As we neared the top of the viewing platform, an icy blast of cold wind smacked us in the face and pushed hard against us. It was then that we caught our first glimpse of what we had traveled so far to see and it took our breath away ... the stunning Quilotoa Crater Lake!
Quilotoa Lake was formed over 800 years ago when an ancient volcano erupted and collapsed inward forming a deep crater. While the turquoise blue water looks ideal for swimming on a hot day, it is sulphurous and gas bubbles can still be seen, as the volcano continues to simmer beneath the surface.
Living on the edge
To get to the small village of Quilotoa located on the crater rim, you need to connect via Latacunga, approximately 2 hours south of Quito. It is a good place to leave your luggage so that you can hike light with only the essentials you need for a few days.
Latacunga is a city living on the edge, as it lies in the flow path of the enormous and ominous Cotopaxi Volcano. In August this year, Cotopaxi marked a new phase of volcanic activity, erupting steam and ash over the province and putting the lives of 300,000 people at risk.
We were told that when Cotopaxi erupts the people of Latacunga have as little as 10 minutes to escape to higher ground, as the glaciers on top of the volcano melt and flood the city and valley below. It is quite a frightening thought and needless to say we slept with one ear tuned to the emergency evacuation siren that night!
Day 1: Latacunga to Quilotoa
From Latacunga, the bus to Quilotoa takes approximately 2 hours and ascends quickly to 3,930m above sea level. Once in Quilotoa there are a couple of short but challenging hikes that can be done around the crater rim (4-5 hrs) or down into the crater to the waters edge (2 hrs return).
But by far the most popular hike in this area is the Quilotoa Loop, a self guided hike through remote Andean villages and mountains. Depending on which villages you visit, the hike takes 3-4 days and can be done in either direction with advantages to both.
Hiking from Sigchos or Isinlivi to Quilotoa, leaves the crate lake as a grandstand finish but it is also the more difficult direction, with the last day a challenging hike uphill into high altitude. Whereas starting in Quilotoa enables you to enjoy an easier hike down to lower altitude villages and allows for an extended stay at Llullu Llama Hostal to assist with your recovery. Not being hard-core trekking types, we opted for the latter and were ever so grateful for our decision.
The Quilotoa Loop hike is not signposted and can be difficult to follow in places. You also do not have access to wifi, so we would recommend downloading or printing a copy of detailed instructions for the route direction you choose before starting. We found the following resources invaluable for our trip:
Where we stayed: For our overnight accommodation in Quilotoa we chose Hosteria Alpaca, which while being basic accommodation, had a fluffy down doona and wood fired stove in the room to keep us cosy. Like most hostals on the Quilotoa Loop, the rate included dinner and breakfast.
Day 2: Quilotoa to Chugchillan
Starting out early, our hike took us from the cold windy town of Quilotoa and followed the crater rim hike trail approximately a third of the way around, affording awe inspiring views of the lake and the rugged crater.
From here we descended down the dusty rocky volcano sides through a series of switchbacks, via the eerily quiet village of Guayama to the edge of the volcanic plateau.
At this point a gaping canyon opens up the entire landscape, with the small village of Chugchillan (our destination for the first day) on the other side. The only way to get to Chugchillan is to descend to the canyon floor, cross a small stream and head up the other side.
After 5-6 hours (11km) of hiking, the steep trek up the dusty canyon path will certainly sort you out, but only makes a hot shower and cold cerveza all the more sweeter!
Where we stayed: We decided to stay at Hostal El Vaquero located on the edge of the canyon rim. It was the first hostal you reach after ascending the canyon and was a welcome sight after a long hike. The hostal is relatively new, had surprisingly decent wifi and the rooms were clean, comfortable and warm (we had 7 thick blankets on our bed!).
Our hosts were equally warm and welcoming and we enjoyed a huge and delicious dinner and breakfast. I would highly recommend Hostal El Vaquero for anyone looking for a quiet comfortable alternative to the other hostals in town.
Day 3: Chugchillan to Isinlivi
The next day we hiked another 6 hours (12km) from Chugchillan to Isinlivi, up and down the spectacular scenery of the canyon, through lush farmland beside a bubbling brook.
While the hike was just as challenging as the first day, we enjoyed the scenery much more and were rewarded with picturesque panoramic views of the Andean landscape.
Where we stayed: Our destination was Llullu Llama Hostal, where we splurged and booked a garden chalet for 2 nights. Our comfortable cottage had a small balcony with stunning views of the surrounding countryside and a cosy fireplace.
The hostal farmhouse featured comfortable common rooms, a solar heated jacuzzi and turkish sauna, scented with leaves from the nearby eucalyptus trees. Another highlight of the hostal for us, was the resident St Bernard dog, Bubbalu, who at only 18 months old was an enthusiastic puppy of huge proportions! We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Llullu Llama and couldn’t rate it high enough.
We didn’t trek from Isinlivi to Sigchos, as we needed to travel onto Banos where we had pre booked accommodation for the long weekend, but heard from our friends that did this section, that it was relatively short and an easy hike with similar scenery of the canyon and mountains.
We only added the Quilotoa Loop to our itinerary after reading about it from our favourite bloggers, Along Dusty Roads. Upon reflection, the hike turned out to be one the highlights of our travels in Ecuador and so we would highly recommend it to anyone travelling there as a ‘must do’.