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Is it actually possible to travel the Galapagos on a budget?

Many assume a trip to the Galapagos will be a very expensive proposition. You wouldn’t be wrong to think so.

Even Googling “Galapagos Tour” may send could send someone into sticker shock. One of the first organic search results shows a National Geographic 10-day itinerary, with prices ranging from $7,000-$15,000 per person, plus flights to Ecuador! So realistically, that comes out to at least a $20,000 vacation proposition for a couple. Ouch.

Yet we’re here to let you know that it’s not necessary to take such a pricey Galapagos trip.

You can, in fact, tour the Galapagos on a budget and still maintain a relative level of comfort. Independent travel in the Galapagos can actually be an affordable reality! With a little planning, it’s possible to formulate a cheap Galapagos island hopping budget trip on your own. We wrote this post to help other travelers experience the rich wonders of the Galapagos on the cheap.

Here are some fast facts about traveling the Galapagos on a budget that this post further covers in much more detail:

  • Last-minute Galapagos cruise deals: can cost $750-$1,200 plus flights for a 5-day trip. We’ll show how.
  • It’s possible to visit the Galapagos for far less when traveling independently.
    • Four islands have decent affordable accommodation, as low as $30/night, and
    • are connected by local ferries. We’ll detail where to go and stay.
  • There are actually many free things to do on these islands with lots of wildlife to see. Yet spending on a few day tours on boats (~$100) will allow independent travelers to get further and explore more. This post reveals where to find marine life for free and the best Galapagos day tours to splurge on.
  • Eating delicious two-course local seafood meals can cost as little as $4-$6, once you know where to look.
  • Roundtrip flights from Ecuador to the Galapagos can be booked for as low as $350-$400. With the $120 national park fees that go along with the flight, a minimum of $500 is needed just to get to the Galapagos and back to mainland Ecuador. But the Galapagos can be cheap once there.
  • It is easily doable to get by in the Galapagos on a budget of less than $50 per day. In fact, we had days with a budget as low as $30 per person while still enjoying amazing experiences, eating lots of seafood, and retreating to a hotel room with A/C.

Overall, an entire trip to the Galapagos may not be entirely cheap. The flight alone can bust budgets. Added travel expenses once in the Galapagos can quickly accumulate for those who aren’t careful.

Yet this post explores proven money-saving strategies and the Galapagos budget travel tips you need to know to maintain low expenses without sacrificing the quintessential experiences one would expect to have in these famed islands. A budget trip to the Galapagos can indeed become an awesome reality for those who do a bit of advanced planning and research.

So while there are some significant expenses that can be incurred on a trip to these famed islands, it is indeed possible to visit the Galapagos on a relatively modest budget. Such a trip will certainly cost far less than that aforementioned $10,000 Nat Geo tour!

Come take a peek at our actual Galapagos island hopping budget too. We meticulously tracked all travel costs and all the Galapagos tour prices during our visit, as there isn’t much pricing listed on the web. Hopefully, this will provide a realistic look at what may be spent on a Galapagos budget trip.

So read on to understand exactly how to travel the Galapagos on a budget by pursuing a DIY Galapagos island hopping trip, among other cost-cutting strategies.

Galapagos on a Budget: Table of Contents

 

Two Ways to Do Galapagos on a Budget:

There are two tried & true methods to travel to the Galapagos on a budget:

1) Do It Yourself (DIY) Land-Based Galapagos Island Hopping
2) Last-Minute Boat Tour / Budget Galapagos Cruise Deals

First, let’s dive into what each of these two different experiences entails.

DIY Independent Travel Island Hopping in the Galapagos on a Budget

Anyone can fly to the islands and explore them on your own, which makes for a great way to experience the Galapagos on a budget. There are three islands in the Galapagos that are connected by regular, twice-a-day ferries. These three islands are developed with loads of decent budget-friendly accommodation and restaurants serving reasonably priced meals. The three islands to go “island hopping” on are:

  • Isla Santa Cruz (Puerto Ayora)
  • Isla Isabela (Puerto Villamil)
  • Isla San Cristobal (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno)

Each of these islands has places to walk to, to enjoy hiking, museums, snorkeling areas, tortoise sanctuaries, and lots of wild sea lions & marine iguanas (among other wildlife), all for FREE. These three Galapagos islands also have plenty of tourism agencies to book day trips and excursions. During these day tours, even more islands can be accessed throughout the Galapagos archipelago.

There is also a fourth island to consider, Isla Floreana, which similarly has budget-friendly accommodation and restaurants. But ferry connections to Floreana change frequently and run irregularly (1-2 times per week). This can make it impossible to stay on Isla Floreana for just a night or two. But there are still plenty of sights to see and activities to do from the other three main Galapagos islands. Those three islands alone can easily keep a traveler busy for weeks!

Independent travel in the Galapagos is most definitely the most economical way to tour the islands, as it is realistically possible to get by on a budget of about $30 per person, per day, before factoring in the costs of optional day tours. More on that later.

This post dives into detail on how to travel independently in the Galapagos on a budget. But first, we’ll cover the possibility of scoring a last-minute Galapagos cruise deal.


 

Booking a Last-Minute Galapagos Boat Tour

There are many liveaboard Galapagos boat tours that ply multi-day routes throughout the Galapagos, where snorkeling, hiking, and wildlife viewing ensues.

During these liveaboard boat tours, at the end of each day passengers sleep in a cabin on the boat, while either anchored or moving to the next location. There’s a chef on board who cooks three meals a day. A naturalist guide accompanies passengers throughout the voyage.

These boats primarily range in size from about 12-24 passengers (some even larger) and vary from sailboats, to catamarans, to full-on yachts.  The boats also range in comfort, which tends to be categorized by four classes of boats:

  • $ Tourist Class – Lowest standard possible, often not recommended. Cabins may or may not have A/C or private bathrooms.
  • $$ Tourist Superior – No frills yet comfy. Some cabins may be bunk beds, but has A/C. Good option for lower budgets who want to maintain some level of comfort.
  • $$$ First Class – High standards, very comfortable air-conditioned rooms, and great meals.
  • $$$$ Luxury – Super high end. Expect large cabins, jacuzzis, gourmet meals, spas, and pampering.

If booking any of these trips in advance, prior to arriving in the Galapagos, you’ll likely spend well upwards of thousands of dollars per person. But if arriving in the Galapagos with a flexible schedule to book a last-minute Galapagos cruise deal within a few days of departure, it is possible to find budget Galapagos cruise prices around $700-$1,500 for a 4-8 day itinerary.

So where can you find cheap last-minute Galapagos cruise deals?

The best last-minute Galapagos cruise prices will be found on the ground, after arriving in Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos. Many tourism agencies in Puerto Ayora slash prices on last-minute Galapagos cruises departing within a week or less. Visiting these Puerto Ayora agencies in person will yield the best prices.

There are also a number of travel agencies that can be contacted to begin an email exchange, inquiring about what last-minute cruises may be available. One website that lists some of these deals is Galapagos Cruise Links.

That site will give you some idea of the going rates being offered for last-minute Galapagos cruise deals. But just realize that it is NOT an all-inclusive list. There are many additional boats to consider which aren’t listed on this website. Also, it’s possible to negotiate prices lower than what is listed there. So consider those prices as a starting point. Despite this, we still find this website to have the most up-to-date listings with actual prices posted anywhere else on the web today. So it can be a good place to begin searching to get a gauge on last-minute Galapagos cruise prices.

Still, the lowest prices will be found in Puerto Ayora in the days just before these cruises depart. Yet scoring those deals will entail some effort, luck, and taking a bit of a gamble. Last-minute Galapagos cruises do sell out.

Cheap last-minute Galapagos cruises are no longer a secret among travelers. There are many other travelers arriving to the Galapagos, all trying to score to cheap last-minute Galapagos cruise deal. They may beat you to a deal or be willing to pay more. We regularly saw last-minute Galapagos cruise deals that became sold out, several days before the boat was embarking.

Another burden of attempting to get a last-minute Galapagos cruise is that it can be a time-consuming process. Doing so requires travelers to go from agency to agency in search of these elusive last-minute deals. The time spent shopping around can pay off. Yet with limited time in the Galapagos, time can be much more enjoyable in nature than on the city streets visiting tourism agencies.

So although the cheapest and best deals do await travelers on the ground in the Galapagos, it can be worth paying a bit more to organize a sure-thing in advance. If not wanting to deal with the uncertainty of a last-minute Galapagos cruise, it’s best to either make advanced reservations or pursue a DIY island hopping trip that is further detailed in this guide.

Where To Book Less Expensive Galapagos Tours in Advance

Because of the uncertainty and effort involved to seek out last-minute cruise deals while in the Galapagos, it can make sense to book in advance. Sure, it may end up costing a few hundred dollars more, but that can often be worth the time and effort that’s forgone.

Booking a non-last-minute Galapagos cruise with set departure dates can be the best way to go to the Galapagos for those who have limited time and/or set dates. While not quite as cheap as the last-minute tours and certainly more than creating a DIY independent trip, there are some decent deals out there on Galapagos cruise tours that can be booked in advance.

When making advanced reservations, expect to pay at least around $2,000 for a tourist superior (or above) ship. But do note that some of those tours with a $2k+ price tag also include airfare from mainland Ecuador. So that’s a $500 value that can help to justify the cost.

Here are a few booking companies offering liveaboard Galapagos cruise tours around that price:

  • Viator – This Galapagos Island Cruise starting at $1,250 the lowest price we’ve seen bookable online. (Note: sometimes it becomes unavailable/sold-out. Check back.)
  • GAdventures – starts at $2,500 for a 7-day cruise, including flights from Quito.
  • Intrepid – starts at $2,290 for 6-day trip (4-day cruise on the Daphne) including flights from Quito.
  • Tour Radar – starts at $3,400 for 5-day cruise on a first-class ship including flights from Quito.
Caution: Beware of Packaged Land Tours
While searching through some of the above listings, you may find “island-hopping tours” and “land tours” which are packaged itineraries that utilize ferries and stay at hotels. These are NOT liveaboard cruises and you’ll instead be staying on land-based hostels and hotels. Although great experiences, we generally don’t recommend those packaged Galapagos island hopping tours since you can put together your own Galapagos island hopping itinerary and will cost significantly less. However, these preplanned island hopping tours may work well for someone who is willing to pay a premium to have a Galapagos tour organized for them.
Which Is Better: DIY Galapagos Island Hopping or Last-Minute Cruise Deal?

This depends on personal preferences and what is valued more. Anyone who has gone on a Galapagos cruise tour loves it. A cruise is certainly a more convenient option of the two. Meanwhile, we can personally vouch that we loved our DIY island hopping trip across the Galapagos, using independent travel techniques. We were satisfied that we experienced all of the Galapagos’s highlights without spending a fortune.

So which is better? There are pros and cons to each method. It’s highly debatable and most people who have traveled to the Galapagos carry strong opinions on both sides of the debate.

Which cost less? That has more of a clear-cut answer. Any way it’s sliced, a DIY island hopping itinerary always costs much less than even the lowest last-minute cruise deal. It is even possible to do a backpacking Galapagos trip on a shoestring, given all the free things to do in the Galapagos.

Weighing the Pros & Cons of a Last-Minute Galapagos Cruise:

Galapagos Cruise Pros:

  • A liveaboard cruise tour is the most convenient way to experience the Galapagos. Everything is planned. No thought or energy needs to be expended searching for day tours and finding somewhere to eat. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.
  • It’s not necessary to return to town each day. Instead, a liveaboard allows passengers to remain in a natural environment of the islands and drift off to the sound of the ocean.
  • A liveaboard cruise also has the exclusivity of exploring some Galapagos islands that are not accessible to day tours.
  • Another perk of a liveaboard is building camaraderie and making friends with travelers you’re cruising around with, sharing these incredible experiences together.

Galapagos Cruise Cons:

  • To get a last-minute deal, it can be necessary to spend time and effort in the Galapagos inquiring with multiple tourism agencies. This comes at the expense of your time otherwise enjoying all the Galapagos has to offer.
  • Not knowing in advance whether or not there will be a deal awaiting that fits your time & budget will prevent your ability to further plan out a Galapagos itinerary in advance.
  • For those who become easily seasick, the inability to return to land each night may be a negative point to consider.
  • It’s pricey. Even the last-minute “deals” tend to be much more costly than traveling independently throughout the Galapagos.

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Palomino Island is an incredible wonder of nature that lies just off the coast of Peru’s sprawling capital city. Not far offshore from Lima, it’s possible to frolic with playful sea lions, spot cute little penguins, and have an oceanic adventure that feels world’s away from from the busy city streets. After several visits to the capital of Peru, an excursion to Palomino Island remains our favorite thing to do from Lima and we wrote this article in an effort to share this special place with other travelers.

Many visitors to Lima seem to only leave a day or two to rush through the city on their way to Machu Picchu or as a port call during a South American cruise. We’re guilty of this too, but now realize Peru’s capital city definitely deserves more than a few days. Yet when in Lima for only a day, travelers must choose your time wisely, as there is much to do here.

We were looking for nature and adventure, so when we heard there was an eco-tour in which you swim with wild sea lions at Palomino Island, we knew this was our best option. The Palomino Islands are even sometimes referred to as the “little Galapagos of Lima” which further piqued our interest.

To swim with sea lions at Palomino Island seemed like it could be an incredible experience.

Spoiler alert: it was.

Yet logistical information online on how to book a boat tour to go snorkeling with sea lions in Lima was lacking.

We also wondered if it was safe (sharks?) Would our presence in the water be harmful to the sea lions? Are the operators ethical or do they feed the sea lions?

With there being somewhat of a lack of logistical info online about Palomino Island swimming with sea lions tours, we set off to the adjacent port town of Callao to investigate in person.

What It’s Like To Take a Palomino Island Tour To Swim with Sea Lions

In this post, we now share our incredible encounter with these cute animals and provide you all the information you need to know to book a boat tour to Palomino Islands to swim with the sea lions near Lima, Peru.

First, here’s our account of what it’s like to go swimming with the sea lions at Palomino Islands, starting from the beginning.

Setting Sail from Callao to Palomino Island

It took a bit of trial and error, asking around in the port town of Callao to determine how to reach Palomino Island on a boat tour and how to book it. But we were finally were able to locate a boat operator (details provided at end of this post) and they were preparing their boat to head off for a trip to Palomino Island. We didn’t hesitate to join and soon motored out from Lima’s port of Callao on a half-day excursion to swim with sea lions at Palomino Island!

A small boat transferred us to the larger “yacht.” The boat was not quite what we consider to be a yacht, but close enough. It was a pleasant slow-going ride from Callao to Palomino Island that lasted about 90 minutes.

The waters in the port were relatively calm, but our guide advised that the seas would become aggressively stronger as we ventured out towards the islands. As such, they supplied seasickness medication to whoever desired.

Nearly an hour into the voyage, we rounded the island of El Frontón. This island is notable for formerly holding a prison, similar to Alcatraz, that had an infamous uprising in 1986.

It was while learning about the lore of this island that a lone sea lion reared his head out of the water. He let off a loud roar to greet our approaching boat. It was our first sea lion sighting! We were all in awe and quickly pulled out our cameras to try and snap a picture of him.

But this sea lion who quickly greeted just as swiftly ducked back down into the waters below. We were all anxious to see Palomino Island’s sea lions, and this felt like we missed our chance.

Little did we know, there would be plenty more sea lion photo opportunities to come.

Arriving at Palomino Island to Swim with Sea Lions

As we made our approach to Palomino Island you could begin to hear the faint barking of the sea lions grow increasingly louder.

As the island came into focus, we began to notice parts of the rocky islands were moving.

But the isn’t moving, of course. Those aren’t rocks.

This island was completely covered with sea lions!

Palomino Island is literally covered with thousands of sea lions! In fact, our guide said that one estimate approximated that there are eight thousand sea lions in total living in this isolated area, just off the coast of Lima, Peru.

When seeing all these sea lions in person, that stat is easy to believe it.

The boat drifted back and forth in front of Palomino Island for a few minutes to admire this sea lion utopia. The guide then asked if anyone wanted to swim with Palomino Island’s famed marine mammals.

Surprisingly there was only a handful of passengers who decided to partake in the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The waters here are quite cold due to the Pacific’s Humboldt Current flowing from Antarctica and right past Lima. Thankfully full body wetsuits are provided on all tours that swim with the sea lions at Palomino Island.

Rules to Follow if Swimming with Sea Lions Lima Peru

Our guide explained three simple rules to follow while in the water. The rules were vaguely reminiscent of a visit to a gentleman’s club, lol. Here are the rules you need to follow when swimming with sea lions at Palomino Island:

  1. If the sea lions approach, they may touch you, but you can never touch them.
  2. Do not scream or make loud noises.
  3. Do not go onto their island.

This really helps to make a non-invasive, eco-friendly experience in which visitors are not bothering these wonderful aquatic mammals. So with those simple rules in place, we put on a mask and snorkel and jumped right into the frigid waters and slowly swam in the direction of the sea lions hoping to have a nice encounter with them.

What Attracts the Sea Lions to Visitors?

We wondered what would attract the animals to us. Perhaps the operators use buckets of fish to chum the waters? In an eco-adventure we pursued swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines, we were disappointed to discover they were sprinkling the waters with krill to attract them.

Thankfully, that is is not the case here.

While Lima’s Palomino Island tours are not regulated by any agencies, our entire encounter with the sea lions was thankfully very responsible with respect to their local habitat.

So then what makes the sea lions want to play with visitors?

Apparently, some of the younger sea lion pups are just naturally curious. And there are no predators in this specific area for them to fear. This gives the sea lions no reason to fear humans, as other wild marine life naturally would.

Is Swimming with the Sea Lions Dangerous? What about Sharks?

We couldn’t get a good answer as to why no predators exist here. It seems that no one really knows.

Sharks don’t come near the island, nor do orca whales. They never have, according to local knowledge.

So hopefully Shamu and her pals don’t ever learn how to use the Internet and find this post. If so, they’d have an all-you-can-eat buffet of sea lions if they ever discovered all these sea lions swimming here around near Lima.

I wouldn’t want to run into this big guy (center)

Rather than killer whales or sharks, the biggest safety concern can actually be the sea lions themselves. While many of the pups are curious and playful, some of the bigger sea lions can become aggressive if aggravated.

Our guide explained the larger sea lions can be protective of their island, which could pose a problem if anyone were to go on it. The big sea lions are about 600 pounds, so it would be downright terrifying to come into close contact with one of them.

But not to worry, as Palomino Island’s sea lion residents do tend to keep their distance and stay on the island. While in the water, all the sea lions around us were very friendly and playful. There is always some element of risk in just about any activity, but this experience didn’t feel dangerous to us.

A safety concern for others may simply be treading water and swimming in the cold Pacific. There were some currents moving around Palomino Island and some waves too. So if you are not a good swimmer, that could pose some problems. Weaker swimmers can still get by in this experience, but should stay closer to the boat.

Sea lions will still come by the boat too, perhaps just not in the same abundance.

Snorkeling with the Sea Lions at Palomino Island Peru

We had been told that the sea lions would potentially come as close as about 10-15 feet from us. And for the first minute or so in the water, that was exactly our experience. It was pretty awesome.

Eventually, some of the more curious sea lions started coming even closer. Many were just a few feet away from us. Ducking our heads down into the water only exposed dozens more of these playful creatures who have apparently been zooming around beneath our dangling legs this entire time!

Then some of the more inquisitive sea lions swam right up to us.

A few were really curious about my GoPro and attempted to play with it, which made for great up-close footage.

Towards the end of our swim with the sea lions, some smaller pups individually would just float right up against us, almost begging for a gentle belly rub

But we resisted the overwhelming urge to cuddle with them and followed the no-touching rule.

We were in the water for about fifteen minutes in total swimming with these sea lions at Palomino Island. Our guide finally called us back towards the boat but we didn’t want to leave.

As one last sea lion pup nuzzled us farewell, I thought we could have easily enjoyed another hour or so interacting with these guys.

It was a truly magical experience.

Sea lion selfie!

Cruising Past the Penguin Colony at Isla San Lorenzo

Once back aboard the boat, we dried off, changed into warm clothes, and headed out for Isla San Lorenzo. This is Peru’s largest island, where you can view some penguin colonies.

Normally this would be an awesome sight. But after having such an intimate encounter with our sea lion friends, seeing a handful of penguins on a not-so-close island was arguably a little underwhelming.

Photography Tip: if you want some good shots of the tuxedo-clad birds, be sure to bring your zoom lens with you. We did not.

Do you see the penguins? Look closely!

We then made our way around the western side of San Lorenzo Island, completing a circle around the entire island on our way back into the port of Callao.

Local fishermen likewise headed back into port after their day’s catch. We snacked a bit and already began recounting some of the spectacular moments of this fantastic experience.

Swimming with the sea lions in Lima was truly one of the most fun and memorable adventures we’ve had yet.

If ever in the area, we’d highly recommend taking a Palomino Island tour from Lima to snorkel with the sea lions. What a truly awesome excursion!

If You Go: Swimming with Sea Lions Palomino Island, Lima, Peru

Want to swim with the sea lions while in Lima?

Here’s what you should know.

What to Bring on a Palomino Island Boat Tour, Lima Peru
  • Towel – Towels are not provided and your hotel/hostel likely doesn’t allow you to bring their towels off the property. So bring your own. We love these lightweight microfiber travel towels.
  • Bathing suit – Note: Wetsuits are provided on all tours. Just bring your own bathing suit.
  • Dry clothes to change back into after getting out of the water.
  • Sunscreen – It gets very sunny. We recommend at least SPF 30+. Sunscreen is actually pretty expensive in Peru (much higher than in US), so it can be a good idea to pack some for your trip. Amazon has great prices on Banana Boat sunscreen.
  • Hat and Sunglasses – also to help protect you from the sun. Just be careful with your hat that it doesn’t blow off during the boat ride.
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The Quilotoa Loop is arguably one of the best multi-day trekking routes in South America and definitively one of Ecuador’s most popular treks. The hiking trails throughout the Quilotoa Loop wind through the Ecuadorian Andes to connect a series of friendly rural farming villages that are each very well-prepared to receive hikers. Yet perhaps what most defines the Quilotoa Loop trek is the gleaming Laguna Quilotoa, an awe-inducing crater lake surrounded by Andean volcanic peaks, that is encountered during one of the three days of this trekking route.

The Quilotoa Loop three-day trek is a very enjoyable hike and can be fairly easy too. With inexpensive yet super comfortable hostels spread across the route, trekkers are able to keep their packs light. There’s no need to add the weight of camping gear or meals since the hostels provide comfy lodging and revitalizing feasts.

Relatively short distances of the Quilotoa Loop 3-day trek further make for pleasant hiking days, with plenty of down time at the villages to relax or explore. And detailed offline map apps now make the Quilotoa Loop easier than ever to access by seamlessly navigating on your own. The Quilotoa Loop trek can even be a great beginner trek for novice hikers who are acclimated to the altitude and well-prepared.

In addition to being such an enjoyable multi-day trek, the Quilotoa Loop 3-day trek is also one of the best-value catered hiking routes we’ve ever come across anywhere in the world. For comparison, hut-to-hut hiking in the Alps can cost well upwards of $150 per person per day. Yet our entire Quilotoa Loop budget, including transportation, cozy private rooms, and hot home-cooked meals totaled a mere $15 per day. It’s incredible value!

Hiking the Quilotoa Loop should come with ease and affordability. But we found that not to always be the case. We encountered many trekkers getting lost, generally having a difficult time, and unnecessarily overspending in some instances. That can be easily avoided for those who know just a few simple logistics and plan accordingly.

This is exactly what inspired us to write this post on how to trek the Quilotoa Loop the cheap and easy way! There’s no need to take a pricey taxi with regular buses plying the same routes. It’s virtually impossible to get lost if heeding our advice by downloading a free offline map app that details the Quilotoa Loop trails. And while there are some fantastic lodges that may indeed be worth the splurge, we were shocked at how comfy the all-inclusive hostels were at a price point of only $15 per person.

So we compiled this comprehensive travel guide and tips on how to do the Quilotoa Loop 3-day trek the cheap & easy way so that anyone else pursuing this classic trek in Ecuador can be prepared to thoroughly enjoy it. It’s an incredible 3-day trek through the Ecuadorian highlands. For us, it has even proven to be a trekking highlight of the many hikes we’ve completed in mountain ranges around the world.

Quilotoa Loop Map of 3-Day Trek and Route

So what is the Quilotoa Loop?

The name of this Andean hiking route is a bit misleading. The common three-day Quilotoa Loop trek is actually not a loop hike at all. It’s a linear one-way trekking itinerary. The Quilotoa Loop trek is referenced as a “loop” only because buses connect the circuit. While it may be possible to hike this entire loop by trekking along roadways in many instances, this is rarely ever pursued.

The three-day route between Sigchos and Quilotoa is, by far, the most common Quilotoa Loop itinerary. This is for good reason. This 34-km (21-mile) stretch has beautiful scenery, well-marked trails, and excellent hostels.

Which Direction To Trek Quilotoa Loop?

The most common plan for the Quilotoa Loop 3-day trek is from Sigchos to Quilotoa. It’s a fine direction to go. Yet there are some good reasons to consider the reverse route too. In fact, that’s our recommendation for trekking the Quilotoa Loop the easy way. But do consider both options.

The Common 3-Day Quilotoa Loop Route: Sigchos to Quilotoa 

The benefit of doing the Quilotoa Loop trek from Sigchos to Quilotoa is reaching the rewarding payoff of the stunning Quilotoa Crater at the end of the trek. It can be a dramatic and gratifying way to finish the three-day trek.

But this comes with a significant tradeoff of having much more uphill hiking to tackle at increasingly higher altitude, particularly so on the final day. Because of these additional uphill portions, tackling the Quilotoa Loop from Sigchos to Quilotoa is a more demanding trek compared to the reverse route.

Some may argue that both directions still have a considerable amount of ascending, either way. This is partially true. Whichever direction is hiked, trekkers will inevitably need to cross the Sigui/Toachi River valley three times, climbing up the valley’s steep trails during each crossing. This occurs each day of the 3-day trek.

But there is much more ascending occurring during the common route from Sigchos to Quilotoa. It’s simple math. The elevation at the Sigchos bus terminal, where trekkers get dropped off, is exactly 2,893 meters high. The Quilotoa bus stop where trekkers finish is exactly 3,855 meters in elevation. That’s nearly a full 1,000 meters of elevation gain during the three-day trek. Here’s how it breaks down when going from Sigchos to Quilotoa:

      • Day 1: 41 meters (135 feet)
      • Day 2: 260 meters (853 feet)
      • Day 3: 661 meters (2,169 feet)
The Quilotoa Loop Reverse Route: Quilotoa to Sigchos

The reverse route enjoys significantly more downhill portions, particularly so on the first day when descending the crater rim. Since it is less demanding, it can make for a more enjoyable trek. The route itself is the same; it’s simply the reverse direction.

Going this reverse route on the Quilotoa Loop is a much better option for novice trekkers. Yet even experienced hikers may prefer the added ease of less uphill segments.

But make no mistake, there is still plenty of challenging uphill along this reverse route too. There is less of it though, compared to going the Sigchos-to-Quilotoa route. Here is the elevation change going the reverse route:

      • Day 1: 661 meters (2,169 feet)
      • Day 2: 260 meters (853 feet)
      • Day 3: 41 meters (135 feet)

Another potential benefit to going the reverse route is that it’s less common to pursue. So those looking for a more serene trek may enjoy going this direction, while passing oncoming hikers who inevitably cluster together when walking from Sigchos to Quilotoa.

Additionally, while taking the reverse route, the altitude only gets lower. So this only makes everything get easier each subsequent day.

The trade-off, of course, is that the reverse route begins at the Quilotoa Crater. So the trek starts by hiking several kilometers alongside the most scenic portion of the Quilotoa Loop. It can be a great way to begin with a bang! Yet it lacks the rewarding finish the more common direction can provide.

Meanwhile, when going the reverse route, trekkers finish in Sigchos. It’s a pleasant town with a nice central square and a few decent cafes. It’s the largest town along the 3-day Quilotoa trek and makes for a fine place to wrap up the trek. But it pales in comparison to the raw natural beauty the Quilotoa Crater delivers.

Deciding the Direction Between Quilotoa & Sigchos

So to decide on which direction to go, you’ll simply need to choose what you value more:

      • A more demanding hike that comes with a rewarding finish: Go Sigchos to Quilotoa
      • An easier trek with more downhill and decreasing elevation: Go the Reverse Route – Quilotoa to Sigchos

Because this guide is for the easy way to trek the Quilotoa Loop, we are covering the reverse route. It’s easier! But should you decide to go the common direction from Quilotoa to Sigchos, the remainder of this trekking guide should still prove helpful to follow in the opposite direction.

Planning Tips: Before Setting Off on the Quilotoa Loop Trek

If we were to only give one single piece of advice about the Quilotoa Loop, it would be this: download maps.me to your phone. This is a must.

You Won’t Get Lost With Maps.me

This free app is critical to have on the Quilotoa Loop. The app has all the Quilotoa Loop trail routes clearly marked on it. The app works offline with your phone’s GPS, so there’s no data or wifi required.

With this app in place, you can easily see exactly where you are and where you need to go. It makes it virtually impossible to get lost. When trekking the Quilotoa Loop, you’ll notice many different unmarked trails that fork off along the way. Maps.me takes away the guessing work so you can clearly determine which way to go.

Many of the Quilotoa Loop hostels provide some rough hand-drawn paper maps with directions. These maps are okay. But those who rely solely on them, do tend to get lost. Those hand-drawn Quilotoa Loop maps aren’t necessary anymore as long as you have this maps.me app.

Just be sure you have the app downloaded before you depart. Also, open the app while still connected to wifi to download the regional map of the Quilotoa area. You can do so within the app by simply navigating to that area of the Cotopaxi province and a prompt will pop-up to ask if you want to download to download them.

Plan to Acclimatize Before the Quilotoa Loop Trek to Avoid Altitude Sickness

People can begin to feel symptoms of altitude sickness at about 2,400 meters in elevation. As the highest elevations of the Quilotoa Loop trek hover around 4,000 meters in altitude, it would be foolish to immediately embark on this trek if arriving from sea level. It is definitely possible to experience altitude sickness on the Quilotoa Loop.

Those who have been traveling through the Andes will likely be just fine and have nothing to worry about. But others should build in several days into their Ecuador itinerary to acclimatize at moderate altitudes before pursuing the Quilotoa Loop.

Additionally, to help keep any potential altitude sickness symptoms away, be sure to keep very hydrated and consider laying off the booze for a few days. You may also want to consider bringing this Altitude RX natural altitude supplement that helps to increase oxygen, maximize energy, and prevent fatigue at altitude. Check price and reviews here on Amazon.

For the 3-Day Trek, Plan 4 Days Into Your Travel Itinerary

The Quilotoa Loop 3-day trek actually requires four days to complete. The reason for this is because an additional travel day is needed to reach the town of Latacunga on the day prior to beginning the Quilotoa Loop trek. Latacunga is the gateway to Quilotoa Loop and has all the bus connections. To embark early on the trek on “Day 1,” it’s necessary to arrive in Latacunga the day before. (We call this “Day 0.”)

If it’s not possible to budget four full days in your itinerary, shorter Quilotoa Loop routes are possible, pending on how much time you have. It’s feasible to do any portion of the three-day trek outlined in this guide and use public transportation to return to Latacunga. It’s also possible for more avid hikers to combine two days of trekking into one, hiking 22 kilometers in a day, in order to complete the three-day route in two days. That said, part of the appeal of the Quilotoa Loop is going slow and enjoying the surroundings, so it’s not recommended to rush through.

Stock Up On Cash

There are no banks or ATMs along the Quilotoa Loop trekking route between Sigchos and Quilotoa. The hostels and stores only accept cash. So before setting off, be sure to have the required cash. It’s possible to complete the entire trek on about $50 per person. We provide a complete budget breakdown later in this post to show exactly how.

Yet we’d strongly recommend bringing at least $100 per person, in case of additional expenses, emergencies, crafts you may want to purchase, and/or a few cervezas along the way. There are many good ATMs in Latacunga to retrieve cash before beginning the Quilotoa Loop trek.

Day-By-Day Quilotoa Loop Trek 3-Day Itinerary

The following day-by-day itinerary gives a breakdown to know exactly what to expect when trekking the reverse route of the Quilotoa Loop, from Quilotoa to Sigchos. Be prepared with knowing the logistics for the bus times, the best Quilotoa Loop hostels to stay at, and what to do in each of the Andean towns along the way.

      • Day 0: Arrive to Latacunga, explore the town, eat a chugchucara dinner, rest up.
      • Day 1: Bus from Latacunga t0 Quilotoa. Admire crater, maybe hike down. Trek 12km Quilotoa to Chugchilán.
      • Day 2: Trek 11km Chugchilán to Isinliví, the Loop’s ultimate chill-out town.
      • Day 3: Trek 11km Isinliví to Sigchos. Bus from Sigchos to Latacunga.

Beginning the Quilotoa Loop in Latacunga: Day 0 

Latacunga, Ecuador is the ideal spot to initially base yourself for a Quilotoa Loop 3-day trek. This pretty Andean town has regular bus connections to begin the trek in either Sigchos or Quilotoa. All of the hostels in Latacunga anticipate hikers and hence have secure storage rooms to hold heavy luggage so you can trek the Quilotoa Loop with only a light day pack.

Given Latacunga’s position along the Pan-American Highway, it’s an easy city to reach by bus from Quito, Baños, Ambato, Riobamba, and further points throughout Ecuador, with frequent connections.

It’s recommended to come to Latacunga one day before beginning the Quilotoa Loop. Doing so will allow for the early start that’s required on the following day for the 2-hour bus ride that precedes more than 10 kilometers of trekking. Staying overnight in Latacunga also gives the opportunity to leave that heavy luggage at your accommodation.

While in Latacunga, take an afternoon to explore the town. Poke around the local market, Mercado Cerrado. Climb to the viewpoint of Mirador El Calvario. Amble across Latacunga’s central park square, Parque Vicente Leon, and pop into the adjacent Cathedral and Municipal Palace.

Finally, have a gut-busting dinner of Latacunga’s local specialty, known as..

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As we roam around the world each year, we regularly use this blog to show some of our favorite experiences and destinations throughout the journey. We like to stay positive, upbeat, and inspire travel!

Yet, often what you see here and on our Facebook and Instagram feeds, is just the highlight reel.

The reality is that when it comes to travel, things don’t always go to plan. We have travel challenges. We make mistakes. We run into problems. We have bad days.

So each year we take an opportunity to reflect back on these snafus and air our grievances in what has become my favorite post to write annually. You can find the prior 4 years worth of worst moments archived here:

While some of these instances were painful to experience at the time, we hope you can have some laughs at some these misfortunes we’ve encountered over the past year.

Most of these travel tales are more of a lighthearted collection of funny stories, frustrations, and travel mishaps, rather than anything truly depressing. There were frightening and dicey situations along the way, yet some led to happy endings and many lessons learned.

The year began as we were in the midst of our pursuing our cheap around the world cruise without flights. And many predicaments put those ambitions in jeopardy.

It’s been a really fun year overall, but there was room for plenty of things to go wrong. So come have a laugh with us as we recount these short stories about when our travels became a little sh*tty.

Photo: Visiting PooPoo Land museum in Seoul. (Yes, there is such a place.)

1) Did We Get Slipped Something in Korea?

Where: Busan, South Korea

Why it made the list: Because blacking out is terrifying and this was the worst hangover ever.

The Story: If you follow our weekly #ThirstyThursday posts on our Facebook Page, then you know we’re seasoned drinkers. We like to kick back a few and have a love affair with beers around the world. But we can hold our liquor.

Yet soon after arriving to Busan, South Korea, we decided to have a night out in this beachside metropolis. We had been diving deep into South Korean culture, discovering the local cuisine. We wanted a little break from that to simply let loose and indulge in some comforts from home that can feel so nice after being on the road for a long time. So, we started the evening with a few excellent craft beers and some pizza at a local brewpub. We had a good base in our stomachs and perhaps just the slightest buzz as we walked over to a nearby bar to rock out!

We had actually found a small little bar hosting a local Korean band jamming out punk-pop classics from the 90’s and early 2000’s. We simply couldn’t miss this.

We hit the bar and ordered a pitcher of the local swill. That would be South Korea’s Cass beer, which is quite possibly the worst national beer we’ve subjected ourselves to. Still, it’s beer and we’ll gladly drink it.

So drink we did. Meanwhile, the band belted out hits from Green Day to Blink 182, complete with endearing Korean accents throughout. It was great fun and these young Korean guys were awesome!

This was all over the course of several hours. And with our aversion to Cass beer, we weren’t drinking quickly. It’s only a 4% beer too, so it’s nothing that’ll really knock you down.

A Metallica cover band then took the stage. It was about halfway through their set as Enter Sandman dragged on an ear-piercing decibel, we could feel that something wasn’t quite right. And it wasn’t the music.

I turned to Heather and said something like, “I’m feeling really drunk, we need to go.” She let me know the feeling was mutual and that’s about the last thing we each remember. There are blurred recollections of stumbling back to our apartment, which was a fifteen-minute walk away in freezing temperatures.

We apparently made it back safely but awoke the next day feeling absolutely miserable. It was hands down one of the worst hangovers of our lives. The strange thing is that we really didn’t drink that much over the course of what was about five hours. We maybe averaged about one beer per hour, if that, which is really nothing by our standards.

So how the heck did we get so drunk?

We’ll never really know for sure. But we think someone may have slipped something into our pitcher while we were rocking out and had our eyes on the band. If not a drug, perhaps someone thought it would be funny to add soju to our pitcher. It’s a strong tasteless alcohol that’s very popular in Korea and notorious for hangovers. That would certainly explain the after-effects we were feeling.

South Korea is an overwhelming safe country to travel. There are sketchy places in the world we’ve visited that we’d watch any drink like a hawk. But South Korea is so friendly and so safe. As such, we may have let our guards down, as we did not keep an eye on our pitcher.

We didn’t think such instances occur in South Korea. But, really, this could happen in any big city anywhere in the world, from New York to London to Sydney. We shouldn’t have let our guard down. We later found a warning about this occurring in Seoul and also on a more recent Reddit thread, which has helped to support our suspicions.

Silver Linings:

  • It was a really fun night before things took a turn.
  • Thankfully, we knew it was time to leave and quickly get back safely.
  • Being immobilized with the worst hangovers ever presented us with the rare opportunity to stay in bed all day binging Netflix, which is something we otherwise never indulge in.

Lesson Learned: Don’t let your guard down, even in seemingly safe surroundings.

2) Taking a Wrong Turn in the Middle of Nowhere 

Where: Wolchulsan National Park, South Korea

Why it made the list: It’s the furthest lost we’ve ever been in a remote location.

The Story: One of the aspects that amazed us so much about South Korea was the incredible scenery and hiking routes throughout the country. Yet during the mid-winter months of our visit, they’re rarely pursued. But we weren’t going to let a bit of snow halt our trekking ambitions!

So we set off to hike the craggy peaks of Wolchulsan National Park. It’s a somewhat remote and lesser visited national park in South Korea, that took us nearly two hours by bus then a final taxi to reach the trailhead. This already put us in a precarious position, as we were pursuing a one-way hike in which we’d really need to move quickly to complete the 6-hour trek before dark.

There were no cars in the parking lot, indicating we were the only hikers tackling this trail on this cold winter weekday. So we set off through a beautiful bamboo forest and up the mountainside.

Being a National Park, the trails are fairly well marked, even with occasional map placards. We began our trek on what was just a short loop trail which we eventually needed to fork off onto the one-way mountain route.

We got to a fork and there was a sign in Korean with cuddly bear characters extending their hands out as indicating “stop.” Not being able to read the Korean message on this sign, we figured the bears were just letting us know to be careful and not trample the natural beauty of the trail. So we continued on this path, through the forest and way up the mountain.

We ascended for another few hours and were a bit surprised not to see any other trail markers or signs, despite looking like a well-worn trail. We considered turning back, yet if we were to backtrack at that point, we never would never complete our one-way route before dark. We pressed on.

Eventually, we emerged from the forest high onto a mountaintop with an incredible view, a small dwelling, and absolutely no further indication on where to continue.

We were hours away from where we began, nervous, a little scared, and growing tired, all in the middle of nowhere. What a fiasco!

We came to the conclusion that we must have hiked up the wrong way. We were so far off course and determined our best action would be to backtrack to the trailhead to embark on a longer trek in the dark to the highway, as there’d be no taxi waiting. This was not a good situation to be in.

But it was right when we were about to turn back that we were astonished to see a lone Buddhist monk magically emerge from the dwelling.

Confused, he asked us in extremely broken English, what the heck we were doing here. We explained and he quickly invited us in for some green tea. He then told us that he was here for solitary meditation and that we were the first people he’s seen in over three months!

We felt horrible that we disrupted his multi-month meditation and apologized profusely. Yet in some way, it kinda felt like he welcomed the distraction of our presence. As we sipped hot tea together on the barren floor, he offered to guide us on a “short-cut” back to the main trail so we could complete our hike. We didn’t hesitate to accept. And off we went!

There was no longer a trail and this very fit monk had us scaling icy mountain ridges with sheer drop-offs on either side. It was really becoming quite a dangerous backcountry trek, as our shoes were losing grip on the ice. But the views, wow!

We were keeping an eye on the time, knowing that daylight was fleeting on this treacherous terrain. But the kind monk, being a monk, insisted on us pausing to appreciate the nature that surrounded and even providing us with some brief teachings of Buddhism.

We were quite the trio up in the mountaintops of uncharted South Korean wilderness. It was just one of those surreal moments where we had to ask ourselves “is this really happening?”

Sometimes I don’t know how we get ourselves into these situations.

We finally connected back up with the trail and were going to say our farewells to the monk. But then he asked if we’d like for him to continue with us. Of course!

Although the monk lives full-time way up here in solitude, he revealed that it had been years since he made this trek from his humble abode. We felt so incredibly humbled and honored for him to lead us out of harms’ way. We let him know this. And he eventually shared with us that our presence of hiking with him brought him great joy. There was something special happening on this mountaintop in Korea, as if this rendezvous was meant to be.

As feared, night soon fell upon us. Yet the moon provided us with enough light to complete the trek down the mountain on safer terrain. Once we got to the end, we hadn’t a clue how we’d get back to the bus station, which was at least another five miles away.

It was then the monk surprised us yet again. He pulled out a flip phone, called someone, and within minutes an SUV arrived to whisk us away. We were then invited to stay the night in a nearby temple. But we had to return to our hotel that night since we were checking out early the next morning.

We were driven to the bus station and the monk made an odd request for us to stay in the car, as he went into the bus station. He then came back to the car with bus tickets he had purchased for us and adamantly refused our money. Instead, he thanked us for the joy we brought him. What a day!

Silver Lining: This happy ending is so full of silver linings. While we’ve listed this tale of getting lost as one of our worst moments of the year, it really turned out to be one of the best ever.

Lesson Learned:

  • When you see signs in Korea with bears telling you to stop, heed their warning.
  • Sometimes things are meant to be. Just go with the flow.
  • Have faith in the kindness of strangers.

  

3) Getting Denied Entry to China 

Where: Seoul, South Korea

Why it made the list: Because it was the most painstaking visa process we’ve ever had to go through and deflating to get denied.

The Story: To enter China, we needed a coveted visa. China was not only a country we had been yearning to travel through, but our passage was necessary to complete our around the world trip without flights.

There are visa processing agencies that you can pay to help procure such visas. But you’re still required to submit much of the same paperwork. So for budget travelers like us, we prefer to save our travel funds and attempt to do it ourselves.

So we purposely planned to stay in Seoul for over a half month simply to take care of this travel chore, where there was a Chinese Embassy. It was quite a painstaking process to organize while abroad and requires relinquishing your passport to the embassy for days, or weeks. As a result, you can’t really move about anywhere without your passport. So we lingered in Seoul to go through all the red tape.

It actually took us four separate trips to the China embassy as we were denied the visa during our first few attempts. It’s important to be excruciatingly detailed in meeting the many requirements. We thought we had it right the first time but we did not.

During countless trips to Kinkos, we ultimately printed a grand total of 154 pages of forms in addition to our detailed itinerary of the monthlong trip we planned throughout the country. Add to that the proof of all our hotel bookings and train reservations and we had enough paperwork to assemble a novel.

Yet to muddy the waters further, we couldn’t provide proof of flying into China or exiting China, since we weren’t taking any flights. We were actually taking a ferry from South Korea to China. But the ferry would not sell us tickets unless we had proof of a China visa. Meanwhile, the China embassy would not issue us a visa without proof of a ferry ticket into China. So which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

We were stuck. After much pleading, the ferry company finally sold us a ticket despite not having a visa. So we were proceeding forward again.

Then it seemed like they were just looking for petty reasons to deny our entry. For example, there was a single strand of hair on one of the photos Heather submitted that ever-so-slightly covered her ear. That was reason enough to be denied yet again.

That meticulous China itinerary we had planned out and all of our paid reservations were about to be squandered by the fact we couldn’t get into the country. We had allotted extra time in Seoul in the instance this may happen, but even this buffer time was about to run out.

But ultimately our determination paid off. After many photo shots, a ridiculous amount of paperwork, $402 worth of fees, and four trips to the China embassy, we finally got our coveted visa!

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