Hiking Lake Cuicocha: A Complete Guide
Located close to Otavalo and its infamous artisan market, Laguna Cuicocha is a beautiful 3km wide crater lake. Dramatically surrounded by snow-capped Cayambe, Imbabura, and Cotacachi volcano, its vibrant blue waters and oddly shaped islands make for great views over the Ecuadorian Andes and the perfect weekend getaway for both hiking novice looking to reconnect with nature and seasoned hikers training to conquer higher peaks. Keep on reading to find out how to get there, what to expect and what to bring to hike around the caldera!
Laguna Cuicocha means Guinea Pig Laguna in Kichwa, the indigenous language. It owes its name to the shape of the largest island standing in the middle of the caldera, resembling that of a guinea pig. Also referred to as the “Lake of Gods” by the locals, the sacred lake is punctually the scene of purification rituals. The crater lake was formed by one of Cotacachi’s past eruptions over 3000 years ago. Don’t worry though, nowadays the volcano is dormant and you can safely visit and take in the landscape! You can take a boat to get closer to the islands, take pictures at the viewpoint or hike around the lake for outstanding views of Imbabura volcano, Cayambe and of course Cotacachi.
Located 12 km south west of the town of Cotacachi, the lake is easily accessible. From Quito, go to the northern bus terminal, Carcelén, and take a bus to Otavalo ($2.50). Only two bus companies go to Otavalo, TransOtavalo and Los Lagos. When you buy your ticket, you won’t be able to choose which one you’ll go with but will simply go with the next departing bus. Once in Otavalo, take another bus at the terminal to Cotacachi ($0.35) and then grab a taxi from the town to the entrance of the lake ($5).
How to Hike Around the Lake
The hike is 14 kilometers long and takes 4 to 5 hours to complete. As the trail goes all the way around the caldera, there are two ways of approaching it: counter-clockwise, starting at the information center, or clockwise, kicking off the hike a little bit higher. You can hire a guide to show you around but it isn’t necessary as the path is well marked and since the trail circles the lake, it is almost impossible to get lost. I personally asked the taxi to drop me off at the highest trail entrance and hiked clockwise around the lake. Doing it this way not only allows you to take in the best views over the crater from the very beginning of the hike, but it is also easier as you will not have to hike up as much.
What to bring
Pack up your regular day hike gear (hiking shoes, pants, hat, sunglasses) and make sure to take a waterproof jacket as the weather can be unpredictable up in the Andes. Bring enough water, a few snacks for energy boosts, sunscreen… and enjoy the hike!
Laguna Cuicocha is one my favorite places in Ecuador and I couldn’t recommend it enough to you guys, especially if you’re visiting Otavalo. Let me know what you thought after you make the trip and in the meantime, please tell me what’s the most impressive crater lake you’ve ever visited or would love to visit in in the comments section!
Looking forward to reading your recommendation.