Ecuador: Cotopaxi to Cuenca

The TEMBR is proving to be an amazing way to explore Ecuador. From Cotopaxi we visited the beautiful crater lake of Quilotoa then Volcan Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak, before arriving in Cuenca, a beautiful, UNESCO listed colonial city.

Cotopaxi to Cabañas Los Volcanes

Given we were still recovering from summiting Cotopaxi (not to mention getting our fitness back after almost a month off the bikes) we decided to split the ride to Quilotoa over three days.

Matt made the most of his final breakfast at The Secret Garden Cotopaxi and then we hit the road, bumping along the cobbles near the hostel. As we approached the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park we caught up to a few mountain bikers out for their Sunday ride. Despite our awkward Spanish (or perhaps because of it?) they seemed thrilled that we were out exploring their country.

Cotopaxi was hidden behind a blanket of clouds but we saw herds of llamas1 and wild horses grazing. While we miss the frailejones of Colombia and northern Ecuador, there was a stark beauty to these high altitude grasslands, strewn with boulders (presumably volcanic) as they were.

A fun descent dropped us down to Lasso, a small, industrial town near the highway. Not long after we had set-up camp at Cabañas Los Volcanes it started raining, which we took as a sign from the universe.

Cabañas Los Volcanes to Isinliví

We woke to grey skies, but fortunately the rain held off as we climbed through farmland up to almost 4000m on a mix of pavement, cobbles, dirt, and sand. On the other side was a spectacular gravel descent down to the town of Isinliví, where we were delighted to find that some llamas would be our neighbours for the night. That evening we learnt that llamas can snore.

Isinliví to Quilotoa

From Isinliví there were what looked like nothing more than a couple of small hills on the profile. But with the gradient regularly exceeding 15% the “small hills” had some bite. Fortunately the scenery was very pretty.

Then it was on to the main climb of the day up to Quilotoa, during which the wind regularly blasted us with sand (the “sand cliff death march” Strava segment is aptly named). We checked into Shalalá Lodge, a community-run sustainable tourism enterprise, dropped the bikes and went to check out Quilotoa.

Quilotoa is a 3km wide volcanic caldera known for it’s turquoise blue crater lake. As is often the way, folklore and science find themselves at odds about the depth of Laguna Quilotoa: folklore says it is infinitely deep, science says 250m. Whatever you believe,2 it is undeniably beautiful.

Quilotoa to Camp past Angamarca

The next morning we rolled back down the hill from Shalalá Lodge. A couple of kms down the road we came to a junction: the route said to go one way, but the other road would save us about 200m of climbing. Seemed like a no brainer. And to be fair, the first impressions of our short-cut were very positive as a lovely dirt road meandered through the countryside. The only problem was the 300m section where the road plunged into a canyon and deteriorated completely. Fortunately we were able to pick our way through with only a short section of hike-a-bike.

We rejoined the route and enjoyed a lovely tarmac descent into Zumbahua where we stocked up with supplies for lunch and dinner. Then we climbed back up to 4100m a.s.l. with the wind howling around us - when it was behind us it was a lovely little assist, but side-on our frame bags turned into sails and we were pushed around the road, and head-on it was just plain rude.3

We then rugged up for a massive 1300m gravel descent during which we watched the landscape change from windswept grass to lush farmland.

At this point there was just one more climb left for the day. The one climb which, out of the entire 1368km TEMBR (all of which is through the mountains), the Dammer brothers (creators of the route) felt necessary to mark as particularly tough. With the gradient rarely dropping below 10% (and often as high as 22%) it was certainly a brute. Partway up we chatted to some local farmers who cheerfully told us that we were near the top. They lied. But we eventually made it to the top (we always do) and found a lovely campsite. Even though we didn’t see the International Space Station, as we cooked dinner we saw 7 satellites make their orbit through the clear night sky.

Camp past Angamarca to Salinas

“Hilly! Challenging, rolling terrain!” The only other comment about the road conditions noted on the TEMBR, we took some comfort in the fact that this section had been memorable for the Dammer’s too. We lost count of the number of times we clawed our way uphill, only to give up those precious metres with the downhill on the other side - it was death by rolling hills (at almost 4000m a.s.l.). With the wind back in force it felt like the mountains were reminding us that we were at their mercy.

However, part of the beauty of this mode of travel is being at the mercy of the mountains, being immersed in nature, and experiencing a simpler way of living. All throughout the day we passed hardy farming folk for whom this was their way of life, rugged up against the wind as they walked a loaded mule, a couple of cows, or half a dozen sheep down the road.

Exhausted, we dropped down into Simitug, where we revived ourselves with Coca Cola and chips. Then, it was just an 800m climb back up to 4000m a.s.l., thankfully at a more merciful gradient. About two-thirds of the way up the climb the gravel turned to pavement, which meant it was a fast descent down the other side into Salinas de Guaranda.

Salinas is a small town of about 1000 people named after the salt mines that were its primary source of income until the 1970s. While the salt mines continue to operate, the town is now better known for its community enterprises, brainchild of the Italian missionary Father Antonio Polo who arrived in the town in 1971. The first part of the Salinerito (people of Salinas) brand was a cheese factory, but there are now other community enterprises for chocolate, yarn, woollen clothing, essential oils, and footballs. Profits are invested back into the community.

We had a rest day in Salinas where we made the most of the local chocolate and enjoyed a bed and hot shower (a real one with two taps and everything!) after lots of camping recently.

Salinas to Chimborazo

Maybe it was a high gravity day, maybe it was that we were starting the climb at 3500m a.s.l., maybe it was the headwind - whatever it was4, despite the rest day, the climb out of Salinas felt hard. But after an hour or so we started to get in the groove and watched the metres slowly tick away. This was a relatively short day, only about 35km, but it was almost all uphill as we made our way towards Volcan Chimborazo.

At 6268m a.s.l. Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador. Due to its location near the equator it is also the furthest terrestrial point from the centre of the earth, beating out Mt Everest by 2.1km. (If you think that’s close, Huascarán, which we will be seeing in Peru, is second to Chimborazo by just 10m!). Another way of conceptualising this fact is that Chimborazo is the closest point on earth to the stars.

As we neared Chimborazo the grassland turned into a desolate, rocky landscape, amidst which we saw a few small herds of vicuñas. These shy animals are the wild ancestor of llamas and alpacas. Vicuñas have some of the finest wool in the world (their fibres have a diameter of 12μm, versus, say, the cashmere goat whose fibres are 14 - 19 μm), but because they only produce about 0.5kg of wool a year and have to be caught from the wild their wool is far less common (and far more expensive!).

A bit more climbing later and we made it to Refugio Carrel, some 4850m a.s.l. and set up camp. Of course, being so high meant that it was a cold night - we rugged up and went to bed early. Sleeping at altitude is notoriously difficult, but fortunately for us some combination of fatigue from the ride up and acclimatisation meant that we didn’t have too much of a problem.

Chimborazo to Guamote

The next morning the single-track down Chimborazo beckoned. Fully-loaded gravel bikes might not have quite been the most appropriate choice of bike, but it was a lot more fun than the washboard descent would have been.

Down and down we went, and then down some more - an 1800m descent takes some time! Then it was rolling hills through farmland where lots of dogs felt the need to chase us - nothing like a few sprint intervals to break up the “touring” pace.

When we arrived in Guamote we headed to the Inti Sisa hotel, which is recommended on the TEMBR, and got a lovely surprise. While a bit exxy, our room had what might be the biggest bed we’ve ever seen, and the multi-course dinner made a welcome change from our normal “what can we find to put in the pot tonight” dinner.5

Guamote to Chunchi (via Wild Camp)

We had heard good things about Lagunas de Ozogoche from a few people and when we started the day we had every intention of camping there for the night. But as the saying goes, “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” The weather rapidly deteriorated and we found ourselves climbing into gale force winds and rain (at over 4000m a.s.l.). Needless to say our progress slowed and as a result we ended up camping on a pullout on the side of the road. Just one of those days…

Gabe looking slightly happier in this photo, albeit still very wet.

The next morning we woke to more wind and rain. Partway through a massive descent the sun came out for a moment… and then we came across a landslide blocking the road. Thankfully we had a few bars of reception and were able to figure out a simple detour. No sooner had we found our way back to the descent than we plunged into damp cloud and saw nothing but grey for the remainder of the ride. Another one of those days…

Despite the unpleasant conditions we were vaguely aware that this section would make some spectacular riding in nicer weather.

Chunchi to Cuenca (via El Tambo)

From Chunchi the TEMBR follows the Panamericana to El Tambo before heading off on dirt roads into the hills. But with rain continuing and Gabe’s rear brake rotor, which has been rapidly deteriorating over the past few days, now almost completely dead, we decided to just stick to the pavement into Cuenca.6

Human inhabitance of the Cuenca area has been dated as far back as hunter-gatherers from 8060 BC. With it’s lovely climate, early indigenous people then used the region for agriculture. In about 500 AD the Cañari people founded a settlement called Guapondeleg (“land as big as heaven”) on the site, which was then conquered by the Incas in the 1470s and renamed Tomebamba. The Incas then built a grand city here called Pumapungo (“the door of the Puma”), supposedly full of golden temples and riches. (Some have speculated that Cuenca was the mythical El Dorado, citing ongoing gold mining in the region as support of this theory). When the Spanish Conquistadors were looming in the 1530s the Incas destroyed the city, leaving nothing to be discovered but ruins.

In 1557 the Spanish founded Cuenca here, named after Cuenca, Spain, the hometown of Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza, Viceroy of Peru. It grew steadily during the colonial era, a heritage that is evident today in its cobbled streets, colonial architecture, cathedrals, and UNESCO listing.

We will be here for a week so that Matt can get some work done and we can get a new brake rotor for Gabe shipped in. Being popular among tourists, expats, and retirees there are many lovely coffee shops and a range of cuisines available (we’ve already had Indian twice!), so we think we’ll be pretty happy here.

¡Hasta la próxima vez!

Highlights

  • Some lovely riding from Cotopaxi to Isinliví.
  • Having llamas for neighbours while camping at Hostal Taita Cristobal in Isinliví.
  • Eucalypts around Isinliví and Quilotoa reminded us of home.
  • Quilotoa is absolutely beautiful and worth the detour.
  • Seeing vicuñas near Chimborazo. Matt has declared these are his new favourite Andean animal. Chimborazo was also a new high point on the bikes for us.

Lowlights

  • Just after we had been discussing how great our Steripen was it randomly broke in Salinas. Looks like we’ll be using our filter until we can get a new one.
  • Continuing the trend of breaking stuff, Gabe has shredded her rear rotor. We’ll replace it while in Cuenca.
  • In general, we’ve been pretty lucky with the weather so far, but we did have several days of rain (the day out of Guamote was particularly miserable).

Logistics

  • Cotopaxi to Cabañas Los Volcanes (53km, 650m): Mostly gravel, but some cobble (at the start) and pavement. We camped at the Cabañas Los Volcanes ($5 pp, WiFi, hot showers, kitchen facilities; $12 pp for a room). Note: on the descent from Laguna de Limpiopungo to Mulaló the official TEMBR route has two deviations from the “main road” - these were not passable when we went through (one was overgrown and the other behind a locked gate) so we just stuck to the pavement.
  • Cabañas Los Volcanes to Isinliví (44km, 1090m): Pavement for the first 15km, then a mix of cobbles, gravel, dirt, and sand. We camped at Hostal Taita Cristobal ($5 pp, hot showers, kitchen facilities; meals and rooms also available).
  • Isinliví to Quilotoa (29km, 1320m): Dirt roads all the way. We camped at Shalalá Lodge ($2 pp to enter the area, $4 pp for camping, toilets and shower).
  • Quilotoa to Camp past Angamarca (73km, 1950m): Mostly gravel, with some pavement into and out of Zumbahua. We camped on the ridge, about 11km after Angamarca (camp site listed on TEMBR route). Note: due to some recent plumbing infrastructure there was no water available at the bend in the road. However, there was water about 1km further up the road.
  • Camp past Angamarca to Salinas (66km, 2110m): Mostly gravel, but pavement for the final 13km. We stayed at La Minga Hostal ($12 pp, hot water, WiFi, kitchen facilities). Note: despite what it says in the TEMBR notes, there is no bank or ATM in Salinas. However, it is an easy $1 collectivo ride to Guaranda where you can find banks and bigger supermarkets.
  • Salinas to Chimborazo (35km, 1700m): Gravel for the first 18km, then a stretch of pavement until you turn off for Chimborazo where it becomes gravel again. We camped at Refugio Carrel (free, bathrooms; snacks available for purchase).
  • Chimborazo to Guamote (82km, 1040m): Some sections of gravel, but mostly paved. We stayed at the lovely Inti Sisa ($65 for a double room, including breakfast, hot shower, fast WiFi; an amazing dinner was an extra $14) - we consoled ourselves about the price by the fact that profits go to the community education program.
  • Guamote to Wild Camp (48km, 16600m): Gravel all the way. We camped on a small pullout on the side of the road. There were lots of options for wild camps out there.
  • Wild camp to Chunchi (86km, 1620m): Mostly gravel to Achupallas, then mostly pavement until Chunchi. About 1.5km out of Achupallas there is a major landslide blocking the road. Just before the landslide there is a gravel road up the hill (unsigned) that will detour around it. In Chunchi we stayed at the Hotel Chunchi Imperial ($25, hot shower, WiFi).
  • Chunchi to El Tambo (59km, 1660m): Panamericana all day, although it’s not too busy at this point. We stayed at Hostal Espinoza ($25, hot shower, WiFi).
  • El Tambo to Cuenca (75km, 1010m): Pavement all the way. We found a nice back way into Cuenca that worked well. Matt was working in Cuenca so we upped the accommodation a bit and stayed at Selinas Cuenca ($35, lovely room, hot shower, fast WiFi). Restaurant recommendation: Namaste (great Indian).

Note: Distances and elevation are what we recorded on our GPS. In most cases the elevation we recorded was significantly less than indicated by base maps.

  1. Or maybe they were alpacas. We don’t really know the difference. 

  2. Science. We believe in science. 

  3. No prizes for guessing whether we spent more time with a headwind or tailwind. 

  4. Probably the latter two. 

  5. Normally some pasta/rice, onion, carrot, and some tomato paste. If we have cheese for on top it’s a very good day. 

  6. Look mum, sensible decision making!