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Quilotoa Loop

Ecuador’s “Quilotoa Loop” is a circuit of small towns in the Cotopaxi Province of the Andes connected by mostly paved roads
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Quilotoa Loop

Quilotoa Loop

Introduction

Ecuador’s “Quilotoa Loop” is a circuit of small towns in the Cotopaxi Province of the Andes connected by mostly paved roads and made famous by the Quilotoa volcano and crater lake. Quilotoa Volcano at 3,914 m (12,841 ft) high, is a 2 mile (3km) wide caldera filled with a brilliant blue lake. The view from the edge of the crater 600 feet below (280 m) is nothing short of spectacular and is the highlight of the route of panoramic mountain scenery small villages that dot the roads between Quilotoa and the largest nearby city of Latacunga.

Bloggers have begun referring to various hiking and trekking routes in the region as the Quilotoa Loop, which is a misnomer, as the Quilotoa Loop has for decades has referred to the driveable route between the towns of Latacunga, Pujili, Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Chugchilán, Sigchos and Saquisilí. Hiking and trekking in the area are amazing and remote with multiple routes to choose from. The locals are used to find gringos lost wandering the trails and can point you in the right direction in Spanish, and sometimes, for a price. Hiking around the rim of the crater and around the Chugchilán area with a map from your hotel are excellent options, but be prepared for the altitude.

Although Quilotoa Laguna is the most famous of local attractions, directly to the north and west of the region is the Ilinizas Reserve which features a large swath of cloudforest and the Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur volcanic peaks, which quite popular for mountaineering. The surrounding mountains, the Toachi Canyon, and patchwork of farmland and indigenous villages have a unique Andean flavor.

Quilotoa Volcano & Crater Lake

The Quilotoa Laguna is one of Ecuador’s most spectacular sites, although relatively removed from the beaten path. The crater lake was formed when the volcano erupted in about the thirteenth century AD. It is about 250 meters deep and is characterized by its stunningly bright turquoise color. Visitors can either hike around the perimeter of the laguna, without descending to the level of the water, or they can hike down the steep, sandy slope and back up.

Towns Along the Loop

Latacunga

Latacunga is the largest of the towns on the Quilotoa Loop circuit and the gateway to access it all. Buses leave Quito for Latacunga frequently throughout the day, and accommodation is relatively easy to find at Latacunga’s many hostels and hotels. It is not particularly picturesque, and most travelers prefer to stop over as briefly as possible.

Saquisilí & Pujuli Market Towns

A short trip past Latacunga, Saquisilí is a charming small town most famous for its Thursday markets. Neighboring Pujuli Market is open Wednesdays and Sundays. Locals from far and wide in the Andes travel to Latacunga to trade animals and traditional foodstuffs, and to sell high-quality artisans to tourists. If you’re deciding which days to tackle the Quilotoa Loop, it’s a good idea to aim for Saquisilí or Pujuli market days coming in and/or out of Latacunga.

Zumbahua

Convenient because it’s the closest real town to Quilotoa Laguna, Zumbahua is not overwhelmingly charming. Most people spend the night here only because they can’t catch a bus to the crater lake until the next day. The town has a few satisfactory hostels where you can expect to pay anywhere from $10 per night per person.

Quilotoa

The town of Quilotoa is barely a town – there are a few buildings scattered near the park entrance that are mostly hostels and cheap restaurants. Few people actually stay in Quilotoa overnight. A few hours during the day is more than enough to see the crater lake and hike into the crater or around it. Camping at the bottom of the crater is possible, and spectacular, but cold.

Chugchilán

The most frequented stop after Quilotoa, and the next town to the north, Chugchilán boasts several appealing places to stay, ranging in price from about $10 per night to about $100. The town is perched on the border between the páramo (Andean highland ecosystem) and the cloudforest. It’s worth it to stay a few days and take advantage of spectacular hiking and horseback riding options through the exquisite and varied nearby landscape.

Sigchos

The last stop on the circuit that most people make before returning to Latacunga, Sigchos is fairly small and probably not worth more time than is necessary to spend there. It does have some good accommodations, though. Generally at least two buses leave Sigchos for Latacunga daily.

How to Get There and Away

By far the easiest way to travel around the Quilotoa Loop is by private transportation. Renting a car (4-wheel drive recommended) or hiring a driver in Quito allows a great deal of flexibility in navigating around the tiny mountain towns that dot the circuit.

An affordable, fun and safe option new in 2018 is taking the Wanderbus to Quilotoa. They have a bus that takes mostly international travelers from your hotel in Quito, visiting Cotopaxi National Park, Pujuli indigenous market, Quilotoa Volcano, and then continuing on to Baños. You can optionally get off the bus in Quilotoa and spend a few days exploring the Quilotoa area and hop on the bus as it comes around again to Baños.

Navigating the loop by public bus from Quito is possible, but a true adventure requiring multiple stops and transfers evading pickpockets along the way. Buses leave Quito’s Quitumbe Terminal for Latacunga frequently taking about an hour. However, buses from Latacunga to the other towns are frustratingly irregular and buses between towns can be even more difficult to use. Many travelers find it useful to hire camionetas (private pickup trucks) to deliver them from town to town. Depending on the distance you’re looking to travel between towns, expect to pay between $10 and $40 for a private pickup. The opportunity to catch a ride in the back of a pickup for a few dollars may present itself, but be warned, temperatures can be very cold and the road can be quite dusty in the back of a pickup truck.

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