While preparing for this new adventure in South America, everyone I talked to had mentioned that Quito is the most interesting capital they had visited in the “New World”. This being the starting point of my bikepacking trip to Santiago de Chile, I was obviously not going to be in a position to compare, but none the less, my four days in Ecuador’s second largest city were very enjoyable.

While preparing for this new adventure in South America, everyone I talked to had mentioned that Quito is the most interesting capital they had visited in the “New World”. This being the starting point of my bikepacking trip to Santiago de Chile, I was obviously not going to be in a position to compare, but none the less, my four days in Ecuador’s second largest city were very enjoyable.

The second highest capital in the world at 2820 m above sea level (after La Paz), Quito is squeezed in the narrow Guayllabamba valley and stretches well over 50 km from north to south.

I spent most of the first day exploring the quaint and wonderfully well-preserved historical centre, from the Plaza Grande to Plaza San Francisco and then headed north towards Mariscal Sucre, stopping on the way at the high-perched Basilica del Voto Nacional and enjoying the great views of the city from the top of the clock tower.

The Señora running my hotel warned me in the morning that the country, and particularly Quito, were in the middle of widely followed protests by the country’s indigenous population against the rising costs of fuel and agricultural goods. This was clearly felt in the centre, with a heavy police presence and many guarded barricades across key streets. On more than one occasion a member of the police force approached me to warn me about the situation and to make sure I looked after my personal belongings. But it seems that the protests took place mainly in the evenings, because I didn’t really notice anything during my days wandering the streets, however I would hear loud bangs and police sirens once back at my hotel later in the day.

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Ecuador - Quito-1
Ecuador - Quito
Ecuador - Quito
Ecuador - Quito

On day two I decided to speed-up my altitude acclimatisation process by hiking to the lowest of the two summits of Volcán Pichincha, Rucu Pichincha. I grabbed an Uber to the TelefériQo, and let South America’s highest cable car take me to the start of the hike at 3950 m. At the famous wooden swing, Geoffrey, a fellow Frenchman, handed me his phone so that I could take some photos of him swinging. Deciding to attempt the hike together, we chatted away happily, until we reached the last steep part of the hike. At this point we very much felt the effects of the high altitude, both short of breath and hearts pounding and racing in our chests. Eventually, we reached the summit at 4690 m, but by that time the clouds had moved in and were completely blocking the view. At the top we met Maëva, Simon and Theo, three more French travellers who Geoffrey had come across before in Colombia. Deciding that we didn’t hate each other, we all met again the next day for a walk around the Mariscal Sucre and La Floresta neighbourhoods and finished the day with a drink at Café Mosaico with incredible views of the city.

Ecuador - Quito
Ecuador - Quito
Ecuador - Quito
Ecuador - Quito
Ecuador - Quito
Ecuador - Quito

I planned to start my journey the next day, but as I was having breakfast that morning, the Señora of the hotel told me that the protests were gathering momentum and that it was not safe for me to leave. If her aim was to unsettle me, she had succeeded. Not quite sure what to do, I decided to stay an extra day. I had some administrative tasks I still needed to sort out, amongst other things my German taxes!

But the following day my mind was set. No matter what horror stories I would be told or what alarming images I would see on TV, I would leave. In the end the journey out of Quito went smoothly without one single road block and before I knew it, I was riding on a narrow and steep cobblestone road towards the Cotopaxi National Park. The going was painfully slow, my legs felt weak. It started drizzling. After only 35 km of riding, the relentless climb on the slippery cobblestones had taken the better of me, so I started looking for a place to spend the night. As I stopped near a restaurant to catch my breath, the owner José poked his head over the cement wall and we started chatting. After some bartering he let me camp in his garden for 5$. I set up my tent under a gazebo and treated myself to a delicious trout for dinner. José was very friendly and very curious about my trip. He had lived and worked in Milan for 10 years and had travelled quite a bit around Europe. But eventually he missed his homeland too much and chose to come back to Ecuador to open a restaurant.

Ecuador

As I neared the end of that dreadful cobblestone road the next day, a group of three young Ecuadorian mountain bikers stopped me to ask if I had a 6 mm Allen key they could borrow. One of the muchachos set about tightening his saddle, until suddenly I heard a loud sharp noise and noticed a silvery piece of metal fly in the air. Apologetically, the boy handed me back my multitool, the 6 mm hex wrench snapped at the base. He’d tightening the screw too hard. The other boys waved this off as if it didn’t matter, which angered me slightly. This was the only wrench of this size I had to adjust the height of my saddle. I would have to buy another one in the next big city I would be crossing.

The slopes gradually became gentler and around a bend it suddenly appeared in front of me: The majestic Cotopaxi Volcano, 5897 m high, its summit covered in glaciers’ white, looking like a perfect cone. Hard to believe that this big mountain, the second highest in Ecuador, is an active volcano that last erupted in January 2016! The top of it had disappeared behind clouds again by the time I reached the entrance of the park. A sign hanging from the gate read “Cerrado”. I entered the little house next to the entrance and a ranger greeted me. He told me the park was closed indefinitely due to the protests happening in the country. My heart sank. We talked a little longer, me imploring him to let me through, explaining that I would be out on the other side the next morning and that I had my tent and 2 days’ worth of food in my panniers. The fake tears did the trick, he finally gave in and decided to let me pass. Victory! The little wooden hut felt quite cosy, sheltering me from the day’s cold winds and light rain, so I decided not to go straight through but keep the ranger company for a little longer. We talked about the protests, about his jobs, about tourists he’s encountered while working the gate. All the while, cars and trucks appeared at the gate. The ranger sent back the vehicles trying to enter the park, but let through the ones trying to exit it. Most people were trying to bypass the road blocks on the Panamericana in order to get to Quito’s airport. One hour later I bid him farewell and followed the track to the north-west side of the mountain, stopping many times along the way to admire the landscape and to take photos. After a quick detour via the Limpiopungo lagoon, I finally reached the camp site where I had planned to spend the night: La Rinconada. It was all downhill from there, so I was actually toying with the idea of cycling all the way down towards the valley to find a guesthouse and have a warm shower, when I noticed a bicycle amongst the trees of the camping. Another cyclist! Sebastian, from Ecuador, was also bikepacking around the north of the country. Unfortunately, because of the protests and the difficulties he had to buy food, he had decided to alter his plans and was now about to start looping the volcano clockwise. Abandoning my idea of carrying on cycling that afternoon, I set up my tent next to his. We spent a nice evening together, exchanging travel stories whilst cooking dinner. As dawn set in, the thick clouds hiding Cotopaxi suddenly evaporated, rewarding us with stunning views of the white summit. A perfect end to the day.

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Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador

I woke up at 3AM to the sound of rain falling hard on my tent. Blast! The rain kept me awake until dawn. I packed my equipment under a light drizzle and by the time I hit the road again, after having said my goodbyes to Sebastian, the rain had stopped. It remained very cold however, and my legs felt like jelly. I quickly abandoned my plans to cycle all the way to Isinliví and instead checked in at Hostel Cuscungo before 10AM, right next to the Panamerican Highway (which was completely car free when I crossed it). Assuming that no-one else was going to show up that day, due to the protests, the muchacho at the counter gave me a double room for the price of a dorm bed. Two hours later a group of 7 tourists arrived. They had started hiking the Quilotoa Loop together before the protests started and got stuck in the mountains when they finished, for lack of transport back to Latacunga. They had managed to get back to Isinliví and had just spent five days there, before a transport was organised back to this guesthouse, one step closer to Quito. As always it was nice to talk to other like-minded travellers, we exchanged stories around the fireplace and finished the evening playing some card games.

The next day turned out to be one of hardest I’ve ever experienced on the saddle. I didn’t sleep well that night and seemed to have caught my first stomach ache of this trip… I knew I had more than a 1000 m to climb when I left the guesthouse in the morning, in order to reach Isinliví. It didn’t seem that much, I’d had harder days before… But as soon as I hit the first climb, I knew it’s going to be a tough one. My legs still felt like they were made out of soft rubber. At least the morning ride was on nice paved roads, which I could manage (more or less). Things got more complicated the moment I left the tarmac for narrow dirt roads dug into the mountain-side. I found myself needing brakes every five minutes, my energy levels were rapidly falling, my stomach was hurting, I wasn’t one bit interested in the scenery around me. The last 200 m to reach the 3970 m pass were hell. My legs didn’t respond anymore, I had almost no power left to press the pedals, something I had never experienced before. I reached the top of the pass in autopilot mode and rushed down the other side of the mountain in thick fog. I must have been a sorry sight when I stepped through the door of the Llullu Llama guesthouse, judging by the look on the receptionist’s face. But it turned out she was just surprised to see a tourist at all!

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Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador

I took the next day off in order to regain some strength and give my stomach time to improve. Llullu Llama was probably one of the nicest guesthouses I’ve ever stayed in. One can tell attention has been paid to details here, the wooden furniture was well crafted, the decorations tasteful, the big windows let lots of light through but also allowed guests to enjoy the wonderful scenery from pretty much anywhere. Plus the food was delicious and the portions huge. I could only imagine how buzzing with life and excitement it must be during normal times, when hikers stop by for the day while doing the Quilotoa Loop. But during my two nights sleeping there I was completely alone. I spent the day processing photos, catching up on series, reading and even fit in a stretching session in the bright yoga room. I also spent quite some time pondering why I was at that point more excited about the days resting than the days cycling. It should have been the other way around, shouldn’t it have? Maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew by undertaking the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route on a bike more heavily loaded than during my most bikepacking trips… And why did I have the feeling that I was getting nowhere? 166 km in 6 days felt like I had barely moved… I knew I was focusing on the wrong things entirely, but I could not chase those negative thoughts out of my head.

Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador

The next stage of the ride took me to the Quilotoa water-filled crater. That day I felt much better and my legs finally felt stronger. I was still knackered at the end of long climbs, but didn’t feel powerless and hopeless anymore. After a never-ending 5 km-long climb I reached the small village of Quilotoa. The place looked like a ghost-town. There wasn’t a soul in sight, all shops and restaurants were closed and the thin mist that hangs in the air gave me the impression I’d just landed in the middle of a bad horror movie. I checked in at Hostel Chukirawa and chose once again to take the following day off, this time to do a little hike along the rim of the caldera (“at this rate I will arrive in Santiago de Chile in 2 years!”, I thought to myself). Reaching the edge of the old volcano and seeing the green lake far below for the first time is a moment that I will never forget!

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Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador

The final push to the town of Salinas de Guaranda required three days of cycling over 135 km and 3600 m altitude difference. The first of those three days really felt like the beginning of the adventure. My fitness level was finally up to the task, I didn’t have to worry so much about what terrain awaited me and could finally simply enjoy the journey. It was also the first day that I really felt immersed in the Andes, riding remote mountain tracks that took me low through deep lush valleys and high over cloudy mountain passes. I crossed a number of tiny comunidades, whose indigenous inhabitants always smiled at my loud “buenos dias” and waved back at me. On many occasions people stopped me with a “a dónde va?”, always asking if I am “solito” and finally wishing me a “buen viaje”, before getting on with their daily business. It was also the first day that I encountered my first wild llamas, after having already crossed paths with many cows, horses, sheep and pigs. The last pass of the day, at 3950 m, offered incredible views of the Angamarca village deep in the valley of the same name, but also of the steep climbs that awaited me the next day. Half-way through the long descent into the village, I bumped into Jon and his motorbike. We chatted for a couple minutes before he kindly offered me to camp on his property, high pastures overlooking the valley. Having found the highest and flattest spot, I set up camp and finally sank deep into my folding camping chair to enjoy the first-class panoramic views surrounding me…

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Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador

As expected from what I had seen the 12 hours before, the first part of the second day took me on very steep tracks, far too steep for me to ride. I ended up pushing my bike up for the most part of the morning, until around lunchtime the gradients eased up a little and I was able to get back on the saddle. Realising that I was not going to reach Simiátug that night, I started hunting for a place to camp around 4PM. With a freezing wind blowing in my face, I searched and searched, but the steep terrain didn’t offer any suitable spots. Around 5PM I passed a tiny comunidad consisting of 5 houses and a small school situated on a wide flat piece of land. I knocked on the door of the house closest to the school and asked a young lady if I could camp in front of the building. She made me understand that she wasn’t the right person to ask, but told me that it should be fine. It wasn’t the nicest and cleanest camping spot, but it was the best I could find and it had the advantage of protecting me from the strong gusts of wind and had a dirty little baño where I could get some water and wash my dishes. And best of all, I was treated to an amazing sunset over Ecuador’s western flatlands, covered with a soft layer of white clouds.

Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador

The wind blew hard all night, shaking my tent in all direction. It was still blowing strongly in the morning, forcing me to get off the bike and push on more than one occasion. After getting some supplies in Simiátug, I tackled the long and steep climb heading south out of town, reaching a flatter high road hugging the western side of the mountain chain until it finally dipped back into Salinas de Guaranda, my goal for the day. Arriving in Salinas felt like reaching a first milestone, having so often before the beginning of the trip looked at a map of Ecuador and wondered how long it would take and how hard it would be to get there (the answers being: much longer than expected and damn right exhausting!). I felt elated and suddenly very relaxed, the quaint little village giving out a very tranquil vibe. This was going to be a good place to rest for a couple of days!

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Ecuador
Ecuador
Ecuador

To be continued…

More photos of Ecuador can be found here!

The route:

Download file: Quito - Salinas.gpx