Hiking the famously beautiful Quilotoa Loop is a great way to immerse yourself in the culture of Ecuador, get out and really stretch your legs and see some of the prettiest countryside around. Even though the loop goes through a very populated valley, somehow you still feel like you are off the beaten track and cut-off from the congestion of the modern world.
But don't go in thinking it is going to be a simple walk in the park. While it is mostly on dirt roads, there are still some steep uphills and make-your-knees-creak downhills along the multi-day loop; but even if you aren't an avid hiker - it is not like you are hiking up to Everest Base Camp. Meaning, it is a tough couple days, sure, but you definitely won’t die of exhaustion.
Knowing this, if you are still a tad worried about the trek, or are wondering what the experience is really like, here are 15 tips to help put your mind at ease and make sure you absolutely LOVE your 3 days out on the trail.
1. The distances between towns are not long OR hard. We did the first two days in one. Now granted we are pretty fast hikers who are used to LONG days on the trail but trust us, the hike from Sigchos to Islinivi only took us three hours and had only one tough uphill part. And then from Islinivi to Chugchilan it was another four hours, this time mostly on a dirt road. While I am not saying you should cut the loop down to two days like we did, expect to have a fair amount of downtime after hiking. Or even better, feel free to have a nice slow morning because the time it takes between towns (and your next sleeping quarters) is not very much.
2. Bring plenty of water. We brought two liters between the two of us and that was juuuust enough. But a bit more water would definitely have been helpful. While there are a couple of small towns along the way, only the ones where you can stay the night (Islinivi, Chugchilan, and Quilotoa) had stores to buy more from.
3. And while you are at it, don't forget the sunscreen. Even when it was nice and cloudy out, Luke somehow still got burned. This is because you are at a very high altitude (over 10,000 feet and up to 12,000 in some places). At that elevation you get burned quickly, so put it on right in the morning before setting off and reapply often, especially if you are sweating it off while climbing up the steep hills.
4. The hostel food is pretty good. We only stayed at one, Cloud Forest Hostal in Chugchilan, but the included dinner and breakfast were both really yummy. The breakfast was surprisingly tasty and different and best of all, FILLING. Unlike other hostel breakfasts it wasn't just bread and jam but yogurt, granola, fruit, coffee or tea, toast, and an egg. Dinner was also yummy and included a soup and a nice fruity dessert alongside the main dish of rice, mashed potatoes, veggies, and chicken. All of this, including the room, was only $15 a person, a real deal.
5. But you still will want to bring snacks. Maybe it’s because we were just hiking a lot (16.5 miles total), but we were hungry during and after the hike on the first day. We finished at 2:30 PM and dinner was not until 7 PM - way too long to wait - so we were really glad we decided to bring snacks with us on the trail. While the hostels had snacks to buy, most of it was just chips or candy.
6. Speaking of snacks, make sure to get them in Latacunga. Unless you're fine with bringing chips and cookies on the hike, I suggest stocking up in Latacunga beforehand. We stocked up in Sigchos and were lucky to find granola, but besides that the options were not great. Next to the bus terminal in Latacunga, there is a big supermarket with a lot more options. We definitely regretted not stopping in there before catching the bus out to the trailhead.
7. Latacunga is a fine city. Before heading there we had heard so many people talk about how bad the city was, but honestly we didn't mind it. We only stayed one night after the hike, at Hostel Tiana, but the city squares were pretty, it was clean and we found a bomb sandwich place for dinner (El Submarino). While I don't think we would head there only for the city, it is not what you would call a "destination" city, it was perfectly fine for a night and a day of exploring.
8. The crater/lake IS worth the three days of hiking. We did the route from Sigchos to Quilotoa and we were so glad we did because ending at the lake, including the LONG hike up to the rim, totally made it all worth it. We met a few people who did it the opposite way and they all were feeling pretty skeptical of finishing the whole loop since they had already seen the big-ticket item. While the route from Quilotoa to Sigchos might be easier (don't worry there are still some nice uphill parts) we just felt that having the crater as the finale was more motivating.
9. The short route around the lake is plenty. In the beginning we considered doing the long route around the lake (the three-hour trail) but once we actually got to the lake and felt how cold and windy it was we quickly changed our minds. And honestly the views were just as good on the one hour route (the right side) and obviously took way less time and had a lot fewer hills (you will be thankful for this once you get to the end).
10. You probably won’t get lost. We came in thinking it would be really hard to find the right route, even with beta. So many other posts online talked about this constantly. But as of now (2018) there were a lot of helpful signs along the route showing you where to go, especially in areas where it was probably really easy to get lost previously. While we still had to use the beta in a couple of places, as long as you follow the red/yellow markers or signs put up by hostels (looking at you Cloud Forest Hostal) it is actually pretty simple going. And not gonna lie, we were a bit sad about this.
11. All the views are great. Not just the views of Quilotoa Lake itself, but the entire valley you walk through is stunning. It is a mix of vibrant shades of green, cute homes and farms, has lots of animals. Honestly, the whole hike is just really peaceful and quite - a great way to see the natural landscape and get a feel for the rural “Ecuador.” Even though you are surrounded by the people living there, you really do feel cut-off from the world. So we totally recommend doing the entire loop - even the trek from Islinivi to Sigchos, which somehow many people think is boring, but we thought it was just as pretty.
12. It does get cold at night, no matter how hot the day is. We wore short sleeves and wished we had brought shorts during the day hikes, but once the sun started to set we were layering up real quick. We are not saying you need to pack a parka or anything, but we brought our lightweight puffies along and they were perfect.
13. Hiking boots are not necessary. Honestly, no part of the loop is actually that hard or treacherous. Most of it is on dirt roads, so wearing tennis shoes won’t be a problem. But Chelsea boots, which we saw two people wearing, probably aren’t a great idea.
14. The bus system is simple to use and cheap. All you have to do to catch one is wait along the side of the main paved highway that goes through all the small villages. The only town we had to take a taxi from was Chugchilan, and that was simply because we had missed the earlier buses. Besides their simplicity, they only cost around $2.50 - even from Quilotoa to Latacunga.
15. Finally, be the candy man. We bought a bag of lollipops in Sigchos for about a dollar and handed them out to all the children we met along the trail. It was a really simple way to make some kids' days, especially the young ones who lived in the tinier villages. So if you have the time stop by a store and pick up a couple of candies. Simple, yet sweet.
Hopefully, these 15 tips make you even MORE excited to do the Quilotoa Loop! We definitely enjoyed our time there and would recommend it to anyone traveling through Ecuador. It is safe and fun, and even though it is very much on the "Gringo Trail" it is big enough to feel like you are completely alone. Plus, it is absolutely beautiful!