Quilotoa: the easiest way in Ecuador to look into a volcanic crater?

Ecuador has some impressive volcanic craters. Some, such as Cotopaxi and Tungurahua – both of which I’m going to talk about later – take a bit of effort to get to. But first, a more relaxing interlude.

Not all volcanoes in Ecuador require hard physical effort for the reward of looking down into their craters. After my collapse in Ecuador’s Llanganates mountain range (as described in last week’s post), I recovered by visiting Quilotoa, a volcanic crater that last erupted in 1280 and now contains a brilliant turquoise lake (or as you Americans say, an awesome crater lake).

Staring down into Quilotoa's volcanic crater
Staring down into Quilotoa’s volcanic crater

Quilotoa is in Ecuador’s western highlands, about half a day’s drive from Quito. There’s a car park pretty much on the edge of its crater rim. All you have to do is wander 30m beyond a few souvenir stalls and there you are, peering over the edge of an ancient crater, 3km in diameter.

Locals believe that the lake is bottomless. Given that it’s a volcanic crater that may one day erupt again, then I guess you could argue this point. After all, it descends deep into the bowels of the Earth. Scientists, however, will give you a different answer – that it’s just 250m deep.

You can hire boats to paddle across the lake, but its waters are known to be highly toxic, so I wouldn’t recommend going for a swim.

To help me re-acclimatise for the rest of our trip, we decided to do a complete circuit of the crater rim. It took about 5 hours to walk around, up and down over a number of summits, including a 3,930m high point.

There is a path right the way round Quilotoa's crater rim
There is a path right the way round Quilotoa’s crater rim

The path is exposed in places, with a sheer crater wall on the inside, but the biggest hazard IMHO is the ludicrous number of stray dogs that will happily follow you all the way round if you’re not careful. I found the best way of getting rid of them was to wait on top of a summit until somebody else showed up who was nicer to the dog than I was. Since I have an eccentric habit of chasing after dogs wielding a trekking pole and shouting “piss off, Pongo” this proved to be most hikers. (Note to animal lovers: no dogs were harmed during these acts of theatre.)

After making one of the early attempts to climb Cotopaxi in 1831, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault and Colonel Hall heard stories from locals in Latacunga of a burning lake. They travelled for a day across the páramo, but were disappointed to discover no fire and brimstone rising from Quilotoa’s depths.

They accused the locals of lying to them, but there was a grain of truth in the stories. An earthquake in 1797 caused Quilotoa to emit flames and suffocating vapours that killed all of the cattle on its shores. Although it wasn’t a full scale eruption, the event would have been significant enough to leave an impression on those who witnessed it. Quite reasonably, it would have given rise to stories of a burning lake.

If you want to read more funny stories about Ecuador, don’t forget about my book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo, which is still available half price as an e-book with the paperback version coming soon.

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