Why Ecuador - An Introduction .... and your Ecuadorian word for the day - "Chukirawa"; an orange flower in the Ecuadorian Páramo/highlands
Ecuador is a small country with vast geographic diversity. There are many areas to explore. From furthest west in the Pacific there are the Galapagos islands; then the Pacific coast lowlands on Ecuador’s western coast; followed by the dramatic rise to the cordillera of the Andean spines (2500m "valleys" and 6000m Avenue of the Volcanoes in the central highlands; then easternmost descending to the sparsely populated headwaters of the Amazon accompanied by the equatorial sweltering heat of the lowlands.
On this trip, we focused on rides along the Avenue of the Volcanoes extending from regions close to the capital of Quito to the southern colonial architecture town of Cuenca. We didn’t get a chance to sample rides or hikes on all the 31 volcanoes over 3800m within 100km of Quito but did get a good idea of the diversity of riding possibilities in Ecuador.
The volcano's surrounding Quito in Ecuador are even more spectacular with all the dust and ash in the sunset lit sky following Cotopaxi's recent eruption. As an update, Cotopaxi National Park is already open, with limited accessibility to the actual Volcano. Quito is 2800m. This volcano is Corazon and is 4790m vertical. Don't be too concerned about running up stairs at this elevation
Overview map of Ecuador and what we rode
Because there isn’t much information in English-speaking media about Ecuadorian bike trails we elected to go with a local. Our guide for our trip was Mateo Cuesta of Ride Ecuador. Mateo is a young Ecuadorian who engages with the communities where he rides. He has spent some time in the US providing him with English fluency as well as some knowledge of gringo needs, ie an understanding of what North American/European mountain bikers want from a mountain biking vacation. Mateo has an intimate knowledge of the Ecuadorian trails and created a ten-day riding experience that will give you a good taste of the Ecuadorian trails while gradually acclimatizing you to riding at elevation. This means you won’t be thrown headfirst onto trails at 4500m+ where oxygen is at a premium.
From a pure logistics point of view, many Ecuadorian rides seem to be point to point where you need both local knowledge and multiple vehicles to get from place to place. Our experience is that having local knowledge and support is invaluable. Simply put there isn't a bus infrastructure to take you and your bike back to your starting point. You will also better manage your time navigating areas that are not really mapped. You also won’t have to drive (check out the last section of this video). You’ll also find places to stay and eat after the rides to experience local Ecuadorian cuisine (and no it's not just grasshopper, guinea pig and jungle slug).
Our first day found us joining Mateo and Cuervo for a ride. Jose 'Cuervo' Jijon‘s place has a house with a big yard on which he built dirt jumps for use by the local community. Campo Bici hosts kids camps, jump clinics and events to encourage youth mountain biking. Cuervo lives just below Ilalo.
The extinct Volcano Ilalo at 3194m divides the Tumbaco/Cumbaya Valley from the Los Chillos valley and was a strategic spot for the native Inga (not misspelled) people. They mined obsidian and had agricultural plots here from hundreds of years ago. It was also a 360-degree observation viewpoint. Now it is a pretty busy local spot used by hikers, bikers, and dirt bikers. We accessed from the Tumbaco valley via steeeep dirt roads and rode down the Angamarca trails.
This turned out to be a nice relatively gentle way for us to acclimatize to elevation. Quito itself is about 2800m. For us sea-dwellers this meant that even going up stairs left us breathless. Fortunately, Mateo has a 4x4; required for the steep access roads. Roads constantly change so that is where local knowledge is of vast importance and even then a recently deactivated road left us doing some backtracking. We started by getting to 2980m via vehicle then hiking to the peak at 3170m. Hiking up to Ilalo itself was an exercise in patience and deep-breathing.
Trails themselves aren't too terribly technical but be warned that if there's the slightest hint of moisture (as there was in some shady spots) that the soil becomes frictionless; govern your speed accordingly! Of course, the 360-degree views are magnificent which means another distraction from the fast downhills.
Campo Bici is another possibility for a place to stay and ride some jumps
Riding towards Ilalo after climbing to 3170m argh
View of Quito proper from Ilalo
Starting the descent of the Angamarca trails
Mateo on the Angamarca
Sharon on the lower Angamarca dropping off Ilalo to a suburb of Quito
Our next spot was a quick hit on a series of trails legitimized by Mateo's friends, Manuel Cobo and Diego Hernandez through years of advocacy in the Lumbisi commune. All three are currently involved in managing the trail projects at Lumbisi. It’s one of the rare Quito-area purpose built bike tracks with a variety of small and big hits. There are a combination of six different trails in the area and they are used mostly by locals. It’s a fun mainly downhill rip, although many also do pedal the road to access the trails. One of the trails in here even appears on Trailforks!
We were being chased by afternoon thundershowers so just had the chance to sample the one track getting our lap in just before the afternoon rains and thundershowers. The little taste shows that there is a bright future for the fledgling Ecuadorian mountain biking scene
On our second day, we got the opportunity to see some more volcanos, experience some of Ecuador’s diversity and check out Quito’s remarkable traffic! We rode a series of trails starting from the extinct (for the last 2000 years) Volcan Pululahua north-west of Quito. We then continued on the Pondoňa, La Luna and Infiernillo trails ending up in the cloud forests of Niebli descending from 2815m to 1555m. This trail is an amazing experience. Truly a destination trail in and of itself with tons of biodiversity especially with the change in forest, ecosystems and trail nature.
The singletrack is fairly technical featuring a fair amount of the typical trenched trails (culuncos) caused by the wear of human feet for hundreds of years and tropical rainstorms. The natural pumptrack and cheap air hits of the red-earthed La Luna section is especially entertaining. It closes with the immaculate, sometimes bougainvillea lined singletrack of the Infernillio; kilometers of legitimate singletrack descending through equatorial jungle. Due to a landslide lower on the trail, there was a new reroute that was tight and rocky.
We’ve ridden in many places in the world and it’s rare to find actual narrow singletrack which we get accustomed to riding in western North America. Today’s ride featured a good chunk of that true singletrack in a tropical rainforest setting. Unique does not begin to describe it. I would note that it would be tough to do this ride yourself without arranging for a pickup at the end as you end up more than a vertical km and a long distance from where you started so make sure you either have a local with you or arrange some transportation well beforehand. There are also many twists and turns in the trail system particularly on the crater floor and connecting to the La Luna sections; it would have been difficult to route-find without Mateo and Manuel shepherding us.
Of note - the Mitad del Mundo tourist destination is close to our trailhead. It's touristy but still worthwhile and we partook of the experience. Not often you get to circle the Equator.
Mateo and Manuel in Pululahua's crater
The locals farm the crater bottom in the old way
Pedal catching terrain on the Pondoňa trail
Volcanic natural pumptrack of the La Luna trails
Wonderful tropical singletrack on the Infiernillo
Bougainvillea-strewn section of the Infiernillo. I kid you not - thought this was almost part of a movie set
Tight tech turned switchbacks to end off an amazing ride
To top it off we ended up in the coolness of the cloud forests in fog. Mateo made us huge sandwiches topped with insanely tasty aji sauce
An overview map of Pulalahua
Our trailforks ridelog for Pululahua - Infiernillo is here
When you go north of Quito you may well get a chance to experience the drier side of the country. After our previous day’s trip culminating in cloud-forest singletrack we drove to the regional capital of Ibarra just 60kms north of Quito. After overnighting in Ibarra, we rode the Chota Trails descending from 2550m to 1600m. This trail network is also fairly big having some eight different tracks and is another example of Ecuador’s diversity starting at high Andean cordillera at Ibarra with its typical Imbabura forest then dropping down through desert that constantly changes. Mateo's driver dropped us off at the top of the trail and then picked us up at the bottom.
The lucky part is that just three days ago it had rained so the dirt and sand was about as tacky as it gets. The cacti were flowering and even usually sandy loose corners were in fine shape. We dropped down to the highway just N of Salinas where we had our lunch and a swim. Another win for having a local to show you around!. Very bourgeoisie and an excellent way to end a ride.
In less than a couple of hours we were back in Quito. This minimization of travelling downtime seems to be one of the lesser known draws of Ecuador. Everything is so close with so much diversity packed into a compact area that it was entirely possible for us to see a fair amount of the surrounding country without having to spend too much time being driven from town to town.
Descending through high desert
Surreal moon-like landscape
More cacti in the valley bottoms
Mateo riding an unintentional wheelie after getting some air for the camera
Last few drainages to navigate
Map of our ride
Our trailforks ridelog for the Chota trails is here
Where to stay in the area Quito suburbs
Our first two nights we stayed at the Hotel Casa de Hacienda La Jimenita. This property has been in the family for generations and recently converted to a hotel and bird sanctuary. Daniel and his family have done a great job welcoming people into their homes, in newly modernized rooms. The garden surrounding the property is a great space to walk around and has fine views of volcanoes (including Cotopaxi) from various viewing points. Jimenita is also close to the airport and is popular with those taking a transit from Quito to other destinations in Ecuador as you can be close to the airport without being caught in the often overwhelming traffic and hustle-bustle of Quito. The only downside is that if you want to partake of street life or check out surrounding areas you have to take cabs or car (which is cheap) as Jimenita is in a very quiet neighbourhood.
Casa Jimenita's interior
Jimenita's garden tropical flowers are eye-candy
Another possibility for those who want a bit more nightlife is Casa Hebling, a hostel in Quito. It's conveniently located within walking distance to the Old Town and the newer part of town and very near the Night scene of Quito. We were there on a Sunday so it was quiet for us but we have been told there can be parties nearby.
Casa Helbing interior
Quinta San Miguel proved to be a very nice place to stay near Ibarra. It is somewhat incongruously located close to a ring road around a lake that used to be a racetrack but no need to worry as the race track is decommissioned and the location is quiet. Rooms were spacious and the grounds are gorgeous with a splendid view down to the lake. Quinta San Miguel also has beautiful gardens and serves a huge breakfast on patios overlooking views of the lake and said gardens.
The grounds of Quinta San Miguel
More pictures, maps and details on Sharon and Lee's site are below: