Ecuador’s so-called Quilotoa Loop is a circuit of small towns in the Andes made famous by the Quilotoa volcano and crater lake. The Quilotoa crater lake has popularized the entire loop of small villages that dot the road between Quilotoa and the largest nearby city of Latacunga – about a two-hour ride from Quito. Although the laguna is the most famous of local attractions, the Ilinizas Reserve also feature a large swath of cloudforest and the Iliniza twin peaks, which quite popular for mountaineering. Nearby small towns have their own appealing Andean flavor. If you’re taking public transportation, you’ll have no choice but to stay over in either Zumbahua, Chugchilán, Sigchos, or Saquisilí.
Quilotoa Volcanic 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. Entrance to the park costs $1 per person.
Towns Along the Loop
Latacunga is the largest of the towns on the Quilotoa Loop circuit. A relatively large city by local standards, it is the capital of Cotopaxi province. 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.
A short trip past Latacunga, Saquisilí is a charming small town most famous for its Thursday markets. Locals from far and wide in the Andes travel to Latacunga every Thursday 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 on a Thursday.
Convenient because it’s the closest real town to Quilotoa Laguna, Zumbahua is not overwhelmingly charming. Most people pass 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 about $6 per night per person.
The town of Quilotoa barely exists – 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 then enough to see the crater lake and hike into the crater or around it.
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. Its worth it to stay a few days and take advantage of hiking and horse-back riding options through the exquisite and varied nearby landscape.
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 or hiring a driver in Quito allows a great deal of flexibility in navigating around the tiny mountain towns that dot the circuit. If this option is financially unappealing, however, it is possible to travel by public buses. Buses leave Quito’s Terminal Terrestre Cumandá for Latacunga frequently. 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. Another option is the infamous early morning milk truck between Chugchilán and Sigchos. Depending on the distance you’re looking to travel between towns, expect to pay between $5 and $25. Be warned, though, that temperatures can be very cold and the road can be quite dusty, especially in the back of a pickup truck.