An Expert Guide to Backpacking the Quilotoa Loop
Thinking of planning an international backpacking trip? Ecuador’s Quilotoa Loop is a great place to start.
Your first international backpacking trip can be intimidating. In some cases, you may not speak the language, and even when you do, you’re still very much out of your element. For many reasons, Ecuador’s Quilotoa Loop can be a great place to start when taking the international backpacking plunge!
Not only is Ecuador a very affordable place for Americans to travel, but the way that the loop is designed means that you will spend three to five days hiking between different hostels or lodges, requiring you to bring less gear than you would for a traditional backpacking trip.
Ecuador also has a fairly extensive (albeit slow) public transportation network, so getting to and from the loop is easy to navigate as well!
While it’s possible to travel from further away, most people choose to establish a base camp in the city of Latacunga before hiking the Quilotoa Loop. Not only is Latacunga a short bus ride away from both ends of the loop, but many of the hostels in Latacunga are familiar with backpackers and have amenities that cater to them.
For example, I spent the night in Latacunga before and after hiking the loop, and the hostel I chose (Hostal Cafe Tiana) offered really affordable locker rentals so that I could store everything that I didn’t need for the hike itself. The hostel staff was also helpful in clarifying exact bus routes and times to get to my starting point of Sigchos.
As with most international backpacking, you’ll need your own combination lock to secure the items you leave at the hostel!
Choosing a Direction
As with many trails, you’ll have to decide which direction you want to hike in before setting off on the Quilotoa Loop. The most common way to hike begins in the town of Sigchos and takes hikers south towards Quilotoa Lake and the town by its shore. (The exact route looks like this: Latacunga→Sigchos→Isinlivi→Chugchilán→Quilotoa→Latacunga.) Choosing to hike the route this way means that you’ll be gaining elevation throughout your trip, but you’ll also end at the quintessential highlight of the route—the incredibly blue lake, nestled in a massive crater.
You can choose to hike the loop in the reverse order as well, although this decision is not as popular. The benefit of hiking north instead of south is the fact that you’ll have less elevation gain overall—although this doesn’t mean the hike is easy by any means!
In this article, we will specifically look at the logistics of hiking this route from Sigchos to Quilotoa.
What to Bring
Because you’ll be staying at different hostels and lodges along the way, the packing list for this trip is a bit smaller than your traditional backpacking trip. You won’t need to worry about a tent, cookware, or even a sleeping bag!
Personally, I brought a larger daypack, the Deuter Trans Alpine 28SL Pack, for this trip and left my traditional, multi-day backpacking packs at home. Because I was traveling around Ecuador for several weeks before and after this hike, I left everything that I didn’t need on the route in a locker in Latacunga as mentioned above. This meant that for a few days on the trail I packed the following:
- Base layers (These are great for layering, hiking, and sleeping.)
- One pair of quick-drying pants
- Swim suit
- Rain jacket (It will definitely rain for at least part of your hike!)
- Warm jacket (I brought a packable, midweight down layer.)
- Hiking shoes and wool socks
- Entertainment (If you finish your book, most hostels have shelves where you can trade it out for a different one, and playing cards are never a bad idea.)
- Navigation (For me, this meant both paper maps and a downloaded map and battery pack for my phone.)
- First-Aid Kit
- Snacks and water (There are plenty of spots to filter water along the way, but the hikes are short enough to bring all of the filtered water you’ll need as well.)
Latacunga to Isinlivi (8.7 miles)
If you choose to stay in Latacunga before beginning your hike, getting to the trail on day one will be a breeze! I recommend checking the bus schedule, specifically looking at the bus times for the town of Sigchos, and choosing a bus departure fairly early in the morning. Departure times will change, but I personally left Latacunga from the main bus terminal at 9:30 a.m. and paid about $2 for a two-hour bus ride to Sigchos. The town of Sigchos is incredibly small, so make sure that you have everything you need before setting off!
Once you make it to Sigchos, you’ll have a three-to-six-hour hike ahead of you, depending on your pace and ability to stay on the correct trail! While there are a few steep moments on this stretch of the hike, much of it takes place on gentle dirt roads or mellow single tracks through fields. There are a few turns that can be easy to miss; however, I personally recommend downloading an offline map to stay on-trail. (I relied on a combination of signs, printed maps, and a downloaded route via the app maps.me.)
Once you arrive in Isinlivi, you’ll have a couple of options for the night’s lodging—Llullu Llama Mountain Lodge or Hostal Taita Cristobal. Personally, Llullu Llama was my favorite hostel in Ecuador, and I definitely believe that the experience of staying there is worth the slight splurge. The hostel has both private and shared rooms, hot showers, a hot tub, and a delicious breakfast and dinner included in the price. There’s also a resident llama!
If your time and budget permit, Isinlivi is a great place to spend a few nights, and there are countless day hikes to explore while in the area. With an extra day, you can visit a local farm and watch a traditional cheese-making process, or take a slightly-longer day trip to a traditional Andes market. Regardless of what hostel you choose though, the staff can help point you in the right direction for a day of bonus hiking or other activities.
Isinlivi to Chugchilán (7.7 miles)
Whenever you decide to leave Isinlivi, your next stop will be in the town of Chugchilán. Almost every accommodation will offer a bagged lunch to bring along on the next day’s hike, as well as clearly-printed paper maps. Don’t forget to take advantage of these before hitting the trail again!
As always, check your map often, and don’t worry if you get a little off-trail. Losing your way is sometimes inevitable when hiking, and you can always backtrack if needed. Many of the hostels have signs leading the way to the different towns, and the one time that I did get a bit off-track, a local family was happy to point me in the right direction. Most hostels recommend giving yourself four to six hours to complete this day’s hike, and although this seems like a lot of time, it factors in some time to relocate the trail!
This section of the loop is quite a bit steeper than the first day, and the most challenging section comes just after the tiny town of Itualo. You’ll know that you’ve reached the town when you walk past large fields of cattle on your left and right to end up at a small beige and blue church. Signs will point you up and over the very steep mountain to your right, and although the entire climb is less than half a mile, be gentle with yourself and take breaks if needed! When you do reach the top, don’t forget to look around and see all of the progress that you’ve made. You’re not far now from the paved road that leads you right into Chugchilán itself.
Once in Chugchilán, you have a few more hostel options than in Isinlivi. The most popular of these are Hostal Cloud Forest, the Black Sheep Inn, Mama Hilda’s, and Hostal El Vaquero. Each offers slightly different amenities, so you can choose the option that best fits your preferences. Personally, I stayed at Hostal Cloud Forest, and although the included dinner was delicious, I would love to try something different if I were to hike the loop again.
Chugchilán to Quilotoa (6.4 miles)
After leaving Chugchilán, you’ll have your shortest and steepest day yet in order to reach Quilotoa Lake itself! Follow the signs and remember the beautiful lake that awaits you. I saw many people hiking with trekking poles on this day, and this is definitely something to consider! I didn’t end up using them, but they would be helpful for the steep descents on this section of the trail.
Give yourself four to five hours to reach Quilotoa, and don’t forget to treat yourself at one of the many restaurants when you get there! Once you’ve caught your breath and have eaten a meal, you can hike down to the bottom of the crater itself before heading back to Latacunga. The hike back up to the rim is deceptively difficult after three long days on the trail, but there’s something very satisfying about standing at the edge of the lake you worked so hard to reach.
Getting back to Latacunga
Congratulations! You just completed an incredible trek and should be proud of yourself for all of that hiking and navigation! The journey back to Latacunga couldn’t be easier. You’ll want to head down the only main street in Quilotoa, away from the shops and the crater itself. You’ll likely see buses or a few travelers waiting for them as you leave town, so head that way. Buses directly to Latacunga leave regularly into the evening and cost around $2, and buses to Zumbahua leave even more frequently for about $1. From Zumbahua, there are frequent buses into Latacunga itself for less than $2.
One huge appeal of this mini-trek is just how affordable it is compared to other similar hikes! Sure, some European countries have incredible huts and hiking hostels too, but you’ll have trouble finding anything as budget-friendly as the Quilotoa Loop. In all, it is entirely possible to complete this hike over three days, spending less than $100 in total, and I even met a few people who spent close to half of that.
Personally, I chose to spend more than one night at Llullu Llama to take advantage of some of the day hikes and adventures in the area, and even with that extension I spent less than $150 for the whole trek.
Although everyone’s experience will vary, I personally felt safe while backpacking this loop. That being said, there are definitely some things you can do to keep yourself and your belongings more safe: 1. First and foremost, don’t bring anything with you that you won’t need. Even if you’re traveling with your computer for the majority of your trip to Ecuador, I would suggest leaving it behind while hiking the loop. You’ll be out of internet service for most of the trip regardless, so why not leave it behind? 2. Split up the valuables that you do bring. Theft can happen anywhere, so be proactive and store your essentials in a few different places. (Think some money in a sock, some in a hidden pocket, some tucked into the book you brought along.) Incidents aren’t common, but this isn’t a bad idea regardless of where you’re backpacking! 3. Before starting out on the trip, I was warned that local dogs occasionally show aggression toward hikers. While I never personally witnessed this (nothing but panting and wagging tails on my trip!), those who have seen it suggested yelling and tossing rocks and sticks toward angry dogs until they leave (Think mountain lion procedures on a smaller scale).
1. Bring cash.
The towns that you’ll hike through are quite small, and you won’t find an ATM anywhere on this trek! Cards are rarely used as well, so plan ahead by bringing all of the cash that you’ll need to pay for hostels, food, emergency transportation, and anything else.
2. Don’t expect WiFi.
Many of the hostels along the way pride themselves on their lack of internet connection. Consider this hike as a great way to disconnect during your trip to Ecuador, and take care of anything you might need the internet for before starting out.
3. Altitude is a real thing.
The high altitude is the price you pay for these incredible Andean views, so try to give yourself some time to acclimate before hiking and be sure to stay well-hydrated. A lot of this will come down to personal experience and comfort, but plan ahead and look out for yourself. I don’t recommend going from sea level to almost 13,000 feet without giving yourself some time to adjust!
4. Book at least Llullu Llama in advance.
While this hike used to be very off-the-radar, it has become a little more popular in recent years. Because of this, some of the hostels get fairly busy, and you might want to consider booking a night or two in advance. When I hiked the loop, I booked only two nights at Llullu Llama in advance, then played it by ear for the rest of the trip!
Hopefully this article gave you an idea of what to expect while hiking the Quilotoa Loop! It truly is one of the best possible introductions when it comes to international treks, and it’s a wonderful way to prepare you for even longer adventures.