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Exploring the Ecuadorean Sierra: Cuenca to Quito

This instalment is very picture heavy, give them a minute to load, yeah?

Cuenca turned out to be a lovely city to spend a few days. We had heard good things and it definitely lived up to expectations. A nice hostel in the historic centre was our base, close enough to see the city on foot and a stones throw from an enormous market so we could replenish ourselves with some much needed fresh fruit and veg. It’s always interesting to see Incan ruins nestled amongst a modern city, and in Cuenca they have a well preserved Incan site with a museum about the heritage of the different indigenous groups in Ecuador. It was well worth the morning we spent there.

In the permanently interconnected world we now live in it’s easy to follow along with other cyclists’ journeys, and it’s a lot of fun when they intersect with your own. We met up with Martijn (@_espiritu.libre_ on Instagram) who started his trip in Vancouver. As usual it was a great night spent swapping stories from the places we would each be heading towards.

Leaving Cuenca we took up the Tembr (Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route) trail once again. And once again we were deluged with rain on a daily basis. Navigation became more tricky as the route mostly followed back roads or small tracks, and with the rain making it more of a hassle to stop and check the map regularly we decided to link up with the pavement a bit more than planned. The most spectacular parts of the route are without doubt the volcanoes a bit further north, so we chose to ride more of the road until we got closer, then rejoin the Tembr properly.

Even though our revised route took us on the main road for a while it provided some incredible views. The mountains in Ecuador inhabit a relatively narrow strip of land up the middle of the relatively small country so quite often it is possible to see down to the totally flat regions nearer to the coast. In the mornings this means you are above the low clouds and it looks just like the sea, only made of clouds. As the day goes on and heats up the clouds rise until by evening they are up in the mountains. The effect of the clouds rising while the sun goes down creates some of the best sunsets we have ever seen.

Following paved roads gave us more opportunity to shelter from the rain in bus stops, but less places to wild camp away from civilisation. One evening, not long before sunset, we followed an overgrown dirt track up a hill in an attempt to find somewhere away from the road to camp. We didn’t expect there to be a house at the end. A 9 year old called Christopher was super interested in what we were doing and invited us to stay in his family home. He assured us it would be fine but we waited for his mum to return and confirm before we set up camp. When she got back from the fields at dusk with her mum we introduced ourselves, explained that it was late and we needed a place to camp. Christopher explained that he had said we could stay inside as outside was too dangerous (there were cows!) and we could tell that she was really surprised at finding two gringos in her house, but she didn’t seem to mind us pitching our tent in their living room!

Christopher’s family were very shy, not really sure what to make of us, but they were curious about our trip and what we were doing here on bikes so we shared some stories with them that evening and they seemed happy to have the company. It was a great evening, learning about their lives in rural Ecuador (mostly from Christopher who was intent on showing us the whole farm!), and we were very glad of a roof to shelter us from that night’s rain.

Morning came and we hit the road again, waved off by Christopher who was waiting for his school bus (at 7am!) and his aunt who was waiting for the milk truck to collect what she had already milked from the cows that morning. We had another couple of days of paved riding until we arrived at San Juan, at the base of Volcán Chimborazo. Another amazing family welcomed us that night. Juan and his son (also Juan) run a small farm, but they are both very enthusiastic about travel, in particular overlanders, but especially cyclists. With a really nice campground and an incredible lounge for guests to relax in we stayed a couple of days to rest up before we rejoined the off road section of the Tembr around the volcanoes. 

Our ride around the first of the volcanoes, Chimborazo, was a big disappointment. As with all the high peaks in Ecuador this volcano can be very elusive, shrouding itself in cloud on a regular basis. Sadly, this was the case as we rode around Chimborazo and we didn’t see a single glimpse of the volcano that boasts the closest point to the sun on the entire planet. (There is a bulge in the Earth’s curvature here so Chimborazo at 6310masl is closer to the sun than the summit of Everest). While we didn’t see the volcano itself, the wild vicuñas that roam the sparse hillsides up above 4000m kept us smiling as we rode past them. That night had a very pleasant surprise for us too.

By mid afternoon a downpour had begun so we took shelter in a disused barn. After a while it didn’t look like the rain was going to ease off any time soon and when you’re above 4000m it gets incredibly cold as soon as you’re wet and stop pedalling, so we decided to set up camp in the barn. As evening approached the barn became full of hummingbirds, much to Steph’s delight! We’ve since looked them up and they were the Ecuadorean Hillstar, and they only live in the Andes of Ecuador. There were several nests in the roof and the eaves and the couple of dozen birds that lived there provided endless entertainment while we cooked dinner, hovering in the air and nearly crashing in to us but changing direction at the last second. 

Following on from Chimborazo the route heads out into some more remote areas on its way to the next stunning backdrop, Quilatoa crater lake. Dirt roads led us between several lovely mountain towns; Salinas with its reputation for artisanal cheese and chocolate and Simiatug with its bustling market. Once again the curiosity and friendliness of the local people shone through and while eating the freshest mangoes you’ve ever tasted Alfredo, a local guy who was selling brooms at the market joined us for a long chat. Our way of life couldn’t have been more different and I think we were equally curious about each other. 

Another couple of days and several valleys later we arrived in Zumbahua. Another mountain town that has grown a bit of a reputation for its fantastic Saturday market. We arrived on Friday afternoon and decided to take a day off to enjoy the market and the veritable feast of fresh produce it would provide. The fruit in Ecuador is the best that we’ve seen in 14 months on the road because it’s all so fresh, ripe and locally grown. Mangoes, bananas, pineapples, avocados and passion fruits are a dollar for a massive bag of each and the taste is indescribable. 

After several days of camping in damp conditions we were glad to have a nice hostel in which to rest and dry out the tent and our clothes too. Even though it was a hostel we were staying in it was family-run and they made us feel truly at home, even sharing their delicious homemade soup with us.

After not seeing anything of Chimborazo we were really hoping for a change in our luck for the next volcano, Quilatoa. It’s a water filled caldera and the crater lake is roughly 3km across. The locals claim it is bottomless, and on a clear day the views across the crater and the emerald green lake can be stunning. Luckily, this is exactly what we got. We rode up to the town and the rim of the crater under blue skies and the views across the extinct volcano were awesome. Also amazing was the ribbon of singletrack we followed around part of the rim. We were riding it in the downhill direction and for the most part it was rideable and fun, coming the other way would be a very steep hike-a-bike! 

After a couple of navigation issues involving some newly installed fences and a fallen tree blocking our route we eventually joined the track that we would follow back inland, towards volcán Cotopaxi. As usual there were some very steep valleys to cross but for a small part we had some help! We passed through a small village and several of the local kids decided to run along with us while pushing our bikes. Even up the steepest hills they really put the effort in and considering their small size they were so strong! We were grateful for the push, it made our afternoon at least slightly easier. Arriving at Isinlivi under a gentle shower heralding the arrival of an imminent downpour, we treated ourselves to another hostel room, this time with dinner and breakfast included. The town itself is set in a beautiful valley and that evening Ecuador produced another 10 out of 10 sunset for us to enjoy. 

A final valley crossing and we were headed for the basin through which the Panamerican Highway runs, and the gateway to the Cotopaxi National Park. We had planned to take another day off as the route we wanted to follow was a level above what we had been riding. With a lot more singletrack and more difficult navigation it was going to be tough. But the weather was absolutely lovely so we didn’t hang around. Views of the Cotopaxi volcano are not guaranteed so while the sun was shining we started the loop. 

Starting sooner turned out to be a good plan. The first 30km was uphill, and in places it was too steep to ride. The going was slow but the weather was good and splitting it into 2 halves made it manageable. As hoped the beautiful weather also gave us some good views of the volcano on that first evening. Already a more successful ride than Chimborazo we went to sleep feeling happy. The morning brought some more good photo opportunities before we tackled the second half of the climb. It got even harder and steeper with more gates and fences to negotiate, every one making us more grateful we didn’t attempt the whole thing in one day. 

The next few days were amazing. Clear mornings provided us with different views of Cotopaxi as we traversed around it. Steph did have a rather spectacular over-the-bars which almost had us turning back, but despite the bruises she soldiered on. Pitching camp on the second night just as a deluge of torrential rain hit gave us very low expectations for a clear morning, but when we woke up we could easily see not only Cotopaxi but also Volcan Antisana even though it was 40km away. Needless to say that morning was a slow start after taking many photos.

The boggy moorland flora was interesting. At first glance you would expect grass, but no, there are all kinds of other things instead.

Riding our bikes on singletrack and nearly invisible paths over grassy moorland was close to the riding we used to do back at home. It was awesome even though it was tough, 30-40km per day was the norm. The routine cloudbursts in the afternoon never dampened our spirits despite soaking our bodies, the landscape was just too amazing. On our final night we camped right at the base of the volcano, on ground that was no doubt created by one of Cotopaxi’s many previous eruptions. The land was strewn with pumice and volcanic rock and completely without vegetation. The silence of that campsite was eerie as much as it was peaceful. 

What goes up must come down and our way back to where we started the loop involved a huge descent that our tired legs were grateful for. It wasn’t the best start to the day though, after several miles of downhill we realised the bag containing our stove had dropped off Ben’s bike! An hour of retracing our steps right back to the campsite with no sign of it put us in bad moods. But on our way down (again) we found it nearly exactly where we had turned around to go look for it! Baffled by how, and annoyed by the waste of time and energy but generally stoked on finding it we got on with finishing the loop. Thankfully the weather held, the views continued and the trail was super fun. We arrived back at where we started exhausted but happy.

After a well earned day off at the lovely Cabañas de Los Volcanoes and more food than you can shake a stick at we rode the final stretch towards Quito. Many cyclists had told us about the Casa de Ciclistas just outside the capital, in a town called Tumbaco. It has an amazing reputation so we headed there. After not seeing any other cyclists for weeks it was great to meet Martin and Santiago from Colombia and Alex and Florence from France when we rolled into Tumbaco. The reports weren’t wrong either, run by one of the most friendly and generous people ever, also Santiago, this casa de Ciclista will make a great base while we rest up and plan the next section of the ride; into Colombia!

Overall the way we did the Tembr worked well for us. We visited all the bits we wanted to, even though Chimborazo was in clouds, while not getting too bogged down (literally) in some of the other off road sections. The villages we passed through and the people we met were a real highlight of this route, we experienced nothing but genuine friendliness and hospitality. Having now crossed the majority of Ecuador we can safely say it has been one of our favourite countries. Beautiful landscapes, wonderful people and amazing food, what more do you need? Colombia has a hard act to follow but from what we’ve heard it will also be incredible. 

See you then,

Ben and Steph

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1 comment

  1. Hi Steph & Ben,

    Great to hear your latest instalment and that you enjoyed Ecuador. It certainly is one amazing country! It sounds like you made some good decisions and managed to make the most of the weather in most places too. It is a shame you didn’t get to see Chimborazo but, in my opinion, the picture-perfect snow-covered conical peak of Cotopaxi beats it hands down any day – and it is clear that you got some fantastic views of Cotopaxi. The hummingbird barn sounds amazing too – I also love hummingbirds and would love to have seen that, there is something magical about them I think. I love your colourful market photos too.

    Little Isabella, now aged 22 months, moved in with us on 22nd November, so she has been with us for 3.5 weeks now. She seems to be settling in pretty well so far. It is harder work being parents of 2 children though – and more than double the noise of one child! We are enjoying getting used to being a family of 4 and looking forward to our first Christmas together. Solana is enjoying being a big sister – most of the time!

    We hope that you enjoy Colombia. We didn’t make it that far when we travelled in S.America – we flew from Ecuador to Panama. However, I think Colombia is much safer to travel in now than it was back then and, like you, I have heard good things about it. We are interested to hear more of your travels through Colombia. Will you be there for Christmas? We hope that you are able to spend Christmas somewhere enjoyable and have a bit of a celebratory treat!

    Enjoy the next phase and country of your journey,
    Julie, Laura, Solana & Isabella x

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