Mountain biking tour Ecuador south America
Mountain biking tour Ecuador south America, a travel diary by Euan Wilson
As I write this I’m travelling to South America, for our mountain biking tour Ecuador. Ecuador is a relatively small South American country, but it is colourful and diverse both culturally and environmentally. This is evident as I look around the aeroplane at my fellow passengers who are as colourful a collection of people as you could hope to find anywhere! It leaves me wondering what all of these people are doing in Ecuador? Where are they going? Where have they come from? What interesting places do they work or live in?!…..
I’m looking forward to arriving in Quito and unpacking my bike from its EVOC travel bag, acclimatising to the altitude and heading out with our local guide José to explore the trails, regions and the people who live well off the tourist route. Doing this with a local is the only way to totally get under the skin of a country.
It’s day zero, my bags arrive safely to the melting pot of Quito airport, José is waiting to meet me to transfer me and the rest of the crew who have arrived from the US, Austria, England, New Zealand and Scotland, to our accommodation high above one of the three valleys that make up the Quito area. We check in and head to our rooms to store the bikes and meet up on the roof-top restaurant and bar, for some beer and the chance to get to know each other. We are at nearly 3000m meters here in Quito, so even climbing the stairs to the bar is a struggle at first!
To make sure we acclimatise properly to the altitude we’ll be experiencing throughout the trip, day one eases us in gently with bike building, team briefing and the chance to pick up last minute items or forgotten kit. We then make our way to the old town for some lunch and a guided tour by José, seeing the sights and sounds, not to mention tastes, as we weave our way through these colonial alleyways. As we follow José around Quito we can feel the altitude, nothing too severe, but we know we’re working slightly harder than we would normally at home.
Day two starts in a leisurely fashion, with plenty of coffee and a second helping at the well laid out breakfast buffet at our hotel. Some of the team have even taken advantage of the hotel swimming pool before coming to breakfast. Once bikes are loaded on the bus and ride bags are prepared, we head to El Parque Metropolitano for our first acclimatisation ride. The trails here are fairly flowing, with a few tester climbs to allow the body to understand what we are going to ask of it throughout this trip. The trails in the park are flowing and fast, and with names like ‘Disneyland’, you can imagine how much fun we have on the bikes, even within the city limits of Quito! We pick up lunch at a local ceviche bar, en route to a more technical descent. We’ve tested our lungs, now to switch the brain on and get our teeth sunk in to some technical singletrack in preparation for the big wilderness days coming up.
When we return to our hotel we make a few tweaks to the bikes and prepare our kit for tomorrow, when we’ll head in to Infernillo, or ‘Little Hell’, as it translates.
We’re on the road by seven the next morning, making our way north to Infernillo and our date with 1600m of descending through at least three different ecosystems and countless amazing singletracks. Although not strictly a ‘downhill’ adventure, with the extreme altitude in Ecuador, much of the riding we do on this trip is gravity-assisted and climbs are generally short, but tough.
We start by sweeping over vast moonscapes, weaving along liquor smuggler channels sunk 10-foot deep into the Ecuadorian landscape and finish in lush, thick cloud forest. All this before lunch, which is laid on by our team, helping to make all of this trail riding tick along nicely.
Post lunch we jump in the van to transfer to the Ibarra region, and en-route we stop off at the Centre of the World Monument and stand with one leg in each hemisphere. Our guide demonstrates how water goes down the plughole in different directions in each hemisphere; only a meter each way makes a difference.
With just a few days under our belt, we have already ridden in a variety of different ecosystems, eaten food that differs from region to region, and watched the faces change as we move from south to north in Ecuador.
Now that we are in the North, we head high into the mountains above Ibarra to ride two trails over the next two days; the Chota 2500 and 5000. These trails are in what can best be described as desert, the ground is soft, loose and at times deep sand. We have a couple of mandatory walking sections, and a few comedy falls in the deep sand, which at times is like talcum powder and gives a soft landing, allowing ‘friends’ to take incriminating pictures of full-face dust!
After two nights in our 400-year-old hacienda in Ibarra, we head out on to the Chota 5000, mostly a downhill day today, with killer traverses, tight switchbacks and natural pump tracks that deliver us directly to some fabulous thermal pools where we wash off all the Chota dust and enjoy a cold beer around the poolside.
We have a delicious late lunch, then load bikes onto the van and head south past Quito to our next destination of Cotopaxi, and its famous volcano, which adds yet another ecosystem to our already extensive list.
When we arrive it’s already dark, so we can only see the hacienda by lamp light, and the famous volcano of Cotopaxi is hidden from view. We’ll have to wait until the morning to truly understand our surroundings. Once settled in to our rooms, situated around a beautiful courtyard, we meet in the restaurant for our first of many incredible home-cooked meals in this hacienda, on the flanks of one of the world’s highest active volcanoes.
As the group gathers for breakfast the next morning, clouds are hugging the top of Cotopaxi, but we are informed by the locals that it should clear later in the day. This is great news for us since we’re heading out on horseback today, complete with chaps and ponchos, to ride high up the flanks of Ruminahui volcano to learn how to be a chagra (cowboy) in the Andes. We are outside being sized up for our horses and it turns out that everyone in the group has ridden a horse at some point in their lives, so seems like we will have some fun…
All is going to plan until one rider tries to move to the back of the group to chat to his mate. His horse doesn’t like that idea, as it’s used to being at the front, so it breaks into a run, which sets off all everyone else’s horses! Now as I said mentioned, we have all been on horses before, so we all get excited and speed past the guide and head up onto the high ground, all laughing and shouting like a group of teenage girls. That is, until the guide gives us all into trouble and we turn into a group of very sheepish teenage girls…
After our second night in Hacienda El Porvenir at Cotopaxi we need to pack and leave early for Hacienda El Tambo which lies at the far side of Cotopaxi.
As we set off the next day the weather is changeable: hot when the sun is out, but getting wetter the further around Cotopaxi we get. We’re heading to the side of the rainforest, and it’s not called a rainforest for nothing! The ride out there is a mix of singletrack and doubletrack trails that take us into remote valleys, seemingly untouched by human hands, around hillsides that only ever see animal footprints, and as we head deep into the valley, we’re riding alongside galloping wild horses and cattle.
As we roll into Hacienda El Tambo, we weave through grazing alpaca and the family who run the place come out to meet us with welcoming hot drinks ready and the fires burning inside. So we strip off our wet biking kit, sort out our rooms, grab a hot shower and head downstairs to settle in front of the fire with a delicious warm drink. At dinner time we head out to a covered area at the side of the hacienda, where we find our host cooking our meat over the hot coals of the ‘asado’. We chat to him as he cooks and his young daughter and her puppy join us and, of course, they steal the show.
We eat around the fire inside with a glass of red wine and recount stories of the day’s adventures getting to El Tambo, and all the wonderful things we saw along the way, before calling it a night and heading off to bed. We’re slightly worried about being cold in bed tonight, but the fires are stoked all night and beds are suitably furnished with more than enough bedding to see us good.
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we say our goodbyes to the lovely family who have been our hosts for the past 16 hours, play with the dogs for the last time and head off down the field to the track at the end of hacienda’s land. From there we stop for a minute, look back at the hacienda and wave to the family who are watching us as we leave and disappear out of sight.
Our trail this morning is a steady climb up around the flank of Cotopaxi, it is a mix of dirt road and singletrack. The weather is changeable again, so rain jackets are on, off and on again, as we try to gauge how wet it’s going to be. But after a solid morning riding up the valley we reach our high point at El Encañonado and our lunch stop. As the van joins us for lunch the heavens open and we take shelter in the van to eat, and wait it out for a window in the rain before jumping out of the van like a team of navy seals, on to the bikes and away down what was the most fun flowing trail of the trip so far. We have a perfectly-synched train of four riders skipping our way through the Andean mountain landscape.
The singletrack leads us to the north gate of Cotopaxi National Park where we exit the park for the last time. We turn towards our destination at Hacienda El Porvenir via some dirt roadside singletrack that weaves nicely down the valley, but we are stopped in our tracks by a rodeo Ecuador-style that is taking place in the field opposite us. As luck would have it, it’s being run by Victor, our driver’s, family. So, we abandon singletrack for an afternoon beer and the fun of a traditional rodeo taking place with the backdrop of Cotopaxi volcano. It’s my first rodeo and it takes a few runs for me to understand what they are trying to achieve, but the excitement of chagras trying to control their horses, lassos rotating above their heads with a rather annoyed bull rampaging around the field is contagious. I’m just glad there’s a fence between me and the action, even if it is a bit of a makeshift fence, it’s still a fence….
Once the prize bull had been won and the riders are all settling down to a good old party, we mount our steads and proceed with caution down a short section of singletrack to our destination for the next two nights. As we roll up to El Porvenir we park our bikes in the courtyard, which is more commonly frequented by horses than bikes.
We settle down to dinner with the red evening light reflecting off the snowcapped Cotopaxi and our attention turns to tomorrow and our final ride in Ecuador.
The slopes of Cotopaxi have been closed for the past six months since the eruption at the end of last year, so we have another ride up our sleeves. It’s a two-hour drive away, but is well worth every minute in the van, the scenery is incredible. This leads us to our final ecosystem of the adventure, in the heart of the mountains.
When we arrive at our starting point, women in traditional dress are staring openly at us – I’m not sure many mountain bikers come here – and when we set off down the trail the kids are running after us, in amazement that bikes can do this type of trail.
Within ten minutes of setting off, we crest a small hill and the view opens up to reveal a massive volcanic crater filled deep with turquoise water. Our trail hugs the crater ridgeline for a few kilometres before swinging left down the crater wall on the outside of the volcano. We squirm down sandy doubletrack, cutting off onto equally sandy singletrack, then onto tight village singletrack, before weaving through thick forest undergrowth and blasting out onto hillside flowing traverses descending to the valley floor. After four hours of riding we arrive back at the van with an eruption of high fives and hugs of delight at the mind-blowing trail we’ve just ridden!
All that’s left to do is head back to El Porvenir for our last celebratory dinner together, reliving the experience of biking in the Andes of Ecuador. But first, we have one last descent in store to finish the trip with a bang.
As we crest a high pass, Victor pulls over and starts to offload the bikes. We have one hour until dark, so we need to be efficient with this descent. We saddle up and head down what was to become one of my top-10 trails of all time. Cows and sheep line the first kilometre of the descent, which becomes gradually more technical and sees us skipping down the hillside in a train of eight people, all playfully choosing our own line as we go. After about 45 minutes of grin-inducing singletrack we swoop out onto the village square where Victor is waiting for us with a crate of local beer and a big smile, as he is also a biker, so he knows how we feel!
On our return to El Porvenir the staff are outside waiting for us, they have heard that we’ve had a great day and want to share in the excitement with us. They have dinner on the stove, wine on the table and fires stoked waiting on our arrival. So, we go straight in and settle down to celebrate a trip that couldn’t have gone any better.
To sum it all up: Ecuador is amazing. The landscapes and riding are as diverse as you can experience anywhere over the course of ten days. The people are open and welcoming, and will do anything to ensure you have an unforgettable experience in their country. Ecuador is a small country with a huge heart, you just have to take that leap of faith to explore somewhere a little bit different and off-the-tourist-track. Try it, you might just like it!