The Quilotoa Loop is a remote trail linking several high Andean villages and towns in the Cotopaxi province. The ancient trails meander through the Andes Mountains of Ecuador with views of snow-capped volcanoes. The isolation of the trails brings wanderers into contact with Kichwa-speaking indigenous and their centuries-old way of life. It also allows them to see some of the more remote people and culture of the central Andes of Ecuador. It is a 50 kilometer village to village hiking route ending at the Quilotoa crater.
Sigchos to Isinlivi
Just before noon on the first day, we climbed off the bus at the Sigchos terminal and walked toward the south end of town.
Today was supposed to be an easy day of hiking with only 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) starting at 9,500 feet (2,900 meters), descending to 8,300 feet (2,500 meters) then back up to 9,700 feet (3,000 meter), ending in the town of Isinlivi.
Just a few minutes of walking outside of Sigchos took us to the top of a descending trail from where you can see the mountains and valleys that we would be hiking through. This sort of preview would become a repeating occurrence for all the other days of this hike. It felt like a silent morning briefing of what to expect for the day.
Not long after, a pair of women hikers caught up to us. We recognized them from the bus. After quick introductions and a short chat, we continued on. They walked ahead of us, having a faster pace, and eventually disappeared from sight.
A while later, we saw them walking back towards us. Apparently we all missed a turn. Walking with them was an Asian-looking guy who was also in the bus. We turned into a narrow dirt trail that led down to the valley.
We followed a river for a while. The day was just a tad overcast that brought out the radiant colors of the surrounding mountains. The gentle gush of the water produced a relaxing ambience to this countryside stroll.
Quilotoa Loop Fake Toll
At a turn in the trail just before the final decent to the river stood an old woman. She greeted us with a smile and asked if we were headed to Quilotoa. We said yes. She then pointed to the trail behind her and said we each needed to pay her $1. Trin said no thank you and we continued down the road a short distance where another trail took us to the river and a bridge to cross it.
This was a common occurrence while we were in Nicaragua where locals would park themselves along popular trails and try to collect money from tourists. This is not legal and they are providing no service in exchange for the fee.
Shortly after we crossed the river, the trail climbed up the other side of the valley. There were some farms along the way, and at one point a lady was driving cattle through the trail and we stepped aside to watch what appeared to be a routine chore.
As we neared the top of the mountain, the scenery across the valley revealed itself. There were vast and wide plateaus on the mountains and we could not discern whether they were naturally formed, or flattened by humans, perhaps the Incas who seem capable of such unimaginable feats.
Near the end of day’s hike, as we approached town of Isinlivi, the trail led through a few pastures and right next to some of the homes. Two indigenous women sat outside tending a vegetable garden and some sheep. They were very friendly and greeted us with a handshake. Down the side of the mountain a cow was mooing a sound something awful. It was interspersed with a donkey hee-hawing, if that’s a word. With the smell of grass, sheep, and some cattle poop, it felt like we walked through a slice of their life one idyllic afternoon.
Hostel Taita Cristobal
In Isinlivi, opted to stay at Hostel Taita Cristobal, $15 each and included dinner, breakfast, hot showers and even wifi. The other hostel, which is more popular, just had too many L’s in its name.
We unloaded our stuff in our room and then went down to the dining room. The three hikers that we met earlier that day were already in the the dining room when we entered. We made some tea and chatted with them for a while.
The two ladies were Emmanuelle from Switzerland, and Lucie from France. Each of them were on a long-term trip through South America and they had only met a couple of weeks before, in Colombia. Both of them were relaxed, easy going travelers loving their experience.
Owen, the Asian-looking guy, is from Singapore. He is also a long-term traveler blogging about his journey.
So far it was only the four of us at this wonderful hostel.
Just before dinner, two more guests arrived. They were Tim and Ted from the United Stats of America. We meet so few travelers from the USA that this was quite a treat. They were on a vacation of a few weeks in Ecuador.
Tim and Ted were practically fresh out of the USA; Ted had flown in that morning, while Tim had been in Ecuador for only a few days. They skipped the first day of hiking and took the bus to Isinlivi. I sat there listening to them in amazement. It was like I was transported back home and the feeling was oddly bizarre.
They said that they came on this hike totally unplanned, didn’t know the route and guessed that they would need to carry their full packs as they were not aware that they could have left much of their stuff behind in Latacunga. I grew worried for them, asked if they at least had the Maps.me app, and even took their picture just in case we did not see them in the next town.
Isinlivi to Chugchilan
The trail for the second day was 7.6 miles (12 Kilometers). The trail started with some peaceful mountain views. In a few spots, we could see sections of the trail that we would eventually get to, far in the distance, across a valley. We could see some hikers on it, looking very tiny.
Eventually, we came upon a wide valley and we started down a really narrow, carved out trail that descended all the way to the bottom at 8,675 feet (2,600 meters).
Along the river there was supposed to be a log bridge but it was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was a suspension bridge that other bloggers had warned not to take. It was missing a few planks and the remaining ones looked rotten and ready to fall off. We had no choice but to cross it.
On the other side of the bridge was a small town. Children played in the school yard all clad in gray sweatpants and sweatshirts. It’s actually one of the most practical school uniforms I’ve seen.
Past this village the trail pointed straight up the steep mountain side ascending to 10,500 feet (3,200 meters). It was slow going. Every now and then we would stop to take in the view, a nice respite from the slog, and then continue on.
Finally we made it to the top. There was a gazebo on the edge of the cliff. Owen, Emmanuelle and Lucie had just finished eating lunch there and were moving on. We took our turn to rest on the gazebo and enjoy the view of the valley.
Cloud Forest Hostel
When we reached Chugchilan, we went straight to the Cloud Forest Hostel. Tim and Ted were sitting on a picnic table drinking beer, with smiles on their faces. They were the first among our group to arrive, we of course were last. They were very fit and knew more about what they were doing than they let on – Americans – I love them!
Several other hikers trickled in for the rest of the afternoon while we napped. There were probably thirty hikers by the time we all gathered at dinner time. We hung out with the same group after dinner, playing cards and likely being a little too loud. Fun night, but we did not stay up too late. We knew the third day was the toughest.
Chugchilan to Quilotoa
Even though it is only 7.3 miles (12 kilometers), the third day’s hike would take us down to 9,800 feet (2,900 meters) but then ascend 3,000 feet (900 meter) up to a 12,900 feet (3,900 meter) elevation where the trail reaches the Quilotoa crater.
There were two paths to choose from for this day. The first one is referred to as the adventurous way, requiring a stream crossing, some hanging on to branches to keep from falling into the river, and some steep climbing. Naturally, Tim and Ted opted for this path. The rest of us chose to do the regular way.
Just like in the last two days, the views along the trail were amazing, though the hike was mostly uphill.
The views climbing up to the Quilotoa crater were incredible.
When at last we reached the top, all that slogging didn’t feel too bad. Before us lay the magnificent Quilotoa crater lake. We’d seen pictures of it, and we knew it would be incredible, but seeing it right in front of you is something else altogether.
The sun shown into the water creating a light bluish color that was simply beautiful. The shadows of the clouds moved across the surface changing the color to a darker blue/green as they drifted by.
At the top there were a few trail options. Of the two readily visible, one went straight up along the ridgeline of crater, the second was a more level path that ran along the inside of the crater. Both paths were on Maps.me. We took the one inside the crater.
This was a mistake, a big mistake.
The treacherous trail
The beginning of the trail was fine. It followed a cliff edge and was very narrow, but enough for both feet at the beginning. Another couple followed behind us. Because I am so slow on the trails, when we finally came to a spot where there was enough room for us to move aside, we let them pass us.
We reached a spot where the trail descended steeply down some rocks. I turned around to go down the scramble facing the mountain but when I looked down to see where to place my foot I could see down hundreds of feet to where I would fall if I slipped. I made it through that section very carefully. OK that wasn’t too bad, I thought to myself. I hoped there were no more of them.
In a few places the trail was washed out and we had to grab on to some bushes to keep from falling off. I looked around. No one else was on the trail but us and the other couple. We could see for quite some distance as most of the trail was a tiny little path cut into the cliff face.
This is much worse than the impromptu rock-climbing that we did in Otavalo just a couple of months before.
As my mind wandered to the death that could follow if either of us slipped or stumbled, and silently cursed this trail’s builder, I remembered a scene from one of my favorite movies, The Edge. Anothony Hopkins’ character and a few others are stranded in the wilderness when he gives my favorite line:
“…most people lost in the wilds, they die of shame. ‘What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?’ And so they sit there and they… die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would save their lives.”
“And what is that, Charles?”
“So what should I think about?” I asked myself. It has become a pattern now, having full conversations with myself while hiking. I’m told as long as it is not a heated argument I’m still sane.
I started counting my steps. I told myself that if I took 3,000 steps then I would make it to the end and this would all be over. Each number reminded me that we were making progress and that the end was closer with every step.
As soon as I started counting, my fear subsided and the rest of the trail became manageable, even a little enjoyable.
The views were quite beautiful. I had to watch my step carefully. Only when I had a wide enough trail to keep both feet solidly on the ground and I could grab on a clump of grass would I turn my head and look at the view.
We made it to the main trail in 2,900 steps.
Saved by a Kichwa Girl
Where we joined the main trail sat the woman who had passed us near the beginning. She looked exhausted and gave me a wide eyed nod as if to say, “that trail was crazy!”
I asked what she thought of the trail.
“We were both so scared!” she said.
“I was too!” I answered.
She said they had stopped in fear and a little Kichwa girl had rescued them. The girl found them on the trail, offered to carry her pack and led them safely to the main trail.
We had, in fact, taken the path that was meant only for animals, the Kichwa girl informed us. Indeed Maps.me had a scull and cross bone marked at the end of the trail, unfortunately not at the beginning so we didn’t see it until it was too late.
We walked the remaining kilometer into town together exclaiming over the fact that we were all alive and well.
In town we found Tim, Ted, and Owen sitting outside a restaurant drinking beer. They had arrived hours before us (as usual) and were enjoying the evening in the little town of Quilotoa. Emmanuelle and Lucie had already taken a bus to Latacunga. We decided to stay the night instead of returning to Quito to enjoy one last evening of our new friendship with these three.
- If you want to do the Quilotoa loop here are the Wikilock details to help you prepare.
- While on the trail Maps.me is easier to follow
- Get tips from the hostel owners and other hikers going the opposite direction
- Definitely hike the Quilotoa loop, but do not take the trail that runs inside the crater at the end!