Ever since moving to Ecuador, I had really been wanting to find a cool backcountry bike route that crosses over the Cordillera Occidental of the Ecuadorian Andes and drops down to the coast. After asking around for gpx tracks of cool singletrack and doubletrack rides and looking over some maps of the area, I worked out a route that would pass through the Quilotoa region to see the lake filled volcanic crater then head across the paramo a bit before dropping down to the coast near Manta. I talked my buddy Felipe into joining me for the first part of the proposed 500km, but he couldn’t commit beyond Quilotoa so from there I would go it alone. I chose the weekend of Carnaval for the trip, since it was a 3 day weekend, but this, along with not buying a new rear tire for the trip, would prove to be a disastrous mistake as you’ll soon find out.
Felipe and I left Quito early on a drizzly, gray Saturday morning and drove to Lasso, a small town on the Panamerican Highway about an hour and half south of Quito. Luckily, the weather had improved a bit, so after checking and packing up the bikes, we started the 500km journey over the Andes to the coast. The route began with a 15km paved climb up past the small village of Toacazo before cutting off onto an old cobblestoned road and eventually changing over to dirt. I didn’t even make it to the dirt track before getting my first flat.
I had torn a gash in my rear tire on my last overnight bike trip to Mindo, but had since had the tire “professionally” patched at a car tire shop in Quito and though it would be fine to run tubeless for this trip. I guess it wasn’t patched well enough as it blew out after about 11km. Luckily I had two tubes, so I threw one in and we were off again.
The cobble, then dirt track weaves you up up and up through the Quilotoa backcountry with wonderful views of the surrounding landscape; mountains checkered with small, steep small scale farm plots of quinoa and potatoes, tiny Andean hamlets, grazing llamas and alpacas, and bright smiling faces of local children as they tended their plots. This countryside is as Andean as it gets. The track at this point is graded rather nicely for Ecuador standards, so we were able to take in the views and enjoy ourselves as we climbed about 1200m up to a pass before dropping down to Isinlivi.
At the pass we were rewarded with sun and stunning views of the surrounding mountains and steep, seemingly unending drop down into the Rio Toachi gorge.
We started dropping down at breakneck speed on a good dirt and gravel track, but I couldn’t help but fret a bit about losing all the elevation we had just gained over the last several hours, and then some! Felipe got ahead of me on the doubletrack and missed the turn off for some sweet single track action leading directly into Isinlivi.
I made it into town and stopped at Viveres Tito for some snacks and more water while waiting for Felipe. I waited a long while and tried to text and call, to no avail. Meanwhile, the townsfolk all came out to ask me about my heavily laden bike and what I was doing. They couldn’t believe I planned to ride to Quilotoa, much less to the coast! After another 20 minutes or so, I figured Felipe had gone on ahead. Since we both knew the route, I pressed on ahead figuring we’d meet up soon enough, probably in the next town.
After Isinlivi, which is lower than Lasso, where we started, you still drop another 200-300m or so in elevation via some epic, though extremely hard to follow, singletrack.
Eventually the track ran out completely, so I had to rely on the gpx track on my gps to navigate my way down the river. Even with the gps, I kept getting cliffed out or running into nasty bushwhacking sections. Even though it was mostly a descent, the terrain was so confusing and intricate, that several times I had to carry my bike back up impossibly steep hillsides I had just ridden down!
This was definitely a “trying” though adventurous section to say the least, but I eventually made it down to the Toachi River.
The river crossing was a bit hairy carrying a fully laden bike, but I made it across and enjoyed the hot sun while I let my feet dry off a bit. I was now much lower in elevation than when we had started that morning, and knew we had a 1300-1400m climb ahead if we wanted to make it Quilotoa. The day had been so hard thus far, that this was now starting to seem like a daunting prospect, and Felipe was still nowhere to be seen. Still, I continued on, and began the 40km+ climb up to Quilotoa. Luckily, the climb out of the gorge wasn’t quite as bad as the drop down, as there was a nice, though painfully steep, dirt doubletrack climbing up to Chugchilan. As I kept climbing, it seemed to get harder and harder. I thought I was running out of steam, but then I checked my rear tire and noticed I had lost a lot of pressure. I had a slow leak that would have to be patched, but wanted to get to Chugchilan to eat and deal with it in more comfort. My bike pump was a real piece of junk and it took me forever to get to a reasonable pressure, but luckily Felipe caught up to me at this point! I had thought he was ahead, but apparently he had backtracked to find me, and had been pushing it to catch up with me for several hours! I was nice to be back together, and we climbed the remain 15km or so into Chugchilan.
In Chugchillan we had a great dinner at Hostal Mama Rumi and patched up my tube just as the rain started to fall again. Great timing. It was starting to get dark and we still had a 20km+ climb up to the Quilotoa crater, but we both had lamps, so we started off in the light rain, which eventually let up and turned into thick fog and cold wind. This section of the route has just recently been paved, within the last few months actually. While I like to avoid pavement as much as possible, in these conditions and at night, I can’t say I minded it too much! We made pretty good time up to the village at Quilotoa,
and after a cheap merienda (set dinner) and a large Pilsener, we slept like rocks.
We woke up at dawn the next morning and snapped a few shots on the overlook deck at Quilotoa, before going our separate ways. Felipe would finish the Quilotoa loop via some outrageous singletrack around the crater and a different way through the gorge and back up and over the mountains to Lasso.
I dropped down to Zumbahua, again on brand new pavement (aargh!), but with stunning views, before heading up to the paramo. Zumbahua has to be in one of the prettiest settings in all of Ecuador. I can only imagine what this place was like before the roads into town and up the volcano were paved. Its still worth a visit, especially for their famed Saturday (or is it Sunday?) market.
After a quick resupply in Zumba, I began the paved (aargh again!) climb up to the dirt track that leads across the paramo and down to the cloud forest. The first 15km or so of the climb were on more paved road, much to my dismay. At this point I was getting annoyed with paved roads, but luckily it went quickly and I was back on a beautiful dirt track that rolled across the paramo, slowly making its way to a pass just shy of 4200m. I was really enjoying myself at this point as I rolled past Kichwa shepards grazing their sheep and llamas
and enjoying views of both the highlands and peering down into the cloud forest.
This part of the ride ended all too quickly and I began the insanely long 12,000ft+ descent to the coastal plain. The track started out incredibly rocky, and no surprise, at this point I got another small leak in my tube through the gash in my tire. I used my last tube here, and continued the descent, as the beautiful highland vistas gave way to thick fog, drizzle, and mud that was the consistency of peanut butter as I entered the cloud forest zone. I rode through a small village as the rain began to pick up and mud got deeper where I stopped in a shop with meager supplies so I bought some cookies, cheap junky chocolate, and a Fanta which I quickly inhaled as villagers gathered around me to ask about my bike and trip. As carnaval was quickly approaching, much of the town was already quite inebriated, despite the somewhat early hour…It was 5pm somewhere right?
I set off down the track which was now more of a muddy stream than a double track, but after 20 or 30km, I turned off onto a slightly better road near the small village Chapas where I was surprised to see my first vehicle since leaving the pavement. It was a classic Ecuadorian “chiva” or open-air seating bus. I think they were just as surprise to see me.
Shortly after this encounter, I met a family walking down the road and a young boy was so interested by my bike that he ran along side me for over a kilometer. He was even kind enough to snap a picture of me in front of a really cool tree.
Around this time the rain started to pour and after a day in the mud (and also due to having worn chainrings) I began getting the worst chain suck imaginable. It got so bad, I could no longer pedal uphills, despite trying my best to clean off my drivetrain. Luckily, the ride at this point was mostly descent, and after hours of struggle, I hobbled into El Corazon, which was sort of the end of the cloud forest wilderness. I was ravenous and ate a rather unappealing almuerzo del dia at one of the few restaurants in the small town, but what the food lacked in flavor and freshness, the owner made up for in character. He was genuine Andean character and was very interested in my trip. Feeling refreshed, though reluctant to get back in the downpour, I got back on the bike and began the speedy descent down to the coastal plain region that produces a large share of the world’s bananas on extensive plantations. I am sure the views on the descent would have been great, but unfortunately I couldn’t see more than a couple of feet in the pouring rain. The rain was so heavy, I could barely open my eyes making the descent a little bit sketchy.
To make things worse, as I entered the coastal region, the Carnaval activities increased dramatically and trucks that passed by began pegging me with water balloons! I am sure this is really fun and all if you are a part of the festivities, but after over 10 hours of riding that day, and the last 3 or 4 in driving rain, I was in no mood to be drilled by water balloons at high speeds. It was actually really dangerous in these conditions and I had to slow down on the descent.
The terrain finally started to level out as I rolled into Moraspungo. The streets were teeming with partygoers and people started nailing with me with shaving cream and silly string. I was beyond annoyed as I try to make my way through morass and continue on my way.
I made a few more kilometers before having yet another tube blow out on my. This time it was a real explosion and the gash on my tire widened dramatically. This was the last straw for me, as I was out of tubes and didn’t want to sit and the rain trying to patch an old tube while dodging water balloons and shaving cream bombs. As I really wasn’t enjoying the ride since entering the coastal region, I decided to cut my ride short and took a pick up truck taxi the last few kilometers into Quevedo, where I caught a bus back to Quito. I had made it over 250km through difficult terrain and conditions in just 2 days, and learned a lot of lessons on this ride, most notably; 1. don’t do a bikepacking ride through populous coastal areas of Ecuador during Carnaval, 2. if you destroy a tire, get a new one before going on multiday backcountry ride across the highlands and cloud forests of Ecuador, 3. the highlands are much better for backcountry biking than the coast and cloud forest 4. buy and carry a better portable bike pump, 5. don’t ride on worn out chain rings when going to muddy destinations. Despite not making it to my destination, the ride through the highlands and cloud forest had been absolutely spectacular and got to experience a remote part of Ecuador.