What is the most obvious thing to do when you’ve spent 1 day at altitude in the last 18 months, haven’t been on a pushbike at all for about 9 years and have never mountain biked? Do a 3-day mountain bike tour of the Ecuadorian altiplano with the Biking Dutchman of course!
I came across the Biking Dutchman website while I was rapidly planning my first few days in Ecuador once I finally had internet access again in Cancún. They had a 3-day trip to Cotopaxi – Quilotoa – Chimborazo starting the day after I arrived in Ecuador and I figured it would be a really great way to get out in the countryside, get some exercise and see some of Ecuador the slow way. Acknowledging I hadn’t done that much exercise in about a month, and having not spent a lot of time at altitude, I knew this was going to hurt me, but I figured what the heck 🙂
Day 1: Cotopaxi
There were 3 other people on the 3 day trip: Mark from Malaysia, and a couple: Sean from New Zealand and Rachel, originally from Wales, as well as Luke from the Netherlands who was only with us for the first day. Esteban, our guide, rocked up with the Land Cruiser all ready to go with the bikes on top and off we headed towards our first sector – Cotopaxi – Ecuador’s most famous volcano.
It’s about a 1.5-hour drive to Cotopaxi and there is no mucking about getting to altitude. Our first stop was the Laguna Limpiopungo at 3,800m where we did a “warm-up” hike around the lagoon. Unfortunately, the weather was not the greatest and we didn’t have the most spectacular views of Cotopaxi, but it did eventually peak out briefly.
From there it was helmet and gloves on and time to get on the bike for the first time. After some instruction on braking and gear changing (almost exclusively for my benefit – it turned out Sean and Rachel did a lot of mountain biking in New Zealand and Mark commuted each day on a bike), we started off riding along the dirt road towards Cotopaxi. Turns out, sandy dirt roads are actually a little nerve-wracking for a novice mountain biker who hasn’t ridden at all for 9 years, and an adrenaline rush doesn’t help your heart-rate when you are exercising at 3,800m. Fortunately, I managed to keep my seat and slowly got used to being on a bike again.
Esteban was really fabulous and led us off-road after a while and through a gorgeous meadow with flowers (the other bikers we saw just stuck to the road).
New challenges here were crossing dry creek beds and our first “downhill”, which looked pretty daunting but I managed to navigate successfully.
We rode about 7 km to the north gate of the Cotopaxi National Park and then loaded up the bikes again to drive to the next biking route. Unfortunately, Cotopaxi has been more active than normal recently and we couldn’t actually do part of the regular trip because parts of the park were closed. So we drove down to the main entrance, had lunch and then got back on the bikes for a downhill along the paved road to the main road. There were plenty of signs to remind us that we were biking down an active volcano, and Esteban again took us off on a short “secret” route through the pine forest to break up the tarmac section!
The great thing about this trip (and all the different options the Biking Dutchman offers) is that there is very little uphill and, if you are really struggling, the 4WD follows along as a support vehicle so you can jump in and take a break if you want. Fortunately, none of us had to take advantage of this during the 3 days.
Once we reached the bottom, we loaded up again and drove for another 2 hours to reach Quilotoa where we would begin the next day’s adventures. Actually, we stopped a little before there in Zumbahua because there was a whole-of-community party happening and everyone was out and about and rolling drunk. Traditional music on the stage, lots of indigenous people dancing and drinking, and a couple of enterprising guys who came and asked Rachel and I to dance. The problem with traditional music is that the “songs” never end – they kind of all just roll from one to the next without a break, so Rachel and I danced for about 10 minutes and then pleaded off that we had to continue on our journey 🙂
Arrived quite early at Quilotoa (given we couldn’t do one of the biking legs at Cotopaxi), walked up to the viewpoint to have a look at the gorgeous crater lake, and then headed indoors (yes, it is freezing cold at 3,800m!) for some pizza and Canalazo – a hot drink made of passionfruit juice, naranjilla juice, cinnamon, sugar, and a local sugar-cane alcohol which is served on the side. We all quickly became fans of the Canalazo (both with and without alcohol) and ended up scoffing probably way too much sugar thanks to this fabulous drink.
7:30pm was dinnertime at Hostal Alpaka – a set meal of potato soup and popcorn (you put the popcorn in the soup – it actually works!) with the main dish of chicken with rice and vegetables. We asked for extra helpings of broccoli for me – it was soooooo good to have broccoli after the dearth of vegetables I’ve been suffering! Sat around the wood fire for a while before heading to bed – ready for Day 2 of the adventure!
Total distance biked: 28km (normally about 40km)
Day 2: Quilotoa – Urbina
After a fairly restless night for all of us (altitude often affects sleep), it was up at 7:30am for breakfast and then off for a hike into the Quilotoa crater. Mark wasn’t feeling well and Esteban had to wash up the lunch gear from the day before, so Sean, Rachel and I headed off. The trail starts at the top of the crater (3,930m) and descends very steeply about 400m – it was going to hurt walking back out! It was a cold and dusty descent thanks to the really strong wind, but some gorgeous views of the lake that changes colour to a deep jade when the sun is out.
Sean braved the cold water and went for a (very quick) dip and then we started the hike out, determined to not take one of the donkeys from the bottom and at least match what Esteban had claimed was a good-paced time – 45 minutes. I ended up doing it in 50 minutes – but then again – I had to stop to take photos!
Back at the hostel it was onto the bikes for the first ride of the day – downhill on the paved road from Quilatoa to Zumbahua, where the party was yesterday – admiring the scenery and stopping off at the Cañon del Río Toachi.
Esteban prepared lunch in the back of the 4WD and then we drove for about ½ hour to somewhere in the middle of nowhere (Kilometre 25) at 4200m for our next downhill along a dirt road to Latacunga.
This road descended through rural areas with amazing views over the valley to Cotopaxi (had it been clear in that direction).
There was a sandy, holey diagonal that we took and that I successfully managed to navigate without falling off – getting more confident. Esteban decided to follow us in the 4WD and then showed us another “secret” sandy road to keep us off the main drag until the town.
We then drove for another 2 hours to Urbina near Mount Chimborazo, stopping along the way at Salcedo, which is famous for its icecreams. This one is the traditional one, but I can attest that the coco one is just as good as the Sarita Cocos of Central America 🙂
More Canalazo and a meal of Locro soup (one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted) and beef stew with more broccoli in front of the wood fire before turning in for another night.
Total distance biked: 40km
Day 3: Chimborazo – Ambato
Drove for about an hour to arrive at the entrance to Chimborazo – Ecuador’s highest (6,310m) Volcano. First up was a Mate de Coca tea before heading out on the hike from Refugio Hermanos Carrel at 4,800m to the highest refuge in the world: Refugio Edgar Whymper at 5,014m.
Although this walk was significantly higher, it wasn’t as difficult for me as the hike out of the Quilotoa crater yesterday (though Rachel really felt the altitude difference), and in the end Sean and I climbed further to the Laguna Condor Concha at 5,100m. Really gorgeous views!
Once we were all back at the lower refuge, we were back on the bikes for the 8km downhill along the dirt road to the entrance to the park. It really does help to hit those corrugations at speed 🙂
We then drove for about another ½ hour and descended into drizzle on the Carretera Vía Flores. This valley is as green as you can imagine and absolutely gorgeous, even in the wet – it must be truly spectacular with bright blue skies!
Had lunch in the back of the 4WD out of the cold and wet and then back on the bikes for the descent through the valley to the city of Ambato. The first part of the valley is absolutely gorgeous – really, really beautiful – but it becomes drier and more populated the closer you get to Ambato. You also get to ride through quite a few eucalypt groves … I was breathing deeply, drawing in the scent of home (not because I was out of breath 🙂 )
Loaded up the bikes one last time and then it was 2hrs back to Quito and the end of the trip.
Had a really awesome time with a great small group. Thanks to Sean and Rachel for their patience with me, and a million thanks to Esteban for being a fun guide and helping me with everything from slipped chains to complicated bike helmets!
Recommendation: I really, really, really loved this trip with the Biking Dutchman! A really fantastic way to explore some of Ecuador’s most popular volcanos while getting a bit of exercise at the same time. Would do it again in an instant.
Cost: US$280 + ~$20 for dinners and other snacks. The cost of the trip includes accommodation, 2 breakfasts and 3 lunches. You have to have your breakfast before you start the first day and pay for the 2 dinners while on the trip.
Time: 3 days. Check the schedule at the Biking Dutchman website for trips that already meet the 2 people minimum requirement.