Volcanoes, Canyons and Lakes, Quilotoa and Cotopaxi
Standing on the edge of an aqua-coloured crater lake or a freezing glacier sheet can make the heart skip a beat – especially if you have just hiked up a mountain to 5000m.
Quilotoa and Cotopaxi offer some of the most stunning hiking experiences in Ecuador which are accessible to the experienced and beginner hiker. At the moment, Cotopaxi is on alert and the park is closed after the volcano began erupting for the first time in 70 years. (Read my story published on ABC News about Cotopaxi).
I managed to visit during a period of increased activity but just before it erupted (and returned later after the eruption). I had wanted to hike to the summit but after hearing some stories about guides taking tours (and money) when there was an avalanche warning and no chance of summiting – I decided to keep my cash in the pocket. Instead, I hiked to the glacier at 5000m which was in itself a stunning two hour hike, costing $35
The Quilotoa Loop offers a beautiful three day trek between villages, south of Quito. It is possible to catch the bus to Quilotoa and just hike the crater for the day but if you have time, the three day trek across canyons and mountains is a beautiful hiking experience. I completed the Quilotoa Loop on my own, staying each night in very comfortable hostel accommodation.
The route itself is not busy, the directions are terrible and I became lost on the second day. But there were plenty of bemused farmers that pointed me in the right direction. I have included detailed route directions below which may be better than those that you receive from the hostels.
Latacunga is a great based for Cotopaxi or before/after Quilotoa. At the moment it is in the path of a Cotopaxi eruption – having been destroyed during the three previous eruptions. The evacuation route takes you into the path of the likely mud flows to wait for a public bus. So perhaps avoid the town for now. Hostel Tiana is an OK place to stay with terrible, almost non existent Internet.
Cotopaxi: Closer again to the volcano but elevated, is the beautiful Rondador Hotel in Santa Rita on the road leading to Cotopaxi with excellent views of the volcano, $12.50 for a private. And a must stay location when the park reopens is Secret Garden Cotopaxi.
Getting to Latacunga
Buses running between Quito and Baños do not stop in Latacunga, instead you are dropped on the Pan Americana and need to wait for another local bus to take you into the town.
Getting to Quilotoa
Direct buses run from the Latacunga bus terminal at 9.30am and it is possible to connect to the bus on the Pan American if you are coming from Quito. There is no need to take any organised tour. Take some food for lunch and snacks on the first day as there are no real lunch option along the way.
Accommodation along the Quilotoa Loop
Black Sheep Inn, Chugchilán is a lovely eco friendly hostel with amazing views, hot showers, and includes great communal vegetarian dinners, breakfast and packed lunch for a dorm rate of $35. Cloud Forest Hostal offers cheaper accommodation.
Lu Lu Llama, Insinliví has amazing views, hot showers, includes dinner and breakfast for a dorm rate of $22
Day 1 – Quilotoa to Chugchilán
From Quilotoa, walk around the rim of the crater. After an hour you will have walked about a third of the crater rim and reached a third sandy lookout area. From there, you can see the town of Guayama and its distinctive blue roof structure (this blue roof can be seen earlier but not while standing on a sandy lookout area). Note: there are a lot of tracks off the mountain before. Don’t take them.
The path takes you down to a ridge which runs down the valley. Take the footpath along the top of the ridge, following it downhill until you reach the road about 700m from town. You can join the road earlier but it winds through the valley.
Guayama is a tiny town so literally walk through it until you reach the church and cemetery and take the road left walking past the cemetery and football field.
Follow the dirt road until it finishes at a lookout point over a large canyon. You will be able to see the town of Chugchilán on the opposite side of the canyon. Take the path to the bottom of the canyon, cross the wood log bridge and walk all the way up the hill. You will eventually reach a road and follow it to the town. Walk all the way through town to reach their hostels.
Day 2 – Chugchilán to Insinliví
Turn left out of your hostel and head down the hill away from the town. Walk for about 2km. You will pass the police station and two roads to the left that have signs for the cheese factory or Quesería. The second road is about five minutes after the first. Just there, there is a small white house on the right and just past it is a track/road leading down the hill.
Follow that road for about 10 -15 minutes until you come to a tiny village with about four houses. The road continues left towards a larger village. To the right is a path up to a picnic and lookout area overlooking the large canyon. You want the path directly ahead that goes down hill through a small canyon.
Follow the path for about 20 minutes until you come to the small village with a church. Walk through the centre of the village and continue along the road for another 700 metres where you come to a tienda.
About 50 metres after the tienda is a path to the right leading down the valley. Take the path all the way down until you come to the suspension bridge. Locals advise not to cross the bridge as it is broken. Continue walking on the path alongside the river for another 1.5 km where you will come to the large tree trunk “bridge” with a hand rail. Cross the river there.
Walk along the river path until you come to an open pasture. Cross the field diagonally with the boulders to the left of you. You will see a path heading up hill and possibly a hand rail (which may soon fall down the hill). Take the path down behind the hand rail towards the river.
Follow the river looking for the yellow and red paint on rocks and trees.
You will eventually spot some red paint on a large rocky ground area and follow the path up hill to a gate. Pass through the gate and continue following the path past farm houses on your left. You will pass over another fence blocking the path and shortly after you will take the path to the right heading up hill towards a large white cliff. The path steepens here and may be muddy. The yellow and red markers drop out here. Somewhere here I went wrong.
You will come to a small pasture area under the white cliff. Perhaps you are suppose to cross the pasture and continue uphill. I didn’t.
Alternate path (extra two hours but beautiful)
I took the path to the right, heading uphill. The path passes through steep white walled earth. You will soon reach a large flat open pasture area with a small wooden hut. Cross the field walking towards the hut. Take the path to the left of the structure. Follow the path up hill to the left through the pasture and over a ridge. When you come to a small valley, follow the track up the valley to the top of the hill next to the house. Walk with the house to the right of you.
Over the ridge you will see a path that after 50m brings you to a road. Go left and follow the road down hill where you will find a well worn path along a ridge. Leave the road to follow the path down the hill where it rejoins the road. Follow the road over a concrete bridge where you will see red and white paint marking the route. Follow the road up and take the well used path to the right up to the village.
Day 3 – Insinliví to Sigchos
Turn left as you exit Lu Lu Llama and walk down the hill. As the sealed road ends, take the track that turns slightly right as you leave the town. Follow it down ignoring tracks to the right and left.
At the bottom of the hill you will reach a wooden bridge over the creek. Cross the creek and follow the track up to the left until you reach the road
Go left at the road and follow it for about 15 minutes. You will pass three electricity poles on your left, keep walking. You will soon be able to see the orange roof of the church in the village at the bottom of the valley. Just before reaching the large cluster of eucalyptus trees (hundreds of trees) there will be a path leading off the road to the left and yellow paint on a rock marking the trail. Follow the trail all the way down to the village with the orange church roof.
When you reach the church take the road left past the school. After about five minutes you will reach a fork in the road. Bare right. A short way along you will see a path marked by two posts with red paint. Take the path down and cross the river on the concrete bridge.
After the bridge take the path to the right and shortly after, a left fork. Follow the path up hill for about five minutes to reach the road.
Take the road right and follow it for about 2km or 30 minutes.
You will eventually see another concrete road bridge over the river to your right. Just before reaching the bridge there will be a steep path to the left. Take that path.
The path will bring you out on the road. Go left and follow the road until you soon come to a concrete building. Take the path on the left directly opposite the building.
After about 20 minutes you will reach another road/track. Go right and follow the road until you come to a church. Just after the church take the dirt road heading up hill.
Follow the road and after about 30 minutes you will reach Sigchos.
When you reach the edge of town, continue walking up the road you are on, taking the fifth street on your right. Walk about four streets to find the bus station on your left (ask for directions).
Buses leave for Latacunga at 1.30pm and not 2.30pm as advised by the hostels. Two buses leave at the same time. The bus from the terminal is direct and saves a few hours.