Cuicocha Crater: all you need to know for the best hike in Ecuador

There are some opportunities that are just too good to pass up when travelling, and hiking around the rim of a volcanic crater is one of them. When visiting the markets of Otavalo, a trip out to Cuicocha Crater is a must do for a short day trip.

This guide will tell you what Cuicocha Crater, otherwise known as Laguna Cuichocha, is, how to get there, and everything you need to complete the five-hour hike. Let’s dig in!

I’m a huge fan of hiking. Well, correction, I’m a huge fan of FINISHING hiking. It’s one of those sports where once you get past the halfway point you have no choice but to finish it — ideal.

In saying that, this is one hike that really blew my sweaty socks off. Laguna Cuicocha is a remnant of a volcanic era, when the three kilometre across crater filled with water. What makes Cuicocha particularly spectacular is the two islands that formed in the centre; they formed from resurgent volcanos and are nicknamed the Guinea Pig Islands. Whether it’s because they look a little like two guinea pigs, or because guinea pigs used to live on the islands, no one knows — but they are pretty cute.

Views like this? Yes please. Cuicocha Crater delivers.

The 14-kilometre hike primarily runs around the rim of the crater on a track of rugged slopes. On one side you’ll have views of the stunning crater filled with aquamarine water, on the other bountiful meadows and views that stretch across villages all the way to Cotopaxi volcano.

Convinced that going to Cuicocha Crater is a great idea? We were too! Here’s what you need to know to hike Laguna Cuicocha.

How to get to Cuicocha Crater

Laguna Cuicocha is located in the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve, just a short drive from Otavalo. Once you’ve seen all the Otavalo Market scene has to offer, and checked out the nearby waterfall, a trip to Cuicocha Laguna will complete your time in Otavalo.

Laguna Cuicocha is located about a half-hour drive from Otavalo. If you’re looking to pinch your pennies you can hop on a bus at the Otavalo Terminal for $0.35 until you get to Cuicocha. Then, take a taxi for around $5 USD. The trip will take around an hour total.

We decided to take an easier route. We were lucky enough to meet a nice taxi driver, Fausto, on our first night in Otavalo who offered to take us for a flat $10 USD fare. We were picked up directly from our hotel, dropped directly at the crater, and were able to organise a pick-up for when we finished the walk. For an extra $4.30 USD more than the bus, this seemed well-worth it for us.

Want to get in contact with Fausto, our taxi driver? WhatsApp him on +593 99 517 8303.

It’s also smart to organise a taxi driver for your trip back to Otavalo or Cuicocha: while sometimes there are taxis hanging around, it’s a chance you don’t want to take. We organised Fausto to pick us up after five hours and the timimg worked perfectly.

When you arrive at Laguna Cuicocha

As you drive towards the entrance you’ll be given a clipboard by a park ranger requesting your name, passport number, and nationality. Pay attention here: the start of the walk is at this point, on your right-hand side. A few hundred metres down the road is a visitor centre, restaurant, some viewpoints, and boat rental. We wandered this area for almost half an hour before a kind ranger pointed us to the start of the walk.

During the hike around Laguna Cuicocha you’ll hike up about 1000 metres — whew!

If you need any extra water, snacks, or anything else now is your time. The walk is virtually empty, and there are zero vendors along the walk.

How long does the hike around Laguna Cuicocha take?

This is a pretty long walk, clocking in at about 14 kilometres. Plan to spend around 3.5-5 hours doing the entire trek, depending on how often you’ll stop.

Clockwise or counter-clockwise around Laguna Cuicocha?

We read a lot of confusing reports about whether you should do the Laguna Cuichocha loop clockwise, or counter-clockwise.

After completing the walk, we can clear this up: you should only do the loop counter-clockwise. This is the official start-point. To do the loop clockwise, you need to pass a very big sign that says ‘No Entry’ and ‘Do Not Enter’.

What to expect on the Laguna Cuicocha trail

Alright, you’re geared up, weighed down with water, and ready to take a breathtaking hike. Let’s go!

There’s good news: the start of the hike is undoubtedly the most challenging — but that means you can get it over and done with early!

You’ll begin with a relatively steep incline with quite a few steps. Let yourself be distracted by the incredible views to take your mind of the pain in your thighs. On your right-hand-side is stretching views of the greenest meadows, quaintest villages, and a huge volcano. Swing your head to the left and you see the bluest water of Cuichocha Lake, the two guinea-pig shapes islands, and stunning natural scenery.

I’ll be honest: the views on either side of Cuicocha Crater are amazing.

Many people just walk these first few kilometres and then turn back, so there are plenty of great photo opportunities and places to sit and take a break. Keep an eye out for some magnificent birds!

Once your lungs are burning and you’ve climbed upwards, you’ll be fooled into thinking you haven’t reached the highest point yet. Lucky you, the path doesn’t keep climbing, but instead swerves around the steepest incline and takes you around the back.

Lunch with a view.

Around the halfway mark there are two cute shelters with some seating. We found the first one had the nicest view of the lake. Once your bellies are full and you’re back on the road the trail changes dramatically. First, rainforest with a lot of up-and-down on the way. Later, as you get closer to the end, you’re trekking through farmland and your views of Laguna Cuicocha return.

Our favourite part of the walk was when we walked past a run-down stone shed. Curiosity persuaded us to peek inside — where a whole stack of pigs (piglets?) were!

What to bring on a hike to Laguna Cuicocha

On a hike like this it’s super important to be prepared. Here’s a checklist just for you:

  • Water (at least 1.5L per person)
  • Rainproof gear — the weather in Ecuador loves unexpected changes
  • Lunch and snacks
  • Camera, for those amazing views
  • First-aid kit and any medications
  • Sunscreen, for that brutal equator sun
  • Bug spray, for some particularly vicious bugs along the path

How much is it to enter the Laguna Cuicocha National Park?

Free, free, free. Our favourite price! There is absolutely no fee for this trip, except the taxi ride.

Laguna Cuicocha is one of the best walks in Ecuador.

How fit do you need to be for the Cuicocha Crate hike?

If the idea of five hours and fourteen kilometres is scaring you, don’t let it. You need a reasonable level of fitness for this walk, but we’ve been stuffing our faces with arepas for a long time and are only in basic shape. You can also take as many breaks as you need (just pretend you really want another photo of the lake and catch your breath).

Is the Cuicocha Crater hike worth it?

Two words: hell. yes. This hike is still one of the best-kept secrets of Ecuador. During our five hours we only saw three other small groups. For the majority of the trek it’s just you and views.

Have you done the Laguna Cuicocha hike? How did you find it? Let us know in the comments below!

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