Sigchos – Insinlivi – Chugchilan – Quilotoa
- Total distance: 21.5 miles
- Total ascent: 7,059 ft.
- Maximum elevation: 12,777 ft.
My last week in Ecuador brought me new “adopted parents,” insight into new muscles, numerous daylong pets and a greater awareness into life in the Ecuadorian Andes.
During my last few days on the coast, I was debating between spending time in the Amazon and venturing on a three day trek in the mountains. You can guess which option won. Three busses and 11 hours later I arrived in Latacunga—the jumping off point for the Quilotoa Loop. Blogs informed me that Hostel Tiana was my best bet. Not only was it a clean, organized hostel with an included breakfast, but it was a prime location to store bags for guests embarking on the multiday trek at $1/day ($1.50/day for non-guests).
Exhausted from the long day, I walked down to the common space in the backyard. After flipping through a magazine, I heard a “Have you done some hiking around here?” directed at me. Looking up, I saw a couple on electronics presumably planning out their next few days. The rest is history. Kate, Cory and I chatted for a bit, exchanging stories and playing around with the idea of doing the Quilotoa Loop hike together. The incredibly fun couple is in their early 40s, met in Minneapolis but most recently lived in Dallas, and decided to give it all up—literally—to travel for five years. Talk about inspiration to chase your dreams no matter the circumstances, commitments and society’s perception of “life path.” We met at breakfast the next morning and officially decided to join forces.
Day 1: Sigchos to Insinlivi
- Time: 4 hours
- Distance: 10.7 km/6.7 miles
- Ascent: 498 m/1,632 ft.
- Descent: 441 m/1,446 ft.
- Max. Elevation: 2,944 m/9,658 ft.
We taxi’d over to the Latacunga bus station, waited 30 minutes for the nearby grocery store to open and eventually hopped onto a bus headed to Sigchos. I unapologetically convinced them of hiking the loop in the “opposite” direction. A blog noted the advantages of going north to south, with the biggest being rewarded after three days with the Quilotoa crater after three days of hiking. Made sense to me. Going from the bustling city to crisp mountains gave me a breath of fresh air. While Cory got the best view being on the left side of the bus, we all had to endure the pain of the infamous Blockbuster Marine at full blast—a common occurance of any Colombian or Ecuadorian bus ride. It was a great way to wake up at 10 a.m. but also quite the contrast against the awe-inspiring Andes. We finally arrived and busted out our directions from Hostel Tiana to start the trek.
But the instructions weren’t quite as straightforward as needed. Wandering the town, we finally made it to the ‘bottom right corner’ and found the appropriate trail. The hike went through farms and houses, along creeks and past cows, all the while following mysterious yellow markers. At one point we started the trek up out of the canyon, but were directed in the opposite direction by an Andean woman who owned the property. She ended up telling us to follow the path guarded by a donkey and a few bulls, but a steep incline and multiple switchbacks later, we finally arrived at the road that would leave us to our destination: Insinlivi.
That night, we stayed at Hostel Llullu Llama. Before leaving for the trip in October I was writing back and forth with the owner about volunteering there through Workaway. She wanted me there for six weeks, which seemed like a long commitment, so I declined the offer but was excited to now check it out as a guest. Kate, Cory and I had the entire hostel to ourselves and it was magical. It felt like a retreat and just what we needed after our first day out on the trails. First though, beer time and hanging out with the hostel’s Saint Bernard, Balu, and two llamas. The $18 included a three-course dinner and after our purchased bottle of wine later, we passed out in the loft upstairs.
Day 2: Insinlivi to Chugchilan
- Time: 4 hours
- Distance: 12.4 km/7.7 miles
- Ascent: 651 m/2,136 ft.
- Descent: 397 m/1,301 ft.
- Max Elevation: 3,197 m/10,490 ft.
We had five hours ahead of us the next day and embarked after an expansive breakfast at 8 a.m. Our group became a foursome as a dog, who we later named Perro 2, joined us for our trek. The second day brought an old Incan well house, a log crossing and an encounter with a Frenchman I met a few weeks prior in Vilcabamba. The views seemed to be getting better as time went on. We followed a river, once again got a wee bit confused given our ‘detailed’ instructions and stopped at a hosteria (whose signs a kilometer back that promised cerveza ended up lying) for a rest. We began to sense a theme when it came to the general route of these hikes. First, hike down to the bottom of the canyon. Walk along the canyon. Hike back up the canyon. The switchbacks on this day’s up-hike were a bit steeper, but shorter, and brought us to a gorgeous, indescribable overlook in the Andes.
Of our four accommodation options, we decided to stay at Hostel Cloud Forest that night in Chugchilan for $15. Once again, a three course dinner and free breakfast awaited us. We checked in around 2 p.m. and enjoyed a few hours in the hammock with a cerveza in hand. Showers were much needed and we walked to the local tienda for a few bottles of wine to pass the time before dinner. Kate and Cory asked me questions and they answered mine about how to navigate life. Words of wisdom were shared and I took away more from that conversation than they know.
Day 3: Chugchilan to Quilotoa
- Time: 5 hours
- Distance: 11.4 km/7.1 miles
- Ascent: 1003 m/3,291 ft.
- Descent: 346 m/1,136 ft.
- Max Elevation: 3,824 m/12,777 ft.
We were pleasantly surprised to have a giant pancake set in front of us at 7:30 a.m. Just what we needed for the most strenuous day yet. We left Hostel Cloud Forest and were joined by another furry follow who we named Gato (cat in Spanish). We knew this would be tough and were ready for the challenge. First, down into the Toachi Canyon and right back up. Maybe our legs were well oiled from the two days before, but this was more of a breeze than we thought. We ended up rolling past a small village and I stopped to ask about what delicacy the woman was frying. Cory and I purchased one for 0.25 cents—turns out it was a mini funnel cake. Enter smile here. After a while we started our ascent to the Quilotoa crater rim. The fact that it was the top of a crater should give you an indication of its steep change in altitude. It was long, rough and tough. While the terrain wasn’t necessarily steep itself, the switchbacks were significant enough in length and consistency to make me struggle. It took what seemed like two hours, but man, was the end result breathtaking.
We continued along the crater rim, with a few pit stops along the way due to Cory’s fear of heights, and made it to Quilotoa with a simultaneous “woo!” Bellies rumbling, we checked into a hostel recommended by a couple we met on the trail and began our search for pizza. It was quite chilly given the altitude and crater/lake effect. No wonder the Andean natives we saw had rosy, wind-ridden cheeks and layers of traditional clothing. Later that night, we spent time with the rest of our hostel crew: an Irishman with an English girlfriend, a New Yorker with a start-up, an Auzzie taking a break after law school and a softspoken Israeli girl. It was a refreshing re-entry into the backpacker world after my three weeks at a home base and made me enthusiastic about my future travels.
Our legs were beat. We toyed around with the idea of walking down to the lake and the bottom of the crater, but we decided against it after waking. After spending a few moments looking at the natural beauty from above and eating the included breakfast, I used my broken Spanish to ask a hostel worker about getting to the nearby town of Tigua. Blogs told us this was known for its paintings and we had seen the style all throughout our journey thus far. For $15 ($5/each) we jumped into the guy’s truck and took the 40-minute journey.
We ventured into the roadside buildings, or galleries, and looked at the various artisanal products. Julio Toazuiza Tigasi, the “first painter of Tigua” as he claims, was in his studio and we chatted to him about the symbolism and stories behind individual paintings. A purchase and photo later, we stood back on the side of the road to hop on a bus to Latacunga to finish our Quilotoa journey.
This hike will always be a lasting memory. Not only did I accomplish many hiking firsts and complete what felt like a right of passage to Quilotoa, but I made lasting friends that allowed me to remember the importance of relationships, intrinsic nature of conversation and why I’m doing what I’m doing.