Travel Tips: Starting the Quilotoa Loop

I’ve made a lot of mention about the Quilotoa Loop, but what is it?  Honestly, until I went there, I had no idea myself.  I pictured it to be a single-track loop of well-maintained trail that would keep us isolated for the few days it took to complete the hike.  What I didn’t expect was the criss-crossing conglomeration of road and nonexistent path weaving in and out of farmland and remote villages with no particular rhyme or reason.  And I definitely didn’t expect it to be some of the most challenging hiking I’ve ever done, both navigationally and physically.

The Quilotoa Loop is a hiking and outdoor recreation area in the beautiful Ecuadorian Andes southwest of Quito.  It consists of 200 km of collective trails and roads that traverse through lush farmland, down steep canyons, and up challenging but rewarding peaks, including the Quilotoa Volcano, now an empty caldera holding a stunning crater lake.  The town of Latacunga serves as the gateway to the Loop, from which travelers typically take a bus to either Zumbahua or Sigchos and hike self-guided (though guides are an option for those less comfortable with navigating on their own) the remaining way: from Sigchos to Isinlivi to Chugchilan to Quilotoa to Zumbahua.  If this itinerary were followed, the hike would take approximately four days, though the trip can be as short or as long as any traveler would like. 

Considering that much of Ecuador’s outdoor adventure scene requires expensive guides, the Quilotoa Loop is unique in that it is entirely possible (and encouraged) to do the entire trek self-guided.  This means that the only expenses you’ll have on the trip are small transportation costs in, hostels for a few nights once you’re there, and a little bit of food for lunch.  While hostels on the Loop can seem a little expensive at first glance, keep in mind that those prices all include huge, homemade dinners and breakfasts, as well as just a really cozy and friendly environment.  It is easily one of the best value trips in all of Ecuador and you’ll leave with just as much of an accomplishment as climbing one of the expensive peaks.

There is no real right way to hike the Loop.  All in all, it contains over 200km of hiking trails, but even those who “complete” the hike of the Quilotoa Loop really only travel maybe 30-40km of that.  That’s because there are various different routes and different starting points.  Some of the most common routes and their respective distances are:

Sigchos to Isinlivi to Chugchilan to Quilotoa

  • Sigchos to Isinlivi: 3-4 hrs, 10.7km, 498m gained, 441m lost
  • Isinlivi to Chugchilan: 4-6 hrs, 12.4km, 651m gained, 397m lost
  • Chugchilan to Quilotoa: 6-8 hrs, 11.4km, 1003m gained, 346m lost

Isinlivi to Chugchilan to Quilotoa

  •  Isinlivi to Chugchilan: 4-6 hrs, 12.4km, 651m gained, 397m lost
  • Chugchilan to Quilotoa: 6-8 hrs, 11.4km, 1003m gained, 346m lost

Quilotoa to Chugchilan to Isinlivi to Sigchos

  • Quilotoa to Chugchilan: 6-8 hrs, 11.4km, 346m gained, 1003m lost
  • Chugchilan to Isinlivi: 4-6 hrs, 12.4km, 397m gained, 651m lost
  • Isinlivi to Sigchos: 3-4 hrs, 10.7km, 441m gained, 498m lost

Sigchos to Isinlivi to Malingua Pamba to Quilotoa

  • Sigchos to Isinlivi: 3-4 hrs, 10.7km, 498m gained, 441m lost
  • Isinlivi to Malingua Pamba: 3-4 hrs, 10.8km, 702m gained, 376m lost
  • Malingua Pamba to Quilotoa: 5-6 hrs, 13.3km, 1097m gained, 488m lost

Quilotoa to Malingua Pampa to Isinlivi to Sigchos

  • Quilotoa to Malingua Pamba: 4-5 hrs, 13.3km, 488m gained, 1097m lost
  • Malingua Pamba to Isinlivi: 3-4 hrs, 10.8km, 376m gained, 702m lost
  • Isinlivi to Sigchos: 3-4 hrs, 10.7km, 441m gained, 498m lost

And even those are open to interpretation.  For instance, we skipped the hike between Isinlivi and Chugchilan and opted for vehicle transport instead.  I liked the Quilotoa Loop because it quite literally embodied the old thru-hiking motto of “hike your own hike”.

Latacunga to Saquisili: $0.40 each, 25 min.

The only thing that’s really consistent about any of the different routes along the Quilotoa Loop is that they all more or less begin in Latacunga.  Latacunga is the unofficial gateway to the Quilotoa Loop, from either Quito in the north or Banos or Cuenca in the south.  Form Latacunga it’s relatively easy to get to either Sigchos or Isinlivi, depending on where you want to start your hike.  To start in Sigchos, catch a Monday-Friday bus form Latacunga at either at 9:30am. 10:30am, 11:30am, 12pm, and.  1pm.  On Saturday and Sunday they depart at 9:20am and 5pm.  Isinlivi is more limited.  To get to Isinlivi from Latacunga, you’ll need to catch one of two buses that leave at 12:15pm and 12:45pm on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.

However, fi you’re interesting in tacking another unique sight onto your trip to the Loop, plan to begin on Thursday.  On Thursday, no bus departs from Latacunga to Isinlivi.  Instead, it departs from Saquisili.  Since Thursday is Saquisili’s market day, you can catch the market by taking a short bus to Saquisili, looking around, then continuing on to Isinlivi.  Hailed as the best market on the Loop, this massive market has anything and everything, including a bag of live guinea pigs.  Arrive early in order to see the animal market, continues all day, sprawling, the most diverse of the Quilotoa markets, selling everything from fruits and vegetables, to woven baskets and appliances.  The market extends far beyond the main square, sprawling down many of the side streets as well with tents and blankets of clothing and accessory vendors.  For the best market experience, arrive before 8am.

The Latacunga-Saquisili bus costs only $0.40 and takes less than a half hour.  Buses leave every 15 minutes.  If you’re trying to get to the market or to switch to a bus that will take you to Isinlivi, get off at the last stop.

Why yes, that is in fact a bag full of live guinea pigs, as spotted in the line behind me at a Saquisili ATM.

Saquisili to Isinlivi: $2.50 each, 2 hours

The bus leaves to Isinlivi Thursday at 12pm.  The bus stop is located at the northeast corner of the main market square. Arrive early to buy your ticket and ensure a seat.  Availability is limited, especially on market day when locals are hauling large bags of purchased goods back home.

Also be sure you have plenty of cash to pay for all your accommodation and food for your time on the Loop.  All hostels on the Loop only accept cash and you won’t find an ATM beyond Saquisili, so it’s your last chance.

The road to Isinlivi is interesting to say the least.  When routing it on a map, one might wonder how it could possibly take two hours when the distance is just over 50km.  We quickly learned the roads around the Loop can really only be called roads by the loosest of definitions,  Really, it was more of an ATV track that rolled bumpily over rough terrain and wound around mountains on narrow roads with loose dirt berms on one side and steep cliffs on the other.  The reputably bad afternoon weather of the area of course didn’t help.  For the entire second half of the ride, all we could see out the windows was a white wall of fog cloaking the entire bus.  It’s a wonder the bus didn’t just casually roll right off the edge of the steep cliff. 

Isinlivi to Sigchos: $1 each, 1 hour

By some miracle, we arrived in Isinlivi just shortly after 2pm.  Since Isinlivi is small, it isn’t exactly hard to find one of the two hostels (right next to each other, by the way) in town.  We would be working at Llullu Llama Mountain Lodge, a whole two blocks from the bus stop.  We stepped inside what would soon be our home for a while and introduced ourselves to the volunteers currently working there.  But we couldn’t get too comfortable, because we quickly needed to drop our stuff and keep moving.  Our plan was to reach the next town of Chugchilan that night.  Since it was already so late in the afternoon and there wasn’t many hours of daylight left, we had already decided to skip hiking that first leg in favor of taking a bus to Chugchilan.  We would hike the remainder of the Loop from there.  The only trouble was that no buses ran from Isinlivi to Chugchilan at that time of day, so our only option was to take a bus to Sigchos and then catch another to Chugchilan.   We were told at the hostel that a bus would pass through Isinlivi on the way to Sigchos at 3pm.  Since it was just shortly after 2pm, we had one hour to eat some food and separate out the things we wanted to leave at the hostel from the things we wanted to take with us.

Just before 3pm, we left the hostel and hiked up to the road to Sigchos where we waited.  And as we typically do, we waited some more, wasting time befriending a few of the local strays.  For a while, we weren’t concerned, as we had been warned that sometimes the buses don’t run on time and one should generally give them at least a half hour before abandoning the wait.  But at 3:40pm, we decided we had given the bus enough time.  Just as we were about to head back to the hostel to inquire what our options were, a pickup truck pull out of Isinlivi and onto the road to Sigchos.  Seeing us standing there with our packs poised so hopefully, the truck stopped and the two men inside asked where we were going.  We told them we needed to get to Sigchos and they nodded for us to hop in the back of the cab for a small price of $1 each. 

Sigchos to Chugchilan: $1 each (varies), 1-2 hours

An hour of bumpy, winding roads later, the truck dropped us off at the edge of Sigchos, where a paved road forked on the left toward Chugchilan.  There was a tiny corner convenience store in which we asked when the next bus to Chugchilan might be.  We were met with some blank looks, before the women finally explained that the next bus wouldn’t come for another two hours, at 6pm.  Not only did we not want to wait around for two more hours but we also didn’t want to chance the possibility of this bus also not existing only to find ourselves then stuck in Sigchos as night fell.

The city of Sigchos as seen from the main road leading out of town toward Chugchilan.

Instead, we did what we do best: stuck out our thumbs and began hoofing it up the road.  About 1km later, a truck with a covered bed finally stopped and allowed us to jump in.  He took us another couple kilometers up the road before saying that was where he needed to stop.  We tried to pay but he waved us away, saying something about another truck coming soon. That would take us farther.  Sure enough, a few minutes later, another pickup truck, this one with a bed already loaded with people standing up, came along and pulled over.  We paid $1 each to join the locals in the bed, where we stood as the truck bounded and rattled over twelve kilometers of intermittent construction and smooth pavement.  The air was cold and biting and I was thankful for my new jacket purchase.

Finally, the truck pulled up to the top of a hill where a few houses sat sleepily drenched in the fog.  The truck driver informed us that it went no further and we were on our own from that point.  We were still around ten kilometers away from Chugchilan, a distance way too far to walk with the limited daylight we now had remaining.  We sat on the side of the road, hoping we might get picked up one again.  Five minutes later, a car pulled up and rolled down the windows.  A young woman in the passenger seat leaned across the driver and asked us, in English, where we were going.  When we told them Chugchilan, they motioned for us to get in.  Little did we know there were already two people in the backseat and “getting in” would be less accurate as opposed to “squishing in”.  But we fit all the same and off we went.  Hitchhiking was oddly becoming much more of a reliable means of transportation than the actual organized public transport.

The woman in the front, Martha, and her boyfriend who was driving were interesting characters.  She was very friendly and bubbly and, I’m pretty sure, a little bit drunk.  She spent the ride talking to us and telling us about places we should visit in Ecuador and collapsing in a fit of giggle on the center console when her boyfriend told her to tell us we should go to Banos and have sex under the waterfall.

“They’re just babies!” she exclaimed with a red face.

By the end of the ride, we weren’t sure what to make of them, but we were incredibly thankful for their kindness nonetheless.  Martha gave me her email address and asked me to email her if I went to Banos.  We waved as the car drove away then crossed the street to the Cloud Forest Hostel. And to think... the real exhausting days had yet to even begin.