This article was first published in Singletrack Issue 106.
Cass journeys across Ecuador, the magical land of volcanoes and ancient history, finding singletrack, crater lakes and the part of the Earth closest to the sun.
WORDS and PICTURES by Cass Gilbert
At the turn of the 19th century, the intrepid Prussian naturalist and explorer Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt set out on a pioneering journey across the Americas. Aside from compiling a shelf full of scientific tomes on his adventures, Humboldt also coined the phrase ‘the Avenue of the Volcanoes’ en route, in reference to Ecuador’s particularly eruptive geology. Running for hundreds of miles along two Andean cordilleras, it’s a geological thoroughfare containing no less than seven volcanic peaks that tower over 5,000 metres high, out of which protrude the majority of mainland Ecuador’s 30-odd volcanoes.
Ever the sucker for themed rides, following in Humboldt’s footprints and connecting three of the country’s most iconic examples seemed like an appropriate reason for a multi-day bikepack; an Ecuadorian Three Peaks Challenge, of sorts. We’d patch together whatever singletrack we could find, with the aim of retracing ancient foot and horse trails fast forgotten in the country’s rush for modernisation. Similarly, we’d avoid paved roads at all costs – and we’d do our best not to get lost in the high altitude páramos, Ecuador’s lush, boggy, misty and enigmatic tundra – a Dartmoorian landscape, perched at a lung-depleting 4,000m.
As for the group, it was a somewhat eclectic band. My own travels favour a laid-back and exploratory nature, peppered with picnics and afternoon naps. Alex, on the other hand, was a veritable speedster from the States, who pitted himself against the clock in 24-hour races, a string of podiums to his name. And then there was mellow Vince, who was visiting family in Quito; back in Texas, he works for Chumba bikes, so it was only natural that he’d brought with him a company-issue 29+ bikepacking rig. Just as importantly, given Alex’s thoroughbred credentials, I was glad to see Vince had tempered any notion of a race pace with his collection of art supplies. While I delight in stopping to take photos, Vince packs a sketchbook – a perfect excuse for a break if ever I saw one.
Our ride began in Cotopaxi National Park, just a 90-minute drive south of Quito down the Pan-American Highway. It centres around its namesake, Volcán Cotopaxi, the second loftiest peak in the nation at 5,897m. Revered as a holy mountain by indigenous communities, Cotopaxi’s perfect conical shape is a sight to behold. Should it deign to reveal itself, that is. Which it chose not to do on this occasion, treating us only to a few moments of its alluring beauty before absconding behind a veil of cloud.
The park has a gentle, subtle allure, with its lattice of crystal clear streams, lichen-covered boulders, páramo grasses and delicate fingers of lycopodium, an Andean plant that grows only at extreme altitudes. Our plan was to skirt round the back of the volcano, into its more remote north-western quarters, following a route pioneered by Ecuador’s annual two-day mountain bike race – La Vuelta de Cotopaxi. This event sees hundreds of whippet-like, Lycra-clad mountain bikers tearing round the park, their jerseys packed with gels and little more.
We, however, had chosen to anchor ourselves down with a full complement of bikepacking gear in readiness for our five-day ride – tarps, stoves, sustenance and more – so would travel at a more modest pace. Up and over our first pass, the dirt road we were following soon petered down to a bout of fast and flowing singletrack. Then it struck out across open grasslands, tufty and pedal-grabby in places, which in turn morphed into bog and mud. Gamely we dragged our bikes through, until legs could take it no more. Thankfully an abandoned dwelling sharpened into view, cupped in a quiet and secluded valley, offering lodging for our first night.
The following morning began with what became known as a classic Andean breakfast, as we dived headfirst into a long and protracted climb. We rode, traipsed, pushed, plodded and shouldered our bikes in pure Type 2 enjoyment. This would be great, once we were looking back on it! Or at least once we’d reached the top of the pass. A 4,200m affair, our triumphant approach was witnessed by two condors that swooped overhead with breathtaking grace – no doubt eyeing us over as we plummeted back down the other side. Crossing the Inter-Andean Valley – the division between Ecuador’s two cordilleras – we couldn’t quite make our budget stretch to lunch at La Ciénega, a 400-year-old hacienda that had once hosted Humboldt himself. Instead, we settled contentedly into a $2 completo on the fringes of the highway, which came complete with soup, meat, a mound of rice and a cordial.
Do you know the way to Quilotoa?
The crater lake of Quilotoa was the second volcano on our hit list. In stark contrast to the beautiful but bleak wilderness of Cotopaxi, the fertile valleys here teemed with life. Local communities continue to live largely as their ancestors did, herding sheep and llamas, and cultivating the Quechuan crops of quinoa and potatoes. Displaying a Herculean strength that made our own toils seem distinctly indulgent, indigenous ladies in traditional garb – petticoats, heels, white leggings and classy felt hats – balanced voluminous, multicoloured bundles of goods on their backs. Others carried colossal stacks of firewood, and perhaps a sleeping baby too or a wriggling lamb under the arm for good measure.
Their strength was no doubt born from a lifetime of working the land, scurrying up and down the sheer-sided trails that course so richly through these valleys. It wasn’t long before we were confronted by such a challenge ourselves; a steep-sided canyon divided us unceremoniously between our present location and where we needed to be. It was like a giant hatchet had sliced through the land. The footpath that locals used to access the fields below was carved with deep water ditches and interspersed with both rock gardens and sandpits. The descent was a real taste of Ecuadorian backcountry singletrack. It was a loose and scrappy affair; back tyres sliding every which way as we spiralled our way downwards, vainly attempting to look as stylish as we could given the posse of schoolchildren who had gathered expectantly… Red Bull, this wasn’t.
Naturally, our frenetic plummet to the river below was answered in turn by a lengthy climb on the other side. An hour later, confronted with the option of continuing onwards to the village of Quilotoa, or shouldering bikes to reach the knife-like edge of the crater rim high above us, we brazenly chose the latter. Soon enough, the footpath we’d been pointed towards whittled down into a faint, improbably steep shadow of a trail. In turn, this forced us into an ungainly display that would no doubt have looked ridiculous to any onlooker. Hurl bike forwards. Apply brake. Lock out arms. Gain marginal ground. Slip backwards. Curse. And repeat. Thankfully, the singletrack we’d been promised put our ignominious bushwhack into perspective. It teetered around at the very edge of Quilotoa lake, a water-filled caldera that spanned two miles in width, treating us to the Holy Grail of trails we’d come in search of.
Everything is flat. Except when it’s not.
In celebration, a decision was made to check into a fleapit hotel in the market town of Zumbahua, where we were soon chewing contently on barbecued llama, served from a huddle of food stands on the main square. Suitably refreshed, the next morning involved just a modest climb before an extended, high-altitude traverse to Angamarca. This would be the lowest point on our ride, providing us with more delicious street food – a platter of potatoes drizzled with shiny, greasy fried eggs – but little else. A heavy mist had rolled in, soon condensing into heavy rain. We cowered under the roof of an abandoned building in solemn contemplation of the climb ahead. For the next few hours, our tyres sloshed around in the mud as we worked our way to our next mountain hurdle. Oblivious to such inclement weather, Ecuadorian farmers watched us go by in their sodden ponchos, perhaps mildly intrigued by our colourful Gore Tex, certainly as wet on the inside as it was on the outside, given the ambient humidity. There was no point asking them how far we had to go. Plano is the word Ecuadorians use to describe what translates as a relatively flat traverse. In reality, the country’s highlands are so unrelentingly crumpled that perceptions have become distinctly skewed. Only climbs that involve an intestine-like knot of switchbacks seem worth noting. Everything else is deemed flat.
But who was I to complain, for when the sun did peek through the clouds once more there was nowhere else I’d rather have been. A jigsaw of lush, interlocking valleys rolled out far into the distance, flanked by a thick bank of cotton wool clouds rushing up from the Pacific coast. When patience prevailed and the pass did come, there was little to match the jubilant moment of arriving, heightened no doubt by a distinct shortness of breath and pervading exhaustion.
Ahead, an inviting tiendita stood silhouetted like an apparition. Little more than rickety wooden shacks, these small backcountry stores promise warmth and shelter. Ours came complete with a dizzying variety of sustenance: malt energy drinks and 20p bags of plantain crisps, which we downed and devoured with unabated delight.
The final volcano.
Only one last volcano lay ahead. Volcán Chimborazo is Ecuador’s highest peak, and thanks to a bulge in the earth’s curvature, the closest point to the sun on the planet. The daring Herr Humboldt had even attempted to summit it back in 1802. Although he didn’t quite make it to the top, he reached almost 5,900m in altitude, just a few hundred metres shy of its peak, and the highest anyone had ever climbed at the time. Our plan was to hurdle the pass that separated it from its neighbouring volcano, Carihuairazo (trying saying that out loud!), before dropping down to the Pan American Highway on the other side, along which buses hustle to Quito. First though, we’d spend the night in a choza, the community-owned thatched huts that serve the needs of farmers and herders escaping foul weather, dotted throughout the highlands. And what cosy little enclaves they are. Forget hut-to-hut tours of the Alps, a choza-to-choza tour of Ecuador is where it’s at.
As we cooked up our dinner, the skies cleared and Chimborazo, draped in glorious glaciers, made its appearance. By morning, the páramo mist had curled in once more, enveloping the land, filling every nook and cranny with silence. It was so muffling that I could only hear my own breath, like a diver out in the ocean. When the sun occasionally permeated through, it was shadowless, painting the mountains in gigantic, camouflaged swatches. Out of the ether popped the heads of vicuñas, the lithe and wild camelids that frequent these parts.
It seemed only appropriate that our final descent was typically Ecuadorian in nature. There were moments of sublime singletrack. There was tufty, tussocky grassland to be puzzled through. There were bike portages across ankle-deep bogland. And there were fleeting views of Chimborazo, all the more sincere for their scarcity.
I was entranced. Ecuador’s small but perfectly formed size, along with its rugged mountain folds, its hardy people and their magical, mystical páramos, is a land rich in both history and bikepacking potential. Like its ever-shifting weather, this ride had offered us a tantalising glimpse of each – and we all yearned for more.