INTRODUCTION: WHY HIKE THE QUILOTOA LOOP?
After Ryan and I got back from our trip to the States, we landed in Quito ready to go full throttle and head straight to the mountains. After doing a bit of research of various activities while making our way down through Ecuador, we decided on the Quilotoa Loop, 240 km (124 miles) of remote, steep, and mountainous trails linking several high villages and towns in the middle of the Andes. You can spend multiple days trekking throughout this region or choose the day hikes if you are short on time. Since we had the time, we decided to trek the most popular route starting in the small town of Sigchos and ending in Quilotoa. Athough this hike is known to be more difficult because of the steep terrian, we decided to go for it anyway. We totally got our butts kicked, but it was everything we had hoped for, more than we expected, and challenged us in ways we totally needed.
HOW TO GET THERE [Quito → Latacunga → Sigchos]
We left Quito early in the morning, took a bus straight to Latacunga (which cost us a mere $2.30) and took a little over an hour to get there. Once we got to Latacunga, we stopped by Hostel Tiana to drop off the main bulk of our backpacks. [Side note: You can leave your belongings at this hostel and they will store it for you while you’re on the trek for $2/day. If you stay there a night, they will give you one day of storage for free. However, we found out afterward that there are other hotels in Latacunga such as Hotel Central that will store your luggage for free if you stay with them one night]. After dropping off our belongings, we headed back to the bus station and booked our tickets to Sigchos (another $2.30), which took us about two and a half hours to get there. Some people will start their hike from Sigchos right after departing the bus and hike straight to Insinlivi (another 3-5 hours of hiking) that same day. However, I tend to get carsick really easily and after our ride from Quito to Sigchos, I definitely wasn’t feeling up for hiking another 3-4 hours that same day. Ryan and I decided to find a cheap hostel for the night and start early in the morning for our hike to Insinlivi. [Side note: You can also take a bus from Latacunga straight to Insinlivi, but we would totally recommend the hike from Sigchos to Insinlivi! The entire hike was such gorgeous views and we barely saw any other hikers the entire day!] We stayed in a cheap place ($10/night) right in town. It wasn’t too memorable, but we were well rested for our adventures the next day.
Sighchos → Insinlivi: The Nitty Gritty Details (4-5 hours if you don’t get lost)
Ryan and I had walked to the edge of town trying to find the trailhead the night before to make sure we knew exactly where we were going the next morning. When we asked the locals around, they told us to take the road to Insinlivi instead of the sign that directed us toward the Quilotoa Loop. Unsure that we really understood what they were saying, we did some quick research and came upon a site that gave us directions all the way to Quilotoa (a rough description anyway). However, looking now, I’d recommend Global Squatters' set of directions. I’d suggest printing out these before starting your trek because you will undoubtedly get lost at some point. Don’t worry - you just have to remember that it’s all part of the journey!
After our simple $1.50 breakfast of instant coffee, fried eggs, dry bread and a sip of juice at one the restaurants on the outskirts of town, we headed towards Insinlivi. Once we reached the main signs for “Insinlivi” and “Quilotoa Loop”, we decided to take the road left towards Insinlivi as the locals had first mentioned to us. When we came to another fork in the road just a couple minutes later, we had to make another major decision whether to go left towards Insinlivi or right down into the valley. We chose to follow the hostel signs to the right that pointed us toward Llulu Llama and down in the valley (half of the reason we chose this was because we didn’t want to walk on a road and would rather hike the trail). As we made our way down into the valley, I think I said, “This is amazing! This is unreal! This is incredible!” at least fifty times. We continued soaking up our beautiful view until we randomly came across a local walking through the trail and decided to ask him if we were on the right track. He mentioned, “Tome el camino chiquito hacia abajo.” (rough translation: Take the small path ahead) and pointed for us to go straight. We’re not sure if this is what the directions stated, but we decided to take the smallest trail we could find down into the valley instead of taking the road to the right (which the directions told us to do). We like to think of ourselves as rebels and also saving time, but we really have no idea.
We continued on this trail down into the valley and came out on a road walking on the right hand side. After a short distance past the church, we took a right at some point (maybe it was the second?). Ugh, these directions were confusing. Eventually, we came upon our next “sign” from our directions, which was a house with a large brick wall and an empty pool. We continued to the right and took this road until we came across another trail leading off the right. So many trails and barely anything was marked. This was reminding me a lot of our Mauna Loa hike on our last day - pretty much a free for all to get to our final destination, making our best decisions by what we felt in our gut. As we made our way down this small trail, we came upon yet another road. Our next directions simply stated, “Go right. Ignore the large stone bridge on the left.” So, that’s what we did. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves at this point. We had come across some epic views and hadn’t got too lost yet. However, maybe we shouldn’t have spoken so soon.
THE HOURS IN BETWEEN GETTING LOST
The next step in our directions mentioned that we should pass two houses before coming across a driveway that would lead us down to the river and onto another smaller bridge where we would start making our way up the mountain. However, we passed two houses and didn’t come across any driveway. At this point, we were really confused and unsure if we had passed our landmark or if we still had to hike more to find this hidden driveway.
Ryan decided one of the driveways was IT. We walked down through someone’s property to the river. Ryan went down a bit further to see if he could find the bridge, but no luck. We hiked back up the hill and continued along the road. We decided to ask a passing car how to get to “Insinlivi” and they told us to “go a bit further.” After walking another ten minutes, Ryan was starting to get really frustrated that the directions had led us astray. We figured if we went down to the river, we’d eventually find the bridge. He was RIGHT! We went down to the river, walked about five more minutes along the river, climbed up the hill out of sharp + tall grass, and eventually hiked back down where there was more of a clearing towards the bridge, but hey, we found it! We were stoked! Ryan jumped in the river while I soaked my feet in the cool water.
Another couple was walking down the same mountain that we would eventually hike up, so we asked them for any specific directions they could give us before we made our ascent. They pretty much told us we’d be walking up the steep mountain for awhile, then we would encounter many barbed wire fences, we would eventually stumble upon a small town with a small church. Ok, we thought, that doesn’t seem too complicated. Eventually, we made it to the town and took a right up another set of switchbacks. Little did I know that the ascent up the switchbacks would nearly kill me. Well, not literally, but I did have to stop at nearly every switchback to catch my breath. At this point, I realized I had packed way too much stuff. Seriously, did I need all the clothes I brought?! My pack felt like it weighed 25 pounds. [Side note: Pack as light as you can. I thought I would need the extra clothes because it would be cold, but I packed WAY too many things and totally paid for it.]
When we finally made it up the switchbacks, we had reached the main road that would take us only forty-five more minutes to town. Phew! We were done with the switchbacks. It was time to relax. As Ryan took pictures, I continued walking and came across Insinlivi in the distance. We were so close it seemed! Ha! The road “straight” was more of a huge windy loop in the other direction and then back around eventually reaching the town. The road took us another hour or so before we finally made it.
WHAT TO EXPECT ONCE YOU ARRIVE IN INSINLIVI (if you stay at Llulu Llama)
When we finally made it to Llulu Llama, it was truly the best place we could have dreamed up after a long day of hiking! We reserved a private room with a shared bathroom for $24 p/p. This included dinner and breakfast, too! When we arrived, barely anyone was there. We enjoyed the calm atmostphere, read from our books, drank coffee, and soaked up the sun shinning through the huge windows in the common room as we admired our stunning view of the mountains. Before long, Ryan was keen on another adventure. He decided to hike up to another tall vantage point before 6pm (which was when the hostel would turn on the steam room + hot tub for guests). Yes, I did say steam room + hot tub (both which were complimentary!). [Side note: We’re not sure if this is always the case, but since there was much construction going on, we’d figured this was the case for the added complimentary spa amenities.]
Before our family style dinner, we met other backpackers as we mingled in the hot tub, enjoyed Pilsners for happy hour, and soaked up the beautiful sunset. For dinner, we had a delicious soup, vegetarian shepherd’s pie (for me), salad, and cake for dinner. We finished off some craft beers and wine after dinner, relished in our new friendships, and ended the night with a full tummy and a happy heart. This, my friends, was the beginning of a beautiful trek!