A top spot on my Bucket List was Valley of the Volcanoes – Ecuador’s Quilotoa Loop. The draw was the many colorful indigenous populations and their markets, the perfect turquoise blue Quilotoa Lake, the art of the Tigua people, and the surrounding snow-capped Andean volcanoes. Get the picture? Here are a few.
The Quilotoa Loop
In the Valley of the Volcanoes – Ecuador’s Quilotoa Loop is a route around the lake’s remote back country towns off of the Pan-american Highway and into the Cotopaxi province. While we did a 1-day trip with a hired driver, many backpackers hike it in 4-5 days. You need to be in great shape to do that hike; it is off-the-beaten-track, at altitude, and can be quite cold and wet. The routes can be confusing, and you can get lost if you don’t have a guide. Don’t expect to find people on the roads to help with directions. I recommend you take a guide; they are inexpensive.
You will go through many Andean towns along the way. Each town is known for their indigenous crafts or markets.
Towns on the Quilotoa Loop
Don’t miss the Tigua paintings, painted by the Quechua Indians. Tigua is known for its stylized naive brightly colored paintings, traditionally painted on sheepskin.
Generally, the scenes include either the Cotopaxi volcano or Lake Quilotoa, or both, in a magical setting. In Tigua, there are a couple of tiny roadside stores where you can purchase paintings directly from the Quechua Indians. The paintings are also sold at many of the indigenous markets in and around Quito. Click here to view the images.
Keep your eyes open for the local living quarters on the mountainsides. Tiny 1-room mud floor straw huts house a whole family.
The Valley of the Volcanoes – Ecuador’s Quilotoa Loop passes through remote Andean villages in Ecuador, where you can see the local huts on the hillsides where the local Andean people live. You may glimpse a family herding their animals.
In Cotacachi, we learned that the elders are often asked to move out once there are children and no room left for them. Thankfully, some expats are helping with a charity that feeds the elders and offers weekly bathing and clothes washing.
Rather than doing the five hour hike around the lake, we hiked down from the rim at 13,000 feet and back up. My girlfriend and I only went part way down, while our husbands finished the hike down. Everyone had a hard time hiking back up to 13,000 feet. I thought my lungs would collapse with each step going up. If you go to the bottom, you can hire a local with a donkey to take you back to the top. Since I stopped halfway down, a donkey ride didn’t seem like an option. Low and behold …
I lucked out and stopped a local woman returning to the bottom with her donkey to pick up her next passenger. Look at the woman wearing a skirt and leather pumps and hiking up and down all day – amazing!
We took a van tour of the loop and hiked the crater lake. You can take a bus from Quito to Latachunga; there are 2 bus routes that get you around the whole loop, one to Saquisili and Sichos, and one to Zumbahua and Quilotoa. If you take the bus, make sure you understand the schedules. Schedules are tricky; transportation is infrequent, so it takes some planning. If you take the bus or hike, there are places in Latachunga to store your bags.
There are many tour operations that offer 1-day trips from Quito. They’re typically $80-$100 pp. We found a small private tour operator for $30 pp. for a minimum of 5 people. It was a personalized tour, hit all the highlights, and we were back in Quito for an early dinner.
Quick tips when visiting Quilotoa Loop
Be aware of altitude sickness – stay hydrated. The weather can change very quickly and shelter may not be nearby – be prepared for cold and rainy.
Wi-Fi hot spots, ATMs, convenience stores are rare. Plan ahead.
Plan your trip to coincide with one of the many market days. Zumbahua has a Saturday market, and Guantualo has a Monday market. They say Saquisilí’s Thursday market is not to be missed; we missed it.
Be respectful when taking pictures. We learned the hard way that the locals don’t like their picture taken. When Tom took the photo of a family with their herd, the man threw stones and sticks at the car. They feel that the tourists are intruding on their lifestyle.
However, some will gladly allow you to photograph them for a tip. This picture with the boy and his llama was taken along the loop. I did ask, and we gave him a dollar.
In summary, when exploring the Quilotoa Loop, you’ll see the natural beauty of the Andean landscapes while taking in the culture and lifestyle of various Andean communities. Make sure you are prepared, and enjoy the experience!
We spent 2 months in Ecuador – other Ecuador posts
- Why Choose Galalpagos?
- Ecuador’s Diverse and Distinct Regions
- Choosing Galapago Excursions
- Galapagos Land Accommodations
- Ecuador and Galapagos Adventure Planning
- Travel Ecuador
- Ecuador’s Andean Highlands – Part 1 – Otavalo, Ibarra
- Ecuador’s Andean Higlands – Part 2 – Cotacachi, Papallacta, Atahahaulpa