep slope on your left. At the end of this flat section you will see a couple very large aloe plants on your left with two very tall stalks above the trail.
- You will cross a field diagonally , enter a small forest of eucalyptus trees, and walk down to the river.
What kind of directions are those? We did have some instances that required more thought, walking up a certain way and coming back, or having to find a red dot somewhere along the path to ensure us we were continuing on in the correct direction.
Right after this picture, we reached a gate that we weren’t sure if we should cross (and we didn’t which was the right decision).
We were lucky enough to only be caught in a light rain during our three days of hiking.
It’s true. Many dogs along the trail aren’t very friendly as they are trained to be guard dogs. This guy did not like us one bit.
After a set of horrible switchbacks, you reach this view.
El Vaquero was our hostel of choice before we arrived and were annoyed at first that we picked the hostel that was the furthest walk once you enter town. But after arrival, we quickly realized it was completely worth the extra effort. We received a clean, organized, and large private bedroom and bathroom including a substantial dinner and breakfast for only $40 a night. This hostel is run by a family who lives and works on the grounds. They were so sweet, helpful, and also offered to give us a map on our way. I was the only vegetarian and they made me a special quiche like dish. This was hands down the best hostel (in my opinion) on the Loop.
The final day had arrived and in just a mere 5-7 hours, we would reach our reward, seeing the Laguna Quilotoa. To say it plainly, this day sucked. I could now see why many other people do it backwards. The walk from Chugchilán to Quilotoa is ALL uphill and there really isn’t much of a break from it and I’m not exaggerating. This day we also were more unsure of where we were going as some of the signs we were supposed to look for were not there any longer. We also asked a local woman and she definitely gave us the wrong directions. Never the less, we made it to the top of the volcano and it was completely worth it.
Dan and I agreed that this was one of the coolest, if not THE coolest thing we’ve seen and experienced on this trip. Just look at it!
Apparently you can walk around the crater’s edge and it takes about 6 hours, no thanks. Instead, we decided to make our way towards the town of Quilotoa which still takes about another hour or so around the rim. There was also this crazy fog coming so we decided it was time to call it and find our next hostel and a beer.
Me, annoyed by fog and the fact that we were still walking uphill.
Once we made it to Quilotoa, we couldn’t decide where to spend the night. This was the only town we hadn’t already booked a reservation in. We heard bad things from other travelers about 3 of the hostels and none of the others were really calling out to us. For some reason we just choose to go into Pacahamama and see what they prices were. $16 a person for a private room, bathroom and meals so we decided to go ahead with it although I was feeling uneasy about the place and wondering if we should just have caught the 3 p.m. bus to Latacunga.
I should have listened to my gut when we saw the room. It’s very simple (which is okay) but also really cold, no towels, and no hot water. All I wanted after that long hike was a comfortable bed and a hot shower. Even though we weren’t impressed, we paid the fee anyways for the room in order to change our minds 20 minutes later and pay a truck to take us back to Latacunga. Thankfully she willingly gave us half our money back and honestly, it was the best decision to go back to Latacunga and have a warm room, hot shower, and not be suffering from the altitude.
That is the story of our journey on the Quilotoa Loop. After I finished writing it all down, I realized I didn’t explain WHY I loved the experience so much and why it was a trip highlight for me.
- I think the views and the landscape could probably go without saying but I’m going to say it anyways. Other than the Laguna Quilotoa, a lot of the path is through farmland (and sadly you see a lot of trees being chopped down), it is still very green and very beautiful. There are massive canyons and cliffs to be impressed by.
- I enjoyed the fact that we passed through towns we would never go to otherwise. Not even just the towns of Isinlivi, Chugchilán, or Quilotoa but there are many small villages along the trail. It was interesting for me to see how the people live in the countryside, how they dress, what they do to survive, etc. Most of them were very friendly and helpful (except for that one woman in Guayama).
- Figuring out how to get from place to place was half the fun! As I mentioned before, the directions could be so obscure that it really took some additional thought and wandering around to know where to go. Dan and I saw it as an adventure and it was fun for us to work as a team!
- We met such cool people in the hostels we stayed in. Unless we meet people that are worth hanging out with, Dan and I are usually introverts and keep to ourselves. In this case, we met great people that we enjoyed drinking some beers with both nights at Llulu Llama and at El Vaquero from the UK, Argentina, Spain, Italy and quite a few from the USA. It is possible that the Quilotoa Loop attracts a certain type of traveler or maybe we just got lucky. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed their company and swapping information about the Loop.
For me, besides what I listed above, I think I received so much from this experience because I didn’t have high expectations. Therefore, there wasn’t any room for disappointment and I was completely thrown off by the true enjoyment of it.
This got me to thinking: Why I was so thrown off by deeply enjoying something? How sad is it that I’ve hindered myself from feeling this way more often? What other experiences and people have I missed out on because I placed unrealistic or too high of expectations on them?
I think it is built into all of us to have some sort of expectation or standard for how we live our life, how we want people to treat us, and how things should work. I personally feel that I would be a much happier person all around if I could smash most of these hinderances and live with a more free, open mind. I think I continually set myself up for failure when I expect that I’ll have it all figured out by 30 years old, when I expect a friend to keep in touch with me and they don’t, or expect someone to say excuse me when they bump into me on the street. When these expectations aren’t met, I get upset. If even for a brief moment or for many days, the expectations come between me and my happiness.
So now, I challenge myself to try and live expectation free starting with today and then tackling each day after that. I can’t expect myself to get this on the first try, right?