Taking time off from the bike and simply staying put for a while is, perhaps surprisingly, often one of the things I crave the most. This nomadic life can be unsettling after a time; constantly sleeping somewhere new, building connections only to subsequently have to sever them and start again from scratch a little further down the road. A yearning for familiarity is a deep routed human instinct and one that even the most hardened of travellers struggle to suppress. But with an anxious eye on my ever-slowing progress, the concept of ‘time off’ is often accompanied by a pang of guilt akin to pulling a sickie at work. This ‘must press on’ attitude is dangerous trap to fall into though and many a cyclist has been caught out, succumbing to the feared ‘burn out’ and throwing in the towel altogether. After all, this is a journey governed by the mind, not the legs.
This is a chief reason why Casas de Ciclistas, such as Santiago’s where I’ve recently been staying, are such a lifeline to wandering cyclists on tight budgets. And it’s not uncommon for people’s ‘couple of days’ stay to turn into weeks, as the comfortable grasp of familiarity slowly takes hold. It could have easily been a similar situation for me, but after a great few days catching up on some much needed rest, the prospect of exploring more dirt routes high in the Ecuadorian Andes was enough to lure me back into the saddle. What’s more I now had a like-minded partner in crime to share the adventure with, in the form of Sam, a fellow mountain biker from California. Having somehow wangled a two year break from his degree at Standford, he’s on a similar mission to ride as much of the Andes off-road as possible.
And so, after biding farewell to Santiago and family, we set off on a 10-day assault of Central Sierra dirt routes in an attempt to link the two iconic volcanoes of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. The ensuing adventure was of such epic proportions (that’ll be the US influence rubbing off) that I’ve split the blog into a two-part odyssey so as not to overwhelm:
Part 2 to follow….
There’s basically two ways of reaching the North Gate of the park:
- Take the cobbled/dirt road from San Rafael/Sangolqui leading through the collection of tiny villages termed Rumipamba (where basic provisions can be found). This is what we did as it.
- Continue south on the Pan-Am to Machachi (where there’s apparently a very cycle friendly bomberos) and take the steep cobbled side road up into the park, where it links up with the above route. This is most direct option but involves more highway riding.
From the North Gate there are a further two options:
- Take the standard dirt track across the plateau, skirting the northern flanks of Cotapaxi, then down to the South Gate and onto the town of Lasso on the Pan-Am. This is a great route, with occasional single track options running parallel to the main dirt road, but it’s also the route tourists use and we encountered a surprising amount of traffic on the weekend (probably a time best to avoid if you can). It’s also quick and possible to go from Rumipamba to Lasso in a day. Camping on the plateau itself would be stunning but your biggest enemy is the intense wind. There are occasional large rocks for shelter though, along with a dedicated campsite just before the road starts to descend down to the South Gate.
- Go off-roading and take the route used for the Vuelta de Cotopaxi race. This loops round the southern side of the volcano, requires more time, some hike-a-bike and passes through private land. It looks pretty epic though, full details here.
Lasso to Isinlivi:
A relatively easy day’s ride at around 50km and an absolute cracker. Just branch off the paved road to Sigchos a few km after passion through Toacazo and take the road heading towards Yanaucu Grande. It’s cobbled at first and then paved. From Yanauca Grande is a cracking dirt climb up to a 3900m pass before plummeting down to Isinlivi, where you’ve got a choice of two hostels, with Llulu Llama seemingly the favourite.
Isinlivi to Quilotoa (direct):
Cass eluded to the possibility of such a route in his account and we thought we’d try and make it happen. One for the off-road, lightweight crowd, but definitely worth considering if seeking high adventure and a lesser travelled route. It’s 35km, which is actually a full day due to the challenging terrain. In terms of route finding I’ll do my best to outline things below but as always the best approach is simply to keep asking locals for directions:
- We took the steep grassy trail directly outside the front door of the Llulu Llama hostel, descending fast then taking the trail off to the left at the first T-junction you come across.
- More knarly, but rideable single track descending brings you to a jeep track. Take a right onto this down to the small concrete bridge and follow the track as it climbs up steeply.
- Soon you’ll reach a small village and more defined dirt track. Total distance so far is only 2km. (Note: it would seem logical that you can access this directly from Isinlivi cutting out the single track roller coaster).
- Take a left onto the main dirt track and keep following it, staying high on the valley side at around the 3000m mark.
- After 10km or so you should reach a T-junction at a small cluster of houses called Salado on Open Maps. Take a left here and then wind your way down to the river. The exact route to the river probably makes little difference but the idea is to link up with the zig-zag dirt climb on the other side of the valley. Shortly after the junction we took a right at the U-bend, then forked left very shortly after continuing down to a farmhouse and then free-styling down to a good point to cross the river.
- After crossing the river its a hike-a-bike job for a couple of hundred metres to link up with the zig-zag dirt track. It’s bloody steep with only faint signs of a trail so is likely to involve shuttling bike and gear separately.
- Once on the zig-zag climb the suffering is not over as deep sand makes riding tough and as such we probably pushed about half of the couple of km climb.
- It then plateaus out, reaching a few farmhouses and shortly after intersects the major dirt road to the village of Pilapuchin. From here route finding is easy as you basically just follow this.
- Take a left onto the dirt road and after a km or so you’ll reach Pilapuchin, the first place we came across with a shop.
- Continue on this dirt road all the way until it meets the main paved Quilotoa to Zumbahua highway. Quite a slog and you effectively loop round the east and southern flanks of the crater lake.
- Once on the paved highway it’s a couple of km climb up to Quilotoa.