Laguna Cuicocha: Best Day Hike in Otavalo, Ecuador
Laguna Cuicocha is an excellent one day hike near the well-known market town Otavalo. Visit one of the most underrated crater lakes in Ecuador with our travel guide. Not only the lagoon is stunning, the hike will also help you with acclimatization as lots of Ecuadorian backpackers places lie in higher altitude.
OTAVALO: THE MARKET TOWN
Do you want to experience Otavalo in a different way?
Otavalo is not only a market town, but it's so much more. And one of the best ways how to explore this place is by hiking in the surrounding areas. High in the Andes mountains, you will find great hiking opportunities, trails, volcanoes, lakes, and amazing Ecuadorian nature.
We decided to hike to Laguna Cuicocha, just a few kilometers from Otavalo, but this is not the only attraction here, and there are many others like it.
Most of the travelers usually arrive in Otavalo, a town in northern Ecuador near borders with Colombia (read our article: Things to know before visitng Colombia), to shop around traditional markets and to take in the atmosphere of a town, where the most of locals are indigenous people.
It is also a traditional stop for those who just crossed borders from Colombia and want to get the first sense of Ecuador.
But rather than just hanging around and watching people (we had enough time for doing that anyway), we ventured a bit further and decided that Laguna Cuicocha will be a perfect place to satisfy our traveling needs.
We think it is a bit questionable, how traditional markets in Otavalo nowadays are, and we aren't sure if they didn't transform into a tourist trap, and a place where pickpocketers try their luck, but it is not our thing to judge.
In any case, every Saturday (and also Wednesday) the town fills up with groups of tourists eager to buy some (more or less) original stuff.
Generally, as we travel long-term, we were not interested in buying anything anyway (as there is no room in our backpacks), what we were more into, was hiking around the town, as the settings of Otavalo is truly picturesque and surprisingly it is still largely undiscovered - during our visit of Laguna Cuicocha we met less than 10 people on the trail.
So back to hike around Laguna Cuicocha.
The word cuicocha means in indigenous Kichwa language lake of guinea pigs, because of the shape of the islands in the middle of the lake. Well, maybe if you have a more vivid imagination that we have, you'll find it there.
Laguna Cuicocha is 3 km wide crater lake with Cotocachi volcano in the background.
Around 3100 years ago the volcano erupted massively leaving the caldera to fill up with water.
In the center of the lake are two forested islands, but people are prohibited on both.
If you would like to get closer, there is a possibility to rent a boat, but we believe that views are better from the rim above than from the water surface, but this is absolutely an option for those who cannot or don't want to walk the whole circuit.
HOW TO GET TO LAGUNA CUICOCHA
It is fairly easy to get to the lake.
From Otavalo, go to the bus terminal and take a regular public bus to Cotacachi for $0.35. The bus takes about 30 minutes with many stops along the way so the locals can jump in and jump off the bus anywhere and anytime it is convenient for them.
At the bus terminal in Cotacachi, take a taxi for $5 to Laguna Cuicocha (at first, we were asked for $6, but tried to bargain a little).
If you want to save a dollar or two for the taxi, you can get off the bus in Quiroga, approximately five minutes drive before Cotacachi, but we did not see any drivers waiting there and did not want to be stuck in Quiroga.
You can either ask a driver to wait for you at the lake (but count about additional $10 per hour), or it is better to ask him to pick you up at a certain time. We asked our driver to pick us up in five hours, and he was there on time.
Also, on the way back, he can drop you off in Quiroga and you can get on the bus to Otavalo straight away which saves you time.
We recommend pre-arranging the transport back, as taxis are not normally hanging around and there is a big chance you would have to hike out on own for several kilometers or be dependant on hitchhiking (we would go for it only during weekends or public holidays).
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Although Laguna Cuicocha lies in Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas, there is no entrance fee at the moment.
When we arrived at the park gate, we only had to sign in, and that was it.
HIKING AROUND LAGUNA CUICOCHA
The whole circuit is 14 km long and should take you anywhere from 3 to 5 hours to finish.
We are usually a bit quicker than average, but this hike took us 4 hours and 50 minutes, mainly because the weather was warm, views stunning and we took photos every now and then.
The trek starts above 3 000 meters, and the highest point in the trail is 3 512 meters.
If you plan climbing some of Ecuador's volcanoes, this is a good way how to start with your acclimatization as well. You can walk either clockwise and counterclockwise, and to be honest, there is not much difference in those paths.
We took the counterclockwise one, and although it is a bit steeper at the beginning, the rest of the trek is quite easy with a few ups and downs.
The trail is well-marked, and both options start at the Visitor Center.
You might think that encircling the lake is not very exciting, well, the opposite is the truth. Not only you walk on the rim of the crater and can admire blue waters and islands in the middle from different angles, but also, the flora around the lagoon is remarkable.
There are also astrological sites based on Incan models such as solar and lunar calendars, but unfortunately without any further explanation.
WHAT TO PACK
Don't forget you are in the high Andes and weather can change anytime, so dress properly.
Hiking Socks | High-quality socks reduce impact, sliding into shoes, prevent blisters and irritation.
Sunscreen | The sun is strong near Equator. Even when it is cloudy, do not forget to apply strong SPF 50+ sunscreen.
We've also written an in-depth South America packing list where you will find more useful tips and advice on what to pack.
WHERE TO STAY IN OTAVALO, ECUADOR
Because there are not many accommodation options in Cotacachi, there is a good chance you will be staying in Otavalo.
There are lots of hotels, but it is necessary to make a reservation in advance, especially when you are coming during the market days.
Budget | Hostal La Rosa Otavalo - The location is great, only two blocks from the main square, the staff friendly, the rooms are big and clean.
Mid-range | Hotel El Indio Inn - Perfect location for exploring all major sights, hot shower, clean rooms, and helpful staff.
Luxury | Dona Esther Otavalo - A charming hotel in the center of Otavalo, good breakfast and tasty food, excellent clean rooms, and a roof garden with amazing views.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
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