What does an Andean breakfast consist of? It starts with a minimum of 1000m of steep climbing, toss in a good helping of hike-a-bike, add some gnarly cobblestones and/or deep mud, perhaps a dash of sand, some singletrack, and some of the most spectacular terrain and views found anywhere, then repeat. That’s pretty much how we would start our mornings for this 7 day, 500km bikepacking expedition with countless meters of elevation gain across the high central Andean volcanoes of Ecuador.
I first found out about Chumba Cycles while racing the TNGA in 2014 when I tied for first place “rookie” with Chumba Team Racer Joey Parent. We got along well and rode almost the race together and his URSA bike was ideal for the race. After that I knew I wanted to be a part of the Chumba community, but I moved to Ecuador a few days after the race, so I had to shelve the idea. So when Operations Manager Vince Colvin contacted me about organizing a multi-day bikepacking trip in Ecuador for Chumba Cycles USA; I jumped on the chance and joined the team.
Vince wanted to a ride that showcased some of the highlights of the central Andean volcanoes and featured as much singletrack as possible. Through stage races, talking with my local rider friends, and weekend-long bikepacking trips I was able to piece together an ideal route that would meet those criteria. I had done bits of pieces of the proposed route that were spectacular, so as long as the rest of the route followed suit, I knew we would be in for a stellar experience. Vince also got in touch with the man, the myth, the legend Cass Gilbert of WhileOutRiding, and he was interested in joining the ride. He had just completed a crossing of the entire Ecuadorian Andes Divide, so he would be able to fill in the gaps of areas I hadn’t been to and take us through some sweet terrain. The route we finalized would take us to some of the most emblematic regions in Ecuador- Cotopaxi, Quilotoa, and Chimborazo, passing through some really remote highland (páramo) areas in between.
After a bit more logistics and planning, Vince was in Ecuador with my new Chumba Stella XT plus the full suite of custom Chumba bikepacking bags made by Wanderlust Gear. The poor guy had traveled with all of his equipment and an URSA XT in addition to my stuff-but I was grateful to have the sweet new rig to bring along for our crossing of the central Andean volcanoes.
Vince was also doing a family vacation down here, so instead of starting the ride from Quito (in my case) and Pifo (in Cass’ case), he would meet us in Cotpaxi National Park at the end of the first leg. This was a great decision since we woke up on Sunday morning to an absolute downpour. Even for Ecuador standards, this was incredibly heavy rain. It was so bad, several of my friends who were in Cotopaxi and Chimborazo contacted me to warn of flooding and miserable conditions. Cass and I tried to hold off on starting the ride until as late as possible, thinking it couldn’t rain this hard for more than a couple hours, but by 9am or so we knew we had to get going if we wanted to get to Tambopaxi before dark.
I reluctantly left my apartment in Quito, and despite my raingear, was soaked and freezing within minutes. From Quito, I began the ride with a 1000m (normally) blisteringly fast descent down to Tumbaco, but visibility was so limited that I had to go slow. From Tumbaco, I continued on pavement across the Valle los Chillos for a couple of hours before finally turning off onto gravel and cobblestone on route to Pintag. Cass was staying near Pifo, so his ride to Pintag was a lot shorter, and he had arrived in town before me and was already eating and drying himself out by the time I arrived, cold and hungry. I found a little grease pit street stall and filled myself with a greasy gut bomb that warmed me up considerably. While we were eating the rain finally subsided-which was fortunate. If it was this cold at 2500m, I didn’t want to think about riding for several more hours in the cold rain up to 4000m! After stocking up on Pintag’s famous sweet-cheese filled bread, we began the long climb up to the páramo on particularly nasty cobblestone roads.
Although I’ve done a lot of bikepacking trips and races, I’ve always elected to go ultralight and fast, foregoing comfort for speed and distance. This trip would be different-we’d be taking 7 days to cover a distance I would normally cover in about 3 days going “race” style. So for this trip, I had packed substantially more gear, food, and clothing than usual, so my bike was far heavier than what I’m used to. Due to the extra weight, I was really suffering on the cobblestone climbs-my muscles just weren’t used to cranking so hard in the saddle. To add to the difficulty, Ecuador cobblestones really sap your speed and energy and bounce you around like a toy. I was definitely envious of the 29er+ which seemed to just eat the cobblestones up.
Fortunately, after a couple hours of climbing, the road turned to pretty gnarly jeep truck punctuated by huge, pond sized mud puddles-these difficulties actually broke up the monotony of the climb and made things more challenging and enjoyable, so I was able to forget my heavy load. We kept climbing and the landscape finally gave way to Ecuadorian páramo or northern South America alpine tundra ecosystem, which is a neotropical high mountain biome with a vegetation composed mainly of giant rosette plants, shrubs and grasses. Some biologists consider páramos to be evolutionary hot spots and among the fastest evolving regions on Earth! Ecuador is packed full of superlatives such as this…As an ecologist and backcountry cyclist-its a veritable paradise for me. I absolutely love this stark, haunting landscape and try to get up to the páramo whenever possible. Once we were pedaling through the páramo, all memories of the mornings epic sufferfest began to fade and we just cruised along, taking in the scenery and feeling lucky the rain had stopped and we had a full week of this ahead of us!
We arrived at Tambopaxi by late afternoon, making pretty good time overall. Vince was there, nice and dry, with his tarp already set up. Tambopaxi is a great little mountain refuge right at the base of Cotopaxi volcano. I had camped here several times for summit climbs while the Refugio at 4800m was being we reconstructed. The problem is that meals are incredibly expensive-$17 for lunch or dinner. That might sound reasonable for NYC, but in Ecuador, even in nice neighborhoods in Quito, you can get an awesome 3-course lunch for $2.50. Needless to say, we stuck with camp food-noodles and tuna for that night. While we were eating the clouds actually lifted a bit and Vince got his first views of the stunning, perfectly symmetrical, conical volcano. We went to bed that night under a waxing gibous moon reflecting off the glacier-this is the life!
Our plan for Monday was to travel around the base of Cotopaxi volcano through some of the most spectacular volcanic páramo in Ecuador, so we didn’t plan to cover a lot of kilometers that day to allow plenty of time for photos and just to enjoy the peaceful, remote landscape.
The last few kilometers of the day through deep mud and soggy grasses were pretty difficult, and we were above 3500m by the time we found a Inca shepard’s choza (the design of these thatched roof huts is incredible and remains largely unchanged after millennia of use-they shed water and stay dry and warm even in this cold, rainsoaked, humid environment). Unfortunately it was locked, but there was a cement storage building next door that we were able to use for the night. Not as warm as cozy as the choza, but better than sleeping out in the open.
We knew we had a harder day ahead of us on Tuesday – starting with an Andean breakfast consisting of a burly hike-a-bike up to 4200m+ over El Morro, then another big climb before finally descending to the Panamericana Highway, followed by another ascent towards Quilotoa before the day was done, so shortly after another noodle and tuna dinner, we turned in early and got a good night’s sleep.
After starting on some fun páramo-style singletrack, the hike-a-bike over the Morro actually wasn’t that bad. Near the top we saw two massive Andean condors up close. What a way to start the day! We were then rewarded with an incredibly fast 20km descent down to a low valley. From there, we had a super steep, sandy climb up switchbacks to yet another pass, albeit a lower one than El Morro. From the pass, we had a fun descent on a mix of sandy double and singletrack. We were speeding our way down off the páramo when I looked up and noticed a small strand of barbed wire strung across the trail at neck level, and Cass was racing toward it at high speed. I called out when he was just a few meters from getting clotheslined, just as he himself noticed the wire, and he slammed on his brakes, coming to a stop just inches from the barbs. Whew, close call…
We cruised into Lasso, a small highway town along the Panamericana, had a $2 almuerzo (set lunch), stocked up on supplies and were on our way just as it began to drizzle, which fortunately didn’t materialize into a full blown storm. The first 12km up to Quilotoa were on paved roads, passing through Toacazo, the last real town we’d see until Zumbahua, past the Quilotoa crater. After Toacazo, we turned off onto cobblestone, which switched back to a very small paved road that climbed relentlessly back towards the páramo. We were taking a less common way to the Quilotoa crater, one that my Ecuadorian friends had recommended, saying it would eventually become singletrack.
It was getting very late in the day as we kept on ascending, passing a couple tiny hamlets and we needed to find a place to camp soon. After a while the road turned back to dirt and finally began to level off a bit as we passed through Yanaurco Grande just as a cold, steel gray fog enveloped us.
We filled up our water bottles as it started to get dark, and rolled out of the village feeling chilled to the bone, hoping we’d find a decent place for the night. It wasn’t looking promising since the terrain was steep all around and wherever it was semi-flat-there was always a small house or hut that was occupied. Fortunately we climbed back out of the fog again, so at least the weather was more pleasant. Just as it seemed we’d have to pedal into the night until we found something, we came through another tiny village with a church and small volleyball field. It would work as a campsite for the night, so we were pretty relieved. As we scouted around a bit, we found a great little grassy spot behind the church, right on the edge of a precipitous drop into the valley below – the view was stunning. At the very last moment, we had found a great place to camp.
As we were changing out of our riding clothes and making camp, we noticed several young village girls staring at us through the bushes – privacy would be an impossibility this evening so we embraced it and just smiled and waved as we continued to drop trow. We were probably the most interesting thing to happen in this village in a long while, so why not. We had a pleasant evening cooking in the bright moonlight looking down into the deep valley below, and turned in for the night just as the fog and drizzle moved in on us again.
I guess word of the gringo squatters had made it around town that night, so in the morning we had even more onlookers as we broke camp. A village elder came down and actually talked to us, snapping photos of us with his cell phone! Just before leaving, he insisted on getting some pics of us all together, which we enthusiastically agreed to. You have to admire the hospitality of the indigenous communidad Andino in Ecuador. I shudder when I think of the welcome you would get if you tried to camp behind a church in the middle of a town in the USA! In Texas, where Vince hails from, they would probably shoot first and ask questions later. Here, they welcome you and want pictures taken of you with their children!
We started the day with another Andean breakfast, a nearly 1000m climb to a high pass at 4200m. But the climb was on a decent dirt track and graded well for Ecuador standards, so it was quite pleasant. One thing I love about the Quilotoa region is that its full of local communities who live largely like their Inca ancestors, herding animals and growing Andean crops such as quinoa, potatoes, and habbas. You pass one small farm after another clinging to the steep Andean slopes, smiling children waving you on and little old ladies carrying massive loads and shepherding sheep and llamas while rolling through this ancient mountain landscape.
After the pass, we started dropping down into the massive canyon that separated us from Quilotoa. We began on dirt road, which gave way to burly jeep track, and finally lead us to the edge of huge precipice-where we could get a good look at the epic singletrack below. There was a small village school right on the edge of the cliffs that excitedly came to watch us descend on our fully loaded bikes. The singletrack dropping several hundred meters to the river below is impossibly steep, sandy, and punctuated with rocky sections and deep ditch washouts. It would have been hard to ride clean on a downhill bike, much less on fully loaded bikepacking set-ups -but we gave it our all and cleaned what we could – hootin’ and hollerin’ all the way down.
The last part of the “trail” leading to the river was pretty much unrideable, so we walked our bike’s down and had some food at the river’s edge before tackling the nearly 2000m to the top of the Quilotoa crater.
We had anticipated a long hike-a-bike out of the canyon, but were stoked to find a decent dirt road, so the climb went rather quickly up to Quilotoaloma, a small Andean community on the backside of the crater. From there we had the option of continuing up the nice dirt road to the Quilotoa village, or taking a more direct, but infinitely harder hike-a-bike/bushwhack up the crater, then push or ride our bikes halfway around the crater ridge on the hiking trail. Naturally we chose the latter option.
The first part was hard and required pushing or carrying the bikes, but was at least on trail. Eventually the trail completely petered out and we had to bushwhack, push, pull, lift, and drop our bikes as we grunted our way over small knife-edge ridges and through impenetrable thorny bushes for a couple of hours until we finally made it Enshalala – an ecotourism lodge built and managed by the local Quilotoaloma community whose members we had met below. I highly recommend staying here if you are in the area – it’s a beautiful area with a cool overlook and the lodge is really well done – plus you’ll be supporting this remote community. From Enshalala we carried our bikes up the steps to the stunning overlook of the Quilotoa crater lake, and hung out for a while to recover from the hike-a-bike and snapped some pics.
From the overlook, it was another 30 minutes of steep bike pushing up to a high point on the ridge before dropping back down into Quilotoa village and lunch! The pushing up the ridge was hard, but the singletrack on the other side was epic! Cass got some awesome pics of this section – check it out: https://instagram.com/p/1KKRo4P_mZ/.