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Hiking Cuicocha Crater and Cerro Imbabura

The Imbabura region, just two hours north of the capital of Quito, is an enchanted land of massive volcanoes and indigenous people that weave a patchwork of colorful fields that spread over the slopes of the Andes.  Excellent hiking, trekking and mountain climbing abound in these mountains, and the views are only upstaged by the colorful indigenous villages on route.

Cuicocha Crater and Cerro Imbabura are two popular mountain routes in the region.

The Andes of Ecuador

The Andes is the longest continental chain of mountains in the world, stretching from the southern tip of the South American continent all the way up to the northernmost corner, crossing through seven countries. In the Ecuadorian Andes, due to the equatorial bulge, some of the peaks climb higher from the center of the Earth than any other point on the planet (even Mt. Everest!). It’s a climber’s and hiker’s dream. Among the notable peaks that hikers love are the famously snowcapped volcanoes Chimborazo and Cotopaxi. Many people who come to Ecuador for a hiking or climbing experience center their trips around these two peaks. But they aren’t the only mountains worth exploring when you’re in Ecuador.

Cuicocha Crater (Laguna Cuicocha)

Just 62 miles (100km) north of Quito is Laguna Cuicocha. The lake was created from a volcanic crater that filled with water.  Because it sits on the Otavalo-Umpalá fracture zone at the foot of the extinct Cotacachi stratovolcano, the terrain of this enchanted area is full of deep fissures (narrow openings in the rock caused by cracking/ splitting).

Though there is a continual escaping of gasses that can always be seen bubbling out of the lake, here has not been larger volcanic activity here for over 1,300 years, and the massive 3km Cuicocha caldera (crater) has become a 485-foot (148m) deep lake. Known to some as the “Lake of the Gods,” there are two islands in the middle formed by resurgent volcanoes.

The Hike

At the lake’s visitor’s center, there is a restaurant, shop, and boat rental, and the trailhead for the hike around the caldera’s rim is at the Guard Station just before the visitors center.

The hike circumnavigates the lake (usually counter-clockwise), and much of the trail can be seen along the perimeter of the caldera though the trail does meander up and down a lot and strays from the edge in some sections.

The highlights of the trip are spectacular ever-present views of the caldera, Cotacachi Volcano, and in the distance, Imbabura Volcano.

Fast facts about the trail

  • Distance: 14km (8.7 miles)
  • Altitude: 3,070-3,400m (10,000-11,150 feet)
  • Difficulty level: Easy to moderate
  • Time: 4 to 6 hours
  • Highlights:
    • View of cloud forests
    • Excellent lookouts over the lake
    • Well-marked trail
    • Railings & steps for steep climbs

If you’re looking for a longer, more technical climb, consider climbing Cerro Cotacachi, which gave birth to Cuicocha Lake.


Cerro Imbabura

Imbabura mountain is a great climb. Even closer to Quito. Just 37 miles (60km) northeast of the capital and only 5 miles (8km) outside of Otavalo, this dormant volcano, is the perfect place to acclimatize to the altitude while getting in some quality climbing.

Be sure to bundle up, though, as the temperature is around 46­ºF (8ºC) on average. But if you’re prepared, then the chill won’t bother you as you take in the amazing panoramic views of Ecuador’s northern Sierra range.

Become a part of the region’s rich mountain-lore, as each step, you take on the trail weaves you into the mountain’s epochs-old stories. Legend has it that Imbabura is the male protector of the mountains, married to Cotacachi (above), the female protector. They are the ancient guardians of the lands and lakes of this region.

The indigenous people of this area used to hike to the glaciers that covered Imbabura and bring the ice back down to the town of Ibarra. This industry melted away with the ice.

Getting there

The most common way to do the Imbabura circuit is by starting in La Esperanza, a small town just a two-hour scenic hike from the trail’s parking area. 

The trail is a mixture of rocky ridges, bouldered areas, and grassy fields. Climbers and hikers must be careful as many of the rocks are loose or rotten and can make for an unstable footing. As a rule, be very cautious whenever traversing the rockier sections of this trail.

Fast Facts

  • Distance: ~24km (15 miles)
  • Altitude: 2,630-4,609m (8,628-15,121 feet)
  • Difficulty level: Grade I/F, Class 3
  • Time: 6-8 hours from parking area; 10-12 hours from Esperanza
  • Highlights:
    • Views of Cerro Cotacachi
    • View of Otavalo, Ibarra
    • Páramo Vegetation
    • Rural communities