A few kilometers outside the famous leather town of Cotacachi is high mountain lake tucked into an ancient caldera of an extinct volcano. The lake is named Cuicocha, which in Quichua means the Lake of the Cuy (or Guinea Pig). There is some debate as to the origin of the name with some claiming that it comes from the large number of cuy that lived on one of the islands and others claiming that the larger island is shaped like a guinea pig. Either way, the name Cuicocha has stuck.
In the center of the lake lie two islands: Yerovi and Teodoro Wolf. People are not allowed on either island. It is possible to take a boat trip out and view a wide variety of birds from the small craft however the trip is not meant for birders but for the average tourist. Plan on sitting next to your twenty closest friends, elbow to elbow, on the weekends. If you’re interested in birding, I would consider asking a guide for a trip specifically for that purpose.
We chose to skip the boat trip after watching one flounder when it’s engine failed. It slowly drifted along the lake edge until it was stuck in the reeds while the pilot attempted to get the engine started. After a good 45 minutes or so (we were eating lunch in the restaurant with a view of the lake, which we can highly recommend), another boat came out to tow this one back to port. Be warned, boat trips in Ecuador come with a caveat – engines may fail at anytime.
Instead of heading out on the water, we hiked one of the short, but very interesting trails that run along the edge of the crater rim. You can access this trail through the visitor center gardens, right next to the Lake. Just hike up the trail that leads to the right. Or, if you are with a taxi or bus tour, you can have them drop you off at the entrance to the park, access the trail from there and hike towards the visitor center, making it a one way trip.
The trail is well maintained and provides great views of the lake and of the mysterious islands. The Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, which manages the land, has also built a variety of astrological sites based on Incan models. We saw both solar and lunar calendars that mark the annual calendar and a fountain that is used in ritual bathing by locals living in the area. We were also able to hear birds but think birdwatching would be much better in the early morning before fellow tourists are likely to join you.
It is possible to hike all the way around the lake, but plan on a full day, start early, take water and food, be prepared for extreme weather, and enjoy. For the shorter hike, a bottle of water and protection from the equatorial sun should be plenty. If it starts to rain, the trail is short enough to rush to either end to find shelter.
Visitor's Center, Laguna Cuicocha
Information For Your Trip
Be prepared for all weather as conditions can change rapidly in the high Andes. There is a restaurant on site that is open on holidays and weekends. Mid-week it would be a safe bet to bring food. Carry plenty of water for hiking, wear a hat and sunscreen for protection from the high altitude sunshine.
- Direction by Car, use WAZE and look for Laguna de Cuicocha, Provincia de Imbabura
- Direction by Public Transportation take the bus from Otavalo to Cotacachi. From there, hire a taxi.