I found it really helpful reading other people’s blogs when I was planning our own journey so here are some route notes from our spectacular journey down the spine of the Andes in Ecuador : )
From Rumichaca border to Quito – about 266km
We basically stayed on Hwy 35 Pan-American for this part, all-paved. There is an immediate 10km climb up to the first pass at 3,194m and then it descends for the next 65km until the river at 1500m, except for a short climb into San Gabriel about 52km past the border. San Gabriel is a quaint colonial town with a bustling market. We found a cheap residencia set around a wooden courtyard right in the central square. The road between Boliviar and El Juncal is under construction as of August 2014 but there was minimal work when we passed through on a Sunday. Road climbs back up to Ibarra though grade is pretty gentle except for a few steep switchbacks right before entering the valley where Ibarra is.
Otavalo is a bustling indigenous market town about 25km from Ibarra over the next ridge. Tourists flood the handicrafts market on Saturday, the town’s big market day, but there is actually a market here everyday. Infact, there’s actually three markets – a food market behind the cathedral which we really enjoyed for fresh, cheap veggies, the “Potato Market” for mainly produce and clothes at Plaza Cococabana and the handicrafts Indian market at Plaza de Ponchos.
Road climbs out of Otavalo through a construction zone past San Pablo lake. Part way up the climb from San Pablo lake to Las Cajas is Miralago, a lookout/coffee shop/souvenier shop combo run by the friendly Pablo and his two teenage sons. He told us about allowing cyclists to camp on his property which has a stunning view of the surroundings. Las Cajas at the top has a bunch of bizcocho cafes. Bizcocho is a speciality of the Cayambe area and they are delicious buttery finger biscuits baked in a wood fire oven and served with queso de hoja (a mozerella like string cheese like the stuff we got in Oaxaca!!) and arequipe (caramel!). Great with hot chocolate or coffee.
About 10km past Cayambe (and right on the Pan-American) is the Quitsato sundial monument right on Latitude 000 (apparently some of the other equator monuments aren’t actually on the equator). For $1 entrance, you get a fantastic presentation about the gigantic sundial made of stones and local Quecha indigenous knowledge of place and the celestials. The guide when we were there spoke both English and Spanish.
If you’re heading towards Santiago’s wonderful casa de cyclistas in Tumbaco, about 15km (steep busy, bumper-to-bumper climb) before Quito, then continue on Hwy E35 Pan-American until Pifo, then turn onto Hwy 28C towards Quito.
Quito side trips:
– getting into Quito from Tumbaco – walk back out to the highway by the Santa Maria supermarket and flag down any bus heading to Quito. It’ll take you to Rio Coca bus terminal ($0.35) where you jump onto one of the acordian buses for about half an hour to historical centro ($0.25).
– hiking up Pichincha – bus into Quito and then the easiest way is to just take a taxi to the Teleferico (about $4.50). The Teleferico cable cars ($8) brings you up to 4000m where it is a 5km/3hr each way hike to the peak of Ruku Pichinca at 4698m. The trail is clear at first but becomes easy to loose in the last part as you have to scramble around rocks and scree. Be careful as it can be really foggy up at the top.
– Papallacta, about 1.5hrs by bus from Quito, is known for its amazing hotsprings, beautiful mountain scenery and trout. Its hotsprings are supposed to be the best in Ecuador. Catch a “Banos” brand of bus to Lake Agrio from infront of the Santa Maria bus station. Bus fare should be $2 to Papallacta where you take a taxi for about $1.50-2 to the termales. There are numerous termales but the nicest are Termals Papallacta ($8). The first restaurant by the gate has great trout served numerous different ways for around $6 a plate.
Quito to Riobamba – in the Avenue of the Volcanos – about 250km with a side trip into Cotopaxi
Intervalles road from Tumbaco to El Tingo, San Rafael and back onto Hwy 35 after Sangolqui. Intervalles started with about 4km of hexagonal paving stones winding through hills with some construction sections, soon became pavement again, overall seemed to be a lot of gradual uphill and lots of urban sprawl. El Tingo to Sangolqui is basically all inside a city. Hwy 35 joined up with the main Pan-American highway south of Quito at Tambillo. Cotopaxi National Park is awesome to visit and you can enter it via its north or southern entrance. Entering at the northern entrance has the benefits of riding right through the park exiting through the southern entrance, seeing it all and no back-tracking. The northern entrance is via Sangolqui. There is a long dirt climb to 4000m via the northern entrance but what really was the deal-breaker for us was the 6km of steep uphill cobblestones from Sangolqui. We instead continued on the Pan-American, ended up catching a local rodeo and turned off at El Boliche. El Boliche used to be a way to the southern entrance to Cotopaxi National Park. It’s not anymore and the dirt road on the map no longer exists as a lot of the area seems to have been privatized for tree farms and logging opperations. However, El Boliche National Recreational Area is still a highlight in it of itself. There are some awesome hikes of multiple lengths and camping avaliable for $3 per tent. There is a flock of 60 llamas and 6 alpacas that roam freely in the area so you get to camp with llamas! There are some of the best built picnic shelters there that I have ever seen including lights and electrical outlets.
Just before Lasso is the small community of Santa Rita where you turn off the highway to the Cotopaxi southern entrance. There is a little store where you can pick up some groceries but selection is limited. It is 7km from the highway to the entrance gate on a beautifully paved road complete with bicycle lanes. It is then 12km up to the La Rinconda campground with beautiful views of Cotopaxi. There is also a climber’s refuge there so you can buy meals and small snacks like chocolate or crackers there. There is also a small cafe at the visitor’s center. Camping and entrance to the park is free. If you want a bunk in the climber’s refuge, then it’s $22.50 a night. The last 7km is dirt road. We arrived at the southern entrance later in the day and the guard let us camp in the field behind the restaurant for the night.
You can easily stay a week in and around Cotopaxi National Park. There are some awesome hikes including the easy flat loop around Laguna Limpiopungo. The La Rinconda campground is also the trailhead for the hike to Volcan Ruminahui. You can also hike up to the refuge on Volcan Cotopaxi at over 4800m where there is snow. You can hike the whole way or there are many tourist vehicles that you can hitch up to the parking lot with. From the parking lot, it’s about a 1-2km hike to the refuge. The hike is short but it is challenging due to the high elevation, cold and wind. The refuge on Cotopaxi is currently under contruction. You can still visit but there is no hot drinks for sale and I don’t think you can camp there right now.
From Cotopaxi, it is about 30km to Latacunga – all downhill on a well built, paved highway. You can also do the beautiful Quilotoa loop to Latacunga but it involves some high elevation riding (over 4000m) and it is often extremely windy. We were still aclimatizing to the elevation so we did Quilotoa as a side trip from Latacunga. There are numerous buses from Latacunga to Zumbuhua where you can get a collectivo to Quilotoa (which we ended up having to catch on the way back – $5 for the truck or $1 per person if over 5 people) or one bus a day around 10am that goes all the way to Quilotoa ($2). We bargined a couple nights at Hostel Cabanas Quilatoa right at the entrance for $25 a night for a double room with private bathroom and a wood burning stove and including breakfast and dinner. During dinner, they light the stove for you so the room is all toasty when you return. It is over 4000m elevation and very windy and cold especially at night.
Activities in Quilotoa:
– $2 entrance to the town which allows for unlimited access to the crater lake. You can actually camp down by the lake for free.
– it’s about a 20-30 minute walk down from the rim of the crater to the lake and about a 40-50 minute walk back up on the steep and sandy path. You can get a horse to take you back up for $10. You can kayak on the lake. They all seemed to be double kayaks – $5 for two people. I think it’s supposed to be for an hour but they didn’t really give us any time limits.
– you can hike all the way around the rim of the crater around the lake. The hike is about 10km in length and bring lots of water and food as there are no services along the route and the hike will take all day. It can be really windy on the precarious trail right on the knife-edge of the rim but we usually found side paths down the side of the rim a bit.
Highway from Latacunga to Ambato is busy but fine. The road from Ambato to Riobamba quiets down and passes by Mocha, which was recommended to us as the place to get the best guinea pig in South America (not my favorite…). The last part into Riobamba passes by Chimborazo volcano. Just before Mocha, you can also take the old Pan-Am highway and camp at the train station with even more fantastic views of Chimborazo.
Side trips from Ambato and Riobamba:
– From Ambato, we were convinced by our lovely warmshowers host, Bruno (I think there’s a casa de cyclistas in Ambato but we didn’t stay with them), that the nearby town of Banos is a must see. $1.60 for a bus from Ambato to Banos where there are hotsprings ($2 entrance and $0.25 for the obligatory shower cap rental) and all sorts of adventure activities. You can go rafting for $25. We went canyoning for $20, which was awesome! We repelled down 5 waterfalls!
– From Riobamba, we did a day trip up to Chimborazo National Park and hiked up from the first refuge at 4800m to the second refuge at 5000m on Chimborazo! National Park entrances are free in Ecuador.
Riobamba to Cuenca – about 270km
It is a beautiful ride through mountains covered with little farms from Riobamba to Cuenca. It is a section of the ride through Ecuador that I found was really rich in indigenous culture. People were so excited and happy to see us. Everyone was really friendly. Except for the train ride at Alausi, it was rare to see any tourists on this section.
It is a climb out of Riobamba for the first approx 20km up to Laguna de Colta (climb from about 2750m at Riobamba to 3300m at the lake) where the Pan-American splits with most of the traffic heading towards the coast. The road becomes much quieter with gradual descent through narrow farm valley (so much quinoa!) for the next 30km to the highland indigenous town of Guamote. From Guamote to Alausi is a gradual climb through the Palmira desert which has been forested to stop growing desertfication. It is quite a sight to see all these green pine trees growing out of the sand. Desent into Alausi. Alausi is an interesting town that is one part a bustling indigneous mountain town, one part colonial and one part reconstructed for tourism. Men and women walk around in traditional Andean clothes while brightly painted colonial facades decorate the main street leading to the train station. A popular train tour to the precarious Devil’s Nose leaves from here ($25 if you’re curious – we skipped it since we figured we’re cycling through the landscape anyways!). The train only does a short tourism loop and does not actually connect with Cuenca or anywhere else.
Something I wish we did but didn’t get a chance to do this time is hike up Cerro Puñay, which is by Chunchi just past Alausi. Legend has it thaton top of Cerro Puñay is a lost pyramid with golden artifacts. Unfortunately there may not be any long lost treasures anymore but apparently there is an ancient pyramid at the top. At 3245m in height, the ancient pyramid complex on top of the mountain in the shape of a macaw, spiritually significant as legends tell of how the Canari people are descended from the Macaw (Guacamaya). Archaeologists surveyed the ruins in 2003 and the mountain was declared as the “Spiritual Patrimony of the peoples and nations of Humanity” in 2007 as the ruins are considered the oldest in the country. Unlike all of the other mountainsides, there is very little farms cut into the slopes of this lonely green giant except a small town right at one side of its base…the only portion that connects this mountain to the others. Otherwise, it is a steep drop of an airy moat surrounded by steep canyons. You can hike up and camp at the top.
From the town of El Tambo, it is about 10km out to Ingapirca, Ecuador’s largest set of Incan ruins. You can either ride or take the frequent bus for $0.50 each way. It is $6 entrance to the ruins, which includes a guided tour in Spanish. After the tour of the ruins, there is an optional – also guided and included in the ticket – tour of some sites in the surrounding landscape that has especial meaning and archaeological significance. A must see is the “Face of the Inca” rock formation. The guide described to us the details of the nose and headdress that made this face Incan rather than indigenous Canari.
Cuenca is an awesome city to explore. Of note, there are free symphony performances by the local orchestra, there is a colourful indigenous flower market by the white Sanutario Mariano church and down the river is the wonderful ethnobotanical gardens/bird rescue center and Incan ruins of Pumapungo – all free. The Monday is two for one spa day at Piedra de Agua so for $15 each including steam baths, mud treatments, hot spring pools and steam box treatments. There are numerous city buses that go to Banos.
Cuenca south to the Border via Loja and Vilcabamba – about 400km
It is about 200km from Cuenca to Loja. There is a great dirt road just after San Lucas before the bridge into Loja. It is flatter and shorter than the Pan-American for the last stretch into Loja. In early September, there is a pilgrimage from Cuenca to Loja where there are hundreds of pilgrims every day walking or cycling the stretch. In the last days, people come out to give food and drinks to the pilgrims on the side of the road making it a cycling paradise.
Past Loja is about 10km of uphill to an entrance to Podocarpus National Park and then a long stretch of downhill for the next approximately 35km to Vilcabamba with a short exception of 3km of uphill just before Vilcabamba valley. From Vilcabamba, there are four climbs up into the heart of where Podocarpus National Park crosses over the highway. It is beautiful but when we went through, very wet. If you can, leave yourself extra time to do the last section to the border as the road turns to dirt around Palanda for the last 70km to the La Balsas border. Though it has some very steep, challenging climbs, it is gorgeous riding. However, the road turns into a slippery muddy mess in the rain. It rained for two days straight when we were there and we ended up taking a bus because of the mud. Ironically, our first bus also got stuck in the mud and had to turn back to Palanda. However, we talked to another cyclist who went through a couple days after us and said that he had no mud and no problems at all. The conditions here seem to change fast. Some people told us that the ride is flatter after Zumba but we didn’t find this at all. It is still very hilly from Zumba to La Balsa. The La Balsa border crossing is fine though it may take some time to track down the officals. There are some hostels right at the border on the Peruvian side but they are crap. It is much better to ride the 6km from the La Balsa (Peru) border to Namballe where there is much more selection. Hotel Flores just past the main square was comfortable and clean for 25 sols (double with private bathroom).
Hope this was helpful and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me at email@example.com. If you have anything to add, feel free to add comments at the bottom. Good luck on your ride!