Highs and Lows in Ecuador’s Volcanic Corridor

Last year, Ryan Wilson met up with fellow bike traveler Joe Sasada to tackle the dirt road version of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route.  In Part one, they got their feet wet on this classic route, but in this chapter, Ryan and Joe visit the heart of Ecuador’s iconic volcano corridor and run into the trials and tribulations that come with any good bike tour.  Read on for a slice of the highlights and lowlights of their ride across the Andes.

Bike touring in faraway lands across the globe is easy to glamorize through curated Instagram posts or even the reportage on this site, which I’ve been posting for the last 8 years while on the road. And sometimes it is “glamorous”, at least in the ways that appeal to me. Even after 8 years, I still get giddy with excitement staring at maps and imagining the possibilities, finding the perfect campsite tucked up in the mountains somewhere, or descending from a remote mountain pass just as the sun sets.

To get to these amazing moments though, you’ve got to sift your way through plenty of ups and downs that come with life on the road.

After a few nice days off the bike in the bustling market town of Otavalo, Joe and I were recharged and excited to get back out on the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route. Supplies were purchased and the bikes were all packed up following the usual gear tornado that rips through any hotel that I stay in for more than a day or two. It usually starts with having to make a couple of small gear repairs but ends up with your entire kit splayed out across every surface of the room.



Morning hits on the day we’re set to leave and I wake up before my alarm, feeling the sudden rush of nausea that sends me scrambling for the trash bin next to my bed to not make a further mess of the room, but nothing comes out. I lay there for another hour trying to be as still as possible. Every movement sends that wave of nausea rushing back. I look at my phone and see that my alarm is going to go off in 5 minutes. At this point, I’m just hoping I need to get the poison out of my body and I’ll be fine, but nothing works.

Una noche más” (one more night). It’s a phrase uttered to hotel clerks by many a cycle tourists traveling across Latin America over the years. By illness, by mechanical issues, or simply from not wanting to get back on the bike just yet and embracing the easy life of the city. The unplanned extra night that sometimes gets strung back-to-back-to-back to the point of feeling shame when asking for that 3rd consecutive noche mas. Like the clerk is thinking “Is this gringo ever going leave?!”. By this point, it was basically a meme between Joe and I, with our often out-of-sync ailments.

Thankfully, I was starting to feel better by that evening, so we were able to hit the road the following day for Lago Mojanda. It was another classic Ecuadorian climb from Otavalo. Grinding away on a steep cobbled road surface for basically the entire day, both of us felt the days off in our legs, but it was good to be out again.

Once we reached the lake, we skirted along the edge, which had buried the road, and connected to a rough track that would reach a second lake, tucked a bit further back away from the first lake, which sees quite a few locals coming up to visit.

We got to Lago Chico and set up our tents in the one spot that wasn’t getting hammered by the wind. Little did we know that just a matter of weeks later, some other cyclists camping in the same spot would get robbed here while camping, in what sounds like a pretty brutal act. Looking back with hindsight, as gang violence and political unrest has risen sharply in Ecuador even as I write this, it’s probably a place I would avoid for now. Certainly I would not camp near this area, which is a bit too close and easy to access from some of the bigger cities, making tourists here an easy target these days, unfortunately.

In the morning we packed up and hit the road to Guayllabamba. This was where we ran into Robbie from the UK, whom we’d ride with for a couple of days to Quito.

The road down from the lake was one of the worst I’ve seen. Destroyed by rainfall, and likely impassable by any type of vehicle. Our gear was taking a beating on the way down, but none more than Joe’s, who had a major mechanical issue that broke a piece on his rear rack, and badly damaged most of his drivetrain.

We hobbled our way to the town of Pifo with Joe’s gears jumping all over the place and decided to get a taxi into Quito so he could try to hunt down some replacement parts to get rolling smoothly again. It was definitely an “una noche más” type of situation.

A few days and a couple of trips back and forth to Quito later, Joe’s drivetrain was almost entirely replaced, and we were ready to head for one of the highlights of the Trans Ecuador, Cotopaxi volcano.

We rode through another nice section of rail trail which was a perfect way to get off of the busy streets this close to Quito. The trail hugged the edge of a steep hillside and passed through tunnel after tunnel before spitting us out onto a small road toward the town of Pintag.

Seeing that we had missed all of the volcano views to the north due to the weather, we were dead set on getting a good view of Cotopaxi. You don’t come all the way down to Ecuador just to not see any of the volcanos, so we hunkered down in a hotel in Pintag and waited out another wave of stormy days in the small town. At the same time, Joe came down with an infection. It was like the perfect “una noche más” storm.

It wasn’t all bad though, between the hours of staring at weather apps, here we were introduced to the joys of the Ecuadorian Lechón. A few days per week, the local lechonería will cook up a whole pig, and serve it with mote (corn), tortilla (mashed potato), veggies, and aji (hot sauce). The restaurant opens in the morning, closes when the meat runs out, and basically the whole town comes through to get some in the meantime. With good reason, it is easily the best thing going in Ecuadorian cuisine if you’re a meat eater.

No bluebird days were lining up for our Cotopaxi ride, so we bit the bullet and left on the best day we could find, hoping to just get a good glimpse the next morning, if we picked our campsite properly.

It was gloomy and drizzly when we left Pintag, as usual. Many of the roads were waterlogged from the storms of the previous days. I question if they’re ever not totally waterlogged to be honest.

The route cut across farms, over big fences, up steep hillsides, and through soggy fields. We got to a point where we knew there should be a good view of Cotopaxi and once we found a perfect open field to camp in, we decided to set up there, and hope the clouds would clear in the morning.

Tucked into my tent at night, I could tell from a hint of moonlight that the clouds were starting to clear. When I unzipped the tent I got my first up-close glimpse of the volcano in all its glory, puffing smoke from its caldera under the stars. Worth getting out into the cold for a couple of photos.

In the morning, we got the view that we’d been hoping for, even if the sight of the impressively conical Cotopaxi didn’t last too long into the day before the clouds took hold once again. It was glorious while it lasted.

Joe was still feeling bad from his illness that had crept up in Pintag, so we bombed down the paved road to the town of Lasso and found a hotel for the night, where it became clear that Joe was going to have to wait it out for a few more days and search out some sort of doctor. Since he only had a couple of weeks left before he was set to head back to the UK, we decided I should head off along the route on my own, and we could meet back up further down the route if possible.

Aiming for Isinlivi, I climbed back up over the hills and found the vibes of Ecuador shifting in these more rural zones further to the south. The cities are replaced by tiny villages that seem all but abandoned throughout much of the day when the people are out in the fields nearby, and the hillsides featured a lot more llamas grazing than before.

On one particularly steep stretch of a climb, I came across a woman named Maria. She immediately struck up a conversation beyond the usual exchange of pleasantries and started speed-walking next to me on the climb for the better part of 30 minutes. She told me about family she had living in the US, and how life was in this part of Ecuador in comparison to what she hears from them about the US. She has a very long walk back and forth to the field that she works from, which she does a few times per day, and she has a very tough job but has no interest in city life, be it in Ecuador or abroad. It all seems overwhelming. Here, life is challenging but simple. That doesn’t stop young people from fleeing the countryside to cities in droves, however.

Continuing through the undulating hills, I made my way to Lago Quilotoa, an impressive mountain lake in the crater of a volcano. I got lucky here as I ran into torrential rain on the final 10 kilometers, but the sky cleared right as I reached the rim of the crater. The sun even popped out for a few minutes! A rare treat in Ecuador.

I stopped in Zumbahua for the night, a town with a large Quechua population, known for its street market. Though I missed the market day, many of the locals were out in full Ecuadorian drip (those hats!), waiting out the rain under the roof of the town square’s church.

I climbed up toward a ridge on my way out of town and found myself atop the first big stretch of mountains from Ecuador’s muggy coastal region, though I was hovering around 4,000m (~13,100ft). The clouds would push up from the western seaside and shoot over the tops of the mountains almost like it was being sped up in a timelapse. Drifting in and out of the dense fog constantly throughout the day.

In the evening I found a campsite tucked a little ways off the road as a sea of clouds pushed through the valleys below me. These are the moments you wait for. When the “glamorous” depiction of bike touring becomes reality.

By the time I reached the town of Salinas de Guaranda, Joe had made the call to pull the plug on the rest of his riding days in Ecuador to get his health in order and made his way to the coast. That meant I’d be heading up to Volcán Chimborazo solo, but not before putting a giant, irreparable gash at the bead of my weeks old tire. That meant I’d be limping my way to the nearest city with my tire tubed, booted, glued, and sewn together, to look for a replacement. Thankfully there was one such city on the other side of Chimborazo.

The wind was roaring by the time I got even an hour outside of town. I knew it would only get stronger as I made my way up to the barren highlands. Dust was blowing everywhere and in some places, I could barely keep the bike upright, but I made my way up slowly but surely.

At the top, I lucked into finding a perfect little shelter with a view of the volcano, otherwise, I would have been forced down the mountain to find a more practical camp spot. Though the wind was so strong I wondered if this little abandoned hut wouldn’t collapse on me while I slept at night, with its saggy roof.

Fun fact: Due to the imperfect spherical shape of the Earth, Chimborazo’s peak is the closest spot on Earth to the sun!

My plan for the next day was to embrace the amazing views of Chimborazo from the Refugio on its slopes at 4,900m (16,000ft), though the Ecuadorian weather had different plans, rolling in a big storm as I was about halfway up the switchbacks. Not wanting to get caught out in a very bad spot, and getting no views anyways, I blasted down the mountain toward the city of Riobamba where the search for a new tire would be on, and soon I could make my way toward some unfamiliar parts of a familiar country, Perú.

For more info on the full route, check out Cass Gilbert and the Dammer Brother’s full route guide