15 Mar Why Visit Llullu Llama Hostel Near Quilatoa
One off-the-beaten-path destination in Ecuador that is especially popular with hikers is the Quilatoa Loop. Quilatoa, a crater lake inside a sunken volcano, is perched in the Andean mountains South of Quito. Surrounded by dramatic peaks and valleys, this corner of Ecuador is home to breath-taking views and remote, rural villages.
We put together the 45-second video below to capture some of the majesty of this area:
What is the Quilatoa Loop?
The Quilatoa Loop is a series of hiking trails from one mountain town to the next with its summit at the Quilatoa crater lake (about 3,900 meters in elevation). There are options to spend 2 to 6 days hiking the loop. Among the many hikers we met, the most common route seemed to be:
- Bus from Latacunga to Sigchos (2 hours), hike to Isinliví (3 – 4 hours) and overnight
- Hike from Isinliví to Chugchilán (4 – 6 hours) and overnight
- Hike from Chugchilán to Quilatoa Lake (4 – 6 hours) and overnight or bus back to Latacunga
- (Or the reverse of this)
Many backpackers leave some of their luggage with a hostel in Latacunga and take a smaller overnight bag on the trails so the weight is more manageable for those steep climbs.
For non-hikers, the lake can be visited with a sturdy, private vehicle or by bus from Zumbahua or Latacunga. For those arriving on foot or horseback, most hike in from the town of Chugchilán, which requires at least one overnight stay in either Chugchilán or Quilatoa itself. Doing a day trip from Isinliví to the lake and back is unfortunately not realistic unless you hire a private vehicle to take you directly ($40 one way).
Why Visit Isinliví, Ecuador
Most visitors to this tiny mountain village are hikers passing through on the Quilatoa Loop. Some hike in from either Sigchos or Chugchilán. Others catch one of two daily buses to Isinliví from Latacunga and begin their hike the following day. We were sort of an exception to the rule and just stayed put in Isinliví for three nights.
Apart from two hostels, Isinliví has a primary school, high school, church, wood-working shop, and small internet cafe. It’s a steep climb to the local cheese factory, which does offer private tours. Horse back riding and farm tours are also possible nearby. As budget travelers, touring these locally-owned places seemed very worthwhile but the prices (or the expected tip) was a bit high for our budget.
The real draw of Isinliví is simply the surroundings. It’s peaceful and gorgeously green, and there are plenty of day hikes to explore the countryside up close and personal.
Staying at Llullu Llama Hostel
Llullu Llama is the only “must stay” hostel on the Quilatoa Loop, according to most guidebooks. For most, it’s worth the extra cash to enjoy the cozy atmosphere and fill up on their hearty breakfast and dinner, which are included in the price.
When you stay at Llullu Llama, you can choose your level of comfort and privacy. Tiny, private rooms are just off the main gathering area. Lofted above is a dorm room as well as a few semi-private units that are separated by bamboo curtains. These areas share a common indoor bathroom as well as a composting toilet and hot shower across the courtyard. A short walk down the hill are several newer villas with private bathroom and fireplace, as well as a spa.
Upstairs dorm room
Villas with valley views
Newly constructed spa with hot tub and dry sauna
This hostel is particularly set up to encourage interaction among the guests. Over our three days there, we shared many interesting conversations with travelers from all over the world. The indoor and outdoor common areas are inviting, with handmade furniture carved by woodworkers from the village and wide open views of the gorgeous mountainscapes. It’s the kind of place you could simply stare out the window for hours.
Perhaps the highlight of a stay at Llullu Llama is the food. After a long day on the trails, hikers will love the three-course dinners they prepare. Every night is a little different but usually includes a hearty soup, a meat-and-potatoes-type plate, and a freshly baked dessert. In the morning, there’s a spread of home-made granola, yogurt, fruit salad, bread or pancakes, juice, and scrambled eggs. The staff are pretty well equipped to accommodate most dietary restrictions. Alcohol is available from their bar for an extra charge.
When we arrived at the end of February, the hostel was being hosted by a couple of Help Exchange volunteers from France. They were in charge of guest relations while the owner was in Quito. The remaining four staff members, local Kichwa neighbors, keep the place operating year-round. Though the accommodations are simple and privacy is limited – as with any hostel – the quality and unique atmosphere of this place is well worth a visit.
Prices at Llullu Llama (as of Feb 2016)
Dorm bed, 2 meals, and shared bath – $19
Private room, 2 meals, and shared bath – $28 single, $23 per person double
Garden cottage, 2 meals, and private bath – $39 per person double (single, triple, and quad prices also available)
Boxed lunch $6.50
Water refill – $.50 per liter
Coffee and tea – no charge
Pilsner – $2.50
Glass of house wine – $4
How to Get to Isinliví
We highly recommend starting the journey to Isinliví on a Thursday so you can stop by the Saquisili indigenous market in the morning. This is one of the largest market days still taking place in Ecuador with individual markets for livestock, clothing, furniture, produce, and more spread out over the town and vendors lining the streets. From Saquisili, take the Reina de Sigchos bus directly to Isinliví at 12pm (any other day you’ll catch a bus from Latacunga at 12:15 or 1pm). We never found good directions online for finding this bus and ended up asking a total of six people to eventually find our way. We found that the Isinliví and Sigchos buses load near Plaza Vicente Rocafuerte. (The map to the right shows the location, as well as the spot in the center of town where we were dropped off coming in from Latacunga.)
The ride is about 2 hours on mountain roads, which aren’t always paved, but the views were really impressive. The route mostly serves indigenous Ecuadorians carting goods back to their remote mountain farms.
To leave Isinliví, we caught a bus to Sigchos on Sunday at 7am and from there, we caught a bus to Latacunga. (Bus times should definitely be verified with the hostel staff as there are few buses and schedules may change.)
As mentioned previously, you can also get to Isinliví by hiking from Chugchilan (4 – 6 hours) or Sigchos (3 – 4 hours).
Hikes from Llullu Llama
There are a number of really great day hikes around Isinliví; and the hostel offers detailed, black and white maps with instructions you can take along with you. In fact, their hiking maps are so much better than any others available, it’s worth starting your Quilatoa Loop hike from Llullu Llama just so you’ll be less likely to get lost.
The afternoon that we first arrived, we had time to do the 1.4 mile Pine Forrest Loop just above town. For our big day hikes, we did the Guantaloa Loop (6.3 miles, 4 hours) and Cochalo Loop (5.9 miles).
The town of Guantaloa has a market on Monday so that’s the ideal day to go, but it’s a gorgeous hike even without the market. There was only one part of the route we were unsure of but we were able to get clarification from a young woman working nearby in her backyard/farm. As we climbed up to the pathway on the ridge above her property, we could look back over the dirt road we recently traversed and see the small village of Isinliví across the valley (view pictured above). On this particular hike, it felt as if we saw every type of rural animal possible: horses, donkeys, cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, you name it.
The Cochalo Loop took us down to a river on the valley floor and through the small village of Cochalo. The route follows the initial descent of the hike to Chugchilan and then it ascends back up on the path heading to Sigchos. This overlap allowed us to join some fellow travelers at the beginning of their journey to Chugchilan before we parted ways. As with the Guantaloa Loop, the scenery was spectacular.
When hiking in this area, it’s important to be prepared. Wear sunscreen and a jacket, bring plenty of water, don’t carry unnecessary weight, and don’t start your hike too late (rain becomes more likely in the afternoons). Occasionally you will come to a mountain road but vehicles are few and far between, so be prepared to go a long time without running into anyone. As you get closer to Quilatoa, the route is designated by paint markings, although the outer ends of the hike (Sigchos to Isinlivi, for example) may not be as well marked.
Because this is a lesser-known and out-of-the-way area of Ecuador, we really didn’t know what to expect. In the end, we came away extremely glad that we chose to make a stop in Isinlivi. As a tourist destination, it’s humble and unglamorous, yet it has a quiet and powerful natural beauty that captured our hearts. We would definitely come back, and we recommend it highly, especially to hikers.
Disclosure: Llullu Llama hostel gave us a 50% discount and free spa entry for our visit. Regardless, we have written this blog post review to share our honest, unbiased opinion.
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