Tips for Hiking the Quilotoa Loop
Part of the Loop’s traditional magic is that most villages contain only the bear essentials, meaning you’ll find no bank or ATM anywhere on the Loop after you leave Latacunga or Saquisili. Since all hostels function on a cash-only basis, with a handful offering Paypal options, make sure you take enough cash with you at the start to cover your entire journey.
Don’t put too much faith in hiking directions you get from hostel
Most hostels also the Loop will provide directions for hiking from there to the next stop. While Llullu Llama’s are widely considered the best directions on the Loop and the hostel is constantly making efforts to have their volunteers help improve these directions, they are still fallible. Upon first glance, these directions can seem like a godsend, a perfect little step-by-step guide to your carefree frolic through the Andes. It won’t be until you reach a step like, “Turn right and go up for five minutes, then left when you reach a tree” that you might begin to question the directions given to you. Remember that directions are subjective, and the easiest description to their creator may not be completely nonsensical to anyone else. For instance, many of the direction tend to make the stupid mistake of using time as a special indicator. It doesn’t take a hiker to know the flaw in the logic of using a subjective thing to indicate an objective distance. If you’ve done something as basic as walk down the street, then you probably know that people walk at different speeds. “Walk ten minutes” can indicate a distance ranging perhaps even a full kilometer.
You’ll also find incredibly ambiguity in many of the directions. For instance, many of them say things like, “Take the faint path leading off right,” because there can’t possible be a million different faint paths in these hills.
Even the basic time estimation for each hike is not necessarily correct. For example, when we hiked from Chugchilan to Quilotoa, we left a little later in the day, seeing that the hike would take about 4-6 hours. It didn’t. It took 8, which put us getting onto the rim of the volcano in the dark. Nearly everyone we talked to in town said it had also taken them that long, indicating it wasn’t just us; the directions had been very wrong.
You will get lost- and that’s okay!
As you might have gathered form the previous tip, getting lost on the Loop is easy to do. The Quilotoa Loop is comprised of so many crisscrossing trails that it’s incredibly easy to get lost. In fact, it’s expected, but it’s all part of the experience. If you do get a little turned around, or aren’t sure you are not going the right way, keep going until you are sure you’re not going the wrong way before turning around. If worst comes to worst, you can simply ask for directions from a local or find a road. Hiking on roads aren’t as interesting, but they will get you to the end destination just the same. Getting lost on the Loop is never a tragedy and is always easily righted.
Altitude is no joke
Nearly the entire Loop sits at en elevation over 3,000m. If you’re coming from a lower elevation location, like Central America or the Galapagos, or have never really experienced high elevation before, you might experience some trouble and altitude sickness. Spend a few days acclimatizing in Quito before attempting the hike. If you find yourself struggling with the altitude, don’t push yourself. You just might need to spend more time relaxing and acclimatizing. Try some cocoa tea, made with cocoa leaves with give your body just a little caffeine boost to fend off the sickness. Stay hydrated, too. Hydration is incredibly important to your body's ability to acclimatize. I climb mountains on a regular basis and the only time I've ever been hit with altitude sickness is when I rapidly gained elevation in a state of dehydration. Dehydration can affect even seasoned hikers and mountaineers. It also wouldn’t hurt to bring along some altitude sickness medication just in case.
Leave your bags in Latacunga
Don’t think you can take your full travel pack with you on the Quilotoa Loop. Unless you’ve arranged for some sort of luggage transport, just leave the bulk of your stuff in Latacunga. Many of the hostels there, such as Hostel Tiana, will stow your bags for free. It’ll be a lot more pleasant for you if you’re not hauling heavy gear up the mountains.
It can get cold on the Quilotoa Loop
If you’re coming from a place like the Galapagos or Central America, it might be hard to imagine anywhere that close to the equator getting chilly, but it really can. In fact, the average temperatures in most towns on the loop range from 0°-16°. Bring warm clothes. Even if you don’t end up needing them, it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.
Most of the hostels along the loop are small, with average capacities around 30 people. Considering some towns, like Isinlivi, have only two hostels, there really isn’t much space. If visiting in the high season months of June, July, and August or around Christmas, be sure to make reservations at hostels en route or you might find yourself unexpectedly camping! Don't be those people that show up at a hostel in the middle of the night on Christmas and end up on the common room couch because you begged for help.
Transportation is unreliable and slow
If you think you’re going to get anywhere quickly along the Quilotoa Loop, think again. Just because the drives between villages only appear to be a few kilometers, the winding roads and rough condition of them makes for slow driving. Driving only 20km can easily take one hour. Bus schedules on the Loop are also difficult to decipher and unreliable. Aside from coming at early hours in the morning, sometimes buses simply do not show up. Know your different transportation options and talk to your hostel about them before you make any plans. Keep in mind that there are many options other than public buses: milk trucks, hitchhiking, local carpools, private arranged cars, and even horseback riding.
Plan for all kinds of weather
Predicting the weather on the Quilotoa Loop is like hiking without once getting lost; it’s simply not possible. Weather can change quickly in the mountains so it’s important to be prepared for all kinds of situations. While mornings are usually clear and sunny, making for pleasant conditions for early morning hikers, afternoon are quite often cloudy and rainy.
If you're like me and have never worn sunscreen a day in your life (despite being blindingly pale), you may be tempted to follow such a trend in Quilotoa. I can tell you right now that is a huge mistake. I typically have the type of skin that burns once in the beginning of every summer and tans after that. My burns are usually mild and disappear in a couple days at most. However, there is nothing usual about the sun in Ecuador. When calculating UV index, there are two factors to bear in mind: latitude and elevation. Since Ecuador lies directly on the equator, with the Quilotoa Loop only a few tenths of a degree south of it, the entire country has a naturally higher UV index, receiving more intense rays of the sun. Combine the fact that the Quilotoa Loop is all 3,000m+ in altitude, bringing you that much closer to the sun, you have a recipe for a quick burn. During the month I spent on and around the Loop, I burned multiple times, some after only being outside for perhaps twenty minutes. They were some of the most brutal burns I've ever felt, leading to gross peeling on my face and a perpetually lobster-like look. Even Chris, who is incredibly Italian and tans after two minutes in the sun, burned to a crisp. Save yourself the trouble and load up on sunscreen. Don't forget to wear chapstick with SPF and reapply it often- the worst part of me that I burned was my lips. Wear long sleeves and pants with UV protection as well, and a wide brimmed all around hat to cover your face, ears, and neck is almost mandatory is you want to save your face.