The Quilotoa Loop: Defying Death in the Andes

Looking out over beautiful Quilotoa Lake in the high Andes mountains in Ecuador.

The Quilotoa Loop is a must for many backpackers who want to trek in Ecuador (or Trekuador, a word I just invented). Essentially it is a multi-day strenuous hike through The Andes around the area near Quilotoa, a crater lake in the Cotopaxi province. Most people do the hike in 3-5 days, and follow the route from Latacunga > Sigchos > Isinlivi > Chugchilan > Quilotoa > Latacunga. The hike in this direction has a total of 2152 meters/7,060 feet of ascent and 1184 meters/3884 feet total of descent, across roughly 30 kilometers/18.6 miles. We decided to go with the less popular, often misunderstood as “easier” route. Our chosen route took the above order and flipped it backwards, beginning the hike in Quilotoa and ending in Sigchos.

As some of our friends and followers know, we are slow hikers. We heard “harder and more ascent” and “easier and mostly downhill,” and chose the latter. Let me be very clear here: There is no easy route for the Quilotoa Loop. This route is strenuous for different reasons, so no matter which direction you go, expect to have your ass kicked. Another misunderstanding is this whole “mostly downhill” bullshit. People, such as us, assume the hike must be mostly downhill because of the net altitude loss from Quilotoa to Sigchos – 7,000ish feet of altitude loss, to be exact –  but that’s crap.  The loop basically takes hikers down a canyon and back up the other side, for three canyons in a row, no matter what direction you go. Sadly, we didn’t get as much information (or warning) for our choice as we did for the “harder” version, so we had a few (literal) missteps. We’re no strangers to that, as any of our readers will know. So without further ado, here’s our retelling of the Quilotoa Loop.

The Quilotoa Lake on the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador.
Before we knew about the hell we were about to inflict upon ourselves, we were all smiles and accidentally coordinated/matching outfits.

Beginning the Adventure in Latacunga

We began on our journey from Cotopaxi to Latacunga with some travel magic: a taxi dropped us off at a random unmarked stretch of road, and minutes later, a bus to Latacunga pulled up and we hopped on. Easy. Once we arrived in Latacunga, the travel magic wore off. You know how a lot of travel people have that “isn’t this just wonderful?” mindset for literally everywhere they visit? Well we don’t. Latacunga was a shithole. It’s a midsized city, and it’s very crowded with terrible traffic and an overwhelming exhaust smell. However, it’s the home of Hostal Tiana, the standard Quilotoa Loop jumping off point. Tiana is a pretty crappy hostel, but backpackers always rave about it. There are two main selling points: the WiFi is fantastically fast, and they offer backpack storage. The reason backpackers flock here is because they will hold your stuff for cheap (first night free if you stay there, then $1 a night per bag), so you can unload anything you won’t need for the trek. But aside from that, this place blows. We spent two nights there total. There is no hot water for showers. The staff is super rude. The included breakfast is just a mountain of bread. There is no kitchen for you to use. And the lockers in the dorms are literally the size of a mailbox. For a place that is only used for locker storage, you’d think they would have a better security option. The night before we left for Quilotoa, we reserved a private room. I had heard bad things about the “dungeon” dorms, so we made a reservation for the same private room for when we got back – more on that later.

The morning of our departure, we stuffed all of our unnecessary belongings in the Hostel Tiana locker dungeon and cabbed to the nearby Latacunga bus terminal. We grabbed seats on a Zumbahua-Quilotoa-Chugchilan bus for $2.50 each right when we got to the terminal and we left immediately. The bus went up and down the Andes for about 2 hours, and dropped us off for Quilotoa on the town’s highway exit. After about 5 minutes of walking, we reached the town’s entry kiosk. News to us: entry into the town is $2 per person. We walked through town looking for a place to sleep. We viewed a few options and settled on Hostal Chukirawa, right across from the Quilotoa Lake. We highly recommend this place. It was $20 per person, breakfast and dinner included, with hot showers, fireplace (IN THE ROOM), okay WiFi, and a great view. The worst part about this hostel was that the WiFi was slow because the resident child was loudly streaming cartoons on YouTube for six hours straight. This kid did not have a bedtime. In fact, nobody talked to him at all. All he did was watch cartoons for hours and get hopped up on sugary Inca Kola. It would have been sad, except that we were trying to watch Narcos on Netflix at like 10pm. We hated that kid.

Starting to hike the Quilotoa Loop from Quilotoa to Chugchilan, in Ecuador.
Cheerfully beginning the Quilotoa Loop hike, starting from Quilotoa. We were so optimistic and so naive.

Quilotoa, Ecuador: The Start of the Hike

The town of Quilotoa is very small, so it didn’t take long to look around. Directly across from our hotel was the entrance to Laguna Quilotoa, the famous Quilotoa Lake.  If hiking sounds awful to you (as it probably will after you read this post), rest assured: you can take a bus to Quilotoa and with no hiking at all, enjoy an absolutely incredible view of the crater lake. There’s no fee to look at the lake, or to hike the 6-hour ridge trail that circles it. It’s a tourist attraction all on its own. Typically, the lake is usually the reward for the more popular route, but whatever, we were okay with spoiling it in exchange for the other route. Sitting at 12,500 feet in the cold, foggy Andes mountains, Quilotoa Lake looks so unreal and incredible that my first thought was that it was indeed fake – thanks for making me such a skeptic, America.

Bright and early (for us) in the morning, after sleeping through our alarm clock and chowing down on some sweet included breakfast, we were ready to begin our Quilotoa Loop hike. Hotel Chukirawa has the privilege of being the closest hostel to the trailhead. There are two ways to begin the hike: hike around the crater on the ridgeline trail counter-clockwise and add a few kilometers, or follow the trail at the end of town – directly next to Hotel Chukirawa –  labeled “Chugchilan.” Again, we did the latter, because we are lazy. Also, because adding 3 hours to a 7 hour hike seemed like it might be a bad idea.

The trail follows the crater ridge line clockwise. Our instructions from Hostel Tiana said something along the lines of “In about an hour, you’ll reach a sandy stretch with a lookout, and you can see a big blue house. That’s the town of Guayama. Take the trail on the left.” So in about an hour, we came to a sandy part. We saw a blue building off in the distance far below us. We even saw a trail off to the left. Perfect. We took it. We merrily romped around the side of the crater, a little surprised to say goodbye to the lake so suddenly. Looking ahead of us down into the valley, I noticed something a bit unsettling: there were trails everywhere. It was literally a web of small, seemingly rarely used trials snaking between mountains, through canyons, and up cliffsides. That should have set my “we’re going to get lost” alarm ringing, but it was early in the day and we were still exuberant and naive.

Looking out over the valley while hiking the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador.
Oh hey, look at all of those tiny trails! I’m sure that won’t be a problem.

Getting Lost on the Quilotoa Loop, The First Time

I knew eventually we needed to come to a dirt road, but I didn’t see a single one, and we were supposed to be able to see it by now. I thought, maybe a bit further and we can see the road, then trace our trail to it. We continued hiking down. Suddenly, the trail veered to the left and went straight downhill. Something was definitely wrong, because we now had to choose between running, sliding, or falling forwards down this hill.  Twenty minutes of frantic sand scrambling later, we arrived in someone’s backyard. “This is good,” I cheerfully told my skeptical wife. “Houses need access to towns. That means we pass this house, and we’ll have to hit a road, and that road will lead into town.” The logic was solid, and my optimism was flying high. The only way I’d be wrong is if the family whose house this was had to use the Quilotoa trail to get to and from home.

It turns out the family whose home this was uses the Quilotoa trail to get to and from their house. A child of about 5 came shyly out and informed us that we were going the wrong way. Fucking great. We turned around and attempted to climb up the (nearly vertical, sandy) hill. Soon, gravity won and I stumbled backwards. I realized the only way up this hill was on my hands and knees. Slowly, inch by inch, I made it halfway up the hill to a flat spot. To the left I saw another trail going around the crater. This had to be the way. I sighed with relief, waited for Lia to catch up, and heaved my heavy bag  off my shoulders to take a rest. As soon as I started to feel relaxed, a dog ran up on me out of nowhere, teeth exposed, barking up a storm. Startled, I jumped backwards – directly to the edge of the cliff I had just dragged myself up. I teetered alarmingly on the edge, with no way to escape the approaching dog. In desperation, I grabbed a handful of nearby rocks and threw them as close to the dog as I dared – I am a dog lover, even if they are trying to kill me, after all. As I screamed and threw rocks at the howling and barking dog, two kids came running down the hill with buckets attached to their backs. They came to my rescue and chased the agitated dog down the hill to the house we had just left.

Getting lost on the Quilotoa Loop on the way to Chugchilan, Ecuador.
My face had this WTF expression on it for 3/4 of this hike.

As I caught my breath and slowed my pounding heart, the owner of the house and father of the kids – 8 total, as it turned out – came down the hill towards us. Now that Lia had caught up to me, she was able to have a conversation with him in Spanish. He advised us to take the small trail to the left leading through some cliff-side crops to get back to the right trail. As a thanks for his help, we gave him 8 lollipops from the bag we’d brought, one for each of his children. He promptly popped one of the lollipops in his mouth. Sucks to be that kid, I guess. As we started down the path he pointed to,  we were feeling much better. The rest of this part of the trail MUST be downhill, we figured, because the town of Guayama is literally at the bottom of the valley. With our new confidence we swaggered through crops and small plots of land until – oh shit where did the trail go? It just stopped. There wasn’t a break in the trail or anything; it just led to a sandy patch and then ceased to exist. Fuck.

Confused, we looked behind us and could just barely make out the house we’d left in the distance. The friendly dad was whistling and motioning with his hands to climb DIRECTLY UP to the ridgeline. Dubiously, we looked up. Straight up. No trail, nothing to hold onto. Just up a fucking mountain. With no other choice, we started up. After a few scrambling minutes we found ourselves climbing literally on our hands and knees up the steep, sandy mountainside. Have you ever been on a really steep sand dune? Every step you take pushes you down almost to where you started. Imagine that with 30 pounds on your back, sliding up the sand on your hands and knees. Once we cleared the sand and dirt, we reached a grassy area. This was an entirely new kind of terrible. We grasped dead clumps of grass and hoisted ourselves up inch by inch, still on our hands and knees. I reached the top, out of breath, covered in dirt, thinking at least that had to have been the worst of it. (It wasn’t)

The Quilotoa Lake on the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador.
After getting lost, I had mixed feelings about seeing the Quilotoa Lake again. Damn you, you beautiful monster.

Getting Lost on the Quilotoa Loop, The Second Time

I think this is the point where my exuberant optimism crawled into a hole and disappeared for the rest of the day. I was happy to see beautiful Quilotoa Lake again, but I was pissed off about literally everything else. As Lia struggled slowly up the hill below me, I talked to some Australians going the other way – with a horse and a guide carrying their backpacks, which should have been a warning sign of the impending doom we were about to face – and they confirmed we were now on the right path. Satisfied, I looked back to see where Lia was. The answer was stuck. Since she was crawling up the mountain, her heavy bag had slid up her back and was forcing her to keep her head down. She couldn’t breath so she couldn’t move. I slid down the mountain and grabbed her bag for her so she could inch her way up the hill again.

Back on the ridge now, and incorrectly convinced that nothing could ever be as horribly difficult as our miserable 2-hour long detour was, we walked on. Seriously like 15 minutes later we hit ANOTHER sandy stretch, which also looked exactly like the one we were supposed to be looking for originally. We were pissed. How many multiple sandy stretches does this stupid trail have?! (Answer: 4) Which one was Hostel Tiana talking about? To our left we saw a wide sandy trail going down the hill, and another trail climbing up of the ridge marked by red arrows. The last time we’d faced this exact same conundrum we’d gone downhill and gotten fucked. This time, we decided, the best course of action was to go uphill, following the reassuringly marked arrows. The red arrows had to be for our trail, right?

Of course, the red arrows weren’t for our trail.  30 minutes of walking the ridgeline around the lake we realized that we were inadvertently taking the ridgeline trail around the lake. Off in the foggy distance, we could finally see the dirt road in the valley that we had to meet at some point, but it was getting further and further away. Realizing our mistake, we backtracked to the other stupid sandy part, then took the trail downwards.

Sign for Chugchilan from Quilotoa on the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador.
This was the first sign we saw for Chugchilan, and the first confirmation we had that we were actually headed in the right direction. I loved this sign.

Finally On Our Way to Chugchilan

This trail was infinitely easier than our shitty detour from earlier. Hiking at a good speed on a comfortable downhill, we had brief, hopeful visions of making up for the 2.5 hour delay  we had incurred from getting lost twice (spoilers: no). We eventually reached an area that looked like a beach  (stupid identical sandy patch #3, if anyone’s counting) and, with no marker or clues as to which way the trail continued, followed some gringo-looking footprints and hoped for the best. Eventually, we hit a fork near a small clutch of forest and took a tiny trail on the left. For once, we were right the first time. The trail eventually wound into a meadow, and turned into another sandy descent (stupid sandy patch #4), and then plunged straight down at a steep grade – a 300 meter descent over 1 kilometer, to be exact, or in American terms, ridiculously goddamn steep. Along this stretch, we finally got our first official confirmation we were going the right way when we saw a hiking trail sign that said Chugchilan. Lia wanted to kiss the damn thing. This was also where I realized why our chosen “downhill, therefore easier” route sucks.

When you step down a steep decline, your heel strikes, sending a shockwave into your ankle, then your knee, then your hip. Due to the nature of the human step, the knee takes the brunt of the force. It was designed to. This usually isn’t a problem for most people, because their bodies have gotten used to their weight. However, once you add a fucking huge backpack, your body has to work harder. Within minutes, I felt a sharp pain in my right kneecap. Probably nothing. I’ve never had a knee problem in my 28 years before. But then again, I also haven’t spent an hour on a near-vertical decline trying to stay balanced in loose sand before. Little did I know, my pain would only get worse as our hike went on. After an hour or so of carefully sliding downhill, we hit the dirt road we were aiming for all along, and hung a left towards town.

Making a pig friend on the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador.
As a rule, Jeremy tries to make friends with every animal we encounter. This pig was eager to make friends, too!

Guayama: The Sort of Halfway Point

We reached Guayama after 2.5 kilometers of easy flat walking, pleasantly admiring the scenery. We were walking through fertile farmland, small carefully tended maize fields scratched by clucking hens and dotted with pigs, sheep, and donkeys. As we walked by, a little girl raced across her family’s farm, mouth wide with a smile, and asked “Tiene chocolat?” With a matching smile I told her we only have lollipops, was that okay? She gave an emphatic nod and held her hands out. “Con chiclet!” I added and she was ECSTATIC. She said gracias and ran back to her family working in the fields. It was the cutest thing. In town, we came across some more animals, including a pig struggling on his rope because he wanted us to pet him, which obviously we did. We also met a couple of little boys who were too shy to ask for candy, so we gave them some anyway.

After another 1.5 kilometers, we reached a mirador overlooking a canyon. Although the light was beginning to wane, we were tentatively hopeful again. We felt like we must have completed about half of the hike by now, and surely the hardest part was behind us. (More spoilers: still no.) We took a quick rest, shook sand out of our shoes, watched some puppies play fight, and then started the actual worst part of the hike: descending into the canyon.

The canyon between Quilotoa and Chugchilan, on the Quilotoa Loop hike, in Ecuador.
Peering down into the depths of the canyon we were about to descend into and then climb back out of.

Climbing into and Out of the Canyon

Topographically speaking, the canyon descent is only half a kilometer. However, the altitude change descends a plunging 300 meters. That’s a 60% grade, straight fucking down. To add to the danger, most of this section is loose sand, prone to erosion and frequent landslides. I’m sure if I was going the other way, I’d be climbing this canyon saying it would be easier to descend it. However, my knees and quads beg to differ. That small pang I felt earlier now felt throbbing. The entire trail down is a series of steep switchbacks made up of essentially marbles on concrete. We slipped and slid around corners, falling on our asses and elbows so we didn’t fall off of the trail. Had we fallen, there would be nothing but grass to cling to, because all of the safety rails had been reassuringly dislodged in various landslides. As we descended we saw the corpses of what used to be small comforts strewn about the hillside. RIP, safety rails.

About 75% down the miserable vertical hillside, there is a sign begging people not to continue straight, positioned front of a terrifyingly destroyed bridge. This is the site of a recent landslide, which is now a sheer, smooth sand dune running the entire height of the mountain. Footprints show that a few brave souls had ignored that sign and gone straight across the dune, a path that looked like death itself, but clearly connected to the other side of the canyon where we were headed. As we stared in horror at the death trap ahead of us, trying to figure out what the hell we were going to do, a few rocks rolled ominously down the landslide-decimated mountain, echoing with finality at the bottom of the canyon.

The landslide destroyed a section of the trail on the Quilotoa Loop hike in Ecuador.
The landslide of doom! If you follow the (sketch, broken) bridge, you can clearly see a path continuing over the near-vertical landslide sand slick running down the mountain, which equals certain death. What you can’t see is the actual trail. It’s on the right and straight down from the bridge. Yup. FML.

Inching towards the broken bridge, we saw a trail headed downwards to the canyon floor: a detour. Dizzy with relief, we started down. As it turns out, the rest of the hill had been a warmup for this part. This was it: the actual worst part of the trail. Nothing had been as difficult as this hastily constructed detour. Our “path” straight down the canyon walls consisted of loose sand on smooth, sheer rock, punctuated by tiny patches of grass. If you lose control of your footing and slide down the sand, you hit a grass patch and stop too suddenly, which makes you lose your balance and hit the next sand trap already sliding, picking up speed until your body threatens to tumble headfirst to the valley floor.  Having been hiking/sliding down marbles-on-rock style sand for some hours now, we drew on our experience and used all of our new skills to avoid falling off the trail and plunging downwards: we crawled on our hands and knees, we fell onto our elbows or sides, we held onto roots and grass. It was the most terrifying descent either of us had ever done in our lives. Finally at what we assumed was bottom of the canyon, we crossed what was once a river and were rewarded with a STRAIGHT uphill climb – on treacherous, slippery sand covered rock, of fucking course. By now, we expected to be crawling on our hands and knees through this whole fucking hike.

Shaking with exhaustion, we continued uphill until we reached a cheerful little circle of benches and took a quiet, miserable rest. The fading light alerted us to the danger facing us if we didn’t finish climbing this awful canyon and hit a road before sundown. We barely survived the slippery descents in daylight: hiking them after dark was not an option. Determined to at least reach a road – or something that wasn’t a vertical up or downhill – before sundown, we continued on our way.  Soon, we hit a log “bridge.” By bridge, I mean it was some logs across a river, 15 feet in the air. We weren’t even nervous crossing it: by now, we had stared death in the face and lived 100 times already, and a wobbly log crossing was nothing.

Nearly vertical sand slide on the Quilotoa Loop hike in Ecuador.
Our reward for not tumbling headfirst to the bottom of the canyon was this practically vertical sand slide scramble to get out the other side.

After the bridge, we were passed by a local and his son going in the other direction. We asked them how much time we had left to Chugchilan, and he told us we had only 30 minutes left.  Too tired to feel hope or optimism, we thanked him. Afterwards, we considered the validity of his estimate: this dude and his kid just started out on an insane vertical-ass hike a couple of hours before sundown without a water bottle or snack bag to speak of. We learned an important lesson from this guy: Andeans do this shit on the daily, so take their time estimate and triple it. It  was actually an hour and a half before we would reach the outskirts of the town.

From this point onwards, the trail is a steady uphill slog. Technically this side of the canyon is the same ascent as the other side, but over a reasonable distance, so it takes much longer but is a manageable degree of steepness. We trudged uphill, too miserable to speak. After 30 minutes or so, the trail ended and we saw convenient signs (fucking finally) directing us into Chugchilan. We took the road as our useless instructions said to, and climbed slowly upwards towards town, our entire bodies screaming in exhaustion and pain. As we walked, sundown crept over the valley. It was probably beautiful and scenic, but we were too far gone to notice anything other than pain and misery.  We were passed by several Andeans headed the opposite direction. A guy walking his donkey kindly encouraged us in Spanish, telling us we were almost there. I guess our misery was written plainly on our faces. Darkness fell and we climbed on in the light of the occasional  dim streetlamp. It began to rain.  We were too tired to bother with our rain gear and just let the rain soak into our miserable, tired bodies. Finally, what felt like hours later, we arrived wet and exhausted in the town of Chugchilan.

READ:  Our 16 Worst Travel Fails of 2016

We walked through town in the dark and the rain to Cloud Forest Hostel. Honestly, we would have paid anything for a bed and some food, but Cloud Forest cost us only $15 a night including breakfast and dinner. By some stroke of travel magic, we arrived at the hostel exactly 5 minutes before they served the 7pm dinner. We changed out of our wet clothes, wolfed down some food, and slowly turned back into tired but functioning humans. We were showered and in bed by 8:30 pm. It had been nearly 10 solid hours of hiking, and we were beyond tired. We slept soundly, not thinking about the rest of the hike that we would continue in the morning.

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Travel Story: The Quilotoa Loop in the Andes Mountains, Ecuador was the hardest hike I have ever done in my entire life.

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2 Comment

  1. Renata says: Reply

    Wow what adventure! Thanks for sharing it.
    I’m glad that you reach Chugchilan safe after all the hard time you had
    Safe travels!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thank you Renata! It was tough but worth the effort for sure.

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