Cycle Touring Ecuador Part 1

Tantrums and tales of the TEMBR

Cycling through Ecuador’s stunning paramo featuring the unique frailjones

The rain’s coming down in a steady stream causing the rustic dirt road to turn from bad, to worse and then to something resembling a river.

Any pretence of cycling was left a kilometre ago and now I’m pushing along the ultimate trifecta of cobble stones, mud and incline.

It’s a recipe for a tantrum of epic proportions but there’s a very good reason why I’m not exercising my colourful repertoire of Aussie profanity, and that’s because the scenery is stunning. Drop dead, drool-worthy, proper stop and gape in awe stunning.

Pushing through the mud among the frailjones.

As far as the eye can see millions of frailjones plants stretch out in an other-worldly show of beauty and ahead large peaks loom under a moody sky.

It’s hard to believe we’re here on a virtually deserted stretch of road in a stunning slice of paramo and even harder to believe it took just a few hours into our Ecuador ride to reach it.

But we are, and it’s the best we’ve felt on the bike in years.

Posing in front of our favourite landscape!

It was just two weeks ago that we’d escaped the hot as hell but visually gorgeous Tatacoa desert in Colombia, and just a few days ago that we’d wrapped up three months in Colombia at the sort of vibrant but sort of crappy border town of Ipiales.

Colombia’s hot but beautiful Tatacoa Desert

We’d felt sad to leave colourful Colombia and its quirky pueblas and coffee plantations, but at the same time Ecuador seemed to mark something new. It seemed to mark the real start of the South American adventure with big mountains, empty mountain bike tracks and the kind of wild camping that makes you look like a hard-core adventurer on Instagram.

And so with mixed feelings we crossed the border on a miserable, wet day into Ecuador’s border town equivalent – Tulcan.

The one claim to fame in Ipiales – the impressive Las Lajas church that spans a river
Hello Ecuador! But where’s the sunshine!?

It was from this unassuming town, which sits at just under 3000m, we planned to veer off and tackle the challenging but visually epic Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route – a wild 1381km ride through dirt tracks, cobble stone roads and high-altitude paramo while sticking largely to the leg-sapping Andes mountain range.

Just 8km from Tulcan we launched headfirst into the adventure, turning right onto a narrow dirt road that snaked off the highway and gently uphill towards the El Angel Reserve. Pedalling slowly up we passed rich farmlands and vibrant green hills before the fairly good road turned into a narrow goat track and a narrow goat track turned into a muddy series of puddles as the steel grey clouds opened.

The road worsens en route to the El Angel reserve

It was supposed to be a cruisy 28km to the top of the almost 1000m climb but just five kilometres from the top the ride became a brutal push with entire sections of the road washed away and large muddy puddles forcing us to slough our way through what felt like a freezing abyss.

Hello mud and deceptively deep puddles!

But the pain was worth it.

El Angel Reserve is famous for being home to millions of frailjones – an ethereal plant that manages to absorb water from the atmosphere and in turn act as an underground sprinkler system that ultimately feeds rivers and lakes. When we first rounded a corner to see the paramo filled with these plants our mouths dropped and all mud and rain was forgotten as we scrambled to pull out the camera.

Cycling in muddy paradise among the frailjones

As far as the eye could see millions of the sci-fi-looking plants stretched out under a moody sky and I was taken emotionally back to that first moment we set eyes on the Arctic tundra. Just like that magical day, I was transported to another planet, one that felt a million miles from home and made every tough day in the saddle worth it.

El Angel’s epically beautiful paramo and exquisite frailjones which are incredibly important to the ecosystem

I snapped picture after picture with a mad grin plastered to my wet face and when it came time to get back on the bike I felt like a cycling emperor. “Rain all you want Ecuador!” I yelled. “Nothing’s bringing me down from this high.”

Ten minutes later, while trying to cycle through what looked like a shallow puddle, I fell knee deep into freezing muddy water, soaking my shoes and socks.

Soaked shoes and soaks! Never a good scenario at 3600m!

I let out a torrent of abuse that caused Scott and Richard to double over in hysterics while probably causing a mild avalanche in Peru.

I was back to being a cranky, wet and homeless looking cyclist.

The rain continued to beat down as we “raced” to beat sunset through devastatingly beautiful and devastatingly hard terrain to the El Angel Ecological Reserve ranger station.

At just under 4000m, the lonely station is one of the few places you can camp along the way and we quickly piled on extra layers before throwing up the tent and huddling in an alcove of the station to cook our dinner.

The perfect free camp spot at the El Angel Ecological Reserve ranger station

For the first time in months I cocooned myself in the sleeping bag and worked hard to keep warm as the rain battered down for hours. Just before dawn it felt as though a giant was shaking the mountain and I awoke abruptly from my deep sleep wondering what the hell had happened.

Scott was sitting bolt right up next to me and we quickly realised our first Ecuadorian earthquake had struck.

The tiny town of El Angel, just 30km down the other cobble-stoned, rocky and at times treacherous side of the hill, was our very close by destination for the day and we soaked up more of the gorgeous paramo and its frailjones while shuddering down the climb at the back-breaking speed of about 10km per hour.

The stunning downhill run to El Angel village
In the shadow of giants!

It also happened to be Richard’s birthday and his treat to himself (and us) was a cosy Airbnb in the quaint town centre.

The village itself was adorable with a miniature topiary garden feature taking centre stage in the plaza while countless murals and statues featured throughout the rest of the town. Every local was thrilled to death to meet us and everywhere we turned big smiles met us and friendly hands were held out in welcoming.

The gorgeous scenery surrounding El Angel!

Ecuador was charming the pants off us and as much as we’d loved Colombia, it was quickly stealing the show.

From El Angel the road rose steadily for the first 8km before dipping wildly down into an amazing 40km run. While we enjoyed the freewheel we lost more than 1500m in elevation which meant the fresh summer air had been swapped for sticky humidity, a prevailing stench of pee and plague proportions of midges.

And since what goes down must go up it also meant a big climb on the other side. From the bland town of Salinas we began the slow haul up the other side in search of some famed thermal springs at the top. But after a couple of flat tyres, a long lunch and then a severe underestimation of the climb that awaited, we found ourselves sweating it out up a brutal grade with the sun fast disappearing and a further 10km of steep climbing to go.

Check out the expression on Sarah’s face… she’s really loving the uphill slog.

There was nothing left to do but call it a night in the overpriced town of Tumbabiro where we had to pay more than we’d like to admit for a basic hotel room which did have the advantage of a superbly hot shower and a place for the bikes.

The next day we pushed out the final 8km uphill to the thermal springs where a chuffed Richard was waiting with three spa passes (costing us just $5 each) which included unlimited pool access in the fancy pants section as well as free camping.

Not the most picturesque of camps but considering we were two metres from the thermal pools….

We quickly stripped off and spent hours soaking in the hot pools, only emerging when our skin resembled old prunes and our stomachs rumbled.

We’d veered off the TEMBR to visit the hot pools but the next day we joined back up with the trail on a wild rollercoaster ride of steep climbs, cobble stones, indigenous towns and more bloody cobble stones.

One does not simply cycle up a steep road made of cobble stones!

Whoever thought large slippery rocks made for a good surface should be forced to ride a loaded bike up a 15 per cent climb (spoilers, we didn’t cycle, we pushed) but anyway rant over.

By mid-afternoon we’d wandered into the cutesy and touristy town of Cotacatchi with its thriving leather market, swathe of restaurants and pricey hotels and most importantly its large namesake – a towering volcano encased in mist above the town.

Gorgeous Cotacachi!

We faffed about the village for a couple of hours before pedalling just a couple of kilometres out to a campsite for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Realistically, we were fresh enough to push out a decent day of riding the following morning, but the rain had returned with gusto and with the market town of Otavalo lying just 15km to the east we decided to treat ourselves to a short day, a hotel and some down town.

Otavalo people depicted in a colourful mural close to the town

And we were glad we did.

Otavalo was the kind of place where you could stop for a night and leave a year later wandering where the hell the time had gone.

Its vibrant square was covered in market stalls selling a kaleidoscope of crafts from beaming Otavalos – the prominent indigenous group who are native to the Andes and despite being forced to join the Incan empire in the 15th century, have maintained much of their culture and heritage.

After sipping a delicious coffee and scoring a reasonable well priced room with a free laundry, a kitchen and a hot shower, we decided Otavalo was our new favourite Ecuadorian town.

Scott was conveniently sick the next day and so we quickly unpacked our bags and enjoyed another night in paradise, taking a taxi to visit the nearby Laguna de Cuicocha and hike its pristine volcanic crater before returning for a relaxing afternoon.

Soaking up the crater views

The next day Scott still felt ill with a cold but he was able to haul himself onto the bike for a reasonably easy 30km day to the mountain town of Cayambe at 3000m. We arrived just after lunch and were treated to a front row view of the gargantuan Cayambe volcano – Ecuador’s third highest mountain at 5790m.

Snowy Cayambe looms quietly in the distance.
Picturesque Cayambe

From Cayambe it was an easy 65km to the trendy suburb of Tumbaco, perched just a 30 minute bus ride from Quito.

On the way we crossed the equator for the first time in five years by bike! Woohhoooo

Tumbaco is famous among touring cyclists for one simple reason – it’s home to one of Latin America’s oldest Casa de Ciclistas (which translates to house of cyclists and is essentially the continent’s answer to Warmshowers). Host Santiago had been welcoming ragged bikers into his home for 28 years, letting them camp for free in his spacious yard, take over his wifi and essentially lounge about the place while recovering from Ecuador’s mountains before gearing themselves up for the next batch.

Scott mends the tent at the Casa de Ciclistas

He asked for nothing in return.

In short, he’s the patron saint of cyclists in Ecuador.

We intended to stay a couple of days and re-build our wheels, make repairs and gear up for round two of Ecuador but a week later we were still faffing about, waiting for two new rims to arrive, recovering from some, ahem, stomach bugs, and just generally enjoying the vibes of Santiago’s house.

It was on a busy Saturday that we took the bus into heaving Quito to visit the old town, that we suffered a rude awakening to the dangers of any big metropolitan area.  

Downtown Quito with the striking church in the background

While waking up to a statuesque church an old man came up behind me and pointed at my backpack while exclaiming something in Spanish I couldn’t understand. After a minute of the same Scott stopped to see what the fuss was about and noticed a big splash of bird shit down my bag, pants, shirt and even in my hair.

As we stopped to inspect the surprising damage a young guy appeared out of nowhere, offering some tissues to clean up the mess. Meanwhile Richard – who was waiting some 50 metres up the road – all of a sudden found himself covered in “bird poo” as well.

It was then that Scott cottoned on.

“It’s a scam!” He shouted.

“Rich, watch your bag, Sarah where’s your phone!?”

But at Scott’s sudden shout the team of four (including an old man and woman and two young guys) disappeared as quickly as they’d appeared. They hadn’t managed to steal anything and as we inspected “the bird shit” it became painfully clear it was some concocted green slime.

Attempted robbings aside, we spent a good chunk of our time lying around like pandas while scoffing down pastries and chatting to the steady stream of cyclists arriving at Santiago’s.

There was Rajat, a cheerful and constantly smiling 25-year-old from India who was perhaps one of the most happy-go-lucky cyclists we’d ever met, Felix and Linda from Germany, who were super lovely and on a California to Argentina bike-packing expedition. Carlos from Chile was a sweet-natured horticulturist who was biking north to south, Emile from Sweden was on his first bike trip ever and pedalling from Cartagena to Ushuaia, Thomas from Argentina was an adventurous doctor and doing the same and finally there was Christian and Nico from Switzerland. We’d first met Christian in Carcross in the Yukon of Canada, meeting him again in Salento, Colombia and again at the Casa. He was a happy, hilarious and lovely guy and it was such a spin out to see someone we’d cycled with years ago!

We saw Christian (who’s cycling with his friend Nico) for the second time since Canada at the one and only Cocora Valley.

After the week of waiting around for our new wheels to be built Richard decided to push on alone (we’d been going together since Medellin and it was time for a little vacay from each other) and soon after that our wheels were finally trued, our panniers packed and our minds turned to the next epic leg of Ecuador – the volcano corridor starting with the impossibly  conical Cotopaxi, one of South America’s most active volcanoes.

Yeeeehhaaa!

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