The Quilotoa Loop (or Quilotoa circuit) is a remote, bumpy, mountainous road linking several high Andean villages and towns around the city of Latacunga. It offers one a chance to get off the Pan American highway and see some of the more remote people and culture of the central Andes of Ecuador.
It can be done as a self-guided tour by novice hikers who are acclimatized and properly prepared.
This is a serious hike, so you will need proper hiking gear including hiking boots and clothes (layers), rain gear, and lots of water.
Walking poles are a good idea for safety and to protect your knees.
There are many hosterias in villages along the way, with all inclusive offers for very decent prices ($10-20 per person) so camping gear is not required. The trail may be acrobatic at some points, it is advised to keep your backpack as light as possible.
As there are many routes and the Wayfinder signs are sometimes confusing or nonexistent (as of Feb 2023), it is very easy to get lost or choose the wrong option. Take a printed map with you, or better: install an offline map application on your smartphone, and ask your hostel that they show you the directions on your map before starting the day. You really do not want to get lost since some are animal paths and are very dangerous (just above deadly cliffs).
Local people may offer to rent donkeys or horses to carry you and your gear along parts of the hike.
The hike takes place at high altitudes. Be sure to acclimatize before you set out. Quilotoa is about 1,000 m above Quito, so don't think that acclimatization in Quito is going to be sufficient. Altitude sickness pills (acetazolamide) can help.
There are frequent buses from Quito and other cities in the highlands to Latacunga and then to Sigchos, starting point of the 3-day trek. It is advised to take early buses so that you can finish your walk before nighttime.
The last buses from Quilotoa to Latacunga leave around 17:00.
Hiking from Sigchos to Quilotoa puts the highlight of the hike at its end: the beautiful volcano crater lagoon, but it means climbing almost 1,000 m of elevation, two thirds of the climb on the last day.
Hiking the other direction, from Quilotoa to Sigchos, on the other hand, is easier as you descend by 1,000 m, two thirds of it on the first day.
Whichever direction you take, you will cross the Sigui/Toachi River valley three times, climbing up the valley’s steep trails during each crossing, and on each day of the trek.
Other routes may take you to:
Frequent buses connect Quilotoa to Latacunga.
There is a milk van from Sigchos to Chugchilán, but you will probably need a little Spanish to attempt this. The milk van is open-topped with a large canvas to keep it covered. Locals often use the van to get between the two small villages. Of course, it takes longer than the bus because of the milk deliveries, but jumping up onto the back of the truck and then standing up with your head sticking out the top as you go around little mountain roads is well worth it. Get up early and wait on the corner (with the bakery) by the bus station at around 06:30 (time varies so maybe get there at 06:00 and wait). There will probably be a few locals waiting around. You must pay the driver extra to get off about 400 m away from the Cloud Forest Hostel.
Stay safe and cope
There are some stray dogs along the trail. Although there is generally no issue, there is always risk of aggressive encounters and you should keep a hefty walking stick with you while you walk. Also, beware of bulls in the fields.
As mentioned above, it is easy to get lost, and alternative paths may end up being much more dangerous than the official path. According to alpine difficulty rating standards such as the French Hiking Federation, alternative trails reach maximum levels of technicity, effort and danger. Acrophobic people should know that some parts of the trail are very high. Be sure you get prepared and know the map of the day before leaving your hostel.
It is also very common that people on the way will ask money for a wide variety of reasons, among which:
- “you are not on the right path, I will get you back on track” for $20
- “I have no money to visit my son at the hospital” for $5
- “you took a picture, I happened to be on it” for 1$
Follow your conscience, and keep in mind that many are scams. Children will always appreciate sweets.
Consider travelling onwards to San Luis de Pambil