Imagine an azure-coloured crater lake surrounded by steep, grey-green shadowy mountain slopes and deep blue skies overhead – this is Lake Quilotoa, also known as Laguna de Quilotoa. Ecuador is one of the hot new travel destinations which should be at the top of your list of places to visit. The excursion from Quito to Quilotoa Lake is a sheer delight as you take in the mountainous, volcanic landscapes; the picturesque plant-life; the colourful art colonies; and a thriving Andean culture.
Located about 177 km southwest from Quito, at the westernmost portion of the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains, Quilotoa sits 3,900 meters high waiting to provide the adventure you are seeking. The beauty of this excursion is the flexibility. You can join a tour group or make your own travel plans. Once there you can walk, hike, bike or ride around the Quilotoa Loop.
Of note, this type of journey is called adventure travel as it is not for the faint of heart. You need to have a fair bit of physical stamina and strength if you plan to hike or bike. For those not so adventurous, there are buses between some of the local villages. If you are not accustomed to travelling at high elevations (above 10,000 feet), you may be astonished not only at the breathtaking views but also that the elevation takes your breath away because of the lack of oxygen.
Quilotoa: Why Visit?
Most of us evaluate where we are going to travel and why. We look at how to get there and what we will do. Here are a few items to help you get started planning your trip to Ecuador and Lake Quilotoa. One of the reasons many travel is to see something different. A visit to the Quilotoa region will not disappoint you. The stunning scenery – high, jagged peaks, sierra vegetation, the crystal blue-green lake with a surface as a mirror, the deep blue skies – it is all fantastic.
This region is a stark contrast to the busy city streets of Quito. Life around Quilotoa is quieter and laid back. The residents of the area work hard, but it is fulfilling life. A visit to this locale will let you experience a taste of life and culture of those living in the highlands of Ecuador.
There is something to do here for just about everyone. The villages of the Quilotoa Loop offer unique cuisine, stylish artworks, markets, eye-catching vistas, adventure activities such as hiking, biking, swimming, and kayaking. You can even rent a donkey to carry your pack to the bottom of the crater and back up. The lodging is functional, clean, and probably a bit sparse for those who like Wi-Fi and three sheets on your bed. Any lacking of the comforts of home will be made up by the surroundings.
Read more about ecuador in our top things to do in Ecuador article.
Laguna de Quilotoa: Things to Do?
Once you get to Laguna Quilotoa, you can take the ½ hour hike down to the crater lake. There is plenty to enjoy such as swimming and kayaking. Don’t forget the walk back up. For $10, you may want to use one of the donkeys to carry you back up the very steep incline. What takes you just minutes to go down could take you hours to get back up. For $2 you can peer over the edge of the Quilotoa crater to the mirror-like lake and the surrounding area. The view is not only magnificent; it is mesmerizing.
There is also a rugged path that encircles Quilotoa Lake. It follows the tops of the peaks. The steep mountainous trail will provide fabulous views of the crystalline Quilotoa Lake with plenty of photo opportunities. Come prepared and enjoy a night camping inside the crater. The nights are chilly so that you will need warm bedding. Other lodging includes hostels and inns.
Quilotoa Lake: A Violent Geological History
The northern section of the Andes Mountains traverses the middle of Ecuador. The Quilotoa region has seen numerous volcanic eruptions throughout history. Legend tells us this volcano was named after a princess from the region. This volcano lay silent for about 14,000 years. Then about 800 years ago, a catastrophic, violent volcanic eruption formed Quilotoa Lake. This eruption was so cataclysmic it sent up massive clouds of volcanic ash that spread throughout the northern Andes mountain range. The collapse of the caldera formed the 3 km-wide crater.
When the magma within the volcano is emptied out, such as in a violent volcanic eruption, a caldera is created. No doubt, molten lava rock was flowing and in fact, reached the Pacific Ocean which is over 300 km away. As always, lava left its scar on the earth. But now, all these centuries later, the mountain sides are filled with vegetation from wild plants to flourishing terrace farms. Subsequently, the caldera filled with water to create the stunning Quilotoa crater lake. Dissolved minerals in the water create its deep blue-green colour. The region is now a popular destination for travellers from all around the globe.
The Quilotoa volcano is considered dormant. However, you may question it when you see bubbles emerging from the surface of the Laguna Quilotoa. Natural release of carbon dioxide gas is the cause of the bubbles. The earth’s crust is cracked beneath the caldera releasing the gasses as heat and pressure build up. Lake Quilotoa is undergoing continual monitoring by geologists and scientists hoping to learn more about volcanic lakes and the safety of the water for human use.
Quilotoa Loop Travel Guide
The Quilotoa Loop is the place to start and make your way to and around the Quilotoa crater lake. The stunning vistas, cultural opportunities, tasty cuisine and outdoor life available in Quilotoa, Ecuador will knock your socks off. This backcountry oasis, Laguna Quilotoa, will delight all your senses as you strive to take it all in.
Lake Quilotoa is the centerpiece of the Quilotoa region. The Quilotoa Loop is a road that circuits the mountains that surround Quilotoa Lake. If Quito is your jumping off point, there are regular buses that run to a couple of villages that are on the Quilotoa Loop. What better way is there to experience life in the Andean communities?
Situated just south of the Equator, Ecuador enjoys 12 hours of sun every day of the year. The high sierra mountains will have warm, sunny days (25°C) and chilly nights (10°C). Spring is the best way to describe the temperatures in Quilotoa, Ecuador Let us take a closer look at a typical trip.
Traveling the Quilotoa Loop
There are several ways to travel the Quilotoa Loop: hiking, cycling, walking, rental car, hired car, or bus. Public transportation, usually an overloaded bus complete with goats or llamas, runs between a few of the villages. There are two direct buses daily. Be prepared to spend the night if you miss the bus.
Renting a car allows for ease of travel and flexibility; keep in mind, the roads are in remote places and not always the easiest to navigate. In fact, less than half of the roads are paved. You can always hire a camionetas (private pickup trucks) to transport you from village to village. This can cost from $5-$25 and you will ride in the back where it can get quite chilly, so bring a warm jacket.
If you are an outdoor enthusiast, hiking or cycling may be your choice. The distance of the Quilotoa Loop is about 200 km and the distance between each village is about 15 km, give or take a few. Therefore, hiking or cycling this route is doable.
You can travel the Loop either clockwise or counterclockwise, which ever suits you the best.
Quilotoa Loop Map
Villages along the Quilotoa Loop
The villages along the Quilotoa Loop each have their own distinction. It may be history, art, scenic vistas or some other attraction. As you enter each village you will find varied activities and attractions. Each village has something different to offer. Here is a brief listing of things to do in and around the Quilotoa region: Guided horseback riding tour, Rent mountain bikes, Relax with a massage or go Zip-lining.
This small city is the gateway to the Quilotoa Loop. Taunted by the Cotopaxi volcano through the ages, this city never gave up and kept rebuilding. The volcano has been silent since 1877. Latacunga has plenty of opportunities to immerse you in the culture. There is a cultural center that houses a small museum and hosts free dance and theater events. There are three market plazas to visit; Tuesdays and Saturdays are their biggest days. Historical buildings round out the sites of Latacunga.
Accommodations are reasonable and there are many options from which to choose. Lodging prices range from $6/night in a hostel up to $40/night in a hotel with free Wi-Fi and private bath.
Travellers can enjoy a broad range of cuisine while visiting Latacunga. Mexican, Latin American, Italian, and of course, Ecuadorian options are ready to tantalize your palate. A local delicacy is chugchucara which consists of locally sourced ingredients including deep fried pork, hominy, potatoes, fried plantains, empanadas, popcorn, and pork rinds. A spicy sauce, aji, comes with this dish and is made of tomatoes, peppers, onions and cilantro. If you are not brave enough to try out new flavors, there is always pizza!
Known for its markets on Sundays and Wednesdays, Pujilí is a place to visit. The markets are known for authentic works such as clothing, pottery and ceramics. Near the bus terminal are some colorful steps that will take you to a lookout with awesome views. Not yet as touristy as some villages, you can get a genuine taste of the indigenous culture here in Pujilí.
About 40 km west of Pujilí lays Tigua. Here you will find a colony of indigenous artists who paint their interpretations of life in the Andes. With sheep hides for canvas and chicken feathers for brushes, these folk art paintings are delightful. Of course, don’t forget the scenery. As you ascend, the views of the valley will never get tiring.
Traveling west another 15 km you will arrive in Zumbahua. This village is known for its Saturday market which draws the local folks and all their wares to town. There are several hostels from which to choose for lodging. The cost is about $6/night. Most people just spend the day in Zumbahua; weekends are noisy with a lot of folks in town for the market.
The pinnacle of the Quilotoa Loop is Laguna Quilotoa with its turquoise lake reflecting the sky and mountain peaks around it is beyond what words or pictures could portray. Plan to spend the night here. Hike the rim; let the beauty around you give you peace and refreshment. For the adventure seekers, the rugged path around the rim will get your adrenaline flowing as you enjoy one of the premier destinations in Ecuador.
Opportunities abound in Laguna Quilotoa. You can hike or cycle around the crater which will take about 4-6 hours depending upon your physical fitness. You can hike down to the lake and enjoy swimming, kayaking, and photographing. Rent a canoe for $5 and experience the mirror-like surface of the lake.
This town is part of the Iliniza Ecological Reserve. There is an entrance fee of $1 to gain access to Laguna Quilotoa. Because the lake is many times surrounded by a mist, most people spend at least one night to ensure a better view of Lake Quilotoa. There are humble hostels which give you a woollen blanket, a room with a fireplace, a hot shower and two meals all for $8-$10 per night. The local restaurants serve simple fare that is typical of the region; soup, rice, meat and potatoes. There are also some food stands that look interesting, but the quality of the cuisine may be doubtful.
Continuing on the circuit of the Quilotoa Loop, the next hamlet is Chugchilán. This town is situated between the Andean highland ecosystem and the cloud forest. This town is home to only 25 families.
There are plenty of opportunities for adventure in Chugchilán. In fact, it is suggested you spend a couple of nights here in order to take in all the activities, sights and sounds. For starters you can visit the knitting cooperative where the local women make clothing. There is also a small cheese factory which may be of interest. One of the more adventurous activities is a guided horseback ride ($15/4-5 hours). The ride will take you through stunning landscapes of cloud forests, where the moisture or low lying clouds envelope the tropical forest and the alpine tundra above the tree line. There are also hiking guides ($15) for the trail between Laguna Quilotoa and Chugchilán.
Lodging consists of a few hostels which each offer a range of amenities. Prices range from $12-$17, which includes breakfast and dinner. The award-winning, eco-friendly Black Sheep Inn offers a wide variety of activities including yoga, steam room, water slide and more. It is open to groups only and reservations are required well in advance of your trip. There are no actual restaurants in Chugchilán outside of what is available at the hostels. There are small roadside stands that sell water, snacks and other drinks. In the evening there are a couple of the stalls that sell simple rice and meat dishes. It’s all part of the culture, so enjoy!
Isinlivi is a small village which lies off the Quilotoa Loop road between the towns of Chugchilán and Sigchos. You can reach Isinlivi by hike which is about 4 to 6 hours. Hostal Llullu Llama located in Isinlivi is described by travellers as an awesome retreat from the Quilotoa Loop. There is only 2 hostels here.
Travelling north from Chugchilán you come to the small town of Sigchos. The main attraction here is the Sunday market where many folks come to sell their goods and shop as well. There are a few hostels that offer simple rooms and two meals a day for $6-$8/night. There is a nice restaurant that offers set meals from $2-$6 depending on whether you order meat with your meal or not.
This is the last leg of the Quilotoa Loop journey. By this time in the circuit you have had so many outstanding experiences it is difficult to choose the best one. Toacazo is a quick stopover on the way back to Latacunga. One of the highlights from this locale is the stunning views of Ilinza Sur, a mountain that rises to 5,263 meters. Its height and humidity ensure there is always snow atop the mountain as well as a glacier. This mountain is open for climbing by experienced mountaineers. Climbing a glaciered mountain requires a licensed guide. The easiest way to get to Ilinza Sur is by bus from Quito.
Quilotoa Loop: Adventure in the Andes
So there you have it, a closer look at the Quilotoa Loop. It is easy to get to from Quito, and well worth fitting it into your itinerary. Mesmerizing views, exhilarating hiking and cycling opportunities, and a chance to absorb local culture – this is Lake Quilotoa and the Quilotoa Loop.
Looking for more travel inspiration? Don’t miss our article The Galapagos Islands; another Ecuadorian adventure of a different kind. This is an impressive treasure in Ecuador that is a “must see.” We also invite you to check out the Ecuador Travel Guide as you put together your own extraordinary itinerary.