Avenida de los volcanes – Trans Ecuador 3 – Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Quilatoa

Avenida de los volcanes – Cotopaxi, Quilatoa and Chimborazo.  The back way from Santiago’s casa de ciclistas in Tumbaco (Quito) to Guamote.

THIS. WAS. AWESOME.

This route included: some exhilarating and nervous moments passing through closed Cotopaxi volcano National Park via a back route and some private property; immense guilt after accidentally clocking a dog on the head with a rock on the road less travelled to Quilatoa (sorry God); enduring hailstorms, fording streams and hiking through mud on the north side of Ecuador’s highest peak Chimborazo (which I resolved to return and climb); and following some manmade water channels by a somewhat treacherous drop off (real heart in the mouth moments).  All part of the norm crossing Ecuador’s mountains; part of the route follows the Dammer / Cass Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR).

(This was done some months ago and I’m now finally re-united with my laptop.)

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Tyre upgrade in Tumbaco (just outside Quito): from 2.0 Maxxis to 2.5 inch Surly ET.

The practical difference in upgrading my tyre size was to prove impressive; my enjoyment of Ecuador’s difficult rough roads increased immensely.  Suddenly I could tackle a much larger array of terrains with no apparent downside; there was no noticeable difference on the paved surfaces.

And I felt like I had a fat bike…

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…until I saw Brian’s Surly “Ice Cream Truck” with 4.8inch wide tyres! Santiago’s Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco (Quito).

NB: Casa de Ciclista: a term for a house open to travelling cyclists.  A veritable oasis for the weary traveller.  A keen cyclist himself, Santiago’s hospitality is legendary making it a difficult place to leave.

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The Ice Cream Truck. Putting my wheels in perspective. See the video for featured “Fat Bike” ballad composed by the ‘Cycling Orchestra’ from Tumbaco’s Casa de Ciclistas.

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Cotopaxi fuming away on an unusually clear day

I took a fun back route into Cotopaxi National Park.  One of South America’s most lethal volcanos, it had been closed for some months due to activity so my (semi) plan had been to skirt round it.  On nearing the park a couple of people told me it had opened that day due to diminishing activity.  That was enough for me; however, the route I took into the park didn’t pass the northern control station so I couldn’t confirm if it was indeed open.

After a mildly uncomfortable encounter with a few strange fellows from Quito apparently high on some kind of exotic mushrooms, I headed into the park and camped in a hidden spot well away from the main track.  I slept on the fringes by a valley with rather disconcertingly obvious evidence that it had been created by lava and mud slides from previous volcanic eruptions.  After a slightly restless night, I headed on into the park and it became apparent that it was still closed; no one had been there for some time, there were virtually no tracks on the roads.  Almost halfway across it seemed pointless to turn around and although the landscape was spectacular I continued somewhat quickly in order to minimise my exposure time to the risk of eruption. My route crossed very close to the southern control station (which I quickly passed) and then climbed a couple of high locked gates and a few kilometres of seemingly private property.  It was of mix of relief and excitement to get out and start heading towards Isinlivi and Quilatoa volcano.

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Escaping the threat of Cotopaxi down this fun single track

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Fuming Cotopaxi in the background. Heading up to go down and then up again on the dirt road towards Quilatoa.

There’s something about a cycle tourist that makes a dog go absolutely berserk.  It seems to be worse the less populated an area is; maybe they get bored or they are encouraged by the owners who feel vulnerable in their isolation?  Whatever the reason, not a great correlation for this type of trip. There are various ways to handle them, the following wasn’t one of them.

How not to scare away a dog:

On the road to Isinlivi I ran out of daylight after reaching the halfway point of a steep climb and searched for a place to camp.  I thought I’d got lucky when I passed a small town but the only offered spot to put my tent included a free audience of 15 people staring without talking.  I continued on for an hour or more into the night but there was nowhere.  Exhausted after a long day I eventually found an abandoned house and pulled into a rather aggressive reception party.  It took the form of two highly overexcited barking dogs; a double attack from each neighbouring farmhouse.  Clearly they weren’t going to stop and my initial delight at finding a potentially safe camp spot turned to frustration as I realised I’d probably have to continue into the dark, hungry and tired.

In an attempt to scare one of them away I gently launched a small rock (aiming to miss). The rock bounced at an angle and the dog walked straight into it; it was clocked right on the head.  Not a nice sound.  With a yelp the dog bolted into his owner’s house.  Horrified by what happened I headed on and found a grassy area by a stream hidden from the road. After a fairly restless night of sleep I woke to a feeling of immense guilt about the dog and decided to go back and check on it’s well being.  Returning to the same spot, the dog appeared (seemingly in good health) and resumed it’s full time job of non-stop barking.  I continued on up the relentless mountain with slightly less guilt, resolving to only throw very small stones if at all.

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The long scenic descent down to Isinlivi.

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After Isinlivi there was a long climb up to Quilatoa via a back route. These kids were chasing me for about ten minutes before they exhausted themselves.

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Quilatoa.  An understandably popular attraction with travellers.

The road then arduously headed down and back up several times crossing a few passes. After the final pass before the start of the climb up to Chimborazo I had a very wet night at 4000+m, near to a turn to Simiatag.  Cold and tired and with everything wet, it was obvious the rain wasn’t going to stop soon. Shortly, after a fairly low moment, I was utterly delighted to stumble across some hot baths (actually luke warm but still…) where I camped under the roof for the night before starting the climb up to Chimborazo.  Highs and lows…

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Enduring hail, fording streams and hiking through mud on the north side of Chimborazo.

Chimborazo’s northern pass climbs up to 4300m+ and was worth every calorie for me. Most cyclists choose (understandably) the alternative (and 100% rideable) southwest side sharing the road with light traffic. This is where the seeds were planted to climb its peak (6310m, the highest in Ecuador). The snow-capped rugged summit revealed itself seductively from below during breaks in the rain /hail storms and shifting clouds.

After dropping a fair way on a muddy wet trail there was a short section of bike pushing and carrying across vegetation / streams, the trail eventually linked up with a gravel road and another locked gate that was easily passed.  The trail continued to drop and after some contact with humanity in some rather rough looking areas it passed through some interesting features…

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These manmade water channels had some gnarly bridge sections. On some you can easily walk round but this one was more complicated.

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Whilst I was wondering how to cross it an old (ish) woman nochalantly strolled across, which made me think I was being lame worrying about it. It was somewhat scary balancing my bicycle on one thin rail whilst carefully walking on the opposing thin rail. I had to cross it 3 times with various bits of kit. Very narrow and a big drop on each side I would NOT recommend it if you go this way. (I think you can quite easily go right round it by heading down or even avoid the entire water channel section to start with).

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Next: The Trans Ecuador continues to Cuenca…

9 thoughts on “Avenida de los volcanes – Trans Ecuador 3 – Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Quilatoa

  1. Hi Nick,
    This route looks awesome, but as you suggested I would like to avoid the water channels/bridges. Do you recall where it is best to diverge from the route you took to avoid them?
    Many thanks!
    -Peter

    • Hi Peter, thanks! The part you refer to with the water channels is after crossing the North East side of Chimborazo heading South and before Cajabamba. They start about a kilometre after the small town of San Juan. If you zoom in on my route map (http://nicholasgault.com/route-so-far/) using ‘OpenCycleMap’ to where Cajabamba is and then track back from there you’ll find San Juan. You’ll see the route going South-East after San Juan, as soon as it turns South-West the water channels have finished. However it then climbs a VERY steep hill (a pusher) which I guess you could avoid by taking the road. Maybe just take the back roads straight out of San Juan to Cajabamba to avoid wasting time. Let me know if you have other questions. Good luck!! Nick

      • PS. The North-East side of Chimborazo is awesome but v. muddy when wet, so perhaps pass by on the South West side if it’s forecast to rain. It’s not impossible when wet but quite arduous in sections. There is at least a few hundred metres of hike-a-bike regardless of the conditions.

        (If you cycle the South West side, you can also cycle up to the refugio at 4800m. Climbing to the summit of Chimborazo is also an option but at 6300m is quite tough and would require fair bit of preparation in Riobamba (I know some good guides)).

        • Many thanks for the pointers. It was my impression from your blog/videos that the landscape is awesome, but some parts can be very challenging. It is good to know about the challenges in advance.

      • Hi Nick,
        Many thanks for getting back to me so quickly, and all the information! I probably will have other questions once I had time to look into the route in more details!
        Wishing you great travels this week!
        -Peter

  2. Hey Nick,

    You mention being reunited with your laptop. Did you send your stuff ahead in Ecuador? We’re looking at getting dirty here before we finish this tour, but I’d like to send a bunch of our weight on to Guayaquil where we’ll be flying out. I’m going to look into the bus companies when we’re at the Casa in Tumbaco, but was wondering if you had any insight.

    Lewis

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