Expedition Quilotoa: An Unprepared Hiker’s Guide to Ecuador’s Most Famous Trek

By Max Olson

“Have you heard of the Quilotoa Loop? We leave tomorrow!” The young Israeli man, Roni, I had met at the hostel in Quito no more than two seconds prior began rattling off information. “It takes three days! Maybe we can do it in two. What do you think?” I had simply told Roni that I was interested in doing some hiking during my trip to Ecuador and I was now apparently going to be accompanying him on a three-day excursion.  He began pulling up maps and trail itineraries on his phone, the pages scrolling by almost as fast as his mouth was talking. I was able to catch that apparently Quilotoa, “was easy as can be”, and “an absolute must see for Ecuador. Absolute must!”

 Feeling I had nothing to lose, I agreed to join my new hostel friend on his adventure. Looking back, Roni was certainly right about the second point. Quilotoa is a spectacular hiking trail filled with gorgeous Andean views, local villages, and friendly fellow backpackers. On the first point, I beg to differ. Quilotoa is not for the inexperienced or faint of heart. Especially if one is as unprepared as I was for a three-day trek through the Ecuadorian Andes.

Roni woke me at 6:30 in the morning, he seemed as energetic as he had the night before, and twenty minutes later we were in a taxi headed for Quito’s bus terminal. Once we were squared away on the bus, I finally decided to question Roni on what exactly Quilotoa entailed. The loop begins in the town of Latacunga, a small city about an hour South of Quito.

 The first part of the trek involves no hiking at all and consists of a two-hour bus ride to a small mountain town by the name of Sigchos. The actual trekking portion of the loop consists of three days roughly averaging about four hours of hiking each day. The first is a three-hour hike from Sigchos to Isinlivi, an even smaller town nestled in the Andes. The second day takes hikers from Isinlivi to the slightly bigger town of Chugchilan. The third and final day sees the completion of the trek as backpackers hike uphill from Chugchilan to the Quilotoa Crater Lagoon. After enjoying the views that serve as the loop’s finish line, hikers enter the nearby town of Quilotoa and catch a two-hour bus ride back to Latacunga, thereby completing the “Loop”.

The highest part of the hike is the Quilotoa Lagoon situated at 3810 meters (12,500 feet) in the crater of a volcano. Growing up in Arizona, I had done my fair share of hiking and figured that the whole thing would be more than doable. Roni helped egg this delusion on by his constant assurances that it was the easiest thing on Earth that a human being could possibly attempt. Reality would tell a slightly different story.

When Roni and I reached Latacunga, we quickly found a hostel that agreed to let us store our larger travel bags while we did the trek. This would in many ways be the decisive moment of the entire adventure. With zero experience in multiday international treks, I left the hostel for the bus to Sigchos with the following: One pair of blue jeans, One pair of steel-toe workman’s boots, a small college-style backpack, and a single T-shirt. Anyone who has experience with hiking or outdoorsmanship of any kind can see the nightmare brewing here.

The bus to Sigchos took roughly an hour longer than expected due to an unexpected roadblock. Roni, a stickler for planning and precise timing, was on the brink of losing his mind. According to Roni, we had to make the three-day hike in two as his future plans to summit Cotopaxi could be impeded otherwise. “Maybe we can do the first stretch of the hike in the dark?” I told Roni this sounded like a terrible idea and that we ought not to panic about things out of our control. The bus hit Sigchos as twilight settled over the Andes and the voice of reason seemed to have temporarily overtaken Roni so we decided to find a hostel to hunker down for the night.

 The hostel we managed to find was miraculously located right next to the trailhead but more importantly its backyard offered spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and the valley we would be venturing through tomorrow. I spent hours sitting on the grass, watching the sunset over the Andes with a domesticated llama as my only companion. Roni also managed to find out that it was indeed doable to do the trail in two days if we hiked for eight hours tomorrow instead of four and took a route that went around Isinlivi. Never have I met a person who was so excited to hear that he would be hiking for four hours longer than experienced but that was Roni for you. I went to bed that night with no idea what laid in store.

Roni and I woke up bright and early, ready to tackle our eight-hour rush to Chugchilan. The hostel owner agreed to make us small lunchboxes for the price of three dollars each. At this moment, I realized that I had no water bottle. Roni assured me he had enough for the both of us and so down the trailhead we went.

The first two or three hours of the hike were an absolute dream. The Andean cliff-faces, flowing streams, and mountain breeze made for one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever experienced. The small villages were filled with children playing while adults tended the livestock and crops. Bulls, cows, roosters, and men on horseback were common sights throughout the trek.

 About two hours in, I noticed a sharp pain in my toe. I attempted to ignore it for about twenty minutes and keep pushing but eventually I had to stop. Roni asked what was wrong and I pointed at my foot. His eyes lit up almost immediately. “These are not hiking boots! You are not prepared! Have you ever hiked before?” The questions came streaming from Roni in his usual machine-gun mouth fashion. Compounding problems, Roni’s water supply was beginning to run thin. After realizing that hiking in steel toe work boots had been a poor choice, I sucked up the pain and pressed on.

 Eventually we reached a small village where the locals were happy to refill our water supply. The rest of the day’s hike was going to be almost completely uphill and by this point it was clear to me that Roni and I were not going to be moving at the same pace. I told him to press on ahead and that I would see him in Chugchilan. The four hours were an uphill slog as I slowly worked my way up and out of the valley. The throbbing feet made each step feel like a mile. Somehow, I managed to get Chugchilan and did indeed meet up with Roni who had talked as if he had been waiting for 15 years.

The next morning, Roni and I left the hostel in Chugchilan for the final four hour stretch of the Quilotoa Loop. I told Roni from the very beginning to just go at his own pace and that I would see him at the bus station in Quilotoa. The final day’s hike was far easier than the previous. Slowly working my way up the slopes of the volcano towards the crater was certainly an exercise in endurance but knowing that the end was so close filled me with a sense of confidence that had been missing the previous day. After about three hours I was treated to one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen.

Standing on the rim of an Andean volcano watching the clouds beneath me glide over the lagoon was surreal. I walked along the rim of the crater for about an hour towards the town of Quilotoa, looking towards the lagoon with every other step. Somehow, I had managed to survive a two-day hike of roughly 15km in the Ecuadorian Andes with nothing but a pair of blue jeans, a t shirt, my flimsy backpack, and of course, a pair of steel-toe boots. When I reached Quilotoa, Roni was waiting in the town center.

 He was proud to inform me that he had taken the longer three-hour route around the crater instead of the one-hour trail. He was already rattling off about his plans to summit a 6000-meter volcano in the coming days. The bus back to Latacunga was filled with the odor of backpackers who hadn’t showered in days. During the bus ride, I pondered what my experience on the Quilotoa Loop had taught me. Confidence? Perseverance? The need for preparation? Only one thing was certain. My boots were going in the trash.

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