Ecuador is one of those places you visit not realizing it offers experiences of a lifetime. I’ll admit the country never even really crossed my radar for anything besides the Galapagos Islands before my husband and I decided to embark on an adventure to those islands with Ishpingo Tours. During my preparations for our trip, I decided to stay for a month and explore the rest of the country which was definitely the right choice. Traveling from the Andes in Quito to the Galapagos Islands, through the countryside and cloud forests, into the southern coastal region, and back into the Andes, I quickly fell in love with this country and all it has to offer. While there were many moments of utter awe, there were also quite a few experiences which I’ll never forget. One of these experiences was visiting and exploring Lago Quilotoa (Quilotoa Lake). It was, simply put, one of those experiences you hope to have when you travel and I’m going to tell you all about it!
Latacunga: Gateway to Quilotoa Lake
Our journey to the town of Latacunga began from the city of Cuenca located in the highlands of Ecuador via regional bus. The ride took approximately 8 hours and it was interesting to say the least. If you decide to make it to Latacunga via bus, be prepared for many unofficial stops and don’t be afraid to try some of the food vendors will attempt to sell you. Always use your best judgement on that one. When we arrived, it was late evening and we decided to head to the town square to see what was going on!
No sooner had we turned the corner to get to the town square did we hear music, drums, and the chatter of a crowd of people. We happened to arrive to town during the Festival of Mama Negra. The festival is deeply ingrained in the culture of Latacunga and is held in honor of La Mama Negra with exuberant, colorful parades and charades all focused on La Mama Negra (Black Mother) who is attributed with saving the town. In 1742, the nearby volcano of Cotopaxi erupted and the Latacunga townspeople believed there town would assuredly be destroyed. They appealed to the Virgin of Mercy, who happens to be the patron saint of Cotopaxi volcano, and the town was spared. As a result, an annual celebration takes place in her honor and she morphed into the current rendition due to the arrival of African slaves at the time. It’s quite a lively time celebrating the salvation of the city, honoring the saint, and embracing the divergent cultures of the region including Spanish, Aymaran, Inca, Mayan, and African.
Soon after this little experience we went to bed because of our early morning wake up call to head to Quilotoa Lake.
Fun Fact: La Mama Negra is always represented by a man dressed in drag. So there’s a little gay cultural influence for ya!
Journey to Quilotoa Lake
The next day we decided to make our way to Quilotoa Lake. We rose early in the morning to arrive at the bus station since we weren’t really sure which bus we needed to use. Arriving at the bus station was like walking into a chaotic storm. We waited in one line, found it was the wrong one, and then moved on to another line. Finally, we ended up outside and a lady helped us by arguing with one of the bus drivers to figure it out. It’s important to realize the bus drivers and workers will tell you anything to get you on their bus. They aren’t really concerned whether or not you arrive to your destination as we quickly found out when we almost paid for and boarded the wrong bus. But in any case, we finally sat down on the right bus and were able to relax knowing we’d arrive at Quilotoa Lake pretty soon.
Or so we thought…
The 1.5 hour bus ride was absolutely nerve-wracking. I’ve never been on a bus going at such a high velocity in my life. Imagine going 70 or so miles per hour (over 100 kilometers per hour) around insane mountain switchbacks with no guard rails to keep the bus from going over the edge. There were even a few moments when we could feel the bus sort of lean over on two wheels. It was absolutely insane and I was really rather fearful. I remember many people (including me) on the bus were shouting at the driver to slow down but he couldn’t care any less. I suppose in some way it was good he seemed confident but I did send my husband, back in the states, a quick text expressing my love because I thought we’d go over the edge for sure. But in the end, we arrived relatively safely to Quilotoa Lake and I remember needing to sit down before we could move on…my legs were like jelly from that crazy ride.
Important to Know: It costs $2 to enter the town of Quilotoa and you should definitely remember to bring a warm jacket, head protection, and even gloves. It can get pretty cold here.
Quilotoa Lake: Lunch Time!
By the time we arrived to the town that sits at the top of Quilotoa Lake, it was lunch time. So wandered around to find a place where we could get a quick meal. In Quilotoa, many families open their homes during the day to serve food to travelers and hikers so we stopped in at one of these places to have some delicious soup. No matter the time of the year you go, it will be chilly due to the high altitude of the area. We also enjoyed a nice cup of coca leaf tea!
Travel Tip: Coca leaf tea, enjoyed by many locals in the higher altitudes of the Andes, helps with breathing. Drink this tea and breathe easier.
The View Of Quilotoa Lake:
After lunch we walked to the edge of the caldera to get the famous view of the lake and, in my opinion, this is definitely where you can take it all in and get the money shot of photos. It’s stunning and kind of hard to believe the huge lake is actually a gigantic volcano. The last time the volcano erupted was in 1280 and it left behind a 3 kilometer wide caldera (1.8 miles) which field with water creating the beautiful turquoise lake we see and enjoy today. It was one of the largest volcanic explosions in the last 1000 years! The lake, located at an elevation of about 3,900 meters (approximately 12, 975 feet), is surrounded by hiking paths including the famous Quilotoa Loop which takes 3-5 days to complete and is not for the faint of heart. Many of the trails suffer from erosion and breathing will often be a problem if you are not used to the altitude. However, if you do decide to experience Quilotoa Lake via the loop trail, it is not a backwoods hike. No need to bring camping equipment as you can stay in hostels along the way that include a meal and a hot shower for approximately $15 a night.
If you decide to hike the Quilotoa Loop I suggest you take the following common route which will take you about 3-5 days and is approximately 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) :
Latacunga > Sigchos >Isinlivi > Chugchilan > Quilotoa > Latacunga
Short Hike Down to Quilotoa Lake:
When you hang out for the view of Quilotoa Lake, you sit on the rim of the volcanic caldera. Of course, you’ll want to hike down to the actual lake proper where you can kayak, rowboat, or just hang out on the beach and relax. Below there is also a small shop where you can purchase beer and other beverages. But here’s the kicker, the hike down to the lake is fairly intense …especially if you have not adjusted to altitude yet. The hike down takes approximately 45 minutes and is a bit of a workout on your legs as you scale the 280 meter vertical escarpment (approximately 918 feet). I’ll admit the way down was a lot of work but when you arrive there is a lot to do including a really cool swing that allows you swing out over a cliff and the lake. It’s all pretty amazing to stand inside what was once a giant volcano and think about the power of nature. But don’t worry…the volcano is dormant and not likely to erupt any time soon.
Now, once you’ve enjoyed your time inside the caldera, it’s time to head back to the rim. The only way out is up and you can do this two ways. You can hire a burro to carry you up the steep paths so you don’t have to walk and tire yourself out. We actually hired burros but did not appreciate the way the handlers treated the animals. They continuously whipped the poor animals and would slap and poke them with sticks. We ended up dismounting and walking after about 2 minutes of seeing this and I reprimanded the handler. Your other option is to walk which is definitely no easy feat. It takes about 90 minutes to hike back to the rim of the caldera, it’s extremely steep, and there is tons of volcanic dust which makes it even more difficult to breathe. Couple this with the lack of oxygen and you can see how this walk is a challenge. I remember walking 10-15 meters and needing to stop to breathe while my friend encouraged me to keep going even though he could hardly breathe himself. But we made it back fine and it was definitely worth the bit of struggle. I’d simply advise you to use discretion if you plan to hike down considering the intensity of the hike back. If you have health problems, you probably should not attempt this short hike.
Travel Tip: Bring a scarf to cover your mouth and nose. It will help keep the volcanic dust out of your lungs and you’ll breathe better later.
Quilotoa Lake to Latacunga
Once we made it back to the rim of the caldera, we sat around for a bit to regain our breath and warm up a little. Even though it was cold outside, the hike was so intense that we sweated quite a lot which makes you feel colder later. Soon it was time to head back to Latacunga and rest up a bit before we explored the city for our last night there. On our way out-of-town, I stopped in a small shop to grab a cup of Canelazo to warm myself up. You can get this delicious cinnamon tea anywhere in Ecuador and make sure to always ask for a little something extra (typically an Ecuadorian version of moonshine called Puntas made of sugarcane).
*Alternatively, you could spend the night in Quilotoa. Check out these awesome hotels and hostels!
At the town’s gate, we met two women visiting from Peru but originally from Norway who were also trying to get back to Latacunga. So the five of us hired a truck to drive us back to town. I remember everyone was chatting away but I was far too tired so I sat in the very back of the truck sipping my tea and eventually fell asleep. The next thing I knew, we were back in Latacunga. All in all, I have to say this adventure is one of the highlights of my one-month stint in Ecuador. It was such an incredible experience, a challenge, and definitely something I wouldn’t do if I stuck to the typical tourist itinerary. If you are ever in the area, be sure to add this to your plans…you won’t regret it.
Want even more information about Ecuador?
Check out these travel tips for traveling through the country!
You should really consider seeing Ecuador by train… Here’s why!
No trip to Ecuador is complete without exploring Quito, here are my must-dos!
Quilotoa Lake is quite the challenge but absolutely stunning!
Are you up for the challenge?
Pin Me, Please!