*We did the 3D2N Quilotoa Traverse from 14 to 16 November 2017. Because some of you asked, all our photographs were taken using the iPhone 6 Camera – that’s all we travelled with for our backpacking trip around South America (on top of our GoPro for underwater shots)!
Before we started on the Quilotoa Traverse, we were very wary of how hikers would get lost on the trek, as there are no proper trails or signage. Plus, as the areas are remote, people do not speak English at all. Even after preparing ourselves thoroughly by reading through other travel blogs, we got lost… BIG TIME. So if you are intending to go on the traverse and are afraid of getting lost, our only piece of advice is to enjoy the journey – getting lost is the key to an unforgettable experience on the Quilotoa Traverse! Don’t worry, you will definitely make it back alive (like we did), in one way or another😊
Just kidding (well, partly). At the end of this blog post you will find a step-by-step guide on the routes to take so that you can greatly minimise your chances of getting lost. We hope it will be of use to you – you can thank us later! 😊
Quilotoa Traverse: An introduction
The Quilotoa Traverse is a mountainous route that links several remote Andean villages in Ecuador’s central highlands. The traverse can be done from north to south from the village of Sigchos to Quilotoa (which is more common) or from south to north. Along the way, hikers can expect to encounter beautiful sceneries and wild/farm animals. Routes are generally not well-marked, so novice hikers would do well with hiring a local guide at Latacunga. Also, since few services and facilities are available, hikers should always carry enough water and food for the day, as well as cash to last the entire traverse. Budget accommodation is available at the bigger villages of Sigchos, Isinlivi, Chugchilan and Quilotoa. These accommodations typically provide free wi-fi, breakfast and hot water showers as well.
Our Journey: The Reverse Traverse (South to North)
Unlike the common hiker who would probably choose to do the traverse from Sigchos to Quilotoa and then ending at the highlight – the Quilotoa crater – we chose to do the loop in reverse, in this order:
Quilotoa (including crater) –> Chugchilan –> Isinlivi –> Sigchos
We chose to do the traverse in this direction because we were still aching really badly from our Pasochoa Trek. It also gave us the option of just doing a day trek around Quilotoa if things got real bad and we decided to give up after the first day. LOL. Looking back, that was probably the best choice we made for this trek, because we faced little pressure and were able to enjoy the hike at a more leisurely pace. On hindsight, we also realised that there are so many other benefits of doing the trek backwards! Here are a couple:
- You will never miss the highlight of the trek (the Quilotoa Crater) because that’s the first thing you’ll see! 😊
- You will focus more on other beautiful sceneries along the trek, instead of being fixated on reaching the end point and missing out on these little treats along the way…
- If something bad happens along the way (e.g. you slip and break your leg, or get lost – which is highly likely), you wouldn’t feel so bummed that you had to end your trek early.
- When you meet other trekkers who are headed past you in the opposite direction (since they are going on the trek the conventional way), you get assurance that you are on the right track (which is very important on this trek). Plus, you get to ask for directions too!
- You don’t have to hike up the slippery and steep sides of the volcano on the last day, and though the traverse would entail uphill and downhill climbs, there is a general decrease in elevation from Quilotoa (3914m) to Sigchos (2800m).
- You will definitely get a seat on the bus back to Latacunga from Sigchos, as not many people will be on the bus anyway.
So… have we convinced you yet? 🙂
Getting to Quilotoa
From Machachi, we took a public bus to Latacunga (it cost USD1.50 per pax for a one hour ride). At Latacunga, we spent the night at Hotel Central – fantastic location and service for just USD 20 per night for a room with a private bath. We left our big backpacks there for free and took just what we needed for the trek – the owner of the hotel was very kind to let us use her space even though we would not be returning to stay after the trek! The only downside was that the hot water shower was not working (the water was ultra cold… brrr) and it was quite noisy at night due to the hotel’s central location. No complaints though – at this price, this was a steal!
Address: Sanchez de Orellana y Padre Salecedo, Latacunga 050150, Ecuador
The next day, we took the 8 am bus to Quilotoa from the central bus station. It took us 2 hours and cost us USD 2 per pax (As a guide, for public bus fares, every hour on the bus equates to about USD 1). The buses from Latacunga to Quilotoa depart once every 2 hours, starting from 6 am. Taking the public bus and doing the traverse on your own saves you a lot of money. We budgeted USD 100 for 2 pax for accommodation, food and transport for the entire traverse, but ended up spending way less than that. 🙂
Anyway, here are the highlights of our 3D2N trek (complete with pictures!!) 🙂
Day One: Quilotoa to Chugchilan
When we arrived at Quilotoa, we walked for 10 minutes and reached the highlight of the trek – the Quilotoa Crater Lake. The lake was formed after the crater of Volcan Quilotoa collapsed.
The lake was absolutely breathtaking. It was the first crater lake that I had seen and it was nothing short of spectacular.
We stayed at the lake for about 30 minutes before starting our 6 hour hike to Chugchilan, our rest stop for the night. The trail to Chugchilan is not well marked – you are bound to get lost at some point along the way. Anyway, we started our trek by making some cute furry friends – a feisty puppy that charged at some alpacas to bark at them, only to whimper and run to us when the alpacas started walking towards it! Lol. 😊
We followed the main dirt road and our keen sense of direction – or so we thought – and ended up completely lost. A kind local lady pointed us to the right path, before an elderly man suddenly appeared out of nowhere and offered to take us back to the right route. We climbed back up to the crater lake (it was SUPER tough), and walked for about another 10 minutes before the elderly man came to an abrupt stop, and demanded USD 20 from each of us! We were appalled because we had thought that he was a kind Samaritan who was just helping us find our way! We vehemently refused and he immediately blocked the path, refusing to let us cross. So Y sat down and refused to budge. He finally gave in, but not before scooting off with a good portion of our snack stash 😦
After what we would consider a bad start to the trek, we started our descent down the steep sides of the Quilotoa Volcano. The paths were formed by loose volcanic sand and there were LOTS of sandflies. The trek was mostly downhill and interspersed with short but steep uphill climbs. Whenever we reached a fork, we would use these guidelines to choose the correct path:
- Follow path with footprints.
- If no footprints are present, follow more defined track.
- If both 1 and 2 are not discernable, descend.
It worked pretty well! We also made it a point to check with every single passer-by we met, that we were headed in the right direction, though there weren’t many passers-by in the first place. Haha.
Another tip is also to keep your eyes peeled for red markers and spray-painted signs to “Chugchilan” or “Hostel Vaquero”, which has done some pretty good advertising on stones and boulders strewn along the paths.
Anyway, here are some lovely snapshots we managed to capture along the way.
Halfway through the trek, J suddenly yelped and jumped back. Apparently, he saw something brown moving in the bushes and had thought that it was a bear. Lol! Turns out it was just a harmless horse grazing. What a wimp. – ___ –
After about 3 hours, we reached our first village – Guayama Grande.
We then descended to a beautiful valley. J had intended to walk along the valley floor to take a short cut (horror of horrors) but obviously this was not a good idea – if it rains, the water levels will rise very quickly and there will be no way to escape since you are surrounded by steep valley walls! Plus, there is the danger of rock falls! (Till today, I remind him to thank me for saving his life. 🙂 )
We continued walking and reached La Moya Village, where we saw huge agricultural fields with rotating sprinklers and grazing livestock. We had a fun Super Mario moment trying to evade the sprinklers 😊
We also quickly learnt that children in the village are very friendly, and will greet any tourists they see along the way. Often, they would come up to us and ask for chocolate or money. We even had a child asking us for alcohol (What!?!). Sometimes, the children would say, “Photo?” and, in return, ask for money. It is up to you how you wish to respond, but we prefer to be friendly and not oblige.
After what seemed like eternity, we finally saw a town at the end of the uphill climb! We had finally reached Chugchilan! *throws confetti in the air* 🙂
We hadn’t made any prior bookings for accommodation, so we decided to give Hostal El Vaquero a try, since their painted signs helped us find our way to Chugchilan anyway. Haha.
For USD 20 per pax, we had a bedroom with private bath (and hot water – A MUST after a long day trekking and the cold weather!), dinner and breakfast for the next day. The hostel was very clean and well-kept – and though the wi-fi was not working and the water wasn’t that hot… we didn’t really care! Service was excellent and it was worth every penny.
We also loved how manicured and well-kept the gardens were. There were hammocks which would have been perfect for summer, but the weather was just freezing cold so we decided to give that a miss and head for the fireplace at the lounge area instead. ❤
Address: Barrio Goteras (from the church of Chugchilan, follow up until “Mi Buen Pan” and take the left way for 3-4 min) Chugchilan CE05040, Ecuador
Weather-wise, we were very blessed, as the moment we reached the hostel at about 4 pm, it started to rain and the fog started coming in, greatly reducing visibility. As we turned around to look for the path we had just walked, it was no longer visible (Eek!).
Day Two: Chugchilan to Isinlivi
Figuring that the worst was over and that we wouldn’t get lost (again), we started our day a little later at about 9am. We had read from other travel blogs that the trek on the 2nd day would be much easier than the 1st, with just about 4 to 6 hours of hiking. Plus, the hostel owner had given us very clear directions and instructions! With all these in place, what were the odds of getting lost again, right? Boy… were we wrong.
The 2nd day turned out to be worse than the first. We got lost THRICE, and ended up taking 8 hours for what would otherwise have been a 5 hour trek. LOL. Needless to say, we were tired and hungry, because I overestimated our navigation skills and decided to be generous by distributing snacks to some cute village children along the way. Greatest mistake of my life.
Anyway, let’s focus on the positive things. Not surprisingly, the scenery was so beautiful… we were rewarded with breathtaking views of interlocking spurs, valleys, rivers, chalk cliffs and lots of animals!
Here are some highlights of our journey:
The experience was enjoyable on the whole, but we also had quite a few harrowing experiences along the way:
- As mentioned, we got lost thrice. Each time either of us came to the realisation that we were *probably* lost, our conversation went like this:
J: I think we are lost.
Y: I think so too.
*Awkward pause for 3 seconds.*
*Look at each other blankly, look at the sky, look at the ground, look around……*
- We had to walk very precariously on a log bridge without hand support to cross a fast flowing river. Just reliving this experience makes my heart pound like crazy.
- We had to walk through mud flats and earth walls as tall as me (that’s 1.6m).
- A snake dropped in front of me, looked at me, and slithered away before I could react. LOL why does this sound so funny now!?
- And the ultimate life-threatening experience…
WE CAME FACE TO FACE WITH A BULL. A FREAKING HUGE-ASS BULL.
Anyway, here’s the story. We had finished climbing up a steep slope and walking through disgusting mudflats. Just as I thought the toughest part was over, J, who was in front of me, stopped dead in his tracks.
J: Guess what.
Y: *In an irritated voice ‘cos I was super tired* What.
J: There is a cow in front of me blocking the way. It’s looking at me.
Y: *Instantly perks up and takes out iPhone* Oh wow! *snaps a few photos*
J: What shall I do? Walk past it? (Note: There was no other way – barbed wire on one side, steep valley walls on the other, path was super narrow…)
Y: *Finally finishes snapping some pictures and starts to examine said cow* Hmm… this cow looks angry. It is an angry cow. It is looking at you…
And HERE COMES THE MOST RIDICULOUS CONVERSATION EVER.
J: *Turns to face the cow* Hola! I come in peace, please let me pass. *Cow continues glaring and starts to SNORT*
Y: *Senses danger* I think we are in a dangerous situation. We need help! *Screams* Senor! Hola! Moo! Moo! (Because my Spanish sucks)
Thankfully, a villager heard us and shouted back in Spanish, but we had absolutely zilch idea what she was trying to say.
Y: *Repeats screams for help at least 70,000 times more*
Finally, the villager walked over, peeped through the barbed wire and bushes and got a shock upon seeing the cow. She beckoned us to step back and used a stick to drive the cow back upslope.
The cow turned… and FLASHED ITS BALLS.
HOLY COW, IT WAS A BULL!!!!!!!!!!
We were absolutely shocked beyond words. Thank God our lives were spared. The villager shouted at the bull and it moved an inch upslope every… 3 minutes. Half an hour later, a male villager appeared and saved the day.
Well… the hike thereafter was very easy. On hindsight, this was probably the most memorable part of our hike. Haha.
For the second night, we stayed at Hostal Taita Cristobal, which had wifi, dinner and breakfast, complete with an en-suite bath with hot shower. The lounging area was also very cosy, and we made friends with a French couple. The one-night stay (plus food) cost us USD 15 per pax.
Address: Isinliví, General Morales, Isinlivi 050752, Ecuador
Day Three: Isinlivi to Sigchos
On our third and final day of the traverse, we started out early at about 8 am. I had a bad bout of nausea and diarrhea and wanted to pace myself, plus we did not want to miss the afternoon bus to Latacunga. We were told that the route would be pretty easy and take us just about 4 hours, but we were skeptical given the previous day’s experience. Haha.
For this part of the trek, the footpaths and main vehicular path converge at 3 points. Both offer stunning views of the valleys. Since we had too much at stake, we decided to err on the side of caution and follow the vehicular path. Anyway, though it was supposed to be a vehicular path, we only saw about one vehicle every 20 minutes.
The trail was mostly downhill, with 2 steep ascents towards the end point. We took the footpath on the last 1/3 of the trail because we saw a clear sign reading ‘Sigchos’ (like a proper sign, finally!) and many villagers and school children using this route. We double checked with passers-by like a gazillion times to make sure we were on the right track. Haha.
Here are the stunning views of day 3:
We eventually reached Sigchos after 3.5 hours of trekking. Hurray to not getting lost! 😊
If we were to do day 3 again, we would still take the vehicular path. Here are some compelling reasons:
- You will never get lost
- Slopes are gentler (though route is slightly longer)
- Offers the possibility of hitch-hiking if you really get lost
- Lots of villagers along the way to ask directions
- No flies, mosquitoes and scratches from thorny shrubs
- No horse and cow dung (which are EVERYWHERE on the walking paths)
- Roads are elevated, offering stunning views of the valley!
Have we convinced you yet? 😊
So… that concludes our experience on the Quilotoa Traverse. The experience was so amazing and allowed us to get up close and personal with a part of the Ecuadorian Andes that is still in its ‘raw’ form, and untouched by tourism!
As promised, here is a step-by-step photo guide if you intend to do this traverse on your own.
Step-by-Step Photo Guide for Trek from Quilotoa to Sigchos
Day One: Quilotoa to Chugchilan
- From the crater lake viewpoint (mirador), keep walking along the perimeter of the crater in a clockwise direction until you have reached the point directly opposite where you first started (halfway around the crater). You would have had to walk uphill and downhill for about 15 to 20 minutes to get to this point, as the lake is deceptively huge.
- Keep walking until you come to this sign that is situated right in front of an upward slope.
- Walk uphill until you see a large sandy path. You would have passed several sandy patches along the way, but to be sure you are at the right one – this appears after the ‘Chugchilan’ sign and there should be a huge slab of rock with horizontal striations on your left.
- Start your descent here, and continue following the track.
- When you reach the first fork, take the track on the left. You will continue descending.
- Keep descending while keeping an eye out for red markers and signs that read ‘Chugchilan’ and ‘Hostel Vaquero’. Follow the signs.
- Upon reaching Guayama Village, follow the vehicular path and look out for signs. The paths here are clearly marked.
- Continue downhill until you reach the bottom of a valley with a river flowing through.
- Cross the river to reach the other side of the valley, and start ascending the hill. Do not walk on the valley floor.
- Continue uphill till you reach La Moya village.
- Follow the well-defined track from La Moya Village and look out for more red signs to Chugchilan.
- Once you reach the foot of another valley, it is time to ascend. Keep following the road until you see this ‘white house’ and some weird looking scarecrows.
- From here, it is a straightforward 20 minute ascent along the well-defined path until you reach Chugchilan! 😊
Day Two: Chugchilan to Isinlivi
- From Hostel El Vaquero, make a right and follow the vehicular road. You will pass by many houses, a market, and other hostels along the way.
- The small vehicular road you are on leads to a wider vehicular road that goes towards Sigchos. Walk along this road for about 2 km.
- After the road bends to the left, you will see a white house on your right (Note that in the picture it appears on the left because we actually missed it and were walking back). Right behind this house is a dirt path which descends. You will see the sign ‘Isinlivi’ painted very inconspicuously in yellow, on a lamp post behind the white house. Follow this dirt road.
- Continue walking on the main path. Ignore all small lanes that branch out from this path. You will pass by white chalk cliffs along the way.
- Keep going until you reach a fork in the road. You will see the number 19 painted on a rock. Next to it are two paths – a cobbled path going upwards and another route on the left of the cobbled path, which descends. The upward path leads to a mirador with beautiful views of the valley. It takes only a minute to reach the mirador. After you view the mirador, take the descending path to continue your journey to Isinlivi.
- After some time, you will reach a school. Walk past the school and follow the main path.
- The road eventually leads you to a river. Continue walking along the river bank.
- You will pass by a first bridge that looks clean and nice. DO NOT cross it. Keep walking along the river bank.
- When you come to the 2nd bridge made of a simple wooden log, cross it. At the end of the bridge, turn left and continue walking on the path along the river bank.
- The path eventually leads you to an open meadow. If you look closely, there is a faint path that lets you cross the meadow diagonally to the left. Follow it.
- The path leads you uphill and you will be walking on the edge of the slope along a very narrow dirt path that follows the river course.
- Keep going until you see a rock on the ground on your right with yellow spray paint. Walk past it. (Note: On this trail to Isinlivi, look out for yellow markers that indicate you are on the right path).
- Follow the path till you reach a wooden gate. If the gate is closed, open it and continue walking. Do not take the small path on its right.
- Eventually the path leads you to mud flats, which you have to (unfortunately) ascend. From here, the paths get very narrow but it is clear that there is only one way up.
- After about 30 to 40 minutes of climbing, the path joins a wide vehicular road. Walk on the road. You will pass by some white chalk cliffs.
- Keep following the main road, looking out for yellow markers on the way.
- Eventually, you reach a fork with the main road going uphill, and another going left. Right before this fork is a less conspicuous dirt path on the left that descends into the valley. Take this dirt path. Note that there are no signs or markers here so you have to be careful not to miss it.
- Keep following the path till you reach a white greyish concrete bridge. Cross the bridge.
- From here, follow the road all the way uphill and you will reach Isinlivi! 😊
Day Three: Isinlivi to Sigchos
- From Hostal Tailo Cristobal, walk straight uphill until you reach the third road on the left, which is a wide vehicular road. Follow this road to the left. You will pass by a church on your right.
- You will pass by several road forks along the way, but there will always be a sign that reads and points you to Isinlivi. Head in the opposite direction since you are heading towards Sigchos.
- Look out for blue markers along the way to ensure you are on the right track.
- Eventually, you will reach a river and a concrete bridge. Cross the bridge.
- Continue walking until you see a large grey house on your right. On the left, you will see a sign that says ‘Sigchos’ and pointing towards a smaller footpath that leads away from the vehicular road. Take this path to climb up the hill.
- When you reach the top of the hill, turn right. You will come to many farms and pass by this sign.
- Keep following the path until you see a church and a sign that says ‘Sigchos’, leading to a wide dirt path up the hill. Take this path.
- At the top, you will see Sigchos. Yay, you made it! 😊
Tips for the Quilotoa Traverse
- Always wear a cap and put on sunscreen, even if it looks deceptively cloudy. Remember, you are on the equator and at an elevation of at least 3000 m. We use SPF 90+ when we hike at altitudes above 3000 m.
- Layer your clothing with a base layer, fleece jacket, puffer jacket and rain/wind jacket. If it gets warm, you can start stripping 😊
- Cover yourself well. There are fleas, mosquitoes and insects that bite. Not to mention thorny shrubs that cut you.
- Bring enough food and water. You will need it because you will get lost. As a guide, we carried 2 litres of water per person per day. Always refill at your accommodation before you leave for the day – it is tough to find water and food along the trek. It is that remote.
- Wear proper hiking shoes and socks as the paths are largely gravel paths and dirt paths, with mud flats and loose sand as well.
- Bring hiking sticks, especially if you are prone to falls like J is 😊
- Do not show your valuables at all times. The people (and children) are very sharp.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for directions.
- Bring warm clothes for the night. Even in the rooms, it can get very cold! (Scarves and beanies are highly recommended!)
- Start early, as the fog starts to come in at about 3 to 4pm.
- If you can, bring a Spanish pocket guide with you. It will come in handy as people do not speak English.
Heading back to Latacunga from Sigchos
From Sigchos, the bus to Latacunga leaves from the bus terminal at 230 pm from Mondays to Fridays, and 1230 pm & 230 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The journey takes about 2 hours and a ticket costs USD 2.30.
To get to the bus terminal, walk towards the centre of Sigchos, where you will see an outdoor sheltered sports stadium.
From there, turn left uphill, until you see a church. Walk past the church in the uphill direction.
In two blocks (cuadras) you will reach the bus station.
The Quilotoa Traverse is a beautiful trek we strongly encourage you to consider during your stay in Ecuador. It takes you away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and is not commercialised (yet!). So get up, get out and start exploring what nature has to offer! 😊
Thank you for visiting our humble travel blog! Stay tuned for our next update on the rest of our South American trip! 🙂
*This is a non-sponsored post.