Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route- Tulcan to Cuenca

Written by Evan
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Border between Ipiales, Colombia and Tulcan, Ecuador

We arrived into Tulcan, Ecuador and had an easy ride to a hotel in downtown, where we enjoyed our first Ecuadorian market.  We missed having markets through Colombia, as food is generally just bought at grocery stores.

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Tulcan Market – Ecuador’s markets are very clean and well 0rgaized

The next day started with a cold rain, but we started out onto the first day of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (Route), a route created by the Ecuadorian Dammer brothers, and Cass Gilbert – complete with endless climbing and descending through the high Ecuadorian Andes.

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El Angel Ecological Reserve – the beginning of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route
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It was amazing to be off of the highways!
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Ecuador’s cobble roads – much worse than they look – absolutely bone jarring!
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Descending to 3000′ to start a climb up to 13,000′

After a couple days of riding, we arrived at the first major climb of the route – a 10,000′ ascent from roughly 3,000′ to 13,000′.  We split the climb into two days, and camped on a down sloping farm field in between.

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Hot and sweaty climbing – some of the only low elevation riding we have done so far in Ecuador
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Michelle climbing all day
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Fresh landslide just above the small village of Buenos Aires – there were about 5 motorcycles above us trying to get into town – but no way through until it is cleared – for us this is a fun obstacle, for local villagers, it means no food or supplies – not a joke

The climb was an introduction to the major ecological zones of Ecuador, from the hot, humid, tropical low lying mountains, to the above treeline Paramo of the high Ecuadorian Andes.

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High in the Ecuadorian Paramo – essentially above treeline alpine ecosystem
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Getting close to the top of a 10,000′ climb on day 2 of climbing
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Open Paramo
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Campsite before a huge descent towards Otavalo
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Typical camp meal – eaten in tent to escape the rain!

I woke up feeling quite off after our first day of climbing, and continued to struggle on day two.  By our third day, I was completely sick, but pushed through until Otavalo, where a warm comfortable hostel greeted us for the next week while I recovered from a flu like sickness.

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Last couple rolling hills before a well earned descent
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Pasta dinner with homemade sauce in Otavalo. We were lucky enough to stay at an incredibly nice hostel with a super clean kitchen for a week (while Evan was sick). The kitchen was stocked with an electric juicer and a waffle maker.  We enjoyed many homemade meals from fresh market produce during our stay.
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Lo mein and fresh squeezed orange juice in Otavalo
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Michelle relaxing at Cascadas de Peguche on our last day in Otavalo – and first day for Evan to explore outside of the few blocks around the hostel

Leaving Otavalo, we began a 4,000′ climb up a cobbled road to Lagos de Mojanda for our last night in the northern hemisphere.  Some fast descending brought us into a very sandy and dry region, and finally to a highway that we took into Pifo, with some incredibly steep paved climbs.  We spent a quick day in Quito walking around and doing some errands.

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Our last night in the northern hemisphere at Lagos de Mojanda
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With spare butter from our previous night’s stay at the hostel, our camp meal was deliciously creamy!
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High quality descending from Lagos de Mojanda
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Cathedral in Quito

From Quito, we were back on the TEMBR route, starting some of our first significant hike a bike deep into remote private property and ranches.  This section began some of the most scenic of the route – culminating in riding through Cotopaxi National Park.

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Steep rough hike a bike high above Quito
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Michelle through a farm field
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Lots of hiking!
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Numerous barbed wire fence crossing without gates
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Hiking continues!
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Short fun descent before another full morning of hike a bike
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Descending to camp
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Deep trenches made for awkward hiking and riding
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Start of a full morning of hiking!

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Open Paramo riding- bushy grass descents
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Lots of private property on the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route

After the hike-a-bike sections, we had an initially good descent, which turned to cobbles. The worst was yet to come though, as we started a very slow series of small canyon and river crossings that were extremely thick with vegetation, and steep!  The bulk of the day, and for hours the next day, were spent hiking, passing and hauling bikes up and down, and schwaking through this crazy terrain.

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Steep bike schwaking!
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Some rare fun and easy singletrack
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Endless obstacles preventing riding
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Nice camp by a river close to Cotopaxi – and just before a full night of rain started
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Massive blow down made for the worst bike schwaking yet – would maybe be impossible to get through without two people
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More hiking en route to Cotopaxi just past our river side campsite
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More schwaking!

After hours of riding, we were finally getting close to Cotopaxi, which brought us to really fun farm track roads.  The landscape changed once again to high open alpine terrain, and the riding was sublime.  We camped in the park, and continued through the following day with huge views of the volcano.  The icing on the cake was a smooth single and double track descent out of the park through pine forests – leading us to a beautiful lodge to stay at for a day off.

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Finally into Cotopaxi National Park – another world!
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Morning camp in Cotopaxi National Park
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Dirt roads of Cotopaxi
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Volcan Cotopaxi – we were extremely lucky that the clouds parted for our second day of riding in the park making for fantastic views
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Smooth singletrack descent out of Cotopaxi
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Heading out of Cotopaxi
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Great cozy lodge for a day off outside of Cotopaxi National Park- Rondador Cotopaxi

Leaving Cotopaxi, we headed towards Laguna de Quilotoa through small mountain villages, on a mix of road surfaces – paved, dirt, and cobbles.  Incredible scenery, huge ascents and descents, and endless curious locals brought us to Quilotoa and through to the high roads around Chimborazo – and an extremely cold and wet descent to Riobamba. Once again, I woke up feeling sick on our last day of riding, but knew that I needed to push through the day to get to a warm place to stay.  A big day greeted us, again with thousands of feet of mixed terrain climbing to 14,400′ – not great for my hurting throat and low energy.

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View point in Isinlivi
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Curious local kids just out of school near Quilotoa
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Kids along the country side love running alongside us as we bike through
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Laguna de Quilotoa
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Soaking wet cold descent into Angamarca
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Incredibly scenic village of Angamarca
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Couple miles of steep hike a bike out of Angamarca
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Rideable, but not worth the effort on tired legs!
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We kept crossing paths with this dairy farmer on his way home with fresh milk
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Kids on side of road, while family members tend to sheep further down the hillside – typical Saturday morning in rural Ecuador
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Top of a pass
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Llamas!
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Steep descent!
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More curious kids in a remote rural region
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Endless search for a suitable camp in the dark led to a late dinner!
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Long gradual climb to 14,400’+ close to Volcan Chimborazo
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Cold snowy roads along Volcan Chimborazo at 14,400 feet
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About to descend – very wet and cold! The snow turned into cold pouring rain on our 5000 foot descent.

After a big day of riding, we arrived at a hostel in Riobamba, where we took the next 5 days off while I recovered in bed from a nasty cold – not sure if it was lingering from my sickness in Otavalo, or an unlucky unrelated illness.

When we finally left Riobamba, the weather was particularly nasty – very wet, windy, and cold, with endless black skies.  I was still not feeling 100%, and with the bad weather, we opted to speed up our ride to Cuenca and stay on the highway.  Three days of extremely wet weather with big climbs and miserable descents, brought us to Cuenca – very happy we stuck to the highway as extended higher altitude backcountry riding would have been beyond brutal!

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Town of Alausi – start of a 13,000′ day of climbing!
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Carnaval- A huge celebration of excess before the 40 days that lead up to Easter. Everyone celebrates by spraying others with foam, water guns, water balloons, buckets of water, etc. Everyone is a target!
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Fixing a flat as we are riding into the night looking for a place to stay- a LONG, cold, and rainy day of riding!
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Cuenca street food
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Goodies from home from Ellen – who flew into Cuenca to ride with us!  Thanks!
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Beers with friends! Michelle, Ellen, and I stayed with our college friend, Zach.  Zach and Kristin graciously hosted us in their small studio apartment just outside downtown Cuenca.  They live just off a river on a beautiful piece of property full of gardens and farm animals!
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Cuy for dinner (guinea pig) raised on the property that Zach and Kristin live on – a traditional Incan delicacy – tasty dark and greasy meat

After spending a few days enjoying Cuenca with Zach and Kristin, we are excited to get back on the bikes with Ellen! Although it is unlikely, we are hoping for some drier weather ahead (as we are in the heart of the rainy season)!

11 thoughts on “Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route- Tulcan to Cuenca

  1. Wow! You 2 are awesome! I’d love to do a similar but easier adventure some day on the tandem with Steve. Keep on trucking and enjoy the rest of the ride.

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  2. Incredible stories of all your adventures! What an amazing trip!! Love all the pictures and can’t wait for the next post.

    Love Aunt Patty & Uncle Carl

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  3. Evan and Michelle unbelievable trip with unbelievaable photography. Your trip/photos should be in a National Geographic magazine or a book. An adventure of a lifetime!! Enjoy and be safe. Sue Phillips (your mom’s elementary school friend).

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