Hiking in Ecuador – Laguna de Cuicocha (Otavalo)

Hiking in Ecuador – Laguna de Cuicocha (Otavalo)

After a few days of recovery from my hike up Ruca Pichincha in Quito I decided to head north to Otavalo to try some more hiking in Ecuador. Laguna de Cuicocha is a beautiful volcanic crater lake about 20 km outside of the market town of Otavalo. Many people come to Otavalo just for the famous Saturday market but there is so much more to do here than just shop.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail
Trail information

How to get there.

There is no public transport directly to the lake, at least not during these COVID times. The cheapest way to get there is to take a public bus from the bus terminal in Otavalo to Cotacachi. Buses leave every 10 – 15 minutes. This will cost you $0.35. You don’t need to go all the way to Cotacachi if you don’t want to, although it is a nice little town to explore. You can get off the bus at the main square in Quiroga and take a taxi from there to the lake. The taxis are usually pick up trucks or sometimes even bigger. It is about a 20-minute ride to the park entrance. This should cost you no more than $5, maybe $6 from Cotacachi.

At the park entrance, you will need to sign in and give them your passport number, and they will check you out when you leave. Entry to the park is free for everyone. At the time of writing the park hours were 8 am to 2 pm, although we didn’t leave until 3 pm.

I’m sure your driver will probably offer, but if not, please make sure that you arrange with him to come and pick you up later in the afternoon. There is no public transport back to town from here. Maybe during busier times you could probably share a ride with other hikers, but on the day of my visit that was not an option.

My driver, David, dropped me off at 9 am. It is supposed to be a 5 hour hike so I asked him to pick me up at 2 pm. He insisted on 3 pm instead and he was right .

What to take.

  • Water – There is a small restaurant at the entrance to the trail but don’t bank on it being open. 2 liters of water was just about perfect for me.
  • Lunch – Pack a lunch or some snack for the trail and find a beautiful spot to sit and eat.
  • Hat and sunscreen – You will be hiking during the hottest part of the day. A good hat and sunscreen are essential. There is very little shade on the trail.
  • Good walking shoes – The trail itself is not really that difficult so most people would be fine in a good pair of tennis shoes
  • Camera – Probably the one thing you don’t want to leave behind

The Trail.

Finding the start of the trail is easy. Your driver will drop you off right there, they do this all the time. There is an information center at the beginning but it was closed when I visited. The trail begins up some steps to the right of the small restaurant next to the information center. Once again, don’t rely on it being open until tourism picks up again.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail
The trail

I read a few other articles about hiking this trail before I went. The one thing most of them discussed was whether to go clockwise or counter-clockwise around the lake. Well, it looks like that problem has been solved for you now. Counter-clockwise it is. I’m not sure if it is to do with COVID regulations or not, but the park has made the trail one way now. Personally I think it’s a great idea anyway.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail, sign, one way
One way only

Once you are on the trail you would have to be really stupid to get lost. It is an easy trail to follow and not that technically difficult. The biggest thing most people will struggle with is breathing at this altitude. A lot of hiking in Ecuador is at a much higher altitude than this. This is a good hike to get acclimatized.

As the trail is a loop there are as many ups as there are downs. But the first half of the trail is where you will do most of your climbing.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail, farmland
Don’t forget to look around you.

Although you will be stopping plenty of times to catch your breath, my honest advice is to save your photos of the lake for later in the hike. Although you should not forget to look around you once in a while. The lake is the only great view out there.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail
The trail

After maybe 1 1/2 hours of hiking you will reach a couple of gazebos for a rest and some welcome shade. From this point on is when you should think about getting your camera out. The views of the lake just get better from here on out.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail
One of the few shady parts

Although you have done most of the tough climbing by now, there are still plenty of uphill stretches ahead of you. But things do get easier from here. It was at this point that I joined up with two of the three other people in the park that day. Yes, really, four people on the trail all day! COVID does have it’s benefits after all! I don’t imagine hiking in Ecuador is always this peaceful.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail
Finally some downhill

From here on, you will find multiple view points for great photo opportunities. There are also a few nice grassy areas where you can enjoy your picnic with a view. This when you realize you wasted your time taking photos earlier. Also in the midday sun, the lake appears to be much bluer in color than earlier.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail
A view worth waiting for

It was here also that I realized why my driver insisted on six hours instead of five. There was no need to rush back. We could take our time and enjoy the view with nobody else around. Hiking in Ecuador may never be this peaceful again. Take advantage of it while you can!

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail
What a view

If you are paying attention, you might even spot some cool artwork along the trail.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail
Amazing artwork

From here onwards it’s a nice relaxed walk back to where you started. Take your time and enjoy the views while you can.

hiking, Ecuador, Otavalo, Cuicocha lake , volcano, hiking trail
Homeward bound

We finally arrived back at our starting point at 2.45 pm. We easily could have done it in the recommended five hours. But why hurry? When you are lucky enough to have an amazing place like this to yourself, take your time and enjoy it. And the best part about hiking in Ecuador is that you can go for six hours safely without wearing a facemask!

The couple I hiked with hadn’t arranged for a ride back to town. They were quite relieved that I had and offered to share. Our ride showed up exactly at 3 pm as arranged. 30 minutes and $6 later we were back in Cotocachi. Although Cotocachi is a pretty little town to visit, it was lacking in good places to get a cold beer!

30 minutes and another $0.35 later I was back in Otavalo and ready for a nap. I stayed at the wonderful Hostal La Rosa just a few blocks from the bus station and the center of town. With friendly staff and rates as low as $10 a night it was an absolute bargain. I recommend you check it out when visiting Otavalo.

Laguna de Cuicocha, Otavalo, Ecuador

After another great day of hiking in Ecuador, I can’t wait to do more. let me know how you liked this hike, or if you have any other great recommendations for me.

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