We rented a car in Quito (which I highly recommend), and left just after morning rush-hour traffic (which I also highly recommend). In recent years the Ecuadorian government has invested huge amounts of money in infrastructure and so the major highways are as good as they come. It is when you get off the main highways that you may need to depend a bit on a friendly local to point you in the right direction. After leaving Quito we jumped on the Pan-American highway heading south through part of the “Avenue of the Volcanoes.” With any luck, you’ll have a clear day and stunning views of Ecuador’s great volcanoes, including Cotopaxi, the Illinizas, El Corazon, Ruminhaui and Tungurahua. For us it was somewhat cloudy, but we still caught glimpses of the giants peaking through… I also was keeping my fingers crossed for a clear day on the return trip to Quito!
The Quilotoa loop has a northern route and a southern route. If you’re doing the entire loop, that’s irrelevant, but if your time is limited, you may want to take note that the crater lake, Lake Quilotoa, is on the southern route (the road from the Pan-American to Lake Quilotoa is fully-paved and wide). We started with the northern route passing through Toacazo and Sigchos. Most of the way between Toacazo and Sigchos the road is paved and the drive was through beautiful, hilly, green farmland. We stopped for a roadside picnic and not a single car passed us the entire hour we were eating. Just before Sigchos the scenery becomes more dramatic as the valleys get deeper. After Sigchos the road becomes a bit bumpy (so a car with higher clearance is advised, especially during rainy season), and the views continue to become more and more amazing.
We stayed at an eco-lodge just outside of Chugchilán, the Black Sheep Inn, which is about the half-way point of the loop (total time from Quito, 4 hours). The Black Sheep Inn is run by two ex-Pats who do an impressive amount for the local community, and having been in the area since 1993 are more than happy to set-up local guides (without taking a cut for themselves). The area around Chugchilán is a hiker’s mecca. As I’ve made abundantly clear already, the area itself provides constant visual gratification, and what’s more, you can set off in any direction and get a wide variety of hikes and terrains. As luck would have it, I managed to leave my shoes in Quito (idiot) and had only flip-flops. Nonetheless, I decided, with or without shoes, I was hiking (please don’t try this at home).
We decided to do a hike that took us through local villages (we were the only gringos we saw on the entire hike) to a cheese factory where we sampled some mozzarella, ementhal and andino. When we were leaving the factory three teenage boys stopped us and asked if we would let them interview us for their English class. They explained that pronunciation was difficult for them because their teachers are not native English speakers and they rarely talk with native speakers. We were happy to participate! After the cheese factory we hiked to the cloud forest before heading back for the day. Other activities in the area include: horseback riding, mountain biking, trips to indigenous markets, hikes to the plateaus overlooking the valleys, a hike to the crater lake and down to the lake for canoeing.
On our return, passing the southern part of the loop, we stopped at Lake Quilotoa. It’s a dramatic view looking down into the crater at the bright green-blue water with the crater sides rising sharply all around.
Our drive back to Quito was, as I’d hoped, clear and volcano filled. We stopped at Cotopaxi National Park and drove up to the parking lot of the Cotopaxi volcano, at around 14,500 feet. From here we could see the glacier and the refuge, where climbers stay before climbing to the summit. Making the stop at Cotopaxi National Park is worth it, and an interesting contrast with the green valleys of the Quilotoa loop, because as you climb it starts to look like you’re driving on the moon.
Along the Pan-American just north of the toll-both north of Cotopaxi National Park is “Café de la Vaca”—you can’t miss it with all of its cow-themed decorations, hence the name. This is a great place to stop for lunch. I say try the Locro Cayambe, a traditionally Ecuadorian potato soup with avocado, shredded chicken, cheese, and choclo (large-grained corn).
Note to travelers with some more time to spare: the Quilotoa loop can be done as a series of day hikes and you can find accommodations in the towns along the route. You can also do a mix of buses and hiking to complete the loop.