Zen and the art of bicycle carrying: bikepacking across the Piñan highlands of Ecuador

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I’ll soon be leaving Ecuador and wanted to do one last epic bikepacking ride before I go. I had asked Cass Gilbert during our trip across the central Ecuadorian volcanoes which highland area was his favorite during the Trans-Ecuador Divide trip, and he mentioned Piñan, with the caveat that the ride was incredibly brutal and definitely NOT for everyone…Challenge accepted! Felipe Borja is one of the few riders I know down here that also enjoys this sort of punishment; so for the May 1st Labor Day holiday weekend, we decided to try to piece together a loop route that crossed the Piñan paramo, starting and finishing in Otovalo. Before this trip, I had done a lot of hike-a-bike sections that required mostly pushing with limited bike carries, but I was woefully unprepared for the amount of fully loaded bikepacking bike carrying this ride would require. The terrain we crossed in this ride really tested my limits-mentally and physically-but I learned a lot about carrying a fully loaded bike!

We had planned to leave Friday morning, which would have given us plenty of time to do the 190km route at a comfortable pace, but alas, life got in the way, and Felipe couldn’t leave until late afternoon on Friday. He picked me up from my apartment in Quito around 2pm and we drove to Otovalo, a colonial Ecuadorian city that sits between two stunning volcanoes, Imbabura and Cotocachi and is home to the famous artisanal market. We didn’t start riding until nearly 5pm, so we would really only have 2 days to complete the mountain portion of the route. Still, we wanted to get across the valley and drop down to Salinas, Ecuador and finish the paved part of the ascent before camping that night.

Though mostly paved, the ride from Otovalo, to Ibarra, then down towards Valle de Salinas was actually quite stunning with views of Volcan Cayambe towering over the area.

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The route also passed through several well preserved Andean Spanish colonial villages and dipped down then ascended several dramatic canyons. After a couple of hours riding, we passed through a larger village named Urcuqui, which would be the last real town we’d see until dropping back down the other side of the mountains into Cotocachi at the very end of the route. We didn’t want to waste too much time there so we just grabbed some quick eats on the street and refilled our water bottles, before taking off again. I actually had a decent burger for $1.25 from a street vendor called “El Profe” or “The professor” which was fitting since we were very close to Yachay Ciudad de Conocemiento (The Yachay City of Knowledge), which President Correa hopes to turn into university and tech hub like the Silicon Valley- I hope it succeeds! After Urcuqui, we dropped down then back up a few more canyons before beginning a steep 5km ascent to Pablo Arenas, a really beautiful hidden gem of a town with a well preserved colonial center and churches. We then dropped down a really stunning canyon (too bad it was dark so we couldn’t get a pic) then back up to Cahuasqui, the last village before the 10,000ft ascent to the paramo and where the pavement ends. It was around 9pm by this point, so we decided to start looking for a place to bivy. Luckily we quickly found a small, semi-flat plot of land where someone had started building a house but never finished it. We decided that, though private land, this would be our best bet for camping since we were travelling along a thin ridegeline with steep slopes dropping several thousand feet to the valley below on either side.

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We quickly set up our camp for the night- Felipe in a tarp and myself in a bivy- and since we were still full from El Profe’s burgers, we just went straight to sleep. It was beautiful clear starry night, something of a rarity during this time of year in Ecuador as it often clouds up at night. After a good night’s sleep, we were up before dawn cooking a solid breakfast (oatmeal, machica (broad bean flour), and granola) that  would give us energy to climb 10,000ft in less than 20 miles, or so we hoped.

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The first few kilometers were beautiful and rather pleasant as we climbed up the ridge and were rewarded with views of the fruit farms and orchards and passed be another small hamlet with an old church.

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and even some views of Cayambe and Imbabura volcanoes in the distance. I even began wondering what all the fuss was about, questioning why Cass thought this ride was so hard….

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Then, the nature of the climb abruptly changed, starting out as just punishingly steep, but rideable singletrack, then quickly turned into an even steeper, deep-cut rocky, muddy trench that would take us all the way to 4000m without easing up. I can’t really do the brutality of this part of the route justice. Even for someone who seeks enjoyment in this type of suffering, I found myself struggling up this climb. The trench was too tight to carry the bike on my bike and too rocky and steep to push the bike up in many places, so for several hours I just had to shoulder my bike, mercifully punctuated by a few “easier” sections where I could just push the bike.

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Although punishing, the views were spectacular and we could actually enjoy ourselves during the few times we stopped to take a break.

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At about 3900m, we passed through an amazing polilepis (one of the few native trees of the Ecuadorian paramo) forest, with some of the tallest polilepis trees I’ve ever seen.

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After a particularly brutal bike carrying up a trail-less section, we finally reached the paramo (Ecuadorian high altitude grasslands) and figured the hardest part was behind us since we had gained most of our altitude. We were in for quite a surprise..

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Though the terrain was “rolling” at this point, for the most part there was no trail at all, and where there was a trail, it was almost worse than trying to pick a way through the tufts of tussock grass, so we ended up carrying our bikes

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across the seemingly easy rolling hills before coming to a brief rideable downhill that dropped us into a mud bog.

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From there, we trudged through knee deep mud, crossed deep trenches, and fell into invisible holes covered by tussock grass for couple of hours or so before we spotted a dirt track cutting across the paramo. We had been pushing or carrying our bikes for nearly 7 hours at this point, so this was quite a site for sore eyes! I had been at my wits end because we had no idea when, if ever, we would get to some rideable terrain. Though close, getting to the track actually took quite a while because the terrain never let up, but eventually we made it and got on our bikes for the first time in hours! Once on the jeep track, we made it to Piñan village in no time and had hoped to find a store where we could stock up on provisions, but the village didn’t even have a small store. Out of sheer luck or coincidence, Felipe’s old friends who he hadn’t seen in years (they actually used to ride horses and camp in this area when they were teenagers) were camping up there with their families and had tons of food! They took pity on us and kept plying us with sandwhiches, juice, and little chocolate treats-which greatly fortified our spirits! With full bellies, we decided to press on even though it was nearing dark, thinking it would be easy since the next few miles were mostly descent. Wrong again!

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We started out from Piñan on some of the first fun, rideable singletrack of the trip, but the trail quickly changed back over to unridebable, deep cut trenches. These trenches were so tight that you couldn’t carry your bike or stand next to it to push; instead we to hold on to the back of the bikes, doing our best to control them down steep drops and switchbacks.  To add insult to injury, it started pouring rain for a while, then thick fog crept in, reducing visibility to a few feet. As it got darker and darker, we wondered if we would make it down to the next valley where there would be water and flat spots to bivy. Finally, though we couldn’t see a thing, we could hear the sound of the river and the terrain leveled off a bit. We had made it to our bivy site for the night just before it got pitch dark.

It was difficult to find a truly flat spot in the dark, much less a dry one in this marshy, boggy area, but finally we found a somewhat suitable spot right next to the river and set up camp. I then dug into my framebag to find my noodles and can of tuna that would serve as dinner, only to find that my bag of peanut butter had exploded at some point that day! It was a real mess, but a tasty one, and I did my best to clean it up-which also served as a great appetizer! Gross, I know, but I was so hungry at this point, I didn’t care. After excavating through the peanut butter, I eventually found my dinner, and sat down to cook. It felt great to sit and eat after such a long day! Shortly after, we turned in for the night, just as it began to rain. My OR Helium Bivy held up in the rain quite well, the major problem was that I got way too hot in the zipped up bivy and my 20F sleeping bag-it felt like a sauna, but the alternative was rain pouring down on my face. Fortunately, after a while it got cold enough so that I could actually get some sleep.

We woke up at dawn the next morning thinking the hard part was behind us and that we’d be on rideable trails and dirt roads all day. Wrong yet again!

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Felipe knew of a good singletrack descent down to Irubi, a small village on the Rio Apuela at about 1500m where we would begin our final climb up to 3400m and then back down to Otovalo, but we decided we wanted to follow the Trans-Ecuador route, assuming it would also involve some sweet singletrack. And it did start off that way.

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We began our ride that morning with beautiful sunny skies, some hard but rideable singletrack climbs,

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then finally, some amazing singletrack descents, stunning views-we had worked for more than a day for this, so we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

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Then, all of a sudden, the track dropped straight into a deep gorge, all the way down to the jungle. It quickly became too steep, muddy, and rocky to ride. I was disheartened to lose so much elevation on foot, and then we saw that we would have to climb over yet another mountain before finally dropping down to Irubi. We eventually made it down to the bottom of the gorge, then began the most brutal climb yet, in the scorching hot jungle sun.

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For the next hour or so, I heaved my fully loaded up impossibly steep, alternately muddy or rocky switchbacks as we made our way up the mountain. For me, this was the hardest part of the trip. It was so steep, loose, and slippery I could barely climb up the trail while carrying my bike. When I could push, each step took immense effort-it reminded of football practice in high school when you push with everything you have to move sled across the field. My arms quickly started to feel like jello and near the top I was having trouble hefting my bike up onto my shoulder. At this point I realized that all my on-the-bike training had not prepared me for so much lifting and pushing with my upper-body. I longed for my former climber physique when this type of thing wouldn’t have taken such a toll on me.

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At the top of the mountain I felt like I was drunk-I had allowed myself to bonk during the struggle up from the jungle; but ravaging most of the remainder of my food while taking in the stunning views quickly revived my spirits. You can see in the pictures below how steep the terrain we had just crossed was.

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From the summit, we were rewarded with the best singletrack of the trip, and some of the prettiest terrain yet. We even passed a purple forest-only in Ecuador!!!

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The epic singletrack turned to road all too quickly, and eventually we were in Irubi- the first village with a store, albeit a very small one with limited provisions-since Cahuasqui on Friday night. They only had crackers and sodas, but it was better than nothing so we ate and drank our fill before continuing on.

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After Irubi, we were on well maintained dirt roads and enjoyed making such fast progress, even if it was mostly climbing. After what we had been through, climbing steep dirt roads felt like a piece of cake.

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We contoured along the valley for a while before finally joining a bigger dirt road that would take us up our final 30km climb up and over a 3400m ridgeline that separated us from Otovalo. The climb, though on a nice dirt road, was pretty steep so the going was slow and it took a few hours to finally reach the top where it changed over to paved road. At the pass above Laguna Cuicocha, it began to pour rain and we suited up for the long fast descent down to the valley below. For the first time in days we reached high speeds, racing down the mountain at over 60km an hour!

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We were back in Otovalo before we knew it, hardly phased by the cold hard rain. Over the last 2.5 days we had ascended 7870m (25,971ft) in just 190km through some of the most unforgiving yet undeniably beautiful country imaginable. Cass was right, this was not a trip for the faint of heart, but the rewards were worth the struggles. I would highly recommend doing it over 3 or even 4 days though!

Before we left town, we had one last epic event..We had parked at a gated lot that advertised 24 hour service, but no one answered the bell when we rang nor the phone when we called the number on the sign. We hoped the manager would show up soon, and went to a pollo joint where we destroyed some quarto de pollos (1/4 chicken plates with rice, fries, soup, and salad) and watched a spanish dubbed version of The Fast and Furios while we waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, faced with spending the night in Otovalo, Felipe brazenly climbed 15ft the parking lot wall and dropped over the side, battled the guard dog, and managed to open the gate so we could get the car out!

Man, I’m going to miss Ecuador and these kinds of trips!!!!!

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