Ecuador mountains. Quito to Cuenca.

Middle section of Ecuador: fantastic, feels like the start of the true dirt Andean riding. Leaving the Casa de Ciclistas, point the bikes in direction of Volcano Cotopaxi, just look for the snow-topped come sticking out of the ground in the distance. And hope it’s not enclosed by clouds, though those too are white so you’re still looking for the same color. Leave Cotopaxi and start the Quilotoa Loop, a circle meandering through small villages high up on mountain slopes. There are paved roads connecting this loop; avoid them! The dirt roads sweep you up to 4000m and then drop you back off at 3000m, daily, except for that one day when you go down to 2100m and still have to make your way back to 4000m. By that time though you’re off the Quilotoa Loop and heading southbound, to riding right along the edge of the mountains. Look west and see the sea of clouds blown off the ocean abutting right up against the mountainsides, below you. Look east onto the patchwork fields comprised of all different shades of green. Colors start to fade when you climb high enough in the mountains, barren desolate fields owned by grazing alpacas and sheep. Ecuadorian summer is the dry season, so the only moisture appears when you’re riding through the cloud layers, but the wind is a fierce force howling down on you. Sunburnt noses and chapped lips are the marks of victory.

imagePaul showed up at the Casa while I was there, and with similar dirt goals we’re riding together for a bit, his trip account and photos are on his blog. He started out in the Alaskan north August 2013 and is also making his way down to Argentina.

imageA brief stint of pavement to leave the Casa, then a true Ecuadorian 15km stretch of cobblestones. Carretera empanadra.

imageGreat camping spot 10-12km before Cotopaxi North Gate, wide open land with great views of the volcano. Maybe 100m before the water processing station (this section of paramo provides water for Quito).

imageMorning coffee time. Photo from Paul.

imageStart Cotopaxi pictures. Blissful dirt after chattering cobblestone end, making it to the park marks the start of the altiplano, Andean plateau characterized by spot, sandy soil.

imageHeaded for the clouds, hoping for a peek at the peak.

imageSkirting round the summit.

imageClear sighting in the evening.

imagePatchwork land.

imageClimbing a constant theme.

imageLong climbs, flowers still poking out of the ground.

imageUp we go.

imageThe true inhabitants of this land.

imageYes please. Keep dishing it out.

imageOn the Quilotoa Loop, leaving Isinlivi there’s an option of skipping the detour to Chugchilan and setting off directly for Quilotoa. Dirt roads and various tracks crisscross this whole valley, and maps and popular consensus agree that there are roads linking the two places. Just keep your mountain biking skills ready for action.

imageWhen the path is easy to follow…

imageCows and crevasses.

imagePhotographer Paul, in action.

imageFor directions on this route, keep asking the farmers and herders you pass. Eventually you wind up down close to the river, at which point you should cross (easy) and then scramble up the other side of the valley to connect back to the road (hard). There may be a better point to cross; people earlier kept talking about a bridge somewhere, but when we got to this point three shepherd boys were emphatic that this was the best crossing. Photo from Paul.

imageIf doing any steep hike a bike sections, know that this will be a lot easier with help to push the bikes. Paul and I are already running reasonably light setups for long-distance tourers; even lighter might be in our future.

imageReaching the road reveals it to be nothing but sand. Brief rideable stretches followed by more pushing. Likely great fatbike territory. This part’s rideable in the wet season would be very questionable; the route to Chugchilan might be a better option then.

imageKeep an eye out for the heavy traffic…

imageEventually making it to the crater lake at Quilotoa, more or less a halfway point for this section.

imageNext big destination is Volcano Chimborazo. Back into the mountains, spots abound to see the clouds coming from the Pacific Ocean and be stopped by the different wind patterns in the mountains.

imageAbandoned buildings present good camping wind shelters, though it was too early in the day for us to stop.

imageThe road descends to settlements…

imageOnly to rebound and resume climbing.

imageOur first true switchback descent, bringing us down from the 4000m pass to Angamarca, 1000m below.

imageManaging to coincide with the weekly Friday market in Angamarca. Vegetables, fruits, animals, cloths… pretty much anything you could want, except non-instant coffee. Thanks Esther at the church for the beds and food and hospitality. Italians have a big presence in Ecuador working with local healthcare and providing craftspeople with training through the church. Angamarca is one of their outposts, we were directed to them when we arrived and asked about possible places to camp.

imageValleys, repeat.

imageWhen the clouds crowd the roads.

imageOn dusty climbs, en route to Mindina.

imageEnd of day sun rays.

imageLunch break time on the way to the race (see previous post) in Salinas.

imageSun brightening the roads.

imageAfter a day off in Salinas racing, we retraced our steps over the race route. Just a tad slower on fully loaded bikes.

imageThe livestock less impressed that day with our efforts.

imageMostly.

imageThis option for leaving Salinas towards Chimborazo: ride out of the main square continuing in the same direction as you came from Simiatug. Take the left hand road at the first fork, and the right at the second fork, a few blocks after the square. You’re aiming for the road following the river, marked on OpenStreetMaps. Once you hit the main gravel road (above), hang right and follow this to the paved highway to Guaranda. At the intersection of the gravel and pavement, you can either head straight onto the asphalt road to Riobamba, or left to continue the bikepacking route around Chimborazo.

imageJust finish the climb to the 4300m plateau first.

imageWind-filled.

imageOnwards.

imageAt the intersection, we took the paved road direct to Riobamba. This loops around the side of Chimborazo, and while the dirt track was likely more interesting, we had barely enough food for one more night and were physically exhausted from the last week and a half and the race. Was a hard last few kilometers to the info center, where the guys stationed there let us sleep on the floor inside for the night.

imageVicunas graze around the Chimborazo park. Not much other agricultural activity up there.

imageMorning views of Chimborazo on the descent to Riobamba. From Riobamba, we hopped onto a bus down to Cuenca, avoiding 3 days of busy traffic-filled Panamerican riding. The quantity and quality of dirt road availability is booming right now, but we’re on a little bit of a time crunch to get Paul to Peru in time to meet some friends. Cutting out some days of highway monotony gives us time to rest and recharge, with time for better routes into Peru. We’ll be riding mountain dirt as long as the seasons permit.

imagePhoto from Paul. Exhausted, but what a great place to be out riding.

Logistics: we followed notes from Cass, Anna, and Sarah and James. Paul has probably some more helpful notes about our different routes, and as many pictures of me as I have of him.

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