When I first heard about Otavalo in Ecuador, it sounded like there wasn’t many activities. I love adventure, and if going to a market was the only thing to do, I might have passed. It wasn’t until I looked at hikes around the area that I realized I had to visit this town. The activities of Cascada de Peguche and hiking around Laguna Cuicocha caught my eye.
Technically, this hike is closest to Cotacachi, but it’s so easy to get there from Otavalo that most people stay there instead. This hike can be partially done with as much benefit as someone who does the entire loop!
In this guide, I’ll review everything you need to know about hiking Laguna Cuicocha and if you should put it on your itinerary.
What is Laguna Cuicocha?
Laguna Cuicocha is a crater lake. This means that a volcano once erupted here. That volcano erupted over 3,000 years ago, and two cones were formed.
You can now see those two cones as the two islands in the lake’s center. There’s now a trail that goes around this lake and you can experience it from many angles.
Cuicocha means “guinea pig” in the local Kichwa language. This is due to how the islands look in the middle of the lake.
Where is Laguna Cuicocha Located?
Laguna Cuicocha is located outside of the town of Otavalo, which is two hours north of the capital, Quito. The closest town to Laguna Cuicocha is Cotocachi.
It’s very easy to get to the lake from Otavalo so I’d suggest staying there if wanting to visit.
Quito to Otavalo
If you want to take the bus from Otavalo to Quito, you’ll want to go to Terminal Carcelén. This is the far north bus terminal in Quito and is 20 minutes away from Terminal la Ofelia, where you’ll go if heading to Mindo.
Thankfully, we had time to relax after doing the Mindo Waterfall Hike before heading to Otavalo. It was a long travel day because we had to take a bus to Quito and then a different one to Otavalo.
The taxi only cost us two to three dollars from Ofelia to the Carcelen bus station.
The bus from Carcelen to Otavalo will cost $3.50. Not too bad!
How to Get to Laguna Cuicocha
If you rent a car in Ecuador, simply type Laguna Cuicocha in Google Maps and start driving! If you have this car, then ignore the next section. Parking at Laguna Cuicocha is free and easy.
Taxis are very cheap but the bus system in Ecuador is also extremely easy to use. Below, I will review the few options to get to the lake.
Bus then Taxi
This is the option we chose; it wasn’t complicated to figure out. Simply head to the main Otavalo bus station and look for the bus going to Cotacachi.
The bus ride is around 30 minutes and will cost 35 – 40 cents. Once you arrive at Cotacachi, you can then look for a taxi. The taxi should cost $5 one-way.
Many taxi drivers know that’s where you’re going, and it’s about a 15-minute drive to the park.
It might be possible to get out slightly earlier before the bus arrives in Cotacachi but it might be harder to find a taxi here. We decided to go all the way to Cotacachi.
Taxis are cheap in Ecuador and it should cost around $10 to get a ride from Otavalo to Laguna Cuicocha. We took a taxi straight from the lake back to Otavalo and that’s how much it cost us.
If you have a bigger group, this might be the best option as it doesn’t cost that much more than the bus.
It’s possible to take a tour of Laguna Cuicocha if that’s something you’re interested in. You won’t be able to hike the entire crater as we did.
It might be a good idea if you’re short on time to take a tour from Quito to Otavalo. There are plenty of them, and they get a lot done in one day.
If you plan to stay the night in Otavalo, I suggest going there independently instead of on a tour.
Things to Know Before Hiking Laguna Cuicocha
There are other details worth knowing before you go to Cuicocha Lake. After reviewing this next section, you will be ready to start your adventure in Otavalo!
Things to Bring
Here are some things you might want to bring when visiting Peguche Waterfall.
Depending on the time of the year you visit or the mode of transportation you’re taking, it’s good to be prepared.
Best Time to Visit Laguna Cuicocha
Ecuador has two main seasons: rainy and dry. Visiting Lake Cuicocha can done year-round but there will be better times to go if you want to avoid the rain.
The best time of the year to visit without rain would be during the months of June to October. It didn’t rain at all during our time in Otavalo in July.
The trail is pretty well maintained, so I think it would hold up if it rains. But hiking in the rain is never ideal.
Is There an Entrance Fee to Laguna Cuicocha?
There is no entrance fee to enter the park, but you must sign in. Your taxi driver will stop and the person working will hand you a clipboard before continuing on.
It’s definitely nice that it doesn’t cost any money to enter. The trail is very well maintained and I’m shocked there isn’t an entrance fee.
How to Get Back to Otavalo
Getting back to Otavalo can be tricky sometimes, especially if you end the hike later in the day. When we finished, we waited for a taxi to drive by for 10 minutes.
After one didn’t come, we started to walk down the street further into the park. This is where the tour buses stop and also a restaurant is located.
There was no available taxi down there but we ended up asking an employee at the restaurant to help call us a taxi. One showed up 15 minutes later and took us straight to Otavalo for $10.
Getting the taxi driver’s WhatsApp, who dropped you off earlier in the day, might be helpful. We thought we wouldn’t have an issue getting one at the park since it was Friday but we were wrong.
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Laguna Cuicocha Hiking Details
- Distance: This hike is a 7.7-mile out & back hike. This number is for the entire loop of the crater lake.
- Duration: On average, it will take people 4 – 5 hours to finish. This depends on your fitness level and how long you stay at the waterfall.
- Difficulty: I’d rank this hike easy to moderate because while there are steep sections, it’s also flat in many areas.
- Incline: The elevation for this hike is around 2083 feet or 635 meters.
- Hiking Guide: A guide is not needed for this hike and is easily accessible by the public
Mapsme isn’t really needed for this hike but it’s always nice to have. If you want to read more reviews about this hike, you can check Alltrails.
Best Places to Stay in Otavalo, Ecuador
Otavalo is an awesome town but many people don’t stay here overnight. If you decide to stay overnight, there are plenty of accommodation options. Below are my favorite places to stay in Otavalo.
- El Andariego: If you’re looking for a cozy hostel in Otavalo, then El Andariego is the place. It’s two minutes from the markets and also has its own restaurant on the property!
- Hostal La Rosa Otavalo: This is another superb hostel in Otavalo. Breakfast is included here, and the price for a private room is affordable, even for backpackers.
- Hotel El Geranio: El Geranio is a step up from the other accommodations on this list, but it’s still at a fantastic price! Breakfast is included, which is the quality of a hotel, but it also has a kitchen to use if need be.
My Experience Hiking Laguna Cuicocha
There really isn’t much to this hike and I figured that going into it. The crater lake is beautiful, and the trail is much better maintained than I thought.
Since this is a loop hike, you can start clockwise or counterclockwise. It wasn’t until we finished the hike that we realized the way we went (counterclockwise) might have been the more difficult route. We didn’t care too much.
The cool thing about starting the hike going counterclockwise is that the views get better and better the further along the trail you go.
There are even some sheltered spots that are great for eating lunch and relaxing.
You’ll get spectacular views of the crater lake for the first 25% to 30% of the trail. The trail will then lead you around the back of the hill for a short period and then back to within view of Laguna Cuicocha.
After this section of the trail, the view of the lake will be pretty similar throughout, only from a different perspective.
Hiking through some of the marshy areas made me feel like hiking through Lord of the Rings scenes.
The hike started to seem long after a while but it was a nice day out so I couldn’t complain.
Overall, this is a great hike to get some steps in and get used to the high altitude of Ecuador.
FAQs about Laguna Cuicocha
What is Cuicocha in English?
‘Cuicocha’ means ‘guinea pig lake’ in Kichwa, the language of an indigenous tribe in Ecuador.
The guinea pig refers to the little islands in the middle of the crater lake.
What is the Altitude of Laguna Cuicocha?
The altitude of Laguna Cuicocha is 3246 meters. This isn’t too high compared to other hikes in Ecuador but it will be good practice nonetheless.
What is the Largest Lake in Ecuador?
San Pablo is the largest lake in Ecuador. It’s 668 hectares big and has a maximum depth of 35 meters.
Final Thoughts About Hiking Laguna Cuicocha
Laguna Cuicocha is my favorite activity in Otavalo due to how easy it is to get there and the beautiful views. Going to the market was fun but I’m more of an adventure and thrill seeker. This hike wasn’t too intense but you should definitely add to your list if you have extra days to spend in Otavalo.
Thank you for reading my guide on hiking Cuicocha Lake! I hope this article has helped you decide whether to add this activity to your Ecuador itinerary.