Bike Touring Ecuador – From Tulcan to Cayambe via Otavalo
Entering Ecuador, I had low expectations. After having cycled 2 months in Colombia, I knew that the chances of having a comparably good time were low. However after the initial disappointment of setting up an Ecuadorian SIM card, we’ve been finding that Ecuadorians are nearly as polite as the Colombians – but a lot more subdued.
The first thing we were not prepared for was that cars were stopping for us at intersections! Having spent two months in Colombia, we became practiced at “fending for ourselves” at cross-roads. Now that people were stopping for us, we looked like hesitant fools, not daring to edge out into the road.
Throughout Colombia, we planned our routes using Strava’s route builder in conjunction with information from cyclists we met perchance along the way. This resulted in what I believe to be a very thorough study of both spines of the Colombian Andes. We did not hesitate to cross repeatedly, and almost always traversed lesser used unpaved routes.
Upon arrival to Ecuador, though, we had some extra information. The TEMBR is the “Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route” that is being promoted by Cass Gilbert and The Dammer Brothers. This is a very grassroots project; basically, they have ridden the country from North to South mostly avoiding the popular, but usually heavily trafficked PanAmerican Highway.
We have taken the GPS tracks that they provided, and knit them into what I might refer to as a compromise route. Remember: these guys were on fat bikes, and sometimes when following their routes, you end up at a shrub-whack or on a muddy cliff. They don’t always follow the most practical lines. For example, we’ve been on decent gravel roads, only to turn off on a time consuming mud track which serves as a shortcut back to the same gravel road you had been on! If the gravel road had been busy with cars, I could understand the diversion – but on many of these routes, we only saw 2-4 cars per DAY!
We don’t believe in riding dirt just for the sake of riding dirt. Our belief is that the dirt should have purpose. For us, the purpose of dirt is to escape the cars, and to land yourself in a beautiful, lesser traveled landscape. The latter often means frequent, rich interactions with locals, and a much better experience overall.
Also, we wanted to mix some popular touristic destinations into the route. Although some popular destinations can be extremely disappointing (mainly because of the ways a place and people change when being swarmed with floods of foreigners), we still believed there was value in visiting the attractions we selected.
So, to summarize, our “compromise route” takes what we believe to be the best of the TEMBR, and combines it together with other quiet routes out to touristic destinations. This post will take you from the Ecuador border all the way to the visitor refuge of Cayambe. When on busy roads (such as the PanAm), we traversed them primarily in the downhill direction with the idea that we’d be spending much less time on a busy road than if we had been climbing instead.
El Ángel Nature Reserve
From Tulcan, follow our route out of town on good quality pavement. Shortly out of town, you’ll turn right followed by a quick left which will have you on decent quality dirt. This dirt is pretty good all the way up to the El Ángel Ranger Station. From the ranger station, you can hike to some nearby lagoons; the rangers will gladly accompany you. They kindly made us some warm aromatic tea, which they said helps with the elevation. It was made from a plant that you can pick right there in the paramo.
Although we felt welcome at the ranger station, we decided to continue on to the town of El Ángel. We knew it was not far, but the descent involves a fairly long stretch of cobblestone surface, which is a challenge for any bike – not to mention a fully loaded tandem!
The town of El Ángel offers two accommodations. You can see in our GPS track where we stopped for the night, but just around the corner, you might consider asking at the less-run-down looking hospedaje instead. Our accommodations were very basic; they were asking for $20 for two, but they agreed to $15 after we saw how basic the rooms were. Staff was friendly and polite.
Getting to Otavalo
Our next mission was to get to Otavalo via backroads. In our route, you can see that except for one shortcut on dirt, we primarily descend down into the Pan American Highway on a paved route. This route goes by very quickly, as the pavement is smooth, and traffic is light. You’re then on the PanAm until Salinas, where the road stays paved, and the cars all but vanish.
It’s a decent climb up to Urcuqui, but great to be off the busy roads.
One disadvantage of this route is that along the way, there are plenty of cobblestones to slow you down. We feel that this beats being near cars. Our original plan had been to spend the night and stage out of Otavalo. Upon further consideration, we decided to stay in Cotacachi (famous for its leather products) because of its more central location. The town of Cotacachi allowed for reasonable day trips to Laguna de Cuicocha, Paguche Falls, El Lechero, Otavalo, and the Condor Park.
From the map below, you can see our route from Cotacachi to Laguna de Cuicocha. This route is easily done as a day trip – including a lap around the lake. I did the lake on foot; it would be quite difficult (and perhaps illegal) on a bicycle.
After you have explored the lands to the West of Cotacachi, you may want to visit the attractions on the Eastern side (Otavalo). Of the most popular attractions here, we easily believe that the condor park is the most enjoyable (Assuming you’re there for the flight demonstration). At $4.75 per person entry, it’s a superb value.
From the condor park, we found a route on Open Street Map that led fairly directly to Peguche Falls. We do NOT recommend following our GPS track, but instead suggest that you ride the road to the Peguche Entrance, and then reverse our route. (The falls are 510 meters as the crow flies at a 210 degree bearing from the Condor Park on our map). In our situation, the park where the falls are located was extremely crowded with kids celebrating Carnival. Your experience may differ, but this was not a serene location for waterfall viewing.
In spite of what I said about the falls being crowded, we managed to have some fun by joining in the Carnival celebration with the kids. For the week that preceeds Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent), kids will spray foam, dump buckets of water off roof tops, toss water balloons, and smear paint and colored flour on other people. It’s a big party, and no one is immune. Foreigners and adults seem to be a little less susceptible. Nevertheless, I found myself drawing my weapon (a bicycle water bottle) a few times to get some giggly revenge…
Otavalo to Cayambe and the Refugio
I’ve had an interest in scaling some of the many high volcanoes in South America, but so far, all of my efforts have been thwarted by volcanoes being officially closed to climbing. There is currently a very high level of volcanic activity in all of the mountains making up the Pacific ring of fire. Cayambe is the first volcano that we were near that could legally be scaled!
Scaling the volcano requires special gear that we were not carrying. Also, all peaks over 5,000m legally require a guide in Ecuador. As such, I researched guides, and fell in contact with a highly reviewed organization named Explore Share. I was originally quoted $720 for a guide for the 1.5 mile trek from the refugio to the summit. This price included transportation to-and-from Quito. The problem was that we both wanted to ride the bike as high up the mountain as possible – to the refugio. This meant that all we really needed from the guide was gear and guidance for the 3 mile (round trip) trek.
Brief negotiation with this organization resulted in a lower price of $280 per person – $280 to guide me up, and $280 for Janet to sleep in a dorm room at the refuge. The latter portion of this deal seemed a little silly, so we decided to ride up to the lodge and see what happened. After all, the weather had been questionable all week, and if you pay for a guide, there is no guarantee on the weather.
If you are cycle touring, and you enjoy big climbs on dirt/cobblestones, we can recommend the climb to the Cayambe refuge. For us, it was exceedingly difficult in strong, icy winds, sleet and mud. In retrospect, though, it was a beautiful ride. I wish better conditions for you.
Because the conditions were so awful, with no prognosis for improvement during Ecuador’s wet season (and an El Niño to boot), it was an easy decision to nix a summit attempt, and hope for better conditions on Cotopaxi (which we later found is closed due to volcanic activity) or Chimborazo.