The Quilotoa Circuit

This is a popular route with visitors, yet preserves an authentic feel in the many small villages and vast expanses of open countryside. You could easily spend a few days or more hiking, horse riding, cycling, visiting indigenous markets or just relaxing.

A recommended round trip is from Latacunga to Pujilí, Tigua-Chimbacucho, Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Guayama (if walking), Chugchilán, Sigchos, Isinliví, Toacazo, Saquisilí and back to Latacunga, which can be done in two to three days by bus. Some enjoy riding on the roof for the views and thrills, but hang on tight and wrap up well.

Latacunga to Zumbahua

Along the paved road west from Latacunga to Quevedo, 15 km from the city, is
Pujilí
(population 31,000, altitude 2930 m), which has a beautiful church. There is local ceramic work at nearby
La Victoria
, a good market in Pujilí on Sunday, and a smaller one on Wednesday. Pujilí has excellent Corpus Christi celebrations.

From Pujilí the road climbs steeply to cross the western
cordillera
. Beyond the pass, it descends through high-rolling country with some lovely views. Ten kilometres from Pujilí is the
Tigua area
where the local people produce interesting crafts, such as primitivist or
naïf
paintings on leather (a form of art that started here and has spread to other parts of Cotopaxi), hand-carved wooden masks and baskets. The best-known artists are the Toaquiza family. In the village of
Tigua-Chimbacucho
, by the side of the road, is Alfredo Toaquiza's art gallery where local work can be admired and bought. You may meet some of the artists here. Visits to artisans' workshops are possible with advance notice. There are many walking trails in the area including one to Quilotoa.

The indigenous village of
Zumbahua
(regional population 15,000, altitude 3450 m) lies 500 m north of the main Latacunga-Quevedo road, 65 km from Pujilí. It has a good hospital, a petrol station and a large church with wood carvings by local artisans. It is quite sleepy for most of the week, but comes alive at weekends, festivals and on market day, Saturday. The market starts at 0600, and is only for local produce and animals, interesting and best before 1000. Friday nights involve dancing and drinking.

To the south of the Latacunga-Quevedo road lies another scenic area with small towns tucked in the valleys. Here are
Angamarca
(population 6200, altitude 3000 m) and
El Corazón
(population 8000, altitude 1600). This region receives few visitors .

Zumbahua to Sigchos

Zumbahua is the point to turn off the road to Quevedo, to continue along the Quilotoa Circuit and visit
Quilotoa crater lake
, a spectacular
volcanic crater filled by an emerald lake, part of Reserva Ecológica los Ilinizas. The crater rim (3850 m) is reached by a paved road which runs north for 12 km from Zumbahua.

Along the access road to the rim, the small community of Lago Verde Quilotoa, which caters to visitors, has sprung up. A number of the houses are basic lodgings. The limiting factor here is the lack of water, which must be trucked in. There are a number of artists in town and everyone in the village tries to sell the famous
naïf
pictures and carved wooden masks. Try to spread your business around as people in this area are very poor.

From the rim of the crater several snow-capped volcanoes can be seen in the distance. During the wet season, the best views are in the early morning. There is a 300-m drop down from the crater rim to the water. The hike down takes about 30 minutes (an hour or more to climb back up). The trail starts to the left of the parking area down a steep, canyon-like cut. You can hire a mule to ride up from the bottom of the crater, but arrange it before heading down. By the lake are a basic community-run hostel (information at
Hostal Princesa Toa
) and kayaks for rent, ask for life jackets, the water is very cold. They also have an inflatable motor boat.

Beyond Quilotoa the road is unpaved and can be quite poor at times. It is 22 km from Quilotoa to
Chugchilán
(regional population 7600, altitude 3180 m), a poor, mainly indigenous village in a beautiful setting; market day is Sunday. The area offers good trekking, horse riding and cycling. Near town are a cheese factory which welcomes visitors, a carpentry workshop, and further afield an area of nice cloud forest with good birdwatching.

Continuing north from Chugchilán the road runs through
Sigchos
(population 9400, altitude 2880 m), a somewhat larger town, also with a Sunday market. There are beautiful views of both Ilinizas from here. Sigchos is the main starting point for hiking in the Río Toachi Canyon, but this can also be done from other towns along the loop. From Sigchos a road goes north and follows the Toachi on its descent towards the town of
Las Pampas
(basic accommodation and meals, Otonga Reserve) and on to Alluriquín and Santo Domingo in the western lowlands.

Sigchos to Latacunga

Two roads connect Sigchos with Toacazo further east. The northern one is mostly paved but prone to landslides in the rainy season, further south is an older dirt road. Southeast from Sigchos along the older road is
Isinliví
(regional population 3900, altitude 2960 m), with its colourful Christmas fiestas. It is a pleasant town populated mainly by
mestizos
. There are nice hikes and bike rides in the area and a
pucará
(hill fortress) to explore. There's also a carpentry workshop to visit, and birdwatching. To the south are
Guantualó
, with an interesting Monday market, and
Malingua
(Malingua Pamba), an indigenous community where there are opportunities for volunteer work, enquire at
Hostal Llullu Llama
in Isinliví.

You can hike from Isinliví to Chugchilán, or vice versa, in about five hours and there are many other walking options. Horses can be hired for riding or carrying luggage, US$20 per horse.

The old and new roads from Sigchos join west of the town of
Toacazo
(population 7700, altitude 3060 m), at the foot of Iliniza Sur. There is an inn near town. From here there are paved roads to Saquisilí and to the Panamericana, near Lasso.

Some 16 km southwest of Lasso, and 6 km west of the Panamericana, is the important market town of
Saquisilí
(population 15,000, altitude 2920 m). Its Thursday market (0500-1400) is famous throughout Ecuador for the way in which its seven plazas and most of its streets become jam-packed with people, the great majority of them local
indígenas
with red ponchos and narrow-brimmed felt hats.

The best time to visit the market is between 0900 and 1200, polite bargaining is appropriate. The animal market is a little way out of the village and it's best to be there before 0800. There is accommodation in town and a few simple
comedores
.

Cycling around Quilotoa

This is a great area for biking and to get away from traffic, only a few sections are cobbled or rough and there is a choice of routes. Note that riding at this elevation is difficult and you should be in very good physical shape. You can make a four-day circuit or take longer to explore the beautiful surroundings along secondary roads. It's best to start on the Panamericana either from Lasso or Latacunga. On the
north
side between Toacazo and Sigchos there are two roads. The northern route is mostly paved, it hugs the canyon's edge before crossing the Río Toachi. On the older southern route via Isinliví there is a rough 4-km stretch descending from the pass at Güingopana to Isinliví, the views along this stretch are fantastic. Between Isinliví and Sigchos is another good gravel road. From the
south
the road is paved from Latacunga to Quilotoa. Along this route you can take a turn-off to the north between Pujilí and Tigua, at about 4000 m, going to Guangaje, Guantualó and Isinliví, it is good hard-packed earth. Alternatively, you can continue on the paved road to Tigua, Zumbahua, and Quilotoa. From Quilotoa to Chugchilán and on to Sigchos is mostly downhill on gravel.
Black Sheep Inn
in Chugchilán gives discounts to those travelling by bicycle.

From
Saquisilí
there are a series of little lanes which take you up to Yanaurco Alto and then either over Güingopana to Isinliví or south to Cruz Blanca near Guangaje. There's no accommodation here, but with a sleeping bag you can stay overnight in the local school.

From
Zumbahua
an interesting route goes south. Take the main road towards Quevedo, turn south at Apagua on the pass and then climb to the pass above Angamarca. There is one dip on the road at a tiny village, then it is a major descent to
Angamarca
. Along the descent is
Refugio Angamarca
and in the village you will find a very basic
pensión
on the plaza. Below Angamarca, 3 km downhill, is the village of
Shuyo
, with a small shop with rooms used by bus drivers; if you arrive early there is usually space. The road continues to
El Corazón
. From here you can freewheel down to
Moraspungo
and
Quevedo
, or continue through the mountains to
Facundo Vela
and up to Radio Loma and into
Salinas de Guaranda
. This latter route has a long tough uphill section from Facundo Vela, and sleeping bags are needed to sleep in village schools or churches.

Trekking around Quilotoa

There are ample opportunities for walking in the Quilotoa Circuit area. There are good day walks from all of the towns along the route and what makes the area special is the number of hostels even in some very small places. An interesting 'hostel-hopping' trek is described in
Trekking in Ecuador
.

Quilotoa crater lake
is reached in a few hours if walking from Tigua, Zumbahua, Chugchilán and Isinliví (a full day is required from the latter). You can walk right round the Quilotoa crater rim in about six hours; it's very beautiful, but be sure to stick to the rim and don't head down towards the lake, there are some cliffs. Inexperienced or unacclimatized trekkers may need much longer for this hike and it is not unusual to become disoriented in fog, when the path can get slippery and dangerous. Enquire locally about conditions beforehand and take a stick to fend off dogs on the road. Also be prepared for sudden changes in the weather, and begging children - consider buying their crafts instead.

Another beautiful walk is from Quilotoa to Chugchilán following the crater rim clockwise then descending to the hamlet of
Guayama
, where there are a couple of shops with basic supplies and a hostel, and continuing across the canyon of the Río Sigüi. From Guayama you can also continue to Isinliví, which can also be reached along a road from
Pilapuchín
, on the northeast side of the lake, to
Malingua
and on to
Guantualó
. It is a eight- to nine-hour walk from Quilotoa to Isinliví on either route.

Salcedo

Off the Quilotoa Circuit and 10 km south of Latacunga along the Panamericana, is Salcedo (officially San Miguel de Salcedo), with a pleasant main square. The town is known for its delicious fruit ice cream, also sold in other parts of Ecuador; give it a try (
Heladería Tiwinza
on the southbound street through town is recommended). The area is also known for its excellent
máchica
(roasted barley flour) and
pinol
(
máchica
with raw sugar and spices, which makes a nice drink prepared with milk). The Thursday and Sunday markets are authentic. San Miguel fiesta is 29 September.

From Salcedo a road goes east to Cashaloma and beyond to the northwestern edge of
Parque Nacional Los Llanganates
.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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