Photo: Ecuadorpostales/Shutterstock

Four Dazzling Lakes in Ecuador You Can Reach on a Day Trip From Quito

Ecuador Hiking Beaches and Islands
by Stephanie Frias Jun 30, 2023

Quito, Ecuador, is a brightly hued city in the country’s highlands. It’s often the home base from which people explore the country, though you could easily spend your whole trip wandering through the streets of the city’s UNESCO-Heritage-designated Old Town.

Quito can be the perfect base for day trips to see some of the country’s prettiest Andean landscapes, including Cotopaxi National Park, one of Ecuador’s stunning highland preserves. And while Cotopaxi is probably the most popular destination, there are plenty of gorgeous lakes in Ecuador you can reach from the city just as beautiful as the national park. The region around Quito is splashed with hundreds of remote, scenic lakes, many of which are in calderas formed from volcanic explosions thousands of years ago.

The startling beautiful lakes in Ecuador around Quito may be the country’s best-kept secret. For your first trip,  visit at least one of the four lakes below, all easily reachable on a one-day tour from Quito.

Quilotoa Lake, Ecuador

Quilotoa Lake Ecuador and alpacas

Photo: ireneuke/Shutterstock

  • Distance from Quito: 111 miles (approx. three hours)
  • Map

Hidden away in the Andes range about three hours southwest of Quito, Quilotoa Lake is a 2-mile-wide caldera that offers a majestic perspective of the Ring of Fire (the 25,000-mile-long string of volcanoes along the Pacific Rim in the Americas and Asia). The jewel-colored lake sits in a crater crowned by a fringe of jagged peaks formed during its eruption some 3,000 years ago.

The vibrant blue and green hues of the water result from continually dissolving volcanic minerals. Still, the seemingly color-changing properties of the lake are mostly credited to variations in overhead sun and cloud cover. The acidic content of the water doesn’t invite an abundance of life (mostly just algae and microorganisms), and it’s not good for swimming.  But the calm, majestic pool is ideal for a heavenly kayaking experience, which you can do with companies like Ecua Traveling on a one-day tour from Quito. You can also rent kayaks on your own near the lake’s shoreline if you don’t need the transportation from Quito.

However, the reason why this is one of the prettiest lakes in Ecuador for the adventure-minded folks is the variety of hiking, horseback riding, and llama trekking trails around the lake.

Quilotoa Lake is perched a dizzying 12,000 feet up in the Andean mountains, so it’s essential that you acclimate and make appropriate considerations for high-altitude hiking before beginning any trip. The main trails include the multi-day Quilotoa Loop Trail (22 miles, 8,100-foot elevation gain),  the 6.4-mile Lagoon Loop (2,620 feet of elevation gain), and the steep downhill hike from the viewpoint to the water’s surface (2.2 miles round trip, with 1,190 feet of gain — all on the return).

Mojanda Lakes, Ecuador

One of the Mojanda Lakes, with stunningly green pajama grasses in the foreground and green hills in background

Photo: Santiago Cornejo/Shutterstock

  • Distance from Quito: 44 miles (approx. 1 hour, 45 minutes)
  • Map

South of the town of Otavalo (home to a beloved and colorful textile market) are three of the prettiest lakes in Ecuador: the Lagunas de Mojanda. The trio of lakes are among the least-crowded near Quito, mostly due to their remote, dirt-road access.

The three lakes are named in the native indigenous language as Caricocha (Man Lake), Huarmicocha (Woman Lake), and Yanacocha (Black Lake). Each is independently breathtaking, with layers upon layers of natural colors, from dark interior waters to clear blues just off the Caribbean-like beaches. But unlike the Caribbean, all of this is framed by mysterious and cloudy Andean peaks.

The area surrounding the Mojanda Lakes is one of the few officially approved wild/backcountry camping areas in Ecuador. However, the Andean moorlands can be both windy and cold with unpredictable weather, so you should be adequately experienced and prepared for remote, high-altitude camping before pitching a tent here. Otherwise, the steep-but-short Fuya Fuya Trail (2.6 miles, 1,900-foot gain) is doable for most hikers in average shape. It offers expansive views of all three lakes and the surrounding Imbabura, Cotacachi, and Cayambe volcanos.

San Pablo Lake, Ecuador

lakes in ecuador - san pablo

Photo: Ramiro Jarrin/Shutterstock

  • Distance from Quito: 54 miles (approx. 2 hours)
  • Map

Glistening San Pablo Lake is quite close to the Otavalo textile market, making it a nice addition to an Ecuador lakes trip if you’re already planning to visit Mojanda Lakes. The land around the lake is rolling crop fields and towering volcanoes with a sprinkling of hostels dotted in between. It has a rather local vibe compared to other lakes in the area, and common sights include scenes of families rowing traditional reed boats, children learning to sail, farmers bringing their cows to the shoreline, and an occasional hot air balloon drifting by. Then, come September, the locals gleefully take an annual plunge into the frigid water during the traditional Yamor Festival — a sight definitely worth seeing.

Alongside the cultural charm, San Pablo Lake is also a nature enthusiast’s dream. It’s surrounded by hiking, biking, paddling, and horseback riding opportunities. Favorite trails around the lake include the 5.8-mile trail to the Imbabura Volcano summit, the 4-mile round-trip hike to the Peguche Waterfall, or the thousand-year-old tree near the El Lechero viewpoint.

It’s also one of the most recommended lakes in Ecuador to visit if you like birding. San Pablo Lake harbors a vibrant array of birds, including the massive Andean condor, blue-billed Andean ruddy duck, herons, coots, sandpipers, and dozens of hummingbird species. And birders can also visit the nearby Condor Park bird sanctuary, dedicated to the rescue and conservation of owls, hawks, falcons, and condors.

Cuicocha Crater Lake, Ecuador

lakes in ecuador - cuicocha lake

Photo: Janis Apels/Shutterstock

  • Distance from Quito: 66 miles (approx. 2 hours, 20 minutes)
  • Map

About 30 minutes west of Otavalo, a day trip to Cuicocha Crater Lake from Quito isn’t too much of a stretch. But for most people, it’s one of the best lakes in Ecuador to visit on a multi-day trip with companies like Tours by Locals or Original Ecuador, both of which include opportunities to boat on the lake and hike in the surrounding protected area.

Cuicocha Lake is in the Cotacachi-Cayapas National Reserve, one of nine in Ecuador dedicated explicitly to conserving biological diversity. That makes the volcanic grasslands and Cuicocha Lake and its islands among the most pristine in the Andes.

Cuicocha Lake is a deep and sprawling crater lake with impressive green cliff walls and two forested lava dome islands formed during a volcanic explosion thousands of years ago. The islands are protected from foot traffic, and the water is too alkaline for swimming, but it’s one of the best lakes in Ecuador for boat touring. Boat tours bob through canals and skirt along the island shores in search of wildlife, and you can buy tickets on arrival to the park.

The boat tour is less than an hour, making it the perfect complement to the spectacular hike that loops around the crater rim. The Cuicocha Lake Trail is a 7.7-mile loop with about 2,100 feet of elevation gain. For most people, it takes between 4 and 6 hours to complete. It’s particularly appreciated for its isolation and immersion into alternating paramo and forested landscapes beneath the Cotacachi Volcano — and of course, for the elevated, panoramic views of Cuichocha Lake and its islands.

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.