Hikes to crater lakes. Up active volcanoes that loom over major metropolitans. Along dirt roads that wind through communities still unchanged by tourism. To summits less known than Everest but similarly remarkable. Hikes from trailheads you had to hitchhike to because that’s really the only reliable way to get there. And these are just a few examples of why hiking and trekking in Ecuador is so damn special.
Everyone knows Peru for its hikes through mountain ranges and Inca sites. But there are actually quite a few treks in Ecuador that ended up being my best experiences in Ecuador. The trails are less crowded and the trekking industry is still in it’s infancy, so there are more opportunities to get off the grid and have a good old fashioned adventure. Lace-up your hiking boots! Here’s some of the best hiking in Ecuador.
Nearest City: Quito // Difficulty: Moderate // Duration: 1 Day
Why go: You can summit Rucu Pichincha and be back in Quito in time for a 3 pm Pilsener.
Sitting on the Ring of Fire, Ecuador has an impressive 25 volcanoes scattered across the country. There’s even one right outside of Quito called Rucu Pichincha; it’s a still active stratovolcano that leers over the city
Hiking Instructions: Hiking Rucu Pichincha may take you to a breathtaking 4794m, but it’s surprisingly accessible. You can summit Rucu Pichincha by taking a taxi to the TeleferiQo and riding the TeleferiQo to the trailhead. From there, the trail winds to the right side of the volcano and wanders upward. While the trail that starts out well-defined and gradual eventually becomes a steep scramble up volcanic sand. It’s never technical or particularly hard to find your way, but you do need to be well acclimatized. In total, it’s 10 km and will take 3-4 hours.
Read More: Hiking Rucu Pichincha
Nearest City: Otovalo // Difficulty: Easy // Duration: 1 Day
Why Go: Laguna Cuicocha is like Laguna Quilotoa with fewer tourists.
About 3,100 years ago, Cotacachi Volcano erupted and formed a caldera 3km wide and 3,246 meters high. Over the years, a crater lake – Laguna Cuicocha – formed in the basin. It’s highly-alkaline (ie. SO VERY BLUE) and at a glance, you might mistake it forthe more famous Laguna Quilotoa. But Laguna Cuicocha has one obvious advantage: it’s far less known.
Hiking Instructions: Just 19km from Otovalo, you can hike Laguna Cuicocha as a day trip. The trail is hikeable clockwise or counterclockwise from the Visitor’s Center and depending on which route you take, you’ll either start or finish on the rim of the lake. For the times you’re not on the rim, you’ll be traveling through pastures and grassy meadows. The 12-14km hike isn’t overly strenuous but it’s packed with scenery. Take your time and watch for wildlife. This can be a great first hike in Ecuador for anyone who’s trying to acclimatize.
Read More: Hiking Laguna Cuicocha
15 WILDEST TREKS IN SOUTH AMERICA
Nearest City: Latacunga // Difficulty: Hard // Duration: 2 Days
Why go: Cotopaxi is probably the most iconic hike in Ecuador. You’ll see it long before you summit it!
Volcan Cotopaxi is the second-highest peak in Ecuador at 5,897m. Its cone shape is an iconic part of the Quito skyline, and once you’re on the trail, I think you’ll find Cotopaxi National Park is quite stunning too.
You can hike independently on other trails in Cotopaxi National Park, you’ll need a guide if you want to summit Cotopaxi. Climbing Cotopaxi doesn’t require any technical mountaineering experience, but glacier travel means it’s also not an easy hike (or one for the faint of heart).
Hiking Instructions: Once you enter to Cotopaxi National Park, you’ll drive most of the way to Refuge Jose Rivas, and hike the final stretch. It’s not quite an overnight here since you’ll start hiking just after midnight. Most operators suggest the climb takes 6-7 hours meaning most of the hike will be in darkness, but you’ll reach the summit in time for sunrise. It’s another 2-3 hours to descend.
Read more: The Hacienda Beneath Cotopaxi Volcano
Nearest City: Riobamba // Difficulty: Hard // Duration: 2 Days
Why Go: It’s one of the only high peaks in the world that many of us could reasonably hope to accomplish in our lifetime.
The most notable part of Chimborazo is that it’s 6,268 meters at its summit. By some measurements, it’s higher than all the peaks in the Himalayas, more skyward than Kilimanjaro, but it seems the world still hasn’t quite caught on to what trekking in Ecuador is all about.
But as Kevin Rushby put it best in his article for the Guardian, Chimborazo is “… just within reach of normal human beings, both physically and financially, whereas Everest, at 8,848m, is not. It is Chimborazo that ought to be famous, its praises are sung far and wide as the greatest possible challenge for that unsung hero of modern times: the amateur.”
Climbing Chimborazo is non-technical (meaning an able-bodied climber could manage), but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Since 2012, Chimborazo must be attempted with an experienced guide. You’ll need to have an ice ax and crampons. You’ll start your ascent under the dark of night. Navigate massive crevasses in the glacier to get to the summit. But the greatest challenge of all is the altitude. Acclimatization can be a real struggle, and if not taken seriously, you could be one of the climbers who get stopped short of the summit.
Hiking Instructions: The hike up Chimborazo can be done in a day, but I called it two days because you’ll need to get to your starting point ahead of time. The two main starting huts are Refuge Carrell Hut at 15,750 feet or Whymper Hut at 16,400 feet, both of which you can drive to. The route and distance will vary depending on which of the three peaks of Chimborazo you choose to summit and which approach you take. You can expect a climb of 8-9 hours and 3-4 hours to descend if you choose the two easier peaks, but the third one is much harder. Ask your guide which climb is best for your skill level.
It’s definitely the toughest trek in Ecuador, but those who have done it say there’s really nothing like standing on the top of the world.
THE QUILOTOA LOOP
Nearest City: Latacunga // Difficulty: Moderate // Duration: 4 Days
Why Go: The Quilotoa Loop is as much cultural as it is scenic with stays in locally-run hostels, agricultural plots, and tiny villages along the way.
The Quilotoa Loop is quickly becoming one of the most popular treks in Ecuador. But with 200km of hiking trails that travel through this stretch of the Ecuadorian Andes, what exactly is the Quilotoa Loop? It typically refers to a 4-day hike that starts or finishes at Laguna Quilotoa with overnights in Sigchos, Isinliví, and Chugchilan.
DAY-BY-DAY ITINERARY FOR THE QUILOTOA LOOP
Day 1: Your first day is light on hiking. Hop on the bus from Latacunga to Sigchos (2 hours) where you’ll spend the night.
Day 2: Trek the mostly easy uphill between Sigchos and Insinliví (3-4 hours). It’s not incredibly scenic as the trail alternates between dirt and paved road.
Day 3: From Insinliví to Chugchilan, start by following the stream. Eventually you’ll cross a the river, and take the steep incline on your right. Follow a paved road left the rest of the way to Chugchilan (4-6 hours). It’s quite easy to get lost, so ask for a map at your hostel and check it regularly.
Day 4: Dip into a valley and climb back up the other side. Pass through a few small towns, then take the switchbacks up the side of the Laguna Quilotoa Crater (5-6 hours). Finish with a hike along the upper rim or dip down towards the lake for a closer look (1-4 hours).
Read More: Trekking the Quilotoa Loop or Where to Stay on the Quilotoa Loop