Explore the unspoiled Andean countryside far from crowds but close to Pachamama (Quechua for Mother Earth).
Imagine a lush mountain landscape, a patchwork of colorful crops and farms dotting the emerald green slopes. The smell of a fresh warm meal wafts from the kitchen as you soak in a hot tub swapping stories of adventure with fellow travelers after a long day of hiking. Tonight, in your room, sitting next to your wood burning stove and wrapped in a llama wool blanket, you will plan tomorrow’s route. Every time you look up, you will glimpse a vast and star-dappled sky. This is a night along the Quilotoa Loop.
Take in the Turquoise Waters of Laguna Quilotoa
The dramatic crater lake sits at 12,841 feet and was formed when the Quilotoa volcano collapsed during an eruption 800 years ago. The water’s vivid hue shifts with the seasons from emerald green to deep turquoise, caused by the dissolved mineral deposits found in the two-mile-wide caldera. Before descending into the crater, take in the entire vista of the lake and surrounding mountains from a point at the top of the rim in the small Quechua village of Quilotoa. The trip from the top of the rim to the water and back is not for the faint of heart as it requires some physical stamina as well as water, sunscreen, a bandana to block the dust, and hopefully a few days to adjust to the altitude. The steep and dusty hike down takes about 30 minutes, but leave time for a one or two-hour trek with plenty of breaks to catch your breath on the way up. While in the crater you can opt to rent a kayak to take in the views of the lush green cliff faces reflected in the lake’s mirror-like surface from the middle of the lagoon.
Backpack the Entire Loop and Stay in a Different Remote Andean Village Each Night
The most popular way to see the Quilotoa region is to take three to five days to hike the trails surrounding Laguna Quilotoa, known as the Quilotoa Loop. The Loop encompasses about 125 miles of trails traversing rugged peaks and narrow valleys and passes through a string of remote Quechua villages in the high Andes. The route offers backpackers the opportunity to hike from village to village each day while staying in the lodges or hostels in the small mountain towns at night. While Laguna Quilotoa might be the motivation for the hike, it’s the striking mountain scenery, diverse landscapes, and cultural experiences you will have along the way are what make this trek unique.
Pick a Home Base to Settle in and Day-Hike the Entire Region Without Lugging Your Packs
If you prefer not to carry all your belongings on your back while you explore the Andean countryside, you can opt to stay in one village and plan day-hikes ranging anywhere from one-hour outings to full-day excursions. The lodges can arrange for a driver to drop you off at any point along the Quilotoa Loop. Alternately, you can hop on one of the regional buses or in the back of a truck driving along the route. If you choose the truck option, you will likely be accompanied by friendly locals–both humans and llamas. One popular day-hike is to trek the thin rim of the crater, which can take between four and six hours.
Choose Your Own Route, No Guide Needed!
One of the biggest draws to the Quilotoa Loop is the highly flexible nature of the route and the ability to do it in your own time. The Loop can be done clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending on your fitness level and hiking preference. The most popular, but most difficult, option is to begin in Sigchos and end at the summit of the Quilotoa Volcano. This route takes four days with overnight stays in the towns of Sigchos, Isinliví, Chugchilán, and Quilotoa, and involves quite a bit of uphill hiking. Conversely, you can begin in Quilotoa and make your way down to Sigchos. This trek can be spread out over four or five days.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to ask your lodge for a map each morning, but still be prepared to get lost. The route, while usually well-marked has many bends and forks. But don’t fear. When you stray off the route, you are never far from a village, the next sign, or a friendly local pointing you in the right direction.
Unplug and Enjoy a True Adventure off the Beaten Path
While only 100 miles from the busy streets of Quito, the Quilotoa region truly feels like a remote destination. Whether you like it or not, you will be given the chance to fully unplug and recharge among the raw and rustic beauty of the Ecuadorian Andes. While many of the lodges and hostels advertise Wi-Fi, do not count on it working 24/7. The cell service along the trail is spotty and restaurants are limited, so be sure to leave each morning with a bag full of snacks and water. After a long day of hiking and a hearty meal, bundle up in a wool blanket under the expansive skies and put your astronomy knowledge to the test. With almost no light pollution, the star-gazing is superb.
Stay in Eco-Lodges Perched High in the Ecuadorian Andes
While lodging options are limited in the small backcountry villages, almost all of the choices have a focus on ecological conservation and minimizing the impact on the surrounding environment. The Black Sheep Inn in Chugchilán has won numerous awards for its conservation efforts and has a goal of becoming self-sufficient in energy, water, and food production. The lodge has composting toilets (with stunning views of the Andes), showers made out of recycled bottles, a solar and wind-powered irrigation system for the organic garden, and simple but smart recycling initiatives. Instead of selling bottled water to travelers, something rare in South America, they encourage guests to fill up their reusable bottles with ozone purified water at no charge.
Feast on Locally-Sourced and Organic Foods
The first thing you will notice about the Quilotoa region is the mountains covered in a patchwork of assorted crops grown by the Quechua people who live in the region. They live off the land in the most simple and pure sense, adapting their crops to the steep slopes of the Andes and raising their livestock along the banks of winding rivers in deep valleys. While the most common crops are corn, potatoes, and grains there are also some farms growing fruits and vegetables. Many of the lodges along the Quilotoa Loop offer local and organic fare, often sourced from their own garden. What is better than arriving after a long day of hiking to a warm and nourishing meal?
Immerse Yourself in the Culture of the Andean Highlands
While hiking through the Quilotoa Loop you will most likely meet many warm and friendly locals working on their farms, leading their sheep to a new patch of land, or enjoying each other’s company in their homes or where they work. The Quechua are an indigenous civilization who were among the first to be conquered by the Incas in the 13th century, but their language and culture are still prominent in the Andean Highlands. A spiritual people, the Quechuas live a traditional farming life as they have for thousands of years. They are kind, joyful, curious, and communicative even when you don’t speak a word of the same language. In the villages along the route, there are opportunities to visit markets or small shops where local goods are sold. One of the most popular markets is the Sunday Market in Sigchos, where locals and people from surrounding villages come to sell produce and handicrafts.
Don’t Break the Bank
The Quilotoa Loop offers lots of bang for your buck! The accommodations consist of mountain lodges or hostels which range from $15 to $150 per night and vary from a bunk in a shared A-frame cabin to your own cottage with a wood-burning stove, patio, and outdoor fire pit overlooking the Andes. The most upscale accommodations are luxurious in a cozy, rustic, and authentic way. Most lodges include breakfast and dinner as restaurants are few and far between, but many will even pack you a sack lunch for your day of adventure (in a recycled paper bag, of course!). Transportation in the region is also very affordable, with private rides ranging from $10 to $50. The only entry fee you will need to cough up is $2 if you plan to enter the village of Quilotoa by car. But remember to bring all of the cash you will need, as there are no along the loop.
Soak in the Breathtaking Scenery in Every Direction
No matter where you are along the Quilotoa Loop—in a village, on the trail, on your bed, in the yoga studio, or even in the loo, chances are the scenery in every direction is nothing short of spectacular.