The Quilotoa Loop is a self-guided multi-day hike in the Andes mountains in Ecuador. It’s a must for many backpackers who want to trek in Ecuador (or Trekuador, a word I just invented). The hike either begins or ends at Quilotoa, Lake a stunning crater lake in the Cotopaxi province. Each night, you’ll sleep in hostels or hosterias in small towns along the hike, so no camping gear is required. But every day, you’ll be hiking down into and up out of a giant, mountainous canyon. So do NOT make the mistake of thinking that this will be an “easy” hike, or that it isn’t remote, or potentially dangerous. That’s one of the many mistakes we made, along with choosing the wrong route to take, and a number of other idiotic accidents that resulted in us crawling on our hands and knees up a mountain, skipping an entire day of hiking, limping, and ultimately hitchhiking for the final mile of our hike. We’re like poster children for what NOT to do on the Quilotoa Loop. But don’t worry – our Quilotoa Loop travel guide will steer you straight! Make sure you download a copy of our step by step hiking instructions for the Quilotoa Loop Reverse Route to take with you – you will need them.
In this post we’ll share the full, hazardous story of our Quilotoa Loop, which was – spoilers – a disaster. We want you to be fully prepared, and we learned a lot about what NOT to do when hiking the Quilotoa Loop. Here’s a complete table of contents to help you navigate this post.
Table of Contents
Tips for Hiking the Quilotoa Loop
We sprinkled 10 lessons we learned by trial and error (mostly error) throughout this post, but here are some other handy tips for hiking the Quilotoa Loop!
- Bring plenty of cash. There are no ATMs and card isn’t accepted anywhere. You might also get really lost or fatigued and need to pay for a car, bus, guide, or donkey to help you get around.
- Speaking of getting lost, just accept that it can (and will) happen. You’ll save stress that way. Everyone we have met who hiked the Quilotoa Loop has shared their own stories of getting lost multiple times on the route. It’s part of the ~adventure~. If this makes you anxious – like it does us – recall that you’re never very far from a town, and people take these routes all the time. We may not have met many other hikers , but we met plenty of locals and they were all happy to help us find our way.
- If you need to, you can pay for a horse, donkey or llama to carry your stuff – particularly on the day you’re hiking to or from the Quilotoa Lake. Any local will be happy to assist you, and you’ll probably get a few offers as you’re hiking, too. This is a great option if you are exhausted or your bag is heavy.
- Before you leave Latacunga, be sure to buy a big value pack of candy. Or, bring a gift from home – or anything to share. The towns you pass through do not receive many foreign visitors, and the children love seeing gringos come by because it means they might have treats for them. We got a big bag of lollipops for just a dollar and delighted every child we met. It’s the little things, y’all.
- Bring a stick with you, or better yet, a pair of trekking poles . You’ll use this on the sandy inclines, but the main reason is to fend off dogs. Not kidding.
- Locals are used to the landscape here, so if you ask a local how long you have until you reach a point, remember that they likely make the trip often. We were once told “you have 30 minutes to go,” and we really had an hour and a half. Andeans are roughly three times as fast as us, apparently.
- Make sure you’re acclimated to the altitude before you hike! The Quilotoa Lake sits around 12,000 feet high in the Andes mountains – that’s no joke if you’re used to being at sea level, like us. Quito and Latacunga are both around 10,000 feet. We recommend spending at least a few days in Quito acclimating. And always, always take altitude sickness pills before you ascend from a low to high altitude – talk to your doctor before your trip, they are prescription meds.
Where to Stay Along the Quilotoa Loop
- Latacunga: La Posada is a great budget-friendly place to store your bags while you’re hiking the loop! Check pricing & availability on Booking.com. Alternatively, Hostal Tiana is a backpacker favorite; check pricing & availability on Hostelworld.
- Quilotoa: Hostal Chukirawa is located steps away from stunning Laguna Quilotoa, and every room has a wood burning stove for maximum coziness in the frigid high-altitude mountain air. Check pricing & availability on Booking.com.
- Chugchilan: Cloud Forest Hostel is roomy and comfortable. Your rate will include a hot dinner, too! Check pricing & availability on Hostelworld
- Isinlivi: Llulu Llama is hands down the best hostel on the entire Quilotoa Loop. Check pricing & availability on Hostelworld
What to Pack for the Quilotoa Loop
- Travel Backpacks (His & Hers): We brought our camping/hiking backpacks, which are incidentally the same backpacks we carried all across South America, too. We love our backpacks! Leave everything behind and just bring these – make sure you’ve hiked in them before, fully weighted, so you know what to expect. It is a big adjustment from hiking without a pack.
- 50-100oz of water: We each carry a 100oz water bladder in our backpacks, so that we can drink from the straw as we hike without having to take our packs off and access a water bottle. It makes it easy to stay hydrated!
- Trekking poles are crucial for the Quilotoa Loop. We brought our Black Diamond trekking poles with us, folded down and tucked into a side pocket of our backpacks, for our entire 5 months in South America and they were SO useful on hikes. Also, if I’d used these, I wouldn’t have injured my knee, so.
- Hiking Clothes: The Quilotoa Loop requires clothing that is up to the task of serious hiking. You will be sliding, crawling, climbing, and skidding. Plain leggings will NOT cut it – I learned this the hard way. Also, be aware that the Quilotoa Loop, being at a high altitude and up in the mountains, is mostly cool-cold. So bring a few layers! During our trek we both wore hats, a couple of layers of shirts or a jacket, long pants, and warm socks, and were quite comfortable. We prefer wool hiking gear thanks to its ability to cool you down in the heat and keep you warm in the rain – totally necessary for high-altitude mountain hiking, where the weather can change in a minute. We’ve tried a lot of different hiking clothing over the years, and these are our favorite tried and true picks.
- Hiking Shoes & Socks: We both hike in Trail Runners rather than heavy duty hiking boots – they’re lightweight and travel friendly, more flexible and comfortable, and they dry super quickly when it rains or after a water crossing, so your feet will stay toasty and try. Pair them with well-made wool socks. Our favorite wool sock brand is Darn Tough: soft, durable, and they come with a lifetime guarantee in the event of holes (that’s how you know it’s real). And bring multiple pairs of socks – you want to keep your feet clean and dry!
- Rain Gear: We love our Ultra-Light Packable Rain Jackets (His & Hers) and we bring Waterproof Socks, just in case. It does rain often high up in the Andes Mountains.
- Lounge Wear: You’ll want to bring more than just hiking gear, because you’ll be spending 3-4 nights in hostels along the way. Keep in mind that you’ll be filthy after each day of hiking, so pack enough to stay clean & dry (do NOT sleep in the clothes you’re hiking in, or you’ll just be asking for skin problems) but also pack as little as you can get away with. It gets very cold at night, so we recommend bringing warm layers to sleep in, like these women’s travel sweatpants. And for those late-night trips to the bathroom, our favorite travel “luxury” item is a pair of lightweight cozy slippers!
- Definitely bring packable Down jackets (His & Hers). The minute you stop hiking and your body temperature cools back down, you will need them.
- Toiletries: There is nothing like a hot shower after a long day of hiking. Bring a tiny travel-sized bottle of shampoo, conditioner, and a little bar of soap. And my favorite travel-friendly toiletry: baby wipes! Stuff a few in a ziplock baggy – they’re incredibly handy for hand wipes, face wipes, and whatever else needs some emergency cleanliness.
- Toilet Paper & Hand Sanitizer: Speaking of emergency cleanliness. Familiarize yourself with leave-no-trace principles, and keep an empty Pringles container on hand for packing out your used toilet paper (yes, I mean it).
- Nighttime Supplies: Bring stuff for your nightly hostel stays and, if necessary, relaxation days. A deck of cards, a book or Kindle Fire, or travel journal will help you stay occupied even when there is no WiFi (which is most of the time).
- Safety Supplies: Always better safe than sorry. We bring our safety supplies on EVERY hike – you never know when a day hike will turn into a night hike, and anything could happen.
- When hiking, always have on hand a good first aid kit and a survival kit. The main things to ensure that you have are basic medical necessities, at least 2 ways to start a fire (we have waterproof matches, flint & steel, and a waterproof lighter), at least 2 ways to purify water (we use a Sawyer mini filter and water purification tablets), a compass, and a whistle.
- Bring light. We always carry our solar powered flashlights clipped outside of our bags so they’re charging while we walk. We also bring LED headlamps – and yes, these have SAVED us on occasions when we’ve inadvertently found ourselves hiking after dark (like this disastrous hike)!
- Snacks: Breakfast and dinner will be pretty filling, but you’ll need something to eat while on the trail. You want something nutritious, with a good mix of complex carbs, fats, protein, and electrolytes to fuel your body. My favorite hiking snacks are peanut butter filled pretzels, plantain chips, dried fruit (like apple rings or dried mango), and almonds. Hit up the mercado in Latacunga to pick up some snacks for your hike.
- Camera: The Quilotoa Loop is stunning, so don’t forget to pack a camera! We took a ton of awesome shots wit our GoPro – the wide panoramic angle is perfect for the sweeping Andes vistas. A perfect lightweight, hike-friendly camera that takes amazing photos while still fitting comfortably into your pocket is the Canon Powershot. We used this camera exclusively during our 5 months backpacking South America and were extremely pleased with it.
Which Quilotoa Loop Route Should You Take?
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 route. Our chosen route took the above order and flipped it backwards, beginning the hike in Quilotoa and ending in Sigchos. It’s commonly referred to as the “reverse route” and is sometimes incorrectly described as “easier.” 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.
As our friends and readers 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. Each 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” thing. 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.
Here’s how to decide whether to do the traditional route or the Reverse Route for the Quilotoa Loop.
- If you’re a confident hiker and you don’t mind day 1 being the most difficult day of your hike, do the Reverse Route (and download our set of step by step Quilotoa Loop Reverse Route instructions to take with you).
- If you’re a moderately confident hiker and you’d like a few days of warm-up before the a final and incredibly difficult push, ending in a stunning view that will make you feel like it was all worth it, do the traditional route.
I know that the grass is always greener, but having done the Reverse Route, if we tried it over again, I think we’d do the traditional route instead. That said, we are NOT the best hikers in the world, so your mileage may vary.
Subscribe below to get your downloadable, printable PDF of the Quilotoa Loop Reverse Route hiking instructions.
The Quilotoa Loop Reverse Route
Now that you’ve got all the crucial information need to plan your hike, you might be wondering: what is hiking the Quilotoa Loop like? What should I expect?
Well, sit back and relax – we’re about to answer your question with a very long and detailed story. The story of our Quilotoa Loop Hike. Which, full disclosure, was kind of a disaster. But that’s typical for us.
By the end of our story, you’ll know exactly what to expect from a reverse route hike of the Quilotoa Loop (well, except for day 2 … you’ll see why). We fully believe in expecting the worse and hoping for the best, so arm yourself with our mistakes so you can make different mistakes on your own hike!
Getting from Latacunga to Quilotoa & Where to Stay
We started our journey to Quilotoa in Cotopaxi. It all began with some travel magic: a taxi from our hostel 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. We did not like Latacunga. 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. Whenever someone asks where to stay in Latacunga while hiking the Quilotoa Loop, the answer is usually Hostel Tiana.
Here’s the thing: Hostel Tiana is a not a great hostel. There are 3 main selling points: the WiFi is fantastically fast, they offer backpack storage, and they have printed instructions for hiking the Quilotoa Loop. The main 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 Quilotoa Loop trek – a huge plus, as you’ll want to carry the bare minimum for your hike.
But aside from that, meh. We spent two nights there total. There is no hot water for showers. Some of the dorms are in a windowless “dungeon” underground. The staff was kinda rude, and lost our reservation at one point. 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. And as for those printed instructions? They were terrible. We got lost a zillion times on day 1. But more on that later.
So instead of Hostel Tiana, we recommend staying at La Posada in Latacunga, which is around $10 a night and will look after your luggage for free while you hike the Quilotoa Loop. You’ll need to know the hiking instructions for day 1 of your hike in advance, though, because they don’t offer it like Hostel Tiana does – on day 2, you’ll pick the rest of the instructions en route at Llulu Llama (for the traditional route, that is. For the Reverse Route, we gotcha covered right here).
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 Quilotoa’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 staying at Hostal Chukirawa in Quilotoa. It cost $20 per person, with breakfast and dinner included, with hot showers, a fireplace (IN THE ROOM), okay WiFi (only like, half good enough to watch Netflix, which is all that matters), and a great view.
Day 1: Quilotoa to Chugchilan
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 (you’re just reading this post for schaudenfreude, aren’t you?), 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 Quilotoa Lake, or to hike the 6-hour ridge trail that circles it. It’s a tourist attraction all on its own.
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 actually manmade – thanks for making me such a skeptic, America. It’s not. We snapped loads of pictures as the high Andes fog rolled in and enveloped everything in its cold, misty arms. Then we scurried back to our hotel for some hot, free dinner – which was excellent – before snuggling into our warm bed next to the fire (um, after we found someone to light our stove, that is. Before then, it was freezing in our room. But it warmed up quickly).
Bright and early (for us) in the morning, after sleeping through our alarm clock and chowing down on some delicious included breakfast, we were ready to begin our Quilotoa Loop hike.
Hostal Chukirawa has the privilege of being the closest hostel to the Quilotoa Loop trail-head (a huge plus for those hiking the traditional route, as the minute you finish your hike, you’ll be able to rest).
There are two ways to begin the hike: hike around the crater on the ridgeline Quilotoa Loop trail counter-clockwise and add a few kilometers, or follow the trail at the edge of town – directly next to Hotel Chukirawa – labeled “Chugchilan.” 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. But hey, hike your own hike, you Olympic athlete, you.
The trail follows the crater ridge line clockwise, so you’re hiking part of the Quilotoa Loop crater ridge hike anyway.
Our printed 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 as it vanished behind us. Looking ahead of us as the trail wound down into the valley, I noticed something a bit unsettling: there were trails everywhere. There 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.
Getting Lost, 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 figured if we kept hiking we’d see the road in the distance, then be able to trace our trail to it. So we continued hiking downwards.
Suddenly, the trail veered to the left and went straight downhill. Something was definitely wrong. We found ourselves running, sliding, and falling forwards down this insanely steep 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’ll pass this house, and then 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 Loop trail to get to and from home.
It turns out the family whose home this was uses the Quilotoa Loop 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. Great. What was I thinking? That you could just drive a car up into the Andes to someone’s home?! No. Here, llamas are better than cars. They’re hardier, they handle altitude better, and they’re cuter, too.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop, Lesson #1: Don’t get lost and hike into someone’s house. And if hiking the reverse route, do NOT turn off at the first giant sandy patch you see.
We turned around and attempted to climb up the (nearly vertical, sandy) hill that we’d just carefully scrambled down. 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. I remembered the warnings I’d seen online about carrying a big stick to frighten off dogs on the Quilotoa Loop and mentally kicked myself for letting my love of dogs get in the way of heeding those warnings. 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. It was their dog. They came to my rescue and chased the agitated dog down the hill to the house we had just left.
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. We’d ignored the warnings about bringing a stick for the dogs, but we’d heeded the suggestion to bring some candy for the kids! He promptly popped one of the lollipops in his mouth. Sucks to be kid 8, I guess.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop, Lesson #2: Don’t ignore the warnings about the dogs. Bring a big stick to scare them away.
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, without warning, the trail ceased to exist. stopped. It just led to a sandy patch and then, nothing.
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 f***king 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. Again.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop, Lesson #3: If you find yourself crawling uphill on your hands and knees, you’re not on the right trail.
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. Finally, after nearly an hour of crawling on our hands and knees up a mountain face, I reached the top, covered in sweat and dirt.
I figured that detour would be the most difficult thing we’d have to do on the hike. It wasn’t.
Getting Lost, The Second Time
Our detour had cost us 2 hours. We were back on the ridge of the Quilotoa Loop, probably 10 minutes of easy hiking from where we’d left the trail. 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 up the mountain face a few feet 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.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop, Lesson #4: Pack light, then take a few more things out of your pack. Your pack should be SUPER lightweight.
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 hiked on.
About 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 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 lost. 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.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop, Lesson #5: Don’t follow the red arrows. That’s for the much more popular Quilotoa Loop day hike, not the “you’re hiking what now?” multi-day Quilotoa Loop trek.
30 minutes of hiking on the ridgeline around the lake we realized that we were inadvertently taking the ridgeline trail around the lake. Like … allll the way around it. 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. We were finally on the right path – 3 hours after we’d begun hiking.
Finally On Our Way to Chugchilan
This trail was infinitely easier than our terrible accidental detour from earlier. Hiking at a good speed on a comfortable downhill, we had brief, hopeful visions of making up for the 3 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 in the sand 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 an insanely steep grade – a 300 meter descent over 1 kilometer, to be exact, or in American terms, ridiculously goddamn steep.
As we made our way carefully down 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. We loved this sign. We wanted to hug it. This sign was everything. Finally, we knew for sure we were headed the right way.
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 huge backpack, your body has to work harder.
As we descended, 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.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop, Lesson #6: Do NOT forget to bring trekking poles. In either direction on the Quilotoa Loop, you’ll be hiking downhill as much as uphill – and the terrain is DIFFICULT to stay balanced on. Trekking poles are crucial for protecting your knees and preventing injury!
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.
Guayama: Day 1’s Halfway Point (Sort Of)
We reached Guayama, a small town that is roughly the midway point for Day 1’s hike, 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. We didn’t feel at all that we were hiking in the wilderness – more so, we felt that we were seeing a slice of Andean life, a life that is very different from our own. We saw families working together on their farms, herding llamas, washing clothes, and generally going about their day to day lives.
As we walked by, we met a few adorable kids working with their families, who cheerfully asked if we had candy, and we happily gave them some. They were thrilled. It was the cutest thing. We also met a couple of little boys who were too shy to ask for candy, so we gave them some anyway. We felt a lot less invasive hiking past local homes in an area that few tourists visit with a gift on hand to share – but we needn’t have worried, as we the locals were generally friendly and welcoming, whether we were handing out candy or just smiling, waving, and saying hello.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop Lesson #6: Bring a small gift or candy for the kids. They’ll probably ask you for something, because gringo hikers are rare and exciting and they’ve grown to expect a gift from them. Even if you don’t have anything to give, smile, wave, and say hello. Tourism is a fairly new thing in this area, and it’s important to show respect to the locals who are kindly allowing you to pass through their homes. By the way, I think this goes without saying, but do NOT litter, and follow leave-no-trace guidelines whenever you’re hiking.
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.
Climbing Into & 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 f***king down.
To add to the danger, most of this section is loose sand, prone to erosion and frequent landslides – one of which had happened recently, washing out a large chunk of trail.
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. 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.
We descended with great caution, acutely aware that if we fell, 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.
Inching towards the broken bridge, we saw a trail headed downwards to the canyon floor: a detour. We didn’t have to cross the landslide-destroyed section! Thank goodness.
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 f***king course.
By now, we expected to be crawling on our hands and knees through this whole damn 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.
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 of hiking 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. It was just another stroll down the street to them.
Of course, their estimate was way off. It was another hour and a half before we would reach the outskirts of Chugchilan.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop Lesson #7: When asking a local for a time estimate, triple it. Andeans hike these hills every single day and are built to handle the altitude better than the rest of us.
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 (you never realize how much you appreciate and rely on hiking signage until there is none at all) directing us into Chugchilan. We took the road our almpst-useless instructions said to, and climbed slowly upwards towards town, our entire bodies screaming in exhaustion and pain.
As we walked, sundown and fog 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.
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.
Or … not?
Day 2: Chugchilan to Isinlivi
“What is wrong with my body!? Everything hurts.” was what my brain yelled as I woke up. My body rejected every movement as we zombie walked our way to breakfast. Food and coffee, sadly, did not help.
With every step, my knee felt like a bruise being pressed on, except it was under the bone so it was more like a bruise being punched. Lia’s calves were barely functioning, so we were both doing an attractive sort of shuffling limp.
Resigned to the fact that we were in no shape to do day 2 of the hike, we decided to swallow our pride and take a bus to Isinlivi. Unfortunately it was 11:30 AM and raining, and the next bus was at 2:30. Defeated, we walked back to our hostel and asked them to hire a $30 taxi to drive us to Isinlivi.
Look, I know it’s cheating. This is exactly why, if given another choice, we would take the opposite direction for our hike – or give ourselves more time in between each day.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop Lesson #8: Listen to your body. Take a day of rest if you need it. Allow yourself the flexibility to do so. And don’t feel guilty if you opt for the easy way out. The Quilotoa Loop is HARD.
At least Victor (our driver) took the scenic route, which goes by the trail, so we saw what we were missing. He and Lia chatted the whole way in Spanish, but I have no idea what they said.
We headed straight to Llullu Llama, an amazing hostel in a very small and sleepy town. This place is one of the best hostels we’ve stayed in so far in all of South America. It has that no-internet cozy hostel vibe, which is always nice, and the staff was super friendly. Meals are all included, eaten family-style, and tasty. They have a jacuzzi and two saunas you can pay to use.
The best part, in my opinion, was the resident dog, an enormous Saint Bernard named Baloo. He’s a big ball of love and fluff. The hostel even has their own llama, Tito, who is super sassy. Baloo and Tito are friends and play together sometimes and I can’t imagine anything cuter.
We took advantage of our day off from hiking to befriend the other backpackers at the small hostel. We sat around in cozy clothes, enjoying tea around a fire and making new friends. It was so, so nice – and we needed the rest and relaxation.
The hostel has their own maps of the Quilotoa Loop that are way more useful than the ones Hostal Tiana gave us. They even had elevation maps! Fancy. The hostel staff is currently working on a project to remark the trail (yasss, signs!) and improve the directions.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop Lesson #9: Schedule at least a full day of rest at Llulu Llama. It’s cozy, comfortable, and there are some other “day hikes” and attractions nearby if you’re feeling up for it. Oh, and be sure to grab a copy of their handy hiking maps for the rest of your hike!
After a restful night, with our new maps, we were feeling much better and were ready to finish out our hike. There was no way we would get lost this time!
Day 3: Isinlivi to Sigchos
We immediately got lost. The staff and some fellow backpackers told us exactly how to get out of town, and miraculously, we wound up back at the hostel.
I felt like Tito was judging us when we turned the corner back to the hostel 5 minutes after we’d left.
We stopped inside, got some clarification, and soon were back on the trail.
The first part of the directions was easy enough: slightly uphill, then continue on the road until we have to descend. I felt really confident.
As we hiked, we came upon a sweet old abuela in traditional Andean dress, hiking slowly in the opposite direction as us. She smiled at us with all her frail old might, her front teeth missing in the comforting way that only a kind old abuela can pull off. She grasped both of our hands in her warm, wrinkled ones. Grinning from ear to ear, our hands clasped, no words were exchanged . Nothing needed to be said. It was a moment of pure connection. As she continued slowly on her way, we were walking on air. We felt like we’d been blessed with abuela magic.
And then we started to descend…. and I realized that there was something seriously wrong with my knee.
Every step felt like a sledgehammer to the top of my kneecap. It got so bad that I actually mentioned it – casually – to Lia, who had no idea that I was in pain, because I’m an idiot and don’t like to worry her even when I’m actually in need of help. She insisted that I take her trekking poles, which would have been a smart thing to do in the first place as soon as my knee started hurting. But I said I was fine and refused to take them.
Like I said, I’m an idiot.
With great care, we traversed down the mountain, finding a balance between “Let’s get this over with” and “my leg is now wine-glass fragile.” The worst downhill part was a muddy stretch right before the river. Historically, we don’t handle muddy hikes well.
It was over soon enough – compared to day 1, this was a walk in the park – and we began our slow ascent. The middle portion of the day was 2km on a semi paved road. It was a nice flat walk, actually.
Then came the steep part. The road between Isinlivi and Sigchos is windy and long. The trail goes along the road for a while, then shoots up the hill, cutting the road’s switchbacks.
We powered through the first cut, exhausted and out of breath at the end. The next cut up was where we almost gave up.
According to our handy elevation chart, it said this was the steepest and longest section. My knee was throbbing. I was actually limping – no more bullshitting that I was fine, to myself or to my wife, who was pissed that I’d hidden my injury for long enough to make it much worse. Idiot.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop Lesson #10: This is just like, a life lesson. If you’re hurting or injured, speak up, immediately. Do not soldier on. Do not put on a brave face. Do not hide your pain from everyone in a display of stoic manliness or whatever. All you’ll do is make it much worse and ultimately have to admit to everyone, and yourself, that you’re an idiot and also in a lot of pain.
We took a very long break at the base of the next steep, long hill. Trucks kept driving by. We debated hitching a ride. After much discussion, we chose to continue on foot.
With each step, my leg wailed. I finally took Lia’s trekking poles at her insistence and essentially pulled myself up, my right leg becoming increasingly useless. The “25 minute” stretch, which took about an hour in my injured state, finally reached an end.
I fell on the ground, happy to be on the last stretch before Sichos.
Even though the last section was level, my knee was done. For once, it hurt to walk on level ground. I limped my way along, but we still had a mile and a half to go. In my current state, that sounded like an eternity.
After about ten minutes, a truck with some passengers in the back came up to us. In a split second decision, we decided to ask for a ride. We asked for a lift and the driver obliged, for free, which I guess technically makes that our first ever hitchhike.
Once in Sigchos, we limped down the street to find some cheap almuerzo and waited for the 4 o’clock bus to Latacunga. We were finished with the Quilotoa Loop.
We bussed back to Latacunga, weary, injured, and in desperate need of rest. We arrived at Hostel Tiana looking forward to relaxing in our private room – we’d decided to treat ourselves to a private as a reward for finishing our hike.
Except Hostel Tiana had lost our reservation. I watched the lady write our names in the reservation book days before, but now it was magically gone. We spent the night in a locker-less dorm room. I had to hobble up and down the bunk bed ladder with one nonfunctional leg. The bunks were rickety; it was the only time I legitimately felt like a bunk would break under my weight. The next day, we hopped on the first bus we could to Banos, leaving our disastrous Quilotoa Loop hike behind forever.
Hiking Instructions: Quilotoa Loop Reverse Route
We compiled the most detailed Reverse Route instructions we could manage, all the way from Latacunga and back again. We wrote these down as we went, so they’re accurate as of our hike in August 2016. If something has changed – like a landslide, for example – please let us know so we can update these to keep them accurate!
To download the complete Quilotoa Loop Reverse Route hiking instructions as a printable PDF, please sign up below! We recommend printing out a copy, and downloading it for offline use to your phone or Kindle or some other electronic device you’ll be bringing with you as you hike.
Important note: the Quilotoa Loop is not your average hike, especially if you’re used to the well-marked, clearly defined trails in the USA. Quilotoa Loop hiking instructions are all like “take a left at the big rock that looks like a dog, cross the river (don’t use the bridge), and head through some trees to a pasture, no not that one, the other one. Then roll down a hill until you reach a farm. Jump the fence and walk like a crab for 15 steps, then head left, directly upwards.”
Yeah – no wonder we got so lost.
We’ve done our very best to be accurate, but without actual signs, most of the route is up for interpretation. So we strongly recommend picking up directions from multiple sources, particularly the hostels you’ll be staying at along the route. Their instructions will be more up to date in the event of landslides, not to mention they’ll use different wording. When you’re staring at a fork in the road trying to figure out if it’s sandy enough to quality for a “sandy patch” or faced with 18 identical trails trying to evaluate which one they mean by “small path” … you’re going to want multiple sources to consult. We brought instructions from Hostel Tiana as well as Llullu Llama, and still got lost. The more instructions you bring, the better.
Here’s a preview of the style of 3-pages of hiking instructions, which start from Quilotoa and continue to Chugchilan to Isinlivi to Sigchos and back to Latacunga. (This bit isn’t in the hiking instructions.)
How to Get from Latacunga to Quilotoa
- At the bus terminal, grab the Quilotoa/Chugchilan bus.
- You will take this bus past a “Welcome to Quilotoa” sign. Don’t get off here. It’s not actually Quilotoa for a couple more kilometers.
- Once you approach a highway exit for Quilotoa, get off. The bus will continue left towards Chugchilan, but you will walk into town.
- Pay $2 at the kiosk to enter town.
- Walk the main road until it curves left. At the end of the street is Hostal Chukirawa, our recommendation to rest for the night so you can hit the trail early the next day. Check out Quilotoa Lake right across the street!
I know this was a monstrous post, but if you’re planning to hike the Quilotoa Loop, knowing what to expect is incredibly useful. I hope you feel more prepared (and please download our reverse route hiking instructions if you plan to hike that direction)! Still have questions about the Quilotoa Loop? Leave us a comment below!
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