Ecuador: the only way is up

The Americas

Chapter 25

Ecuador – it’s a small country probably best known as home of the Galapagos Islands and of course, the Equator.  Initial research suggested that we had a choice of coastal, lowland jungle or highland routes.  As our experiences in the Central American sauna have left us with a deep fear of going anywhere near sea level, the mountains it was. 

Crossing the border at Tulcan we immediately turned off the highway and towards the El Angel Reserve.  This route is well documented by touring cyclists and the directions were clear …

‘Turn left past the church with the Hitler gnome statue’ … okay, got that
And then we were off on to a dirt track that climbed gradually into the reserve, with the vegetation changing from farmland to high altitude grassland
Our ‘stealth’ bush camp wasn’t very stealthy, as we were quickly spotted and paid a visit by some friendly locals
As we continued climbing the next day, the first frailejón plants began to appear ..
And soon the landscape was a carpet of these spectacular plants
Frailejóns are a member of the sunflower family, native to high altitude grasslands in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador

The leaves are thick and furry to protect the plant from the cold .. and are also nice to stroke
From the ranger base there is a nice hike out to some icy cold lakes …
Frailejóns everywhere!

Once we descended from El Angel, we made tracks for the market town of Otavalo.  Unfortunately this involved way too much time riding on our new least favourite surface – Ecuador’s ubiquitous cobbled roads.

Cobbles = pain face

Past a few little pueblos, noting the Ecuadorian version of the village store
We stopped for lunch in the plaza at the friendly little town of Urcuqui, admiring the traditional dress of the local indigenous women
The locals a little bemused by the arrival of a couple of gringos on bikes
Pleasant riding through agricultural landscapes, with the ever-present background of one or two of Ecuador’s chain of volcanos

Arriving in Otavalo we settled in for a ‘rest’ day, really just an opportunity for me to visit the renowned market and look at all the snuggly alpaca wool blankets, rugs, shawls, scarfs, jumpers, hats, mittens and other paraphernalia that I couldn’t buy. Alas, Ed holds firm on the ‘you buy it, you carry it’ rule, and I’m having enough trouble clawing my way up Ecuador’s steep road grades as it is.

Market goodies in Otavalo

British cyclist Ruth – ‘of course I can fit a poncho in my panniers’
Hats and plaits – and that’s just the men
Scarves in all the colours
Snuggly alpaca shawls
And hats, always hats
Leaving Otavalo it was a particularly brutal climb up a wet cobbled track to reach Lake Mojanda …
A pretty spot, but absolutely freezing so we ate lunch quickly and moved on, skirting the edge of the lake
This section of the Trans Ecuador Mountainbike Route (TEMBR) was a delight – gorgeous scenery, swooping down a rough and rutted track with absolutely no-one around.
That was until we reached a section where a huge landslide had wiped out the track …
A bit of bike & hike, and some push and shove and we came out the other side
So quiet, we barely saw a car as we meandered towards Quito …
Happy to find the roads less cobbled
Popping out on to a sealed road stretch, we found an appropriately low key marker for the Equator – just a splash of paint on the kerb
Before we turn back on to an overgrown track that wound along high above a river on the outskirts of Quito
Later that day we arrive at the ‘Casa de Cyclista’ just outside Quito in the suburb of Tumbaco, and set up in Santiago’s garden
Santiago and his family have been hosting weary bike tourers for years, and the walls of the ‘bunker’ stand as a record of those who came before …

We were fortunate to find a crack in one of Ed’s bike disc brake rotors while we were here – a quick rustle through his bike shed and Santiago was able to produce a couple of barely used spares for us.  Before long we’ve had to replace all our rotors, with both rotors and brake pads quickly falling victim to Ecuador’s crazy steep road gradients.  

It was a tough ride out from Tumbaco heading towards Cotopaxi National Park.  Steep cobbled climbs brought tears to our eyes as we climbed and climbed some more.

Looking for a bush camp just before entering the national park
It was a freezing and incredibly windy ride, with Volcano Cotopaxi playing hide and seek amongst the clouds as we approached
Shrouded in cloud – Cotopaxi is considered Ecuador’s most dangerous volcano, with a long history of bad behaviour.  It has erupted 87 times since the first recorded activity in 1534 
Not a bad place to ride your bike
But by the time we’d found a camp spot the mountain had been swallowed in cloud – and the next morning we woke to thick fog

From Cotopaxi we headed west towards Lake Quilotoa. Diverting off the TEMBR briefly, we aimed for the town of Sigchos, a glorious ride on a quiet narrow road that dropped into a dramatic canyon before finishing with a steep uphill pinch.  The next days ride featured a couple of the more spectacular road collapses we’ve seen thus far, with large sections of the relatively new road having fallen away. 

Best not to get too absorbed in the view …

And again …
Quilotoa crater and lake – a little chilly at over 3800m
And then it was on to the little pueblo of Zumbahua …
Where our hosts at the Hostal Condor Matzi may have been a little short in stature but were big on hospitality

Now back on the TEMBR we settled in for a few days of deserted back roads, the odd llama for company and the usual ups and downs.

Don’t be allama’ed
Loving the serenity
An abandoned church at the top of a pass, definitely worse for wear with a large section of roof having fallen in
About the only traffic we saw on this stretch, apart from the occasional motorbike
Pausing in Angamarca, despite the fancy church this was a particularly grubby and dingy village, although no less friendly
And so we continued on, finding a peaceful spot a little further up the track for the night
The next day started with some uphill pushing, a not unusual theme on the TEMBR
The usual passing traffic
And some more pushing
Even small towns often have a bullring, with bullfights a feature of local festivals
Payback time!
Things went to custard a bit with this section, which dropped steeply off the escarpment towards Simiatug
More of this please
Random pueblo stop off to collect water
A few abandoned looking buildings in a bleak landscape
A woman opened up this tiny shop for us, but pickings were very lean, luckily we caught the fruit truck as it came past …
After a long uphill slog we rounded a corner to catch our first glimpse of Volcano Chimborazo …
At 6263m this is Ecuador’s highest mountain and the sight gave our flagging spirits a lift – enough to send us charging towards the peak to seek out a spot to pitch the tent for an evenings volcano watching ….
Mission accomplished!
Clear skies the next morning meant a captivating ride as we drew closer to the base of the volcano
Volcano and vicuñas

It was great to see dozens of vicuñas as we rode through the Chimborazo reserve.  Vicuñas are a wild camelid species related to the llama and native to the high Andes.  Highly valued by the Incas for their extremely fine wool, it was illegal for anyone other than royalty to wear vicuña clothing.  However, following the arrival of the Spanish, vicuñas were extensively hunted and were declared an endangered species in 1974.  The species was locally extinct in the Ecuadorian páramo prior to the commencement of a reintroduction program in the late 1980’s.  The most recent census now shows a population in excess of 7000 individuals in the Chimborazo region.

After descending from Chimborazo, and facing some inclement weather, we headed directly to Alausi.  Our timing was off so we missed the arrival of the train, which basically chugs up the main street of town.  

The indigenous women of Alausi wore beautifully decorated skirts, shawls and particularly jaunty hats
The train is basically a tourist service these days, taking railway aficionados from Riobamba to Alausi via the famed ‘Devil’s Nose’ – a series of zigzags up a near vertical rock wall with a 1 in 18 gradient
Must be a guy thing
Hanging out in the courtyard of our hostal in Alausi
A roadside church with a beautifully carved entrance
Cuenca – a great city for a few days R & R, with some spectacular colonial archictecture
Entrance to the main cathedral
Back on the TEMBR for a nice section along a river valley into the city of Loja
With a convenient church porch for lunchtime shade
Traditional clothing accessorised with less traditional phone and handbag
Vilcabamba – perhaps best known for the deluge of American retirees who descended on the region after a Reader’s Digest feature documented the extraordinary longevity of the town’s residents

Approaching the border the road continued relentlessly up and downhill at seemingly impossible gradients.  Feeling increasingly weary after weeks of tough riding, we kept our days short and spent afternoons lazing around in the plazas of small villages where we could usually find a cheap hostal in which to spend the night.

Another day – another colourful Ecuadorian town plaza
Wondering if Peru is just over that next climb …
La Balsa is not exactly a major border crossing – which is reflected in the road conditions
One last pinch and we’re there … the road to the border

Finally we rolled up at the tiny border post of La Balsa.  The place was buzzing by local standards, and unlike others ahead of us we didn’t need to seek out the border official, who was actually both in his office and awake when we arrived.

So now we are in Peru – where the mountains are higher and the hats even larger than we have previously encountered.  If initial experiences are anything to go by it’s going to be another cracker of a ride …..

Rubber side down,

Ed & Gaye

14 comments on “Ecuador: the only way is up

      1. I love your blog,rekindling memories.I stopped riding in Quito at the casa de ciclistas where I met Ruth, after cycling 25800 km from Recife, Brazil down the East coast to Ushuaia and North again on the West coast. You’ll love the trip down South. Stay on the carretera Austral. Happy cycling Detlev

  1. Gaye amazing photos and even more an amazing ride. What a tough country. Love both your blogs and videos. Enjoy Peru and hope it’s not tough. Looking forward to hearing about this country. Cheers.

  2. Fantastic high definition photos. I can’t imagine some of those ascents and descents. How many rotors and sets of pads do you estimate you have worn out? Enjoy the descents in Peru?

    1. Cheers Bob! We replaced all rotors after Ed broke both his. I think we’ve used 4-5 sets of pads each & we are heading out now to a bike shop in Huarez to look for more spares ….!

  3. I love reading about your adventures. Some of the towns you went through in Ecuador were places my brother lived nearly 20 years ago! I can’t believe you’ve been riding almost a year since we camped with you in Zion National Park.

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