After extensive touring through Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, the only remaining “missing link” in Ryan Wilson‘s Andean traverse was Ecuador. Last year, he met up with fellow cyclo-tourist Joe Sasada to share miles on the dirt-road variation of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route, an 850-mile mountainous traverse through the country’s volcanic corridor. Read on for Ryan’s introduction to Ecuador…
After a handful of trips to South America, including a tour from Peru down to the Southern tip of the continent, and forays throughout the Colombian Andes, Ecuador was the missing link in the chain to feel like I’ve truly “completed” the length of the Andes. “Completed” is probably the wrong word, because these mountains are so expansive and have so many paths scattered across their slopes that I could never really see them all, even in a lifetime of trips, but Ecuador was the primary gap in my Andes experience.
I’d heard a lot of things about the country before I ever stepped foot on its soil. It’s notorious for unforgiving roads in both surface and gradient and equally unforgiving weather. It’s not uncommon in Ecuador to crank away on double-digit gradient climbs with a harsh cobbled surface for the majority of a day, and sometimes the descents can be just as punishing, both on your body and your gear.
As I got toward the southern end of Colombia, I linked up with my buddy Joe Sasada in the city of Pasto for the first time since we rode together for a day in Cocuy National Park in the north. We’d have a few days of riding to reach the Colombia/Ecuador border before setting off onto the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route.
Leaving Pasto, I could feel the weight of the bike on my legs more than usual. It had been around six weeks since I had done any sustained riding, so jumping in with a first day that included 1,800 m (5,900 ft) of climbing on fully loaded rigs was probably ambitious. It’s a little tricky to just drop your tent in a random spot in these steep and populated mountains though, so we pushed on through the bonk goblins toward the midway point to the border in the roadside village of San Luis.
We spent the next day zigging and zagging between the main road and some far more enjoyable dirt off-shoots, made a detour to the cliche tourist stop at the impressive Las Lajas Cathedral, and finally made our way to the limit between Colombia and Ecuador. It’s a border crossing that has undoubtedly seen an absurd number of cycle tourists over the years, serving as the primary funnel point for anyone heading north or south through the Andes. One of the last hotels I stayed at in Colombia even had a “wall of cyclists” with a couple of familiar faces on it.
We collected our passport stamps, but before we could fully make it to the border town of Tulcán about seven kilometers away, it had already started pouring on us. A proper Ecuadorian welcome, I must say.
The plan was pretty simple from here. We were going to follow the dirt road version of Cass Gilbert and the Dammer Brother’s Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), which follows remote roads through Ecuador’s páramos and volcanic corridor. Finding some interesting new paths is always fun, but sometimes it’s nice to just drop a GPS file into your phone and follow the dotted line without having to plot and plan too much. Especially when you know it’s a classic like the TEMBR.
Leaving Túlcan, we gradually climbed through an on-and-off drizzle toward the Páramo de El Angel. It wasn’t long before the well-packed dirt road started to deteriorate. It soon became clear that this road doesn’t get much use these days beyond some cyclists looking to stay off of the Pan American Highway and perhaps some overly ambitious moto travelers. One after another, we pushed our bikes over muddy landslides that had spilled out in front of us and through giant mud puddles covering the road.
As we got closer to the top of the climb, a landscape of rolling hills filled with frailejón plants stretched as far as the eye could see. I’ve ridden through quite a few páramos in Colombia, but this was the most impressive that I’d ever come across.
After a night camping at the park’s ranger station at the top of the climb, we woke up to the landscape shrouded in stubborn clouds that just wouldn’t budge, along with the omnipresent Ecuadorian drizzle. We’d hoped to catch a glimpse of the laguna from the top of a short hike nearby, but as the rain picked up and things started to look more grim, we decided to make a break for it and head down to the town of El Angel, where we could already see the weather looked a lot better.
A long plunge down to the depths of the Río Mira valley followed, and we found ourselves cooking in the mid-day heat on what felt like a different planet from the misty land of otherworldly flora of the high mountains.
Hugging the river, we found ourselves crossing an old stone bridge to meet an out-of-service railroad track turned dirt road that skirts along the edge of the cliff and occasionally burrows straight through it. A highlight of the day, for sure.
We arrived at the small roadside settlement of San Geronimo at dusk, and even at this hour we could feel how ridiculously hot and humid it was going to be the following day, starting at the lowest altitude of the entire route, with a massive climb ahead. The hotel we stayed in for the night was baking like a sauna, but you couldn’t even open the windows in the rooms without letting in an entire ecosystem of bugs ready to eat you alive while you slept (I may have learned that the hard way).
An early start from here was crucial. The next day would feature a nearly 2000 m (~6500 ft) climb straight up. We didn’t want to burn all of our energy getting cooked alive on the lower slopes past morning, so we had our alarms set to wake up before the sun.
With an endless climb like this, it’s nice to have views that keep getting better the higher you go. Hillsides dotted with palm trees and layered mountains in the distance with clouds constantly drifting in and out, changing the scene moment by moment.
Both Joe and I were pretty well cooked by the top of the climb, but it’s amazing how fast you’ll get a boost of energy just from a short decent at the end of a long day. Especially when you know that a comedor (a small, family restaurant) is right around the corner in the village of Buenos Aires, chock-full of the Andes’ finest patacones and frijoles (fried plantain and beans).
It wasn’t long ago that this small town of Buenos Aires was deemed off-limits due to illegal mining in the area, which brought a wave of crime with it, but we’d heard that this had mostly been settled by the time we were passing through. However, the swaths of police around town relative to the population size lent a strange vibe even if the locals seemed friendly.
Past Buenos Aires, the climbing wasn’t finished. We still had a lengthy ascent into the high mountains in the Reserva Cotacachi Cayapas. Along the way, we stopped in one of the final settlements before the páramo zone looking for a spot to have lunch in the shade. That’s where we met Pedro, who struggled to hear much of what we were saying, but seemed to love chatting us up for the hour that we sat in the shade of his home, even though his dialect was difficult for us to totally understand.
Continuing up into the mountains, the settlements began to disappear and the landscape slowly shifted toward some of the Andean views that I’d grown familiar with, but haven’t been present much in the northern Andes of Colombia. Gone were the frailejones, replaced by stiff, golden tufts of grass and rugged mountain peaks, more similar to the Peruvian highlands I’m used to.
The road undulated along the fiercely windswept landscape as we started searching for a campsite, but soon we realized that the wind was just too strong to risk camping in such exposed terrain. In hopes of finding a spot that was more protected by the dense foliage of lower climes, we decided to push on and descend closer to civilization.
From here we still had a solid day left of riding before we’d reach a cluster of larger touristy towns along the route. This brought us through some more populated rural zones of the Ecuadorian countryside along with a classic section of the route, connecting a series of dirt tracks by riding through the water channels tucked into the hillside and eventually making our way to the tourist hub and famed textile market city of Otavalo.
The first week in Ecuador gave us a good sense of what we were in for along the rest of the route, with riding as challenging as you’ll find on the continent and just about every type of weather one could imagine. We were excited to dig deeper into the local culture and slowly make our way further into the iconic volcanic corridor.