Some 90km west of Latacunga and the Panamericana, in one of the most beautiful parts of the Andes, the isolated Laguna Quilotoa is a spectacular emerald-coloured crater lake. It’s most directly approached along the road from Latacunga to Quevedo, via the villages of Pujilí, Tigua and Zumbahua. Once there, you can take a different route back, heading north to the villages of Chugchilán and Sigchos, then southeast to rejoin the Panamericana near the market village of Saquisilí. This route – totalling around 200km – often referred to as the Quilotoa loop or the Quilotoa circuit, can just as easily be done in the opposite direction to that described below. If you can, try to time your stay in Zumbahua with the Saturday-morning market, one of the most fascinating in the sierra, or one of the major Catholic festivals like Epiphany or Corpus Christi; both are wonderful spectacles.
You’ll find accommodation in Tigua, Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Chugchilán and Sigchos, but most of it is pretty basic, with the main exceptions of Tigua and Chugchilán. If you want to sleep in the simpler places, particularly at Quilotoa at 3850m, a warm sleeping bag is a welcome bonus as it gets very cold at night. Count on spending a minimum of two days to do this route; it’s much better to take three or more nights if you want to do it at a more relaxing pace, which will also give you time to explore the magnificent countryside with hikes or horse rides. If you are driving around the loop in your own vehicle, there are filling stations in Sigchos and Zumbahua stocking extra and diesel.
About 11km beyond Tigua, a side road leads downhill to ZUMBAHUA (3500m), a small village set about half a kilometre north of the Latacunga–Quevedo road; if your bus is continuing to Quevedo, get off here and walk for five minutes or so down to the village. It’s a poor place, with muddy, potholed streets, tin-roofed houses and dust blowing about, but the setting is spectacular thanks to the backdrop of sharp peaks covered with chequered fields. Zumbahua’s large central square looks desolate and empty through the week, but on Saturdays is crammed with traders, buyers and produce to make it one of the most enjoyable and colourful markets in the sierra. Among the piles of potatoes and beans, you may see freshly chopped sheep’s heads (along with various other parts of their anatomy), used to make soup that’s often prepared at the makeshift stalls. Other curiosities include a row of barbers and a cluster of tailors who mend clothes on old-fashioned sewing machines.
The best of a selection of cheap and basic hotels is the Cóndor Matzi (t03/2814611; under $10) on the square. It’s got a hot-water shower and small, tidy rooms with bunks and clean linen, and kitchen facilities, but has a slightly abandoned feel to it. If no one’s there to let you in, ask around in the village for the key. Just round the corner, Oro Verde (under $10) has simple rooms with no-frills en-suite bathrooms (with unreliable hot water) and a simple restaurant. A few doors along, Richard (under $10) has basic dorm rooms and one double with concrete floors, and decent hot showers inside and out back. Apart from the hotels mentioned above, there are a couple of very basic restaurants just off the square. The Andinatel phone office is near the church.
There are several daily buses to Quilotoa (last one leaves 1–2pm), or locals will take you there by camioneta for about $5 – just ask around on the square, or in your hotel. The four-hour, ten-kilometre hike to the lake became less attractive after the road was paved, but guides are available from Cóndor Matzi for more interesting páramo hikes.