The amazing Quilotoa hike and loop trail
Last week we trekked through the Ecuadorian Andes, past remote mountain villages and over 24 miles of epic landscapes. Also known as the famous Quilotoa trail. Our first multiple day hike ever! Self guided. So just the two of us. Plus backpacks.
The night before we stay in the village of Latacunga. After a good nights’ sleep we reorganize our backpacks and drop off the unnecessary items in our hostel. Then it’s time for a quick breakfast, final checks and off we go!
Day 1 Sigchos-Isinlivi
Arriving at Latacunga terminal the bus to Sigchos, our starting point, departs literally within minutes. And maintains a fast pace, even in the extreme winding curved road. Until it gradually slows down to make a stop. That lasts for quite a while. Road maintenance. The driver expects we have to wait at least two hours before going further. Great. Our plan was to hike the part of 7,5 miles in 4 hours. There’s no use in walking to the town either, since it won’t make a big difference time wise. Meaning once we get there we seriously have to step it up. Ah well, at least this ‘small break’ gives Tom a welcome opportunity to stretch his stilts.
From the final station in Sigchos we quickly walk to a local bakery to buy a sandwich for along the way. We don’t want to waste any more valuable time and hike in the dark! Luckily the first hour is mostly grass or gravel roads. And the lush green view instantly makes everything better. After crossing river Toachi, the path changes and turns into a much more steep, slippery and muddy mess. Making Anita feel even more pleased about her new hiking boots (a must for this trek). Plus the perfect stick aka wizard staff for walking that she finds near the path. Eventually the steep climb leads us to a semi mainroad. Meaning asphalt! Or sort of. Snaking along small farms and cornfields. Where we meet a friendly group of women in traditional clothing. Who join us for the last miles to Isinlivi, while we try to keep up with the conversations (huffing and puffing in our best Spanish).
It’s already dark when we get to Llullu Llama. So given the mountain lodges’ popularity we prepare for the worst. Plus the fact that we are probably three hours behind on the other hikers. Blush. Still we decide to pop in and see if they have some availability or a warm meal. Hands down one of our best decisions during this trek. Wow, what a cosy and stylish place. They even have a relaxing sauna! And a daily prepared three-course menu, included in the price. Heaven. Lucky for us they have room for the night. We get to choose between a comfy bed in one of the dorms or a beautiful garden cottage. With a private wood burning fireplace and hot shower! A little over budget unfortunately. But the friendly staff is willing to think about a solution (our weary look might have something to do with it?). So, for a slighty more economical price we rest our heads in the luxurious chalet.
Day 2 Isinlivi-Chugchilan
The next morning a hearthy and very extensive breakfast is served in the common dining room. Fresh fruit, yoghurt with coconut granola, scrambled eggs, local cheese and delicious homemade bread. Topped off with a perfect mister blue sky (there ain’t a cloud in sight). Perfect for today’s six hour hike (again about 12km) to Chugchilan.
Just like the day before, we trust in our detailed Maps.me map. Which also points out some handy shortcuts. Often a little steeper than the normal path, but it will buy you some extra time to be out in the breathtaking Andean nature. Plus take longer lunch breaks in between! Although it feels a bit weird to go right instead of following a massive painted arrow that indicates left. We even randomly end up at someone’s vegetable garden. Luckily the owner doesn’t mind and finds it all really amusing. He even offers us some fruit as a trail snack. Honestly, moments like these remind us again why it’s so rewarding and fun to speak some basic Spanish. Seeing local people suddenly open up to you. And being grateful that you took the effort to learn to communicate with them (often heard comment). In their own language. Gives us a satisfied feeling as well. After our trespassing and a serious descent we reach our idyllic lunch spot by the river. Where we enjoy the amazing Llullu Llama sandwiches and chocolate from our private stash (you gotta have something to keep you going, right?).
The last miles of this second day aren’t exactly fun and games, since our legs are starting to feel heavy. Climbing from 2870m (9416ft) to 3200m (10498ft) isn’t helping too much either. Or the sneaky road sign ‘Bienvenidos a Chugchilan’ about 3km before the actual village. Luckily, arriving at the Cloudforest Hostel we see that the British couple (Michael & Olivia) and Americans (Bryan & Anna) from Llullu Llama also booked a room here. So we all relax, put our feet up around the fire place and share today’s adventures and stories.
Day 3 Chugchilan-Quilotoa
According to most blogs and hostels, day three is the hardest if you walk this route. So we decide to leave early in the morning. And bulk up a bit at breakfast. That includes the coca tea (prevents from getting altitude sickness). Since the village of Quilotoa is nestled at nearly 13000 ft. To us today’s nature is the most impressive so far. Creeks, tiny farms, valleys and small indigenous villages. Often consisting of only a few houses, a church or a school building. In one of these villages we see a family selling the bright purple flowers growing everywhere along the trail. Later we come to understand that the beans of these plants, so called chocho (lupine), are a popular snack around here. They are high in protein, minerals plus healthy unsaturated fats. And some say the plant can even fix high nitrogen levels in soil. Say what. It’s basically a hipster environmentalist.
Shortly after, the other hikers start to catch up with us. The sporty Brits galloping by with ease, while Bryan and Anna have a somewhat more similar pace. So we team up, walking together. Which turns out to be the safest thing to do: some parts of the path are literally nonexistent (jump!). Fourteen intense kilometers later we reach Quilotoa crater. At least that’s what Maps tells us. We only see heaps of mist and rain. Plus a sign ‘cafe y té caliente’. Not a bad idea. View is a big bummer though. Luckily the hostess of the teeny tiny cafe persuades us to wait. Twenty minutes. Almost half an hour. And then suddenly the clouds begin to disappear. Making room for the most spectacular view over the turquoise lake! This is what we’ve been waiting for. And here we are. Standing on the cliff of a gigantic, sleeping volcano crater. With a mug of mint tea. Plus once again, chocolate.
By now we have been hiking for 6 hours already. And 2 more to go until we get to Quilotoa village. So on we walk, close to the edge of cliffs. At this steep, narrow path towards the lake. With sliding rocks every now and then. And nothing to hold on to in case you might slip. You get the idea. Meanwhile Anita praises the qualities of her Gandalf staff once more. This goes on for a while. And at one point there’s this meadow where we see a boy (about 8 years old) playing in the grass. He offers to show us a faster way up, adding ‘You are now following the grazing path for our cattle’. Okay, fair enough. That does explain all those shocked llama’s earlier. When we make it to the top, safely, the look on the little boys’ face changes. And we find out ‘help in need’ for tourists comes with a price. ‘Just’ $40 to be exact. Ahem. How about no dear friend. Instead we give him a chocolate energybar and $2, muchias gracias!
He is not the first on this hike asking for ‘money’, ‘candy’ or ‘presents’ by the way. But if you compare the income of an average family living here with that of tourist you’ll understand why. Even though most locals are simply really kind, helpful and sometimes quite shy. Either way, we choose not to ‘feed’ this kind of behaviour during our travels. We leave it up to you to decide your response to it.
The four of us eventually sleep in Hostal Chukirawa Quilotoa, where Brits Michael and Olivia happen to stay as well. So the next morning at breakfast there’s an extra relaxed and fun vibe; we made it! After quickly creating an app-group we all have a different plans thus go our separate ways.
Ours is to walk the 4 hour loop trail around the crater rim. Starting off enthusiastically. Before we encounter the highest point that is. And the climb through loose sand to get there. Thanks, but no thanks. My tiny ankles and I have had enough exercise for now. So we only complete half of the loop. Loud and proud. While enjoying the brilliant view. Finally we get on the midday bus back to Quito. Tired, but satisfied. What a fantastic experience!
Make the most out of your trek
-Download this detailed map of the trail for Maps.me (Thanks a million Jimmy and Sarah from The Practical Vagabonds!) No #fail on your trail, promise
-Make sure you adjust to the altitude before starting your hike. Especially if you fly on Quito from an other country below 2800m (Isinlivi’s altitude, the first stop). I’m talking to you fellow Dutchies. Also, simply take your time during the trek to prevent any altitude sickness symptoms... and take in the magnificent landscape of course
-Although Tom walked the whole route on his running shoes (stubborn kid), we recommend hiking boots. Or at least shoes with a good profile/grip. And keep an eye out for branches that can serve as a trekking pole
-Pack light. If you’re traveling with handluggage only, like us, best leave your valuables and other unnecessary items in Latacunga at your hostel. Do bring your cash though, they don’t have a creditcard culture in this part of Ecuador
-You don’t have to bring any food with you (apart from water and some snacks). Seriously. Pretty much every hostel offers a good meal and breakfast (included in the price). As well as delicious, hearthy (I didn’t say healthy) sandwiches to go