You'll know you've reached San Miguel de Salcedo when you see the large sculpture of one of the locally produced ice-cream sticks, or helados de sabores. These homemade conical treats are sold all over this small roadside city, which places a lot of civic pride in them. You can pretty much stop anywhere and find a shop selling helados de sabores. Flavors vary, and include such staples as vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and blackberry. I like some of the local fruit varieties, such as granadilla, a tart member of the passion-fruit family. Salcedo is located about 15km (9 1/3 miles) south of Latacunga.
Located just off the Pan-American Highway, another 12km (7 1/2 miles) south of Salcedo, the Laguna de Yambo is a popular spot to stop, stretch your legs, and take a gander at the lime-green waters of this lake formed in an extinct volcanic crater. Unlike Quilotoa, however, this lake appears stagnant and polluted. The lake's greatest claim to fame is the legend that it "swallowed a train"; if you look down the steep sides of the extinct crater you can see still see the railroad tracks that run alongside it. Apparently at one point a train derailed and disappeared into the lake, and divers and salvage workers never found a trace. On a clear day, you can look beyond the lake and catch a glimpse of Volcán Tungurahua in the distance. If you're heading to Baños, this is a good reference point and marker.
One of the most popular trips based out of Latacunga is a circuit known as the Quilotoa Loop. The entire loop is about 200km (124 miles). While it is possible to do the trip in 1 day, I recommend spending a night or two at the Black Sheep Inn . The roads, rough and rugged for much of the loop, pass through beautiful, isolated mountain villages and hamlets, many of whose inhabitants cling to their ancient indigenous heritage and ways. You can make the trip in either direction.
Whichever direction you choose, Laguna Quilotoa, a beautiful, high-mountain lake formed in the broad crater of an extinct volcano, is roughly the halfway point and prime destination of this route. The views of the emerald-green lake are striking from the parking area, but many folks are tempted to hike down the steep slopes of the crater to the water's edge. The distance to the water seems deceptively short, and the climb down is relatively quick. But the climb back up is quite steep and can take over an hour. Local vendors, touts, and guides are always on hand in the parking lot, and several will offer to sell you a mule ride back to the top. If you want to save yourself the hike, be sure to arrange this before you head off downhill. The mule ride should cost around $4 to $5 (£2.65-£3.35). Other hiking options include the narrow and rugged trail around the crater rim, where the views are spectacular. There's a $1 (65p) entrance fee to visit the Quilotoa lagoon and crater.
Of the towns strewn along the Quilotoa Loop, perhaps the most famous is Saquisilí, a small indigenous village on the northeastern end of the loop, not very far from the Pan-American Highway. The weekly Thursday market is perhaps the most authentic in Ecuador, and quite distinct from what you find in Otavalo, which many feel has become far too touristy. This market is a traditional highland market with scores of vendors, and hundreds, if not thousands, of locals arriving from villages throughout the central Sierra to buy, barter, and trade for foodstuffs, household items, herbs, tools, animals, and just about anything and everything else imaginable. A similar market, albeit somewhat smaller, is held every Saturday in the town of Zumbahua, and is easily combined with a visit to Laguna Quilotoa.
Getting There -- The Quilotoa Loop can done by rental car, organized tour, or local buses. Most folks first head west out of Latacunga toward Tigua, and then on to Zumbahua, where the loop goes north before reaching Laguna Quilotoa. Heading north from Quilotoa, the first major village is Chugchilán, followed by Sigchos, after which the route begins heading east again toward Saquisilí, close to where you meet up again with the Pan-American Highway, a little bit north of Latacunga.
If you're doing the loop by bus, arm yourself with some patience, plenty of warm clothing, snack food and energy bars, a good map of the region, and a sense of adventure. Local buses plying this circuit run erratic schedules, are often overcrowded, and occasionally break down. Still, every day countless locals make the various legs of this journey between the many small villages; and, if you wait long enough, you will be able to catch an onward ride in a bus or pickup truck.
For comprehensive and up-to-date information on bus schedules, check the websites of, or contact directly, the Black Sheep Inn or Hostal Llullu Llama. Alternatively, you can head to the main bus terminal in Latacunga and inquire there. Transportes Iliniza (tel. 03/2716-346) has two daily departures to Chugchilán at 11:30am and noon. The journey takes about 4 hours and is the halfway point on the loop. Reina de Sigchos (tel. 03/2714-027) and Nacional (tel. 03/2721-152) take turns with almost hourly bus departures through Saquisilí to Sigchos. Cooperativa Vivero (tel. 03/2723-251) has a couple of buses daily that head to Saquisilí, Isinlivi, Zumbahua, and Quilotoa. Most buses on the circuit spend the night and depart very early the next morning. Cooperativa Cotopaxi (tel. 03/2800-752) buses leave roughly every hour for Quevedo and will take you as far as Zumbahua, from where you can make onward connections around the circuit. The fare for the entire circuit should cost about $6 (£4), with the current one-way fare between Latacunga and Chugchilán costing about $2.25 (£1.50).
Where to Stay -- There are a host of small, humble hostels and budget hotels all along the Quilotoa Loop; most are very basic and cater to locals and rugged backpackers. The two places listed below are striking exceptions, however, and I highly recommend that you choose one of these as your overnight midpoint, or better yet, as a base for exploring the area.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.