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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Andean breakfasts: Searching for singletrack in the highlands of Ecuador

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What does and Andean Breakfast consist of? It starts with a minimum of 1000m of steep climbing, toss in a good helping of hike-a-bike, add some gnarly cobblestones and/or deep mud, perhaps a dash of sand, some singletrack, and some of the most spectacular terrain and views found anywhere, then repeat. That’s pretty much how we would start our mornings for this 7 day, 500km, with countless meters of elevation gain bikepacking expedition across the high central Andean volcanoes of Ecuador.

I first found out about Chumba bikes while racing the TNGA in 2014 when I tied for first place “rookie” with Chumba Team Racer Joey Parent. We got along well and rode almost the entire race together and his URSA bike was ideal for the race. After that I knew I wanted to be a part of the Chumba community, but I moved to Ecuador a few days after the race, so I had to shelve the idea. So when Operations Manager Vince Colvin contacted me about organizing a multi-day bikepacking trip in Ecuador for Chumba Cycles USA; I jumped on the chance and joined the team.

Vince wanted to a ride that showcased some of the highlights of the central Andean volcanoes and featured as much singletrack as possible. Through stage races, talking with my local rider friends, and weekend-long bikepacking trips I was able to piece together an ideal route that would meet those criteria. I had done bits of pieces of proposed route that were spectacular, so as long as the rest of the route followed suit, I knew we would be in for a stellar experience. Vince also got in touch with the man, the myth, the legend Cass Gilbert of WhileOutRiding fame, and he was interested in joining the ride. He had just completed a crossing of the entire Ecuadorian Andes Divide, so he would be able to fill in the gaps of areas I hadn’t been to and take us through some sweet terrain. The route we finalized would take us to some of the most emblematic regions in Ecuador- Cotopaxi, Quilotoa, and Chimborazo, passing through some really remote highland (paramo) areas in between.

After bit more logistics and planning, Vince was in Ecuador with my new Chumba Stella XT plus the full suite of custom Chumba Bikepacking bags made by Wanderlust Gear. The poor guy had traveled with all of his equipment and an URSA XT in addition to my stuff-but I was grateful to have the sweet new rig to bring along for our crossing of the central Andean volcanoes.

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Vince was also doing a family vacation down here, so instead of starting the ride from Quito (in my case) and Pifo (in Cass’ case), he would meet us in Cotpaxi National Park at the end of the first leg. This was a great decision since we woke up on Sunday morning to an absolute downpour. Even for Ecuador standards, this was incredibly heavy rain. It was so bad, several of my friends who were in Cotopaxi and Chimborazo contacted me to warn of flooding and miserable conditions. Cass and I tried to hold off on starting the ride until as late as possible, thinking it couldn’t rain this hard for more than a couple hours, but by 9am or so we knew we had to get going if we wanted to get to Tambopaxi before dark.

I reluctantly left my apartment in Quito, and despite my raingear, was soaked and freezing within minutes. From Quito, I began the ride with a 1000m (normally) blisteringly fast descent down to Tumbaco, but visibility was so limited that I had to go slow. From Tumbaco, I continued on pavement across the Valle los Chillos for a couple of hourse before finally turning off onto gravel and cobblestone on route to Pintag. Cass was staying near Pifo, so his ride to Pintag was a lot shorter and he had arrived in town before me and was already eating and drying himself out by the time I arrived, cold and hungry. I found a little grease pit street stall and filled myself with a greasy gut bomb that warmed me up considerably. While we were eating the rain finally subsided-which was fortunate. If it was this cold at 2500m, I didn’t want to think about riding for several more hours in the cold rain up to 4000m! After stocking up on Pintag’s famous sweet-cheese filled bread, we began the long climb up to the paramo on particularly nasty cobblestone roads.

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Although I’ve done a lot of bikepacking trips and races, I’ve always elected to go ultralight and fast, foregoing comfort for speed and distance. This trip would be different-we’d be taking 7 days to cover a distance I would normally cover in about 3 days going “race” style. So for this trip, I had packed substantially more gear, food, and clothing than usual, so my bike was far heavier than what I’m used to. Due to the extra weight, I was really suffering on the cobblestone climbs-my muscles just weren’t used to cranking so hard in the saddle. To add to the difficulty, Ecuador cobblestones really sap your speed and energy and bounce you around like a toy. I was definitely envious of the 29er+ which seemed to just eat the cobblestones up.

Fortunately, after a couple hours of climbing, the road turned to pretty gnarly jeep truck punctuated by huge, pond sized mud puddles-these difficulties actually broke up the monotony of the climb and made things more challenging and enjoyable, so I was able to forget my heavy load. We kept climbing and the landscape finally gave way to Ecuadorian paramo or northern South America alpine tundra ecosystem, which is a neotropical high mountain biome with a vegetation composed mainly of giant rosette plants, shrubs and grasses. Some biologists consider páramos to be evolutionary hot spots and among the fastest evolving regions on earth! Ecuador is packed full of superlatives such as this…As an ecologist and backcountry cyclist-its a veritable paradise for me. I absolutely love this stark, haunting landscape and try to get up to the paramo whenever possible.Once we were pedaling through the paramo, all memories of the mornings epic sufferfest began to fade and we just cruised along, taking in the scenery and feeling lucky the rain had stopped and we had a full week of this ahead of us!

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We arrived at Tambopaxi by late afternoon, making pretty good time overall. Vince was there, nice and dry, with his tarp already set up. Tambopaxi is a great little mountain refuge right at the base of Cotopaxi volcano. I had camped here several times for summit climbs while the Refugio at 4800m was being we reconstructed. The problem is that meals are incredibly expensive-$17 for lunch or dinner. That might sound reasonable for NYC, but in Ecuador, even in nice neighborhoods in Quito, you can get an awesome 3-course lunch for $2.50. Needless to say, we stuck with camp food-noodles and tuna for that night. While we were eating the clouds actually lifted a bit and Vince got his first views of the stunning, perfectly symmetrical, conical volcano. We went to bed that night under a waxing gibous moon reflecting off the glacier-this is the life!

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Our plan for monday was to travel around the base of Cotopaxi volcano through some of the most spectacular volcanic paramo in Ecuador, so we didn’t plan to cover a lot of kilometers that day to allow plenty of time for photos and just to enjoy the peaceful, remote landscape. DSCF8393  DSCF8394chumbausa (19 of 125)

We also got in some really fun singletrack before hitting the boggy areas at the base of the infamous “El Morro” from the Vuelta al Cotopaxi stage race.

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The last few kilometers of the day through deep mud and soggy grasses  were pretty difficult, and we were above 3500m, so by the time we found a Inca shepard’s choza (the design of these thatched roof huts is incredible and remains largely unchanged after millennia of use-they shed water and stay dry and warm even in this cold, rainsoaked, humid environment). Unfortunately it was locked, but there was a cement storage building next door that we were able to use for the night. Not as warm as cozy as the choza, but better than sleeping out in the open paramo.

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We knew we had a harder day ahead of us on Tuesday-starting with an Andean breakfast consisting of a burly hike-a-bike up to 4200m+ over El Morro, then another big climb before finally descending to the Panamericana Highway then another ascent towards Quilotoa before the day was done, so shortly after another noodle and tuna dinner, we turned in early and got a good night’s sleep.

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After starting on some fun paramo style singletrack,  the hike a bike over the Morro actually wasn’t that bad,. Near the top we saw two massive andean condors up close. What a way to start the day! We were then rewarded with an incredibly fact 20km descent down to a low valley. From there, we had a super steep, sandy climb up switchbacks to yet another pass, albeit a lower one than El Morro. From the pass, we had a fun descent on a mix of sandy double and  single track. We were speeding our way down off the paramo when I looked up and noticed a small strand of barbed wire strung across the trail at neck level, and Cass was racing toward it at high speed. I called out when he was just a few meters from getting clotheslined, just as he himself noticed the wire, and he slammed on his brakes, coming to a stop just inches from the barbs. Whew, close call…

We cruised into Lasso, a small highway town along the Panamericana, had a $2 almuerzo (set lunch), stocked up on supplies and were on our way just as it began to drizzlem which fortunately  didn’t materialize into a full blown storm. The first 12km up to Quilotoa were on paved roads, passing through Toacazo, the last real town we’d see until Zumbahua, past the Quilotoa crater. After Toacazo, we turned off onto cobblestone, which switched back to a very small paved road that climbed relentlessly back towards the paramo. We were taking a less common way to the Quilotoa crater, one that my Ecuadorian friends had recommended, saying it would eventually become singletrack.

It was getting very late in the day as we kept on ascending, passing a couple tiny hamlets and we needed to find a place to camp soon. After a while the road turned back to dirt and finally began to level off a bit as we passed through Yanaurco Grande just as a cold, steel gray fog enveloped us.

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We filled up our water bottles as it started to get dark, and rolled out of the village feeling chilled to the bone, hoping we’d find a decent place for the night. It wasn’t looking promising since the terrain was steep all around and wherever it was semi-flat-there was always a small house or hut that was occupied, but fortunately we climbed back out of the fog again, so at least the weather was more pleasant. Just as it seemed we’d have to pedal into the night until we found something, we came through another tiny village with a church and small volley ball field. It would work as a campsite for the night, so we were pretty relieved. As we scouted around a bit, we found a great little grassy spot behind the church, right on the edge of a precipitous drop into the valley below-the view was stunning. At the very last moment, we had found a great place to camp!

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As we were changing out of our riding clothes and making camp, we noticed several young village girls staring at us through the bushes-privacy would be an impossibility this evening so we embraced it and just smiled and waved as we continued to drop trow.  We were probably the most interesting thing to happen in this village in a long while, so why not. We had a pleasant evening cooking in the bright moonlight looking down into the deep valley below, and turned in for the night just as the fog and drizzle moved in on us again.

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I guess word of the gringo squatters had made it around town that night, so in the morning we had even more onlookers as we broke camp. A village elder came down and actually talked to us, snapping photos of us with his cell phone! Just before leaving, he insisted on getting some pics of us all together, which we enthusiastically agreed to. You have to admire the hospitality of the indigenous communidad Andino in Ecuador. I shudder when I think of the welcome you would get if you tried to camp behind a church in the middle of a town in the USA! In Texas, where Vince hails from, they would probably shoot first and ask questions later. Here, they welcome you and want pictures taken of you with their children!

We started the day with another Andean breakfast, a nearly 1000m climb to a high pass at 4200m. But the climb was on a decent dirt track and graded well for Ecuador standards, so it was quite pleasant. One thing I love about the Quilotoa region is that its full of local communities who live largely like their Inca ancestors, herding animals and growing Andean crops such as quinoa, potatoes, and habbas. You pass one small farm after another clinging to the steep Andean slopes, smiling children waving you on and little old ladies carrying massive loads and shepherding sheep and llamas while rolling through this ancient mountain landscape.

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After the pass, we started dropping down into the massive canyon that separated us from Quilotoa. We began on dirt road, which gave way to burly jeep track, and finally lead us to the edge of huge precipice-where we could get a good look at the epic singletrack below. There was a small village school right on the edge of the cliffs that excitedly came to watch us descend on our fully loaded bikes. The singletrack dropping several hundred meters to the river below is impossibly steep, sandy, and puncuated with rocky sections and deep ditch washouts. It would have been hard to ride clean on a downhill bike, much less on fully loaded bikepacking set-ups-but we gave it our all and cleaned what we could-hootin and hollerin all the way down.

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The last part of the “trail” leading to the river was pretty much unrideable, so we walked out bike’s down and had some food at the river’s edge before tackling the nearly 2000m to the top of the Quilotoa crater.

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We had anticipated a long hike a bike out of the canyon, but were stoked to find a decent dirt road, so the climb went rather quickly up to Quilotoaloma, a small Andean community on the backside of the crater. From there we had the option of continuing up the nice dirt road to the Quilotoa village, or taking a more direct, but infinitely harder hike a bike/bushwhack up the crater, then push or ride our bikes halfway around the crater ridge on the hiking trail. Naturally we chose the latter option.

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The first part was hard and required pushing or carrying the bikes, but was at least on trail. Eventually the trail completly petered out and we had to bushwhack, push, pull, lift, and drop our bikes as we grunted our way over small knife edge ridges and through inpenetrable thorny bushes for a couple of hours until we finally made it Enshalala- an ecotourism lodge built and managed by the local Quilotoaloma community whose members we had met below. I highly recommend staying here if you are in the area-its a beautiful area with a cool overlook and lodge is really well done-plus you’ll be supporting this remote community. From Enshalala- we carrying our bikes up the steps to the stunning overlook of the Quilotoa crater lake and hung out for a while to recover from the hike a bike and snap some pics.

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From the overlook, it was another 30 minutes of steep bike pushing up to a high point on the ridge before dropping back down into Quilotoa village and lunch! The pushing up the ridege was hard, but the singletrack on the other side was epic! Cass got some awesome pics of this section-check it out: https://instagram.com/p/1KKRo4P_mZ/.

After Enshalala and the rugged terrain around the crater, the touristy overlook at Quilotoa village didn’t seem too appealing, so after slightly overpriced and underportioned meal in town, we decided to head straight down to Zumbahua.

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We stopped at the first bakery we saw in Zumbahua and raged several pan de chocolates (chocolate bread)-a bike tour favorite all over Ecuador. It was getting late at this point and we had a nearly 1000m climb on a big paved road ahead of us, with limited options for camping so we opted to stay in Zumbahua that night rather than camp. It was a good opportunity to dry out our stuff, get some good food, and restock on supplies. We found an $8 a night shabby hostal, dropped our bikes and went back out in search of more food. Cass and I braved some street meat (not sure if it was chicken or pork-but damn it was good!), but Vince opted out. I’m glad we ate it since it was the only decent food we found in town. Later that night we ate in our hotel and it was one of the worst meals I’ve had in Ecuador, only breakfast the next morning at the same hotel being even worse!!

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After a rather loud nights sleep, we got up early, forced down the unappetizing hostal breakfast, and began the Andean breakfast climb up to the high paramo around 4200m. Since the road was paved, we climbed rather quickly. Vince was still tired from the hike a bike the day before and he was less acclimated than Cass and I, so we sped ahead and waited for him at the top of the pass, where we turned off onto a dirt road. We found a nice place to sit and wait with stunning views of Zumbuahua way down below, figuring Vince would see us as he passed by.

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After half an hour or so, we saw Vince cruising up the highway and yelled out to him. He looked over at us, so we assumed he saw us and would be coming along shortly. I guess it was just coincidence that he looked our way just as we yelled, since he ended up riding right past us up to the top of the pass on the highway, rather than turning off. When he didn’t show up, I was was kind of freaked out, thinking he might drop down the other side which would have lead him several thousand meters down to the coast. I hopped on my bike and tried to follow him up the pass, and just as I crested the top, I saw Vince heading back down towards me. Whew-I was stoked he didn’t drop to the coast-that would have cost us at least a day.

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Shortly after we got back on track and began trekking across paramo on rolling dirt roads looking down on the cloud forest below, with the occasional glimpse of the coastal banana plantations thousands of meters below. This is one of my favorite paramo areas in Ecuador-the hillsides are dotted with choza that people still inhabit, rather than the cement buildings many of the shepherd families have more recently begun to opt for. It has a remote feel to it, bordered on one side by high steep mountains with the precipitous drop into the cloud forest on the other side. Cass stopped to take a picture of a some shepherds with their flocks with a great views in the background, when his wide angled lense must have rolled out of his bag. Vince and I were a ways ahead before we noticed Cass wasn’t with us- apparently he had noticed his missing lense and ridden back to find it-but we didn’t know it at the time. We waited for half an hour or so before heading back to look for him. We hoped nothing bad had happened. Shortly after, a truck passed by and relayed a message from Cass, telling us what had happened and to head on to Angamarca, the next village on the route. We hoped he’d find the lense soon and heeded his advice, continuing on our way. Less than half and hour later, another truck passed by and handed us the wide angled lense, having spotted it on the road! Yet again, I was completely taken aback by the honesty and kindness of these people. The lense is probably worth more than they make in a year, yet they handed it off to the crazy gringos on the bikes rather than taking it to the nearest city to sell it. #restoredFaithinHumanity!

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We were stoked to have it but they hadn’t seen Cass so we knew he’d still be looking for it. We decided that rather than turn back, we should send him a message with the next passing vehicle. We didn’t see another for a long while, but finally a guy on a motorcycle passed by and we begged him to let Cass know we had the lense. From there we took our time getting to Angamarca, stopping to take pics on some singletrack sections and enjoying the day, finally making progress and hoping Cass was on his way. It wasn’t too long after that Cass caught up with us. The motorcycle guy had relayed the message, but Cass couldn’t believe it-we could hardly believe what happened ourselves. From there we had a “small” (1500ft+) climb to another pass before the big drop down to Angamarca, one of our lowest points on the ride. The weather at the bottom was sunny and beautiful until we made it to the pass where the fog rolled in. I was a bit ahead at this point and hung out at this creepy little church with a medieval red door.

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From there we had a huge descent down to the edge of the cloud forest. We found some sweet, though muddy singletrack during the descent to spice things up.

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After descending through the fog, we finally caught a glimpse of Angamarca and made our way down to town. I really like this town, it just has such a remote feel and the people are super friendly. Right in the central plaza of town a woman was cooking some fantastic tortillas de papas with eggs for $1. It hit the spot after a long day, so much so that we all had a second plate. Probably not the best idea considering we had a 1500m+ climb ahead of us, but we hadn’t eaten anything so tasty in several days, so it was worth the discomfort later on.

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After lunch, we stocked up on the limited food supplies available town, and got on our way just as thick fog rolled in which quickly changed over to fairly heavy rain. We ducked under a small shelter, hoping the rain would pass, but after a while we knew we had to start the big climb, rain or shine. Fortunately, the rain tapered not long after we began the climb, which was good, because the climb turned out to be one of the harder ones of the trip. It started with steep switchbacks on loose gravel and dirt, but as we got higher it turned into a thick muddy slop with the consistency of peanut butter, so for the next few hours we slipped and slid our way up to the paramo.  In Ecuador, you either quickly learn to find your zen place on such climbs or you stay at home, so we put our heads down and happily grunted our way up the mountain. As we climbed above the foggy cloud forest and finally reached the paramo, we were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow arcing over the peaks as the skies began to clear.

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I reached the top of the pass ahead of the guys and was stoked to find a very basic little community store in the tiny hamlet on this cold windswept section of paramo. The wind was bitingly cold up there so I braved the snapping dogs and made my way into the store, happy to be out of the wind while I waited for the guys. The owner was very friendly and talkative for high Andean standards and I quickly bought up half of his stock of chifles (fried plaintain chips that are ubiquitous in Ecuador) and a soda. Cass arrived shortly after and we asked the owner the name of his dog, which turned out to be “Twitter,” because the dog serves as a sort of messaging system across the high valley through its  incessant, loud barking. Maybe it was the altitude or the setting but I found this to be hilarious at the time. Although this “village” probably won’t have internet connections for another 20 years at the earliest (they’ll need electricity for starters!), somehow the locals knew about Twitter. Its nearly impossible to truly get away from the internet and global communication these days-for better or worse. Still, I found it amazing.

Vince arrived a little while later and had thoroughly enjoyed the climb to the paramo having met some really friendly locals on the trail and still stoked about the rainbow. It was quickly getting dark by this point, so we boogied down the other side to look for a place to camp for the night and escape the icy winds on the pass. Not even 10 minutes later, just as the last rays of light dropped below the horizon, we came upon a small school house with an unfinished concrete building that would make for a great home for the night. Continuing the tradition of noodles and tuna which is the only meal you can consistently buy at the small shops in the small highland villages, we had our dinner and turned in for the night under the brilliant, now full, moon. It had been an incredibly long, eventful day but couldn’t have ended better.

We woke up to stunning views of the steep Andean slope leading to the cloud forest thousands of meters below, and after a power breakfast of oats, raisins, and machica-we were on our way. This was the first morning of the trip where we didn’t start with a non-stop 1000m+ climb, instead we rode up short steep hills followed by exhilarating descents, one after the other, as we contoured along the edge of the paramo and ticked away the morning hours in great spirits. Just before lunch time we finally made to our first major climb of the day which would lead us up to our highest point of the trip to that point, about 4300m. We had been on fun jeep track all morning, but for the climb we turned onto a better dirt road so the climb, though steep, went quickly until we gained the ridge and were buffeted by strong icy headwinds. Cass and I battled our way along the ridge to the highpoint marked by a cross, and decided we better hunker down as we had gotten ahead of Vince.

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Fortunately we found a little dirt cornice that we could huddle under to escape the wind, but when Vince arrived, I was chilled to the bone and ready to get off the pass. Unfortunately, rather than a fun descent, we lost several thousand feet of elevation on nasty cobblestones, the bain of Ecuador backcountry roads. After a few kilometers I couldn’t feel my fingers on the brakes and it became hard to grip the handlebars in the icy cold with the nonstop teeth-rattling cobblestones, but finally we found some smooth dirt singletrack and had an epic descent for the last couple thousand feet into the valleys around the mighty Chimborazo. Chimbo (6268m) is the highest peak in Ecuador and due to its proximity to the equator (the earth bulges at the equator and pinches down at the poles), is actually the highest point on earth relative to the earth’s core, or put another way, its summit is the closest point to the sun on earth.

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But Chimbo is perhaps even better known for the world renowned “Bar Internacional Don Max (pictured below),” the most hoppin bar this side of the paramo.

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Cass had passed by this landmark several years before and I had been looking forward to seeing this place. I still can’t get over the name or location of this “bar.” Its literally just an old dumpster and shipping crates in the middle of nowhere that Don Max has converted in the only bar for miles in any direction. I was crushed to see that it was closed, but even so, there were two young ladies waiting to get into da club.

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From Don Max’s, we headed down the road a bit and passed by some hot springs. It was a holiday weekend so the baths were hoppin, and fortunately there were some food stalls catering to the bathers. Conditions were far less than sanitary, with dogs everywhere and buckets of fish heads and guts next to the wooden bench seating area, but we were starving and it was a chance to get some hearty eats. The stall was serving fanesca, a soup consisting of 7 types of beans and grains along with fish chunks and some other veggies. Its incredibly hardy, but an absolute gut bomb. It was damn tasty though, so we each had 3 bowls followed by a delicious sweet squash drink that was served piping hot. I was bursting at the seams by the time we were finished, and of course we had to climb all the way back up to 4300m that day, so we would pretty much be climbing nonstop for the rest of the day.

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At the first hike-a-bike up an impossibly steep hill, I immediately regretted the 3rd bowl of fanesca, but the scenery was beautiful and we were following a neat, off-trail route up to the paramo, weaving our way through tussock grass and following small irrigation ditches that led down to the farms in the valleys below. After a hard, but fun, few hours, we reached the paramo again, and cut out of the tussock grass bushwhacking and onto a dirt road as we approached the Chimborazo Reserva de Producción Faunística. As we entered the reserve, the sun began to burn through the clouds and we started to get glimpses of the glaciers of Chimborazo volcano. Not long after, we came upon several heards of vicuñas, which are native, wild camelids, similar to alpacas, their domesticated cousins. Their wool is world renowned as some of the finest on the planet. The herds in Ecuador were actually hunted to extinction many years ago, but recently they transplanted a population from Chile that is now thriving in the reserve. Back in my mountain guide days in northern Chile, we would see hundreds of vicuñas everyday, but seeing them never gets old, especially in such a majestic setting.

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Vince was stoked to see his first vicuñas, but was still struggling with the heaping bowls of fanesca. I couldn’t resist snapping a shot of him in his misery!

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Once we entered the reserve, it was just a short, gradual climb up to the base of the pass that separates Chimborazo and its neighboring peak Carihuairazo (5018m)(which might be the hardest word ever to pronounce). The indigenous community in the area runs a small mountain refugio, which we didn’t want to stay in, but fortunately there was an amazing choza right next to it, and we decided to spend the night there so we could spend the remaining hours of daylight enjoying the amazing views of Chimborazo.

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In one of those “small world” type coincidences, I ended up knowing the guide, Fabian, who was staying at the adjacent refugio, having met him during a climb of Cotopaxi a couple months before. We chatted for a while and it turned out he knows my colleague Deb, a world renowned alpine stream ecologist, who has some study streams on Chimborazo. It also turned out that I had a mutual acquaintances with two of his Spanish clients, a fish biologist that lives in Quito. We were all so stoked to be rewarded with such stunning views of the peak. I’ve been to Chimborazo several times and had never had such good views. As the sun went down, it got bitingly cold and we were glad to be staying in the well insulated thatch choza. After dinner, I went outside of the choza to take a leak and was floored by the view of Chimborazo basking in glow of the nearly full moon. I ran back in and told Vince he had to get some pics. He was tired and ready for bed, but suited up and went out with his tripod and got this epic shot.

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The view was so amazing that its impossibly to do it justice in 2D, but this pic comes damn close! Nice work man.  We woke up the next morning and climbed the couple hundred remaining meters up to the pass that splits the two peaks at 4400m. From there we had a huge descent on singletrack that started out as great fun, but quickly turned into a deep muddy bog. Even though we were descending, the mud and standing water was so deep, we ended up having to trudge through a good part of this descent rather than ride. The guys on the fatbikes definitely had an easier time of it through the slop; they seemed to be enjoying it while I was struggling and walking! After a few river crossings and some steep muddy hike a bikes, we finally made it to a dirt track, and from there it was smooth sailing down to Urbina, where Vince would split off to the Panamerican highway while Cass and I would continue up and over the highest pass of the trip at 4500m then drop way down to Salinas, a small town on the edge of the cloud forest.

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Kudos to Vince for an epic ride-what an effort to come directly from Texas and then ride for 5 days mostly above 12,000ft and with passes over 14,000ft through such challenging terrain! After splitting off from Vince, we contoured around the base of the mountain on cobblestone roads until we came to Cuatro Esquinas where there was a small store, and we stocked up on bread and crackers.

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From there we climbed up a brutally steep dirt track that is part of the Chimborazo Extremo race. In fact, we later found out that nearly all of the route we did from Urbina to the main entrance to the Reserve was part of the race course. The only difference was that we were carrying an extra 20+ lbs of gear and had been riding all morning before getting on the course.

After the dirt climb we hit a paved road, which we followed for a while but split off on dirt roads and singletrack every few km. As we were heading up one of the paved sections, I saw two riders blazing down from the pass. They both had blue helmets and looked eerily like my two great friends Pericles and Gaby, whom I ride with several days a week in Quito and surrounds. As they got closer I realized it was indeed Peri and Gaby and I called them over. It was so weird to see two close friends so far from home after 7 days of nonstop backcountry bikepacking. After chatting for a while, we all still had a lot of ground to cover that day, so after snapping some group pics, we continued up the mountain and they sped down it.

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After leaving Gaby and Peri, we got on some really fun single and double track climbs that led us all the way up to the main Reserve entrance, just before the high pass at 4500m. At the entrance, I quickly walked through the little visitors museum while Cass asked the guards if there was a way to continue on trail and avoid the paved road.

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From there, we continued on old dirt roads  and trails up to the pass.

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As we crested the pass, it became completely socked in with fog, limiting visibility to a few feet and making it impossible to follow the track, so we had to drop down to the pavement, just as the clouds began to burst.We dropped down off the pass in the thick fog and rain, hoping drivers would reduce their speed in these conditions and not hit us. On the other side of the pass, the rain turned to a snowy slushy mix, which froze and soaked us to the bone. At highway crossing, we ducked into a derelect building that apparently is used as an outhouse by highway travelers-it was a true cesspit-but it got us out of the snow for a bit. We waited about 20 minutes, but just kept getting colder and we still had a long way to go to Salinas, so we reluctantly stepped back out into the wintry mix that was still coming down in buckets. One thing you can count on in the highlands of Ecuador is variable weather, and fortunately the snow/slush let up after a short while and turned to light drizzle. It had been a while since I could feel my fingers and toes, and was soaked and cold to the core, so it was a relief when it stopped snowing, especially since we were close to the top of yet another pass which would be followed by a long, cold, muddy descent down to Salinas.

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We dropped several thousand feet down to the tiny hamlet of Pachancho Central and I arrived cold and shivering. Cass is more prone to overheating than getting cold and he seemed to faring much better than me. After Pachancho, we turned off of the dirt road onto an epic 12km descent on singletrack that led straight into the central plaza of Salinas. Due to the heavy rain, the singletrack had morphed into a small river, punctuated by deep mudholes, so it was incredibly challenging. At least it took some effort so I began to warm up. As I approached town my bike and I were nearly completely covered in mud when I came upon mud-puddle the size of a small lake. I tried to avoid it by traversing across a small muddy ledge above the mudhole, but the ledge crumbled and my bike and I went into the mud, reaching up to my handlebars and causing my GPS to shutdown! I was worried I had lost the entire track from our trip. Huge bummer! (I was later able to recover the files-whew!) From there, I cruised into town looking like some sort of swamp beast and waited for Cass in the plaza.

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He arrived a few minutes later and we found a sweet hotel for $10 a night, with a wood burning stove so we could dry out our things a bit. I felt bad tracking in several kilos of mud, but it was unavoidable. Seven days and 500km of paramo after leaving Quito, we had arrived in our destination and could relax. If you find yourself doing a big bike trip in Ecuador, make sure you pass through or finish your route in Salinas (the remote highland one 35km north of Guaranda, not the beach resort town!)-what an amazing little town.

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Apparently, in the 1970´s, Salinas was one of the poorest towns in the country, consisting of little more than a church and some thatch roofed chozas, when an Italian missionary named Antonio Polo rode into town and completely transformed the place by setting up a credit cooperative to buy cheese and chocolate making equipment. Under expert Swiss guidance, they set up world class cheese and chocolate factories and now export very high quality products all over the world. This has benefited the town inmeasurably, and when coupled with the towns beautiful location high up in the Central Andes, has turned into somewhat of tourist destination, mostly for local tourists. That night we sampled some of the local fare at a pizzeria run by an Italian-it was the best pizza I’ve had in Ecuador. I guess he couldn’t beleive we each ate our own medium pizzas (which were admittedly large for one person, but we had earned it), so he gave us each a free shot of some local spirit that burned like crazy but had a good flavor. What a town!

The next morning, after stocking up on incredibly cheap organic dark chocolate and nibs, Cass and I said our goodbyes and I took a pick up truck taxi down to Guaranda and from there caught a bus (unfortunately with no spare seats) for the 5 hour ride back to Quito. What a stellar route through spectacular country with great company. I highly recommend this route for the intrepid bikepacker, or with some slight variations that avoid the trails and hike-a-bikes and keep you on the dirt roads, the route could be doable on a touring set up with mtb tires.

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Bikepacking across the Ecuadorian Andes and down to the coastal plain: Lasso to Quevedo via Quilotoa

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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This was definitely a “trying” though adventurous section to say the least, but I eventually made it down to the Toachi River.

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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.

 

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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,

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

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and enjoying views of both the highlands and peering down into the cloud forest.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Field work in the cold wet cloud forest and even colder wet paramo!

After finishing up our ecohydrological classification and physicochemical predictive modelling for the Napo Basin, I have now begun field work for my Rufford Small Grant for Conservation Project. We are trying to understand how replacement of a native stream fish (genus: Astroblepus)

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by deliberately introduced nonnative rainbow trout can disrupt ecosystem function through alterations to stream nutrient cycles. We are also trying to better understand the life history of native fish communities in these streams by relating their abundance to physical and environmental factors. So far, we have worked in three different subwatersheds within the Napo- Papallacta, Oyacachi, and Cosanga.

Our results will directly inform conservation groups and stream managers here in Ecuador. Stay tuned for how this project develops.

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This was by far the biggest worm I’ve ever seen. Pic was taken near Sierra Azul, in the Cosanga drainage.

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Biking to 15,000ft-Quito to Guagua Pichincha

Biked up to Guagua Pichincha (15,696′) on Sunday with Felipe over a rainy weekend. The weather started out nice, but by the time we approached the summit it started to sleet and snow. The ascent was absolutely brutal, gaining 6000ft in just a few kilometers from Lloa. I was nursing a pretty bad cold from doing field work in the rainy cloud forest, so breathing was even harder than normal at that altitude. The descent was freezing. By the time I got home at 2pm or so, I was totally spent and went straight to bed!

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Best Mtb Ride Ever? Volcan Casitagua to Infiernillos from Quito (130km- nearly 15,000ft of descent and gain)

The ride from Quito to Casitagua to Pululahua down to Infiernillos and back has to be up there with the best rides anywhere in the world. It literally had it all…You start out in a major metropolis, bike to the summit of a 11,500ft volcano (Casitagua),

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cross over the Equator into the Northern Hemisphere, then descend about 8000ft through a sandy desert

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over to Volcan Pululahua,

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drop into a lush geobiological reserve,

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passing over a lava flow,

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then descend into a steamy jungle,

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and finally a scary hike-a-bike across a 60m cliff face on a less than 1ft wide loose trail!

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Of course the ascent back to the rim of Pululahua entails climbing over 5500ft nonstop, which is pretty ruthless. Then you have to negotiate traffic back into Quito as you cross over the Ecuador back into the Southern Hemisphere…But well worth it for this truly epic ride!!

Climbing Cotopaxi (again) with Laine and Andres

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Just after the family left, my friends from Reno, Laine and Maryanne came for a visit. I was busy during most of their first week here. They spent the week traveling to Mindo, checking out the colonial district, and climbing Rucu Pichincha. On Thursday night we went downtown to La Ronda for dinner and Bandidos for beers to celebrate Maryanne’s birthday.

Laine and I are old climbing buddies and have put up new routes together in Woodfords canyon, done some long routes in Yosemite, and climbed some hard stuff at Lover’s Leap back in the day. So I couldn’t pass up the chance to take Laine up his first high altitude, glaciated climb! We had planned to climb Cayambe but the weather forecast called for high winds (again!) and 25+cm of snow on Saturday night with more on Sunday. The weather for Cotopaxi also looked pretty bad, but not as terrible so we changed our plan at the last minute and headed to Cotopaxi. My friend Andres also joined us for the climb.

We had a heck of a time getting past the control since we didn’t hire a guide. Last time we got through no problem, but this time they searched my bag and tried to hold onto my climbing equipment until we exited the National Park! I said no way and asked to talk with the gatekeeper’s boss. Luckily the boss was much cooler and let us pass through since I used to guide and still hold some certifications. The REALLY need to change the law requiring a guide, it is ridiculous and really destroys the climbing culture and opportunities for independent climbing.

Not surprisingly, the weather was dismal when we reached the parámo. It was alternating between heavy rain and drizzle, and Cotopaxi was completely invisible. I set up my tent in the rain, while Andres and Laine opted to sleep in the Tambopaxi Refuge. We lounged around the restaurant until about 5pm when we tried to get a bit of sleep. Our plan was to wake up at midnight and get going around 1am. I didn’t want to get to the summit too early like last time-though I knew we would be slower than Felipe and I had been.

We left Tambopaxi just after 1am but unfortunately Andres hit a rock on the road and we were smelling gas. We thought we had a hole in the tank-but we headed up the parking lot anyways! We hit heavy snowfall a few hundred meters before the trailhead. We figured our chances for the summiting were slim to nil, but I wanted to get Laine onto a glacier-so we went for it. We started at around 2:30am and were climbing on the glacier by about 3:45 am. Luckily as we ascended, the conditions didn’t really get worse, though the snow got deeper in some deposition spots. We climbed along at a good pace and began passing the groups that had started 3-4 hours earlier as we approached the crux of the route. We actually passed two guided teams on the crux itself- which involves front pointing on 60-70 degree ice. After that, it was just a hop and a skip to the summit. We made it in about 3.5 hours from the glacier-really good time considering Laine had only been at altitude for a week-though BC skiing in the Sierras at around 9-10,000ft probably helped. Unfortunately, the blizzard was still raging on the summit so we weren’t rewarded with any views. I am still on my streak of never getting any good weather or views on Ecuador summits. I wonder if it will ever happen….Still, it was fun to climb with an old friend from my Reno-Tahoe days on a tropical glaciated volcano!

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