An Eventful Introduction to Ecuador

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A new year, a new country but the stories of unbelievably beautiful South American dirt roads continue as before. Having arrived in Quito a few days ago I tied up the ends of a sequence of three exciting Ecuadorian routes. As usual I tried to hit up as much dirt as possible while trying not to begrudge the pavement that draws those dirty strings together. Just 260 miles (420 km) into the country and I’ve already ridden an empty track through some of the most stunning páramo on the stretch from Tulcan to Otavalo. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of witnessing some of Ecuador’s more bizarre cultural nuances on a New Years Eve push on undulating back-country roads to Mindo. And on the last couple of days riding into Quito have been serenaded by exquisite bird calls on a climb through sub tropical cloud forest on Eco Ruta El Paseo del Quinde. Whats more, my route from the border at Rumichaca to Quito has been blessed with chance encounters that helped ice an already delicious cake of riding. But after the riding the fun stopped as I found myself attached to a drip in a Quito hospital bed with my sister by my side. An eventful few days!

Map - Tulcan to Quito (detail)

Complete route from Tulcan in the north to Quito in the south
Click here for interactive map and elevation profile

Elevation profile of the route from Tulcan to Quito

Life in Ecuador started with possibly the least intimidating and best run border crossing of the trip so far. A short climb up to the town of Tulcan and Colombia was already starting to feel like a fading memory. Only a narrow river separates Ecuador from Colombia but crossing that river bought very different weather and some breathtakingly grand landscapes. I’ve been in Ecuador nearly two weeks now and the experience has offered a lot of continuity with Colombia, most obviously in terms of the kind and gracious attitude of the people. Amongst the differences has been a slight but personally significant knock to my approach. Just an hour into Ecuador and my camera broke. Riding without a camera sets this leg apart from the previous three and a half years of this journey. It’s maybe a shame for you that you won’t be able to share in some of the most beautiful scenery of my tour so far, but for me it threw a new angle on things. Without a camera I’ve done a lot more seeing than just looking and snapping. And without a camera I’ve felt much more solitary. It’s been a positive experience but one I’m glad has been temporary.

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A couple of miles downhill roll from Ipiales and I’m in Ecuador

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Apart from prices in US$, Tulcan doesn’t feel like much of a departure from Colombia

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I’m giving you all the photos I have after…

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… this guy broke my camera

In the absence of any more photos this post is much more route-centric than usual. This may excite cyclists looking for Ecuadorian routes as much as is bores casual observers. For that I apologize.

Tulcan to Otavalo via El Angel, Urcuqui & Cotacachi

Tulcan to Otavalo route… click on image for interactive map

Elevation profile of Tulcan to Otavalo route

The high route into Ecuador through the incredible paramos of El Angel Ecological Reserve is no secret. More and more people are discovering it and enjoying what I can only describe as a near perfect stretch of riding. Despite this it can still be a minor challenge finding the route up from Tulcan. Although the road to take is quite clearly marked on National Geographic maps, the junction at Las Juntas is decidedly less obvious when out riding. Future riders should stare long and hard at the photo above of a handsome chap pulling out his guns and wiggling his belly and you’ll find the turning. Take the main road through Tulcan and just after the town ends a yellow and blue modernist church will appear on your right along with this statue. Call him Bruno and you’ll have even greater chance of remembering. Whatever you do don’t refer to him as a ‘heavily armed dwarf’, ‘weird statue of a muscly dwarf brandishing a rifle’ or worst of all ‘statue of a dwarf resembling Hitler, brandishing a rifle’. Because if you do you’ll upset him and maybe he’ll break your camera too. I have no other explanation other than a collective bad karma for the act of taking an ordinary photograph of this guy to break my lens and essentially destroy my camera… weird stuff.

Having negotiated the armed and dangerous statue take the left hand road past the dogs that want to kill you (probably). Then the road will fork, take the right option as opposed to the wrong (left) one that I took to start with. The ascent will start immediately. It’s a dirt road in decent condition and the going relatively easy. A couple of trucks and a motorbike may pass by but soon you’ll be leaving the last small farm behind and be swapping the stench of Roundup for the purity of the paramos. At times the road will reduce to just a two-track and you’ll probably ask yourself whether this is the correct route. It is.

My bike computer (not 100% accurate by any means) put the climb from the junction up to the high point in the paramos at about 2,500 feet (760 m) altitude gain over about 18 miles (28 km). If you are as lucky as me and enjoy a relatively clear day you may want to look back on the ascent to see the proximity of Tulcan and Ipiales and the hills of Colombia stretching as far as can be seen. Arriving in the paramos is like entering another world, a unique environment of high altitude humid moorland. For many the experience is dampened by low cloud and cold rain but for me a patchy blue sky and strong sun projected a riot of exciting patterns onto the broad expanse bizarre plant life. 60% of the plants that grow in this region are found nowhere else so it’s worth checking them out. The most obvious plant species is the frailejones which can grow up to 6 feet in height. Treelike shrubs with off-white furry leaves and yellow flowers frailejones dominate the landscape. Their leaves are soft and plumy to help them deal with the frigid conditions, an evolution that makes stroking them feel like stroking a cat… truly amazing.

Perfect camp spots aren’t as easy to find as you may expect due to the humpy bumpy vegetation, but water is readily available. It’s worth pushing on up to the high-point of the road where El Angel Reserve mountain refuge nestles into the hillside. There is always a night security guard there and from what I gather and experienced usually a roaring fire too. Staying the night at the refuge is free and for that princely sum you get the choice of a comfy bed in one of the three rooms of bunks, an inside toilet and fully functioning kitchen. There was no running water when I was there but this may be unusual. From the refuge it’s worth taking one of the walks out to explore the “Voladero” lake system. No doubt that whilst scaling the steep trail stairways your lungs will remind you that you’re at about 12,500 feet (3,800 m).

Literally just as I was arriving at the turning up to the refuge I encountered a couple of cycle tourists coming from the other direction. Josef Tulach and Daniel Dreiseitt, a couple of 29 year old Czech guys who have spent the last nine months cycling up from Ushuaia. It was great to have their company in the refuge that night. Listening to their stories of South America and seeing some of their photos excited me to the extent that I fear they may find the northern part of their ride to Alaska a bit dull. We went our separate directions in the morning but not before I’d had the chance to inspect their nice looking rides. Josef rides a 29er Spyder Individual Bike and Daniel a 26 inch wheeled Cube mtb, both with suss forks and nicely set up.

To see some unmissable photos of the El Angel paramos click on these links: Sarah & James, CassAnna and Tom & Sarah

On a clear day the morning descent down into El Angel the town is a delight. The smell of cows, the sun on green hedge lined fields, it could very easily be the Yorkshire Dales. With the landscape free of trees and feeling much larger than anything experienced in Colombia the tingle of fresh new riding in a new country is energizing. The track down to El Angel turns from dirt to cobbles to pavement. It’s about a 10 mile (16 km) and 2,400 foot (730 m) descent.

Once through Al Angel take the right turn at the roundabout and quickly descend to the start of a small climb. The drop soon begins again, speeding through San Isidro (elev. 9960 ft, 3035 m) and Mira (elev. 7960 ft, 2420 m) before eventually connecting with the dreaded Pan Am Highway (elev. 5020 ft, 1530 m). By this point you’ll find the world to have become a very dry and dusty place. It’s hot, feels quite desert like and you’ll start seeing Afro-Ecuadorians. If you’re anything like me you’ll spend your whole time on the Pan Am wondering when you can get off it. Fear not, after only four miles the turning to Salinas provides an escape. It is possible to escape the Pan American highway all together by taking a turning west in Mira. From the experience of my friends Sarah and James this looks like a fun adventure down through Salinas (their account here).

Having inspected and dismissed riding the old road to Ibarra (runs parallel to the Pan Am but the other side of the river) on account of it being cobbled, I took the turning before Salinas to Tumbabiro. At this lower altitude the annoying biting insects had returned along with the heat so the first stretch of climb in the afternoon sun to Tumbabiro wasn’t particularly enjoyable. Just before the small hillside town I rested in the shade of the gated entrance to a fancy hotel complex. It was here that my second fortunate meeting occurred. Tour guide Pablo Montalvo appeared with a bus load of English tourists. A keen cyclist, Pablo instructed me to stay put and soon returned to talk. He then ran through the various dirt road possibilities in Ecuador and made some suggestions that turned my route to Quito in the direction it finally went.

It’s about a 1,500 ft (460 m) 5.5 miles (9 km) climb up to Tumbabiro. The road then enjoyably swoops and twists down and then steeply up to Urcuqui (elev. 7,500 ft, 2,280 m). In Urcuqui it’s worth investing $7 for a night in Hostal Primavera where most rooms have tremendous views south over the hulking mass of Imbabura. There I did some research and decided to shelve plans of heading up Fuya Fuya to Lago de Moyanda in favor of riding the dirt roads west past Lago Cuicocha and along the Rio Cristo to Selva Alegre then on to Mindo. Both Daniel and Josef and Pablo had remarked on how beautiful Lago Cuicocha and the valley that route descends down into is.

Setting off from Urcuqui it was quickly apparent I wasn’t going to make it far that day. I’d been coughing a few days, had no energy and was a little concerned for the heaviness in my chest. After struggling through the cobbled section of road from Imantag to Cotacachi I decided to cut my losses, climbed up to the Pan Am and quickly escaped to a night in Otavalo.

Otavalo to Mindo via Selva Alegre, El Chontal & Gualea

Otavalo to Mindo route… click on image for interactive map

Elevation profile for Otavalo to Mindo route

Otavalo is famed for its enormous markets. Markets excite some people but I have to admit that I am not one of those. So after a quick look around I set off the next morning on the main road over to Selva Alegre. Although not offering the delights of Lago Cuicocha this road still descends down into a very different part of Ecuador and opens up the chance to explore some back roads down there. The easy way to reach the road is a return to the Pan Am and turn at a Gas station, but it should be possible to ask directions that avoids this. Then it’s about 3,400 ft (1040 m), 18 miles (29 km) of paved climbing up to the summit. Even with the feeling of lead in my chest I was able to complete the climb without a stop, hopefully an apt indication of its ease. The route itself is beautiful, climbing up onto a broad saddle plastered in a patchwork of small farms and then continuing up through a tiny village into patchy forest. The pavement ends shortly before the summit and does not reappear.

From the high-point starts a mega descent over 27.5 miles (44 km) from 11,300 ft (3,444 m) to 4,300 ft (1,310 m) and the junction to Selva Alegre. There are a couple of small restaurants on route which are there to serve the lorries. The lorries are there to serve the two mines that are about 10 or 15 miles from Selva Alegre, and there are quite a lot of them. A concrete manufacturer has a  processing facility on the Otavalo side of the hill, the lorries thunder between that and the mines. Aside from their menace traffic is very sparse. I quickly descended down into wet cloud which combined with the huge plume of dust thrown up by the frequently passing lorries to thickly cake me in grime. The unpaved road needs a bit of attention too so it doesn’t go down as one of the most enjoyable descents.

A sign for Selva Alegre will eventually appear and direct you left up and away from the main road. As the main road stays low and winds around to follow the Rio Intag, the one to Selva Alegre switchbacks up about 1,000 ft (300 m) over roughly 3 miles (5 km). Selva Alegre is a rustic little town (maybe village) that perches on the wooded hillside at 5,270 ft (1,600 m). It has restaurants, stores, a bakery and even a hotel where for $3.50 you can have a night in a room that smells strongly of urine. But it’s for the ride out in the morning that I recommend the trip to Selva Alegre. The 5.5 mile (9 km) dirt road and often two-track descent down to the Rio Intag is a beauty. At the river the options are then to either continue straight on the road through Nanegal or take a right to rejoin the main road. I got confused, was trying to go to Nanegal but found nobody from which to ask directions. The main road on my map went to Nanegal so I assumed I had to cross the Rio Intag and climb back up to what was obviously the major route. A steep 700 ft (210 m) ascent over 1.6 miles (2.5 km) and I was at the main road which in fact goes to El Chontal. After 21 miles (34 km) on the bizarrely wide unpaved road to El Chontal where I saw just two motorcycles and two joggers as traffic, I had descended to 2,243 ft (684 m) elevation and hit the low point. It’s well worth getting a second breakfast in El Chontal as what follows can be a bit tiring.

In El Chontal the predominantly westerly progress is replaced by a turn south. Having crossed Rio Guayllabamba the climbing starts steeply for the first 2,000 ft (600 m) and then tapers off to be interspersed with slight drops and passage through a number of village communities. Twelve hard-fought miles (20 km) from El Chontal brings you to the village of Gualea (elev. 4,950 ft, 1,500 m) where pavement replaces the enjoyable dirt and progress speeds up considerably. From Gualea it’s a rollercoaster 8 miles (13 km) up to La Armenia (elev. 5,800 ft, 1,770 m) and the junction with the main Calacalí-La Independencia road. This is where traffic gets reintroduced into your life and there’s an uninspiring grin-and-bare-it 12 miles (19 km) to the turning off for Mindo. By this point the work is done and all that remains is to speed 4 miles (6.5 km) downhill into the enchanting cloud forest and Mindo (elev. 4,235 ft, 1,290 m).

It was only two days riding for me to reach Mindo on this route from Otavalo. I slept over in Selva Alegre and enjoyed a big second day all the way to Mindo. The wise thing to do would be to break the second day down into two but it was New Years Eve and I was determined to squeeze as much cycling out of 2013 as I could. The upshot of this was that my New Years celebrations involved a lot of coughing, a set of ear plugs and a 9:30 bed time. But I was happy after a fantastic 58 mile day with close to 8,000 feet (2,400 m) of climbing and over eight and a half hours on the bike. An amazing day made more incredible by the bizarre Ecuadorian slant on New Years celebrations.

Once past El Chontal a small but increasing amount of traffic started appearing on the roads. Every vehicle had a dummy strapped to the front or sat on the top. Most were home-made but there was also a large Mickey Mouse surfing on top of a bus and an over-sized Donald Duck. One truck went past driven by an extremely busty blond lady. Busty is something I’ve become attuned to having just traveled through surgically enhanced Colombia, but platinum blond was something a bit different. As I moved further into civilization and the road turned to pavement more of these tartily dressed women appeared. But they were not women at all but cross-dressing men. They roamed in groups, obviously half cut and sometimes quite intimidating as they stopped traffic with ropes and whistles, demanding beer money before letting them move on. Thankfully they were always courteous to me and didn’t try to trip me up on the ropes.

At the time all this behavior was a mystery to me but it all makes some sort of sense now I understand it. The dummies are known as Año Viejo’s and typically created by every family or business. I’d seen heads for them being sold on markets in the weeks before and they represented all sorts of characters from cartoons to actors to politicians. The Año Viejo’s are then burnt at midnight on New Years Eve to represent burning away the bad things from the previous year. People jump over the fires for good luck and I understand it’s quite a spectacle in the cities. Men cross dress in order to act as viudas (widows) of the Año Viejos that are being burnt. They use balloons and pillows to accentuate the parts that need accentuating and generally use it as an excuse to get drunk, act stupid and have fun. All very obvious now I know… but still pretty strange. You imagine riding a quite Ecuadorian dirt back-road and unexpectedly coming across a guy in fishnet stockings, high-heels, tight red mini-dress with an enormous arse and huge bristols!

El Paseo del Quinde: Mindo to Quito via San Tadeo, Tandayapa & Nono

EcoRuta Paseo del Quinde, Mindo to Quito route… click on image for interactive map

Elevation profile for Mindo to Quito route

I had hoped for three days rest in Mindo but only really managed two as the third involved a thirty mile ride down to Los Bancos and back to get some cash. Bring money with you to Mindo as the cash machine their apparently rarely works. During these days my health declined further and I was unfortunately unmotivated to head out and enjoy the various wildlife attractions held by the cloud forest. By the morning of departure I was running a fever and coughing more than ever but nothing was going to stop me riding El Paseo del Quinde.

Ecoruta Del Quinde climbs the very western edge of the Andes through subtropical cloud forest up into impacted high Andean vegetation. The changes in flora and fauna are remarkable but perhaps not surprising considering the altitude changes involved. The most remarkable birds (particularly Humming birds after which the route is named), butterflies and Orchids line the way. In fact Ecuador has nearly 5,000 of the world 18,000 species of Orchid. All in all the sights, sounds and smells of the route combine with some fun dirt road climbing in creating quite a special way into Quito.

The climbing starts immediately with the 4 mile (6.5 km), 1,400 ft (427 m) ascent out of Mindo. Then there’s about a mile (1.6 km) climb up the main highway before branching off at San Tadeo. This is where the road becomes dirt and the traffic entirely disappears. From San Tadeo the climbing continues up to just under 8,000 ft (2,440 m) elevation at a point about 12 miles (19 km) from Mindo. It’s a pretty full-on first two and three quarter hours of riding but the views over the cloud forest canopy and apparently on a clear day, down to the coast, make it well worth the effort. From this first summit the road descends 6 miles (9.5 km) down to the tiny junction village of Tandayapa. In Tandayapa there is the option of escaping the route back to the main highway, but no services to speak of. This is where the main climb starts and continues for just over 15 miles (24 km) up to the village of Nono. It’s a really enjoyable ascent winding up the Rio Alambi with little traffic other than the hordes of mountain bikers that like to speed down the hill. Nono has services including I believe rooms. After Nono the road is paved (all be it badly) all the way up to the summit, that’s a further 5 miles (8 km) at about 11,000 ft (3,350 m) elevation. Toppling over the summit Quito will be revealed below and there is nothing left but to freewheel down into the city.

Despite feeling quite unwell I very much enjoyed this two day ride and doubt there is a more attractive route into Quito. My experience was partially saved by a chance meeting with Andrew and Lorena, a couple I encountered at a bird lodge near the first summit. I was seriously flagging and so turned in for a coffee which Andrew kindly bought for me with the addition of some cake. It was an incredible stroke of good luck that Andrew is a paramedic and thus travels with quite a stash of useful pharmaceuticals. He kindly gave me a supply without which I’m not sure I’d have made it to Quito. A very fortunate meeting with a very kind couple.

I split the route in two by stealthily camping by the river Alambi about 9 miles (14.5 km) up from Tandayapa. This left a morning ride into Quito the next day and plenty of time to find my bearings in the city. Like my entry into Bogota, I enjoyed seeing Quito from above and descending into it. Unlike my entry into Bogota where I was quite seduced by my first views, Quito just looked like a giant concrete turd that someone had laid in an otherwise beautiful land. I’ve been in Quito a few days now but unfortunately illness completely overtook me so I’ve not been able to go out and have the City prove itself to be anything other.

The day after my arrival in Quito my sister, Jo arrived with her bike to ride with me for a few weeks. It’s really fantastic to have her here and I’m excited for our route through Ecuador and northern Peru. Having spent her first day in Ecuador sat next to my hospital bed as I shivered uncontrollably and drugs dripped into my veins, things could only get better. And they are picking up just fine. I’m feeling better and am slowly regaining the strength lost from a few days bed ridden starvation. We set off together tomorrow and I’ll finish my recovery on the road. This truly is the start of a new and exciting chapter.

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6 responses to “An Eventful Introduction to Ecuador

  1. Nate, Sorry to hear about your hospital stay and the camera breakdown. But glad to hear you are better! I did enjoy the lengthy descriptions of your recent rides in Ecuador. As usual—I want to be there to see it all, espcially the plants and the hummingbirds! Another one for the bucket list. Enjoy your time with your sister! Cheers, Marilyn

  2. That´s funny…we are enjoying the same cobbled experiences you mentioned on here, but also currently found ourselves resting legs and forearms at the Hostal Primavera! Looking forward to riding that stretch of Páramo road to Tulcán.

  3. Pingback: The Ups and Downs of Looping through Quilotoa | Velo Freedom - Cycling South·

  4. Pingback: Cuenca to Cajamarca Pt. 1: To The End of Ecuador | Velo Freedom - Cycling South·

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