When visiting Ecuador, it’s easy to spend all your time in the Amazon rainforest or lounging on the pristine beaches. Not making time for the Quilotoa Loop, however, would be a mistake. A bumpy, rocky route that leads through the mountainous backcountry, the trail offers spectacular views of the Andes, intimate encounters with indigenous villagers, and a total immersion in nature.

While the trail is considered relatively safe and easy, here’s what you need to know to prepare.

Photo Credit: crosby_cj

Have a Plan. Or Don’t.

Depending on your personality, you either want to plan everything out or go with the flow. If you have limited time in Ecuador, adopt the former mindset. The Loop is captivating and can easily suck you in. You can actually see many of the big sites within two days alternating buses and hiking at a decent pace. Transportation can be a little spotty, however, so you have to anticipate how much time you’ll want to spend at each spot. It’s also suggested that you either hire a local guide or take as much public transportation as possible, because it’s extremely easy to get lost.

If time is on your side, throw the plan out the window. Many backpackers spend up to two weeks wandering the trail, finding new villages to explore. Regardless of your time frame, make sure you take the segment from Chugchillan to Quilotoa to visit the famous crater lake, Laguna Quilotoa. This is one site you can’t afford to miss. For some hikers’ itineraries, look here and here.

Photo Credit: Magda & Maciej on Flickr

Pack Appropriately

To do the Loop, you’ll want to leave your big backpack at home. Even if you’re gone for a few days, you really just need a daypack. Bring a couple changes of clothes (one warm set for the evenings), rain gear, hiking boots, pants, and a few layers — it gets cold up there! The rainy season in Ecuador runs loosely from October to May, and it will often be wetter and colder the higher you go. You can leave your sleeping bag with your backpack, by the way. You’ll mostly be staying in small hostels, which usually have warm beds and fireplaces.

Extremely important: bring cash. Remote villages in the Andes don’t have ATMs. Come up with a daily budget, and be sure to add some emergency funds, which we’ll get to in a minute.

Photo Credit: llullullama.com

Where to Stay

There are four main villages on the Loop: Insinlivi, Chugchillan, Quilotoa, and Tigua. Each one has plenty of hostels to stay at, ranging from $10 - $30 per night, you really just have to shop around or take what’s available once you arrive. Most include breakfast and dinner, and some will even send you off with lunch. Llullu Llama in Isinlivi is an excellent example of Ecuadorian hospitality and borders on a luxe backpacking experience in the Andes.

Hostels may be a place to lay your head, but they’re also vital to helping you figure out where you are and where you're heading next. Most have maps for backpackers, but they're usually somewhat dated. Be sure to talk at length with the locals and fellow travelers to get oriented before heading out.

Photo Credit: Amandine via littlebigexplorations.com

Show Respect

The Quilotoa Loop offers intimate interactions with the indigenous people who call this place home. While most of the villagers are friendly and accommodating, they will react like anyone elsewhere in the world to a camera pointed in their face: none too pleased.

Be sure to ask permission before you start snapping. It’s likely most will oblige and regard you with curiosity. Use this time to practice all that Kichwa you learned in college. It’s also common for them to ask for a dollar after an exchange with you, especially if they think they did you a favor. Children often ask for candies, if you have any. However you choose to handle this situation, always remain respectful.