Laguna Quilotoa is the core attraction in this loop and one look over the precipitous edge tells you breathtakingly why. Some 800 years ago a huge eruption left a three kilometer wide caldera and the resultant lake now stands at 250 meters deep. Its greenish appearance is a result of its mineral density. Count yourself lucky if it is mirror-like in any way since at close to 4000 meters the wind just whips across it. You can walk around it in four hours and enjoy views of neighboring volcanoes like Cotopaxi and Ilinizas. A more typical walk is the half hour slide down to the lake shore where you can relax, hopefully soak up some sun and get away from the fierce winds at the caldera lip. Beware though as the walk back up is a steep 400 meters and we ran across many Ecuadorians that obviously don’t do much hiking. One poor woman was vomiting from her exhaustion. There are small boats for rent and a small concession at the bottom but it’s a pretty low key affair. On your way back up you will invariably be asked if you want to take a donkey to the top which if you are not in fair shape might be worth it! But it is a good acclimatizing walk and really not all that difficult if you take your time and drink plenty of water. The “village” next to the lake is only a few houses, shops, and hostels that only exist due to increased tourism so don’t expect much in the way of amenities. You’ll pretty much be eating and sleeping at whatever establishment you choose so have a look around and see which one fits your needs best.
Hiking from Chugchilán to Quilotoa is quite easy to do on your own. As you can see the rim of the Quilotoa crater from Chugchilán you will know the direction. I left Chugchilán after breakfast, but before leaving a man at the hostel drew me a simple map.
With the map it was easy to find the starting point of the trail in Chugchilán. For a while you walk along a dirt road past some houses, then you should take a path. The path leads down to the bottom of the canyon, where you cross a small stream. From here it is a quite steep ascend until you come to a level surface where there is a single house where you can buy something to drink (if it is open). Then you will continue along a small dirt road up to the village Guayamo. In Guayamo you turn right and follow the road out of the village till the end of it, where you take a path going up to the rim of the crater.
To the rim of the crater it took me 3 hours. Coming up on the rim you will be rewarded by a beautiful view over the Quilotoa lagoon. If you look back there is a stunning view over the valley and Chugchilán far away. Were you reach the rim it is very sandy and I took the only path I saw. It was a small path, with flowers growing on the sides, and it was going slightly downhill into the crater. After a while I realised it must be the wrong path so I took a very steep path up to the rim again. Finally I reached a path on the rim and continued to Quilotoa. I reached Quilotoa 4 h 15 minutes after I started the walk in Chugchilán.
Chugchilán is situated at 3200 metres and Quilotoa at 3900 metres, so many people choose to start the walk in Quilotoa. I don’t mind walking uphill, and often prefer that over a steep descend.
Along the hike I only met one group of hikers and they had a guide.
Uppdate 2012: I hiked from Chugchilán to Quilotoa in July 2012 too. This year it had become even easier as they had put up signs along the way. At the starting point in Chugchilán there is a sign saying “Excursión a Quilotoa 10.2km”, and then there were several more signs along the path. Signs indicating direction and distance were not the only new thing along the path, but at some places they had put up benches and dustbins too.
I had heard already in Chugchilán that it had been terrible windy in Quilotoa the last days but had hoped that it had become less windy the day I walked there. However, when I reached the crater rim I realised that was not the case as I was almost blown away by the strong wind. Luckily a large part of the remaining trail to Quilotoa was protected from the strongest winds. Also this year it took me 4h and 15 minutes to walk from Chugchilán to Quilotoa.
I had heard that you should not do the hike from Quilotoa to Tigua without a guide as it is very difficult to find the right way, but I had also heard it is possible to do the hike alone, but you must ask people you see along the way for direction. I decided to do the hike alone, but without a map and description it was not easy. For Isinliv´- Chugchilán I had a simple map with description, and for Chugchilán - Quilotoa I had a simple map. And for both those walks I knew the direction more or less, for example you can see the top of the Quilotoa crater from Chugchilán, even if it is far away. For the hike between Quilotoa and Tigua I didn’t know anything, only that you follow the crater rim for a while in the beginning.
When I saw someone outside their house or in their field I asked for direction, but there were not always people around and if there was a fork in the path I had to choose which one to take. A few times I turned around to go back and take another path. I walked down and up two deep canyons and around mountains. After 5.5 hours I came to something that looked like a village and I asked I woman for the direction. She said that that village was a part of Tigua, called something I can’t remember. I thought I must be close and followed the dirt road. It took ages as the dirt road was winding up to the main road.
I had already heard that Posada de Tigua is situated a few km from Tigua, but I had hoped to get something to eat in the village and to visit the art gallery where they sell Tigua paintings. How wrong I was. Tigua is not a proper village, but a very spread out community, so I didn’t see a place to eat, and the gallery was situated even further away than Posada de Tigua from where I reached the main road.
When I finally reached the main road (Latacunga - Zumbahua) I had no idea if I should take left or right and had to go down a path to ask some people working in their field. I got the right direction and now there was a few km more to walk, but this time along the main road, and it had also started to rain. I reached Posada de Tigua 7h after I left the hostel in Quilotoa. It had been a long walk, which definitely had been shorter if I had walked with a guide, but I don’t regret walking alone. When I reached Posada de Tigua I could see that ”as the crows fly” it was not too far from where I had been 1.5 hours earlier, but the question is if there had been another way getting past the canyon.
Since I came home I have looked at Google Earth to figure out the way I took and too see if there was a better one. It is hard to say as the landscape is full of canyons, rivers and mountains and I don’t know were it is possible to pass and there is no strait path.
Chugchilán is perhaps the most pleasant of the small villages on the Quilotoa Loop. There aren’t any sights per se but there are lots of hills around and the lack of an itinerary is kind of nice in its own way. You can explore the central square area in about five minutes but it somehow lends itself to lingering. On weekends a few locals set up food stands and you can buy really cheap and tasty cheese empanadas. There aren’t any cafes but you can grab a beer from a local shop and just sit outside and drink it. No one will bother you and people are friendly.
There is a nice view of the crater lake (Laguna Quilotoa) from the view point in the village. And from there you will also find the path down the crater to the lake, which is 400 metres below the rim. The path is quite sandy at some points and it is easy going down. It took 30 minutes. Going back up again can be harder, especially if you are not adopted to the altitude. For me it took one hour to walk back up. If you know it will be hard you can rent a mule to take you down and up (or only up).
The lake is 250 metres deep and the water is alkaline. You can rent kayaks for $2.50/30 minutes (July 2011). But I didn’t see anyone doing that. There is a rustic hostel down in the crater and I went there to see if I could have coffee, but there was no one there. I sat down at a table to read for a while. It was very peaceful and it was nice to rest the legs after hiking from Chugchilán earlier that day. After a while a Spanish woman arrived and then someone returned to the hostel so we could buy coffee. The coffee was $0.50. The woman serving the coffee asked me if she could get my watch, and I politely told her I need it myself.
Update 2012: I had not planned to go down in the crater this year too, but as I couldn’t get a shower at the hostel (there was no electricity in Quilotoa at the moment) and it was very, very windy and cold up at the rim of the crater I decided to take a walk down. Since last year they have fixed the beginning of the trail with a few stairs and flowers on the side. As I came down a bit from the rim it was not windy anymore and it got much warmer.
The weather was not so nice this day, it was cloudy and a little rainy, but it was the only day I had for the hike around the crater. After breakfast I set off, but first I asked which direction that was the best to take and I was advised to walk around the crater anti-clockwise.
Along the first stretch of the path there was a lot of flowers by the sides. I saw a woman working on her field and later met two children with a dog. About halfway I met a tourist who also walked around the crater, but in the opposite direction from me. When I came to the sandy patch, where the path goes down towards Chugchilán I saw a few other tourists, and later I caught up with a woman from Quilotoa. She had gone to Chugchilán very early in the morning by bus or car, and was now walking back by foot. I helped her carry her plastic bags the last bit to Quilotoa and I must say they were quite heavy. How hard work it must be for her to go up in the middle of the night to go to Chugchilán and than walk back to Quilotoa with packing and in those shoes, with a small heel, that the women were here.
The views were not so great as the previous day. At one point the whole lagoon was covered in fog and couldn’t be seen, but it soon went away.
This walk is said to take 5-6 hours, but because of the weather I walked on and only stopped to take photos and look at flowers and the view. So for me the hike around the crater took 3h 45 minutes. If it had been a nicer day I would have brought lunch and a book and would have looked for a beautiful spot to sit down in.
Zumbahua is a small village unremarkable in itself but at 3800 m and nestled amongst an array of lumbering peaks, its setting is spectacular. The central square features a cool if simple church that is particularly atmospheric at sunset. Add to that, a colorful local Saturday market that draws indigenous people from miles around to buy, sell and often barter everything from pigs to produce and you have the makings of classic Andean investigation. Reportedly, the Friday evenings before the market are bacchanal affairs with dancing in the streets. Accordingly, a small contingent of gringos is now filtering into town on Fridays and must say we were two of eight or ten we saw. Unfortunately, the party never materialized so we sat on our balcony and had a few beers with some hostel mates.
Saquisilí market is especially a “can’t miss” if you do not have time to do the entire Quilotoa Loop. Though it’s not quite as spectacular as the one in Zumbahua it is nonetheless a colorful indigenous market where you’ll be able to count the gringos on one, okay maybe two hands. It is quite spread out so be sure to walk around and follow the locals to get to as much of it as possible. There aren't many touristy souvenir vendors as it mostly caters to locals, selling household items, produce, meats/poultry, and of course, local snacks. Beware if you are an animal activist as this is primarily a place to buy, sell, and trade animals which the locals use for transport and food. You can do this as part of the loop or as a day trip from Latacunga which is handy since it only runs on Thursday mornings and can be difficult to time from the loop proper.
We came to Quilotoa with Jose Luiz, on the morning after our overnight stay in the hacienda near Cotopaxi. Having stopped for a while in the market at Pujili, and been held up in road-works, it was late morning when we arrived. Later the day was to get very rainy, even stormy, but for now it was dry but with low cloud. Although I had hoped to see the lake in sunshine, I have to say that the gloomy light made it very atmospheric and brought out the green colours very effectively.
We parked in a large car park just below the rim, in the small but sprawling village that relies on tourist income generated by the lake. A short flight of steps led us up to the viewpoint. The previous day I had struggled with a headache that owed much in its intensity to the high altitudes we were at, but today thankfully the only symptom was a certain breathlessness as I hurried to reach the famous view! But soon we were there, perched high above the deep green-blue waters, with the lowering clouds reflected dramatically in them. The sight did not disappoint!
Quilotoa is the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos) and lies at 3,914 metres. Its large caldera, three kilometres in width, is filled with a beautiful green lake, 250 metres deep. The colour of the lake is due to the various minerals that have dissolved in its waters. The lake lies about 400 metres below the rim, and a path winds its way down. But partly because of the weather, partly because of my dodgy knee, and partly because we were later than we’d planned and it became a choice between a walk or lunch, we opted not to go down. Instead we just took a shorter walk a little way along the path round the rim (the full circuit would take the best part of a day). If you do decide to go down it’s about a 30 minute hike, and a good hour or more to climb back up, although it’s also possible to hire mules to bring you up.
One thing I loved here was the way the light kept changing, because of all those clouds. While we were having lunch in a nearby café a thick fog descended, which totally hid both the lake and the houses of the small village from view, but by the time we finished eating and climbed back to the viewpoint for a final look, the clouds lifted again briefly to reveal the lake below.
Photos two and three are panoramic shots, so please do open them to see the full width of the lake.
Next tip: a café at the crater's edge.
My plan for that day had not been to walk to Chugchilán but to walk around the Quilotoa crater. However it was too windy for that as the path at some points goes close to the edge and it was very dangerous. And in Quilotoa there was no electricity and no water, so I decided to walk back to Chugchilán instead.
As I had walked the opposite way, from Chugchilán to Quilotoa, both in 2011 and 2012 and also around the crater in 2011, I thought it would be an easy walk. The first part of the walk follows the crater rim for about an hour to a sandy area where you should turn downhill. Most of the time you don’t see the lagoon, but on the other hand you are protected from the strong wind if it is windy. At some parts the path splits, but it goes together later. I had not walked for very long when I came to a sandy area with pine trees. I decided to take the lower path and first thought it would unite with the other. I soon realised it continued to go slowly downhill, but I was not worried but thought I would take the first path leading uphill again, or if I didn’t find such a path I would soon turn around.
However, something happened which made it impossible for me to turn around. I passed a house and there I encountered the angriest dogs I have ever seen. Before leaving Chugchilán the day before I had heard of a tourist who had got bitten by dogs in this area and had to be taken to hospital. There were two dogs that ran up to me barking more angrily than any other dogs I had seen. I was sure they were going to bite me. I screamed angrily back at the dogs and I shouted to a girl who hid behind a house to come and get her dogs. After a while the dogs went back to the house and I started to walk slowly away (wrong direction), but the dogs came back. I had now taken up a stick and a stone which I threw towards the dogs and at the same time I shouted at them. The girl was now standing on the path looking, but not saying or doing anything. Well, luckily the dogs went back to the house and when they were out of sight I hurried down the path. It was a wide path and somewhere it would end up and as I knew the direction to Chugchilán I was not worried and sure that I would eventually find my way. Like it wasn’t enough bad luck with the dogs the path was blocked further on by several pine trees lying over it (with trunks and crowns). I realised it was too complicated for me to climb over them with my broken wrist and there was no way of going around them. A small path lead uphill (not back towards the dogs) but it ended soon at a fence. On both sides there were canyons. I saw a horse down in one canyon and went there trying to find a path to continue on. Well, it was not easy and from here I had to find my way up and down several small canyons. Finally I came to a house where there was a woman. I asked for direction to Guayamo (a village between Quilotoa and Chugchilán). She told me to follow a path all the way down to a small stream and from there I could follow a small road up to Guayamo.
I walked along the road past Guayama Grande, but there was still quite far to Guayamo. A farmer working along the road told me I didn’t have to walk all the way up to Guayamo if I was going to Chugchilán and pointed out a path I should take. The path took me to the view point above the big canyon where Chugchilán is on the other side. This is where the path from Chugchilán comes up, so now I was on the right track. From here there was a steep walk downhill and then uphill again before I reached Chugchilán.
This hike took 5h and 40min, much longer than it would have taken if I had walked the right trail.
On some Tigua paintings I have seen the Laguna Quilotoa depicted with Volcán Cotopaxi in the background. Well, from the village Quilotoa it is not Cotopaxi you see, but when the weather is clear you can see the tops of Iliniza Norte (5126m) and Iliniza Sur (5284m) behind the crater rim. During my first visit to Ecuador I bought a Tigua painting with Laguna Quilotoa in it and with the Ilinizas in the background. It is lovely!
I hiked from Chugchilán to Quilotoa both in 2011 and in 2012. The later year they hade done some improvements along the trail. There were now sings at several places pointing out the direction and the distance. Along the trail they had also put up benches and bins. From the bench in the photo it is a great view over Laguna Quilotoa and it looks very nice to sit there, but when I visited in 2012 it was impossible to sit down to enjoy the view as the wind was terribly strong.
In 2012 they had also started to improve the path down the crater with a few steps, a wall and even with some flowers on the side. Well, in one way I can think it becomes too neat.
During my last visit I also saw that they were constructing a new place for the craft cooperative where they could sell their products.
A legend says that once upon a time the god of volcanoes, Quilotoa, lived at the surface of the lake and the Pacific god Toachi lived at the bottom. Quilotoa didn’t like the presence of Toachi and therefore throw a ray of light towards him to make him leave. Toachi got angry and throw fireballs back at Quilotoa, who of course fired back. It was during the battle between the gods that the crater got its present shape.
What finally happened between the gods is not clear. However, a legend also says the lagoon is salty and sulphuric because it is connected with the ocean.
A lake this beautiful is worthy of your pursuit and so many have, indeed, pursued this sight that the circuitous route around the area is now referred to as the Quilotoa Loop. There is a nominal $1 fee payable at a small kiosk that you pass through before parking in the lot near the top of the lake. You're likely to see some locals selling some handicrafts and some kids looking for a few coins or other offerings from you, the pilgrim visitor. After dealing with these slight hassles, you'll find a crack in a cliff that leads to the top rim of the lake.
Upon my first sight of Quilotoa, I was struck by the emerald green color of the water and the spectacular setting. The lake is actually in the crater of an extinct volcano and the surrounding cliffs that hold the water, make it look like a giant bowl of windshield washer fluid!
There are a few different trails here. We took the simpliest easiest one. It wasnt a tough trail but I did fall down a few times. Maybe it was just me, I am crumsy. I was also out of breath alot. The trail wasnt strenuous at all, it was just that the air was so thin up here.
Some people do the Quilotoa loop which is alot longer.
Make sure to where some good hiking shoes. Also layer up. When I first started down the crater it was so hot, plus I was getting a work out. When I got to the bottom it started to get cold. Soon the clouds started to come in and it was freezing. By the time we got to the top ready to go home it was so cold that I couldnt even feel my fingers. I brought no gloves. I couldnt wait to get back in the car and put the heater on.