Updated on June 8th, 2020
“Hiking the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador was one of the highlights of my month in this amazing country. Here are my top 16 tips on how to hike this spectacular trek as a woman travelling solo.”
Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador. 3-day hike from Sigchos to Quilotoa via Isinliví & Chugchilán.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop was one of the highlights of my month in Ecuador. I used it as preparation for my climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. This was partly to practice a multi-day hike but mostly to assess how my body responded to the altitude. There are numerous variations of the hike you can take. I chose to do the most common route – 3 days from Sigchos to Quilotoa, which involved around 6 hours hiking for 10kms per day. I also travelled around Ecuador solo & here I share my top 16 tips on how to complete this epic trek yourself, as a woman alone.
The walk is challenging due to the mountainous terrain & effects of the altitude, but this is outweighed by the stunning landscapes of lush green hills along the way & the prize at the end. Laguna Quilotoa is a startling blue lake inside the volcanic crater, with surrounding views of Mount Cotopaxi. Believe me, it was well worth the effort to get there!
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop Ecuador – what do you need to know?
The Quilotoa Loop trek is a circular hiking route which links some of the more remote villages in the Andes. You could use spectacular Quilotoa Crater Lake, as your goal…or your starting point. You can get a bus straight there, but where’s the fun in that?
If you would like to see my Video of the trek before you make a decision then check it out below.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop – can you do it as a solo woman?
Yes…but it’s not easy! There is no reason why you would not be able to hike the Quilotoa Loop as a woman on your own, however, I would advise to fully read this post first before making your decision. I was planning to hike alone & excited about the prospect. On the morning I was leaving, I got chatting to a couple of English guys over breakfast who had the same plans as me. We ended up walking to the bus together & hiked day 1 as a team. I was very grateful to have them there as the route was not always obvious & easy to find. Bear in mind that this is not like hiking a route such as The Inca Trail. You may not see another walker for hours on end, so assuming you can follow others is not an option. The boys were much fitter & younger than me & I felt like I was holding them back a little. That evening, I “released them” to hike alone the next day & not feel any responsibility for me.
The next morning, I approached a couple of girls who I had been chatting to the previous night to ask if they would mind if I joined them. I wasn’t quite feeling confident enough to go it alone & wanted to use the opportunity of the hostel to find some fellow hikers. They welcomed me with open arms & we ended up hiking as a group of 9, being joined by 3 Brits & 3 Dutch girls very early in the day. When the instructions & maps all failed us with directions, 9 brains & 18 eyes were a huge advantage!
“On the final day, I hiked alone. I actually loved it as I had more confidence & had not met anyone to partner with at my final hostel. It was great until I got completely lost & was helped by a guardian angel. More on him later.”
My advice, therefore, is that you can hike alone, start alone, finish alone but there are plenty of opportunities along the way to not do it solo if you aren’t keen. I learned lessons along the way which I can share here & I hope will help you, whatever the decision that you take in the end.
When to go?
The temperatures are fairly consistent throughout the year. June to September is recognised as the dry season so a good time for hiking. There is also a drier spell between December & January when everything will be lush & green. I visited Ecuador in March which meant the mornings were warm & sunny. By the afternoons the clouds would literally roll in around lunchtime, engulfing the higher ground. This was followed by rain. Therefore, any hiking you do should be started early. This way you will be tucked into your hostel by the time the rain arrives.
Which route to choose?
There are many alternatives that you can choose to tackle the Quilotoa Loop hike. If you don’t feel you have the time or the inclination to take on the 3 days, then you could just head to Quilotoa village & take the walk around the crater lake itself. This is a day hike which will take around 6 hours to complete, so it’s still not necessarily an easy option!
Alternatively, you can choose to start in Tigua, to Quilotoa, then on to Chugchilán. I took the most popular 3-day route from Sigchos to Isinliví, Chugchilán & onto to finish with the magnificent spectacle of Quilotoa Lake. However, they do apparently say that doing this in reverse is the “easier” option. Bear in mind whichever way you choose to take this hike, you will be going down into & climbing back out of several valleys along the way. It is not an easy hike & it is at altitude.
On the walk I chose to do, the altitude went from 2527m to 3894m above sea level. For the most part, I felt OK, but I had taken time before the hike to acclimatize in Ecuador.
“The highest point if you chose to tackle the same route, is the crater of Quilotoa Lake. The most challenging part for me was the zig-zagged climb up the side of the crater to get to my goal. I was walking on the dusty road & had to keep stopping to catch my breath.”
With every step, I could never make it quite as far as I was aiming to. I felt pressured by the clouds rolling in to make it as quickly as I could but there was nothing I could do to speed up. Be prepared that you may find it harder work than you expect & therefore take you longer to tackle some sections of the hike. If you are interested in learning more about the effects of altitude, then check out my experiences climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
What about your attitude?
This is an interesting question. For the number of people who tackle this trek, you would expect it to be a well-trodden path, well-marked & relatively easy. It is none of those things! My advice is to expect the unexpected, embrace the unknown & make friends along the way. If you are super fit, then I’m sure you will be fine. I’m reasonably fit & I found it tough at times. Just slow down, catch your breath & enjoy the views. They are stunning!
Where to stay?
There are some amazing hostels along the way which not only break up your journey but provide you with hiking partners, unique experiences, delicious meals (including packed lunches), yoga studios & even a hot tub!
For many, this is the gateway to the Quilotoa Loop & I spent the night before I began here. The buses from Latacunga leave at 6am, 8am, 9.30am & then every 30 minutes. The journey takes 2 hours & costs $2.30 (Ecuador’s currency is US dollars). I stayed in Hostal Tiana. I had a room to myself & although the facilities were basic it meant that I could leave my main bag for free for the first night of my hike. Subsequent nights were stored for $1.
My favourite hostel along the way was Llullu Llama Mountain Lodge in Isinliví. I would advise to book ahead for this one. The views from my room were nothing short of spectacular! The cold beer in the evening, the yoga studio I didn’t use, the delicious communal dinner & most of all the hot tub were way more than I was expecting. I would even advise staying an extra night here so you can make the most of all the facilities & take part in a few activities. It may also give you another chance to meet some hiking companions for the next section.
For my second night in Chugchilán, I stayed at the Black Sheep Inn. This was the first hostel we came to when we walked into the village which was a big relief. However, it was also up a hill, which was less welcome! I was the only one staying here from my hiking group & had again, booked ahead. The accommodation was lovely, with another great meal, an outside gym & yoga studio where I made the most of the hammocks during the rain. The toilet was an adventure in itself, composting & a lovely view to keep you occupied while you are going about your business! If you are keen to meet fellow hikers for your next leg, however, I would not necessarily choose to stay here.
My recommendation would be Hostal el Vaquera. It’s a little longer to get there on your second hiking day, but right at the start of day 3. There are more rooms, making your chances of hooking up with fellow hikers stronger if that’s your preference for day 3.
Once I arrived in Quilotoa, I headed straight out on the bus back to Latacunga, & then on to Quito. However, to make the most of your experience & if you have time, I would also recommend spending a night here. This will enable you to take the day hike around the crater in the morning, while the skies are clear. Or it will as long as the previous 3 days haven’t exhausted you! If you would like some suggestions for your perfect Quilotoa hostel, then try Hostal Chukirawa, Princesa Toa or Hosteria Alpaca Quilotoa.
When to start your hike?
I took the 9.30am bus from Latacunga which had plenty more hikers en route too. I heard afterwards that there was an 8am one, as well as the 6.30am but that would have meant missing breakfast at the hostel. We started hiking at 11.30 which was fine for Day 1. On day 3, I left at 9am & expected to meet my fellow walkers from the day before. They were long gone & I would advise beginning earlier as well (again, my restriction was breakfast…best meal of the day ;)).
On the final day, I made it to the lake with only about 10 minutes to spare before it was engulfed in the cloud! As mentioned earlier, if you don’t make it in time, I would advise having a day up your sleeve to stay overnight in Quilotoa village. The turquoise lake will look resplendent in the sunshine of the morning & if you still have life in your legs you can walk around the crater (6 hours), or head down to the water.
My top tip is to collect them everywhere you can! In addition, make sure you have downloaded the Maps.me app & appropriate local maps on your phone too (before you leave, while you have reliable WIFI). Believe me, you will need everything at your disposal. I picked up the full instructions from my hostel in Latacunga & the ones from Llullu Llama Lodge. I kept trying to use Maps.me as well but it kept switching itself off. Take a waterproof bag to hold your instructions in too, just in case.
“The route is not always well marked or well signposted. The instruction sheets are photocopied so the photos they contain to help are often hard to distinguish. Refer to them often, keep your eyes peeled, ideally watch other hikers & communicate with them if you can. Ask the locals.”
The red & yellow route markers may be very faded. Expect to get lost, it’s part of the experience but also be prepared to backtrack. The path may become a riverbed, you may need to pull yourself up using the vegetation, a gate could be a gap in the fence which is now some corrugated iron on the ground. At one point the instructions said we were in a meadow…30 minutes more walking & we finally were. There are often multiple route options too.
There may have been improvements on the marking of the trail since I completed the Quilotoa Loop, but I wouldn’t rely on that. If you haven’t already gathered, getting lost & going down the wrong path is part & parcel of a self-guided walk of the Quilotoa Loop. If you are particularly worried, then why not consider hiring a guide for the trip? This will not only avoid stress but also help to support the local economy. Speak to the hostels before you go to see if any of them are able to put you in touch with somebody who can help you.
On day 1 we sat & watched a few fellow hikers climb a track we had passed. Thankfully we had stopped for lunch & afterwards followed them up the hill.
On day 2, in a group of 9, we had a 15-minute discussion as we tried to work out which was the correct choice out of 3 tracks. Finally, one of the guys spotted a very faint red & yellow paint mark on the rocks. We ended up in a muddy river, jumping from one side of the water to the other to negotiate our way down the valley. It felt totally wrong & filled me with dread that we may have to climb back up again. It was correct…thankfully!
Meeting my Guardian Angel!
On day 3 when I was hopelessly lost, I believe I met my guardian angel! For about 10 minutes I walked back & forwards each way up a crossroads until my instinct told me it was wrong. Then, along came a Cuban guy who I hadn’t seen before (faces get familiar along the route). We got chatting & tackled the challenge together, using his superior Spanish to ask some local farmers. Unfortunately, this led us to a dry riverbed without a clue, a sign & nobody around to ask. I was so pleased that I wasn’t alone.
Eventually, we found our way out & finally saw a longed-for signpost. He stopped soon after, struggling as the path rose uphill. With the communication of huge thanks & good luck, I left him. He was happy for me to do so, not wanting to slow me down. I was keen to reach my goal, Lake Quilotoa before it was hidden by clouds. Thankfully, I made it with 10 minutes to spare. I never saw him again, but he had appeared exactly when I needed a friendly face. Fingers crossed he got to enjoy the prize once he had made it there too.
What does each day look like?
Day 1: Sigchos to Isinliví. Time 3 – 4 hours, Distance 12 km
Min. altitude 2527m Max. altitude 2950m
Ascent 490m Descent 374m
Once we had finally found the starting point, we began along the roads before the route headed off down the valley via a small, easy to miss path. I slipped on gravel & struggled to get up a muddy hill with the weight from my backpack pulling me down. Then we stopped for lunch when I was accosted by a dog (more on him later).
“Thankfully while we ate, we also observed everyone who was behind us heading off up the hill instead of coming our way. This enabled us to readjust & follow them on the slow climb (in my case anyway) back up the other side of the lush green valley.”
The final section was an easy 45-minute walk along the road & into Isinliví. Llullu Llama Lodge was the perfect first stop on my journey, especially due to the stunning views from both of the balconies attached to my room!
Day 2: Isinliví to Chugchilán. Time 4 – 6 hours, Distance 12 km
Min. altitude 2621m Max. altitude 3172m
Ascent 571m Descent 328m
A new day, a new set of hiking partners. We started at 9am & within 5 minutes had missed a turning. In consultation, we decided that all the paths looked like they met up, so we ploughed on. Thankfully they did!
As we negotiated our way across the beautiful green valleys & past farms growing corn, the landscapes were truly spectacular. The views were vivid green as they were bathed in the sun. Several times the route was unclear but by this stage, there were 9 of us working together to unravel the instructions. After jumping & sliding down a muddy riverbank, we crossed a meadow, over a stream & back up the other side.
The most challenging part of the hike came near the end as we tackled the steep climb up the other side of the valley. The rocky terrain meant I kept slipping & this combined with the heat of the day & altitude made it a challenge for me. At the top, we were rewarded with a seat & an artist selling his paintings. The final leg was a walk along the road into Chugchilán.
I was the only one from the group staying at the Black Sheep Inn, but I tucked into the complimentary coffee & cake with gusto before relaxing in a hammock to admire the view as the rain came down. Dinner was again equally delicious, especially when washed down with a well-earned glass of red wine!
Day 3: Chugchilán to Quilotoa. Time 4 – 6 hours, Distance 10 km
Min. altitude 2959m Max. altitude 3778m
Ascent 734m Descent 248m
I headed off after breakfast to start with a short walk into the town. I was expecting to meet some fellow hikers along the way but there was nobody to be seen. It was refreshing to head down into the beautiful valley & be walking in the way I had always intended…alone.
I chose to take the route which was not via the road & regretted it quite quickly. I found myself in a dead-end at the bottom of a landslide with the only option to pull myself up the unstable walls to make progress. It didn’t feel right, so I retraced my steps to find a very obvious sign in a slightly different direction.
“The correct route did make more sense but was not much less challenging as I still needed to grab hold of vegetation to pull myself up to the top.”
After the small village of La Moya, I chose the route via the waterfalls which I certainly didn’t regret with views across the valley which took my breath away. Then it was down to cross the riverbed before the climb back up the hill. Then I went wrong, met my Guardian Angel & instead of taking the prettier route through the forest, I ended up zigzagging my way up the side of the crater on the road.
Lake Quilotoa is nothing short of spectacular. As I stumbled towards the viewpoint, the prize I had worked so hard for came into view. Below me, surrounded by the 400m high walls of the crater was a pristine turquoise blue lake. The locals say the lake has no bottom & it’s hard to disagree. I took just 10 minutes to savour the view before I started my final 1 hour walk around the edge of the crater & into the village of Quilotoa. As the rain started, I ended up having to run to make the bus. Exhausted, I relaxed on my 2-hour journey back to Latacunga.
The beauty of the Quilotoa Loop hike is that along the way you go through small villages, meeting their inhabitants going about their daily business. I had some magical moments when we were passed by a mother & her 2 children as they drove their goats past us on the hillside. I followed another woman & her sheep into Isinliví and asked plenty of people for help with instructions along the way (don’t expect them to speak English). Then I caught a group of school children who spotted me & came for a chat as I passed through their village on my final day. We quizzed each other thoroughly, them on where I was from, me on where I was going. It was a welcome interaction on my solo hiking day…. just before I went wrong!
What about the dogs?
I had read before that dogs could be an issue while hiking the Quilotoa Loop. The advice was that if they charge you, stand your ground, pick up a rock & pretend to throw it. I found that each day I was met by an over-friendly mutt at one point along the route. I don’t like dogs, but these were enthusiastic, insistent on making friends & hard to resist. The first just wanted a cuddle over lunch, the second looked like he was keen to help me with my map reading & on day 3 I had one follow me as I tackled the final climb up the crater wall. It was like he was cheering me on!
What about food & water?
If you choose to stay in the hostels, then you will be very well fed. The ones I stayed at supplied a communal dinner which is again an opportunity to meet others on the trail. Breakfast will provide plenty of fuel for a hard day’s hike. If you like, they will also sell you a packed lunch (expect to pay around $6.50).
The hostels will also provide water to refill your bottles. Do this before you start your hike as there is limited opportunity to buy/refill en route.
Leave most of your belongings behind
I recommend that you spend the night before your hike in Latacunga. There are buses in the morning to take you on the 2-hour journey to Sigchos to begin your trek. I stayed in Hostal Tiana which enabled me to leave my main bag for free for the first night of my hike. Subsequent nights the hostel stored my bag for $1.
On my final day, when I reached Lake Quilotoa, I met a guy who had his full pack with him.
“As a challenge he had completed the full trek in 1 day, hiking since 2.30am, with his 20kg backpack. I understand the challenge but why would you? And imagine all the beautiful scenery you would miss by hiking in the dark? And those lovely hostels?”
My advice…leave your pack in Latacunga!
What to pack for hiking the Quilotoa Loop?
Firstly, anything you don’t need, leave in your main pack back at the hostel. You will be carrying everything & you will quickly regret any little extras you brought ‘just in case”. Here is my list of the essentials:
Clothes & Shoes
- Hiking boots & socks. Make sure they are worn in & comfortable. I used my trainers & they were fine if a little muddy & dusty by the end. When it got mucky, they were not as practical.
- Layers. In the morning it can be warm in the sun. By the afternoon, every day I was in Ecuador, the clouds came over, it got cold & rained. Be prepared.
- Thermals. In the evenings it can get very cold.
- Change of clothes. You will be grateful for a shower at the end of each day & clean clothes that you haven’t been hiking in are lovely relief.
- Swimsuit. If you are staying at Llullu Llama you will need to it for the hot tub. It’s a great place to unwind, relax aching muscles & make new friends for the days ahead.
- Bandana or Buff. To protect your neck from the sun.
- Underwear. Goes without saying.
- Flip flops. I was grateful for these in the evening to get my feet out of my boots.
- Refillable water bottles. I took 2 & added rehydration salts to one each day. There is no water to refill these along the route. In addition, as much is remote, the chances of finding somewhere to buy water are slim. You can fill them up each morning at your hostel & this is fine to drink without needing treatment.
- Power Bank. An external charger is essential, especially if you use your phone a lot for photos & plan on Maps.me as your guide. Both will drain your battery quickly!
- Sunscreen. Remember Ecuador is on the equator & you will be hiking at altitude. The sun is therefore very powerful, even if it’s cloudy.
- Rehydration salts. I used one of these in my water bottle every morning.
- Blister treatment. Just in case.
- Money. Everything you need to pay for along the way will be in cash. This is the advantage of booking your accommodation ahead of time. Take all the cash that you will require for the 3 days with you.
I hope you now have everything you need to add the Quilotoa Loop hike into your itinerary for Ecuador. It was definitely a highlight of my trip & the landscapes & villages you pass along the way are spectacular. There is no other way to see or experience these. As a woman travelling alone, I hope I have given you the confidence to try & tackle it for yourself too. You have the chance to make some friends along the way, but there is something quite special about being out there solo.
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