Laguna Cuicocha Hiking Trail

Refresh with this day trip from the famous Otavalo market

Essential info

  • Season: January–December
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Distance: 11.8 kilometers (loop)
  • Elevation Gain: 760 meters
  • Duration: 4–5 hours

About Laguna Cuicocha

Lake Cuicocha is a hidden gem in the Ecuadorian highlands, located a little over an hour from the famous weekend-market town of Otavalo. The hike around Lake Cuicocha is a relaxing get away from the hustle and bustle of the market, making it the perfect day trip. It’s a crater lake, which means its a result of a volcano and is 3 km wide and about 200 meters deep! There are three small islands located in the center of the glistening blue water. 

The route takes you along the outskirts of the lake, giving you ample opportunities to get incredible views! There are many trail options, and you don’t have to go all the way around the lake if you don’t want to. From the trail, you can see the nearby Cayambe Volcano as well as orchids, rich vegetation of the valley below, and wildlife. You'll notice the lake is very blue due to the high amounts of alkaline and very little aquatic life. 

The lake’s name origins are from a Kichwa name for "guinea pig", after the shape of the islands. For a different view of the lake, take a 30-minute boat ride that leaves from the visitors center. Be prepared for the engine to stall, which happens often.

Getting there

Bus

If traveling from Otavalo, take the bus heading to ‘Cotacacchi’ to the end of the route for about $0.35. There will be many taxis and collective taxis waiting for you to be taken to the lake, for about $5 one way. When you are dropped off at the park entrance or visitors center, give your taxi driver clear instructions about scheduling a pickup time for you, as it can be challenging to get a taxi after the hike.

Car

It’s a rather easy drive to the lake from Otavalo. From downtown Otavalo, take ‘Vía Otavalo - Quiroga’, then turn left onto ‘Vía Cotacachi - Quiroga - Cuicocha’ at the first main intersection. After a few minutes of driving, turn right at the fork and continue onto the visitor's center called Centro de Interpretación Cultural "Cuicocha". Here, you will find plenty of parking. 

Trail description

Overall, the hike is not very technical, but it is important that you are acclimated to the altitude, as there are lots of increases and decreases in elevation. There are some steep stairs up to lookout points, but it’s totally worth it for the incredible views. If you’re hiking the whole trail, there are two options, hiking clockwise or counterclockwise around the lake. No matter which direction you decide to hike in, the trail is very well maintained.

If hiking clockwise, you will start at the trailhead near the visitor's center then through some grassy meadows before reaching the valley where the lake is located. From there, you will hike up a gradual incline to the highest point as you make your way around the rim of the lake. Be on the lookout for some epic views before heading down the steep descent back to the visitor's center and nearby park entrance.

If hiking counterclockwise, this is the more challenging route, but you get the incredible view of the lake at the beginning of your hike! This route begins at the visitor's center, then requires a demanding ascent to the highest point of the trail. The hike continues around the lake to the grassy meadows, followed by a few ups and downs before returning to the visitor's center.

Amenities

  • Parking (free)
  • Visitors center
  • Toilets (at visitors center)
  • Restaurant and cafe
  • A small local crafts shop
  • The boat tour 

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