Adventure Cycling in Ecuador
Looking for a more adventurous place for a spot of cycle touring? Well, a cycle tour in Ecuador will certainly get you away from the crowds and give you a chance to absorb the beauty and majesty of the Andes. We biked between Quito and Guayaquil on our honeymoon, and although much has undoubtedly changed in the country since then, from a cycle touring perspective many things remain the same. In this post, brought to you in a collaboration with LAN, we pick out twelve reasons why Ecuador makes a great adventure cycling destination…
1 The Avenue of Volcanoes
Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes is the world. It’s also only a day’s ride (50km) from the Ecuadorean capital, Quito. It is one of those perfect picture cones that you think only exist in guide books and Ladybird books until you see it for yourself. Cycling around this perfect cone, then riding up to camp in its snow capped shadow (yes, you can) is just the finest way to begin a cycle tour in Ecuador. This Latin American country is a chaotic mix of high mountain, patchwork fields, Pan American Highway, unmanicured trail, cloud forest and volcano. But it does do volcanoes particularly well. In fact there’s a whole avenue of them. A whole, massive volcanic avenue people! Where else in the world can you cycle down that?
2 The Biking Dutchman
The Biking Dutchman runs MTB tours down Cotopaxi and other parts of the Avenue of the Volcanoes. I remember him fondly from our two months in the country; he helped us out when one of our bikes went missing at the start of our trip, renting us a bike and then taking us bike shopping in Quito to get us kitted up so we could continue our adventure. His kindness was one of so many on the road. Now, fifteen years on, he is one of the most established adventure providers in an eclectic collection of companies that can hire you a bike, take you up a mountain and let you plunge downhill, or organise your whole holiday for you. If you’re new to adventure cycle touring it can pay to have a friendly guide to help organise things, hold your hand, give some local knowledge or rescue you in an emergency.
3 The Roads Less Paved
If you don’t mind your roads rough and ready then Ecuador is a paradise of unpaved track, backroad and off road trails. I remember Kirstie fondly shouting at me, “This is not a road, it is simply a collection of stones!” And she was right. In fact “improved” roads were often the worst, six inches of loose gravel to push your bike through. But it’s character building and feels like a great adventure. Afterwards.
Besides, pushing your bike slowly up a gravel strewn hill gives you time to appreciate Ecuador’s diversity of flora and fauna. The country has 46 ecosystems, 14 active volcanoes and the highest concentration of rivers per square mile in the world (many of them running down, across or blocking the road.) You can stay in architecturally splendid haciendas, simple homes, llama farms or in a tent like we did. All with pedal power. But it will be bumpy at times so you may want to check you have a comfy saddle and perhaps invest in a suspension seat post.
4 The Trials and Rewards
Yup, it’s not always easy; the hills can be steep, the sun hot and you are cycling at altitude which requires some acclimatisation. But the nature makes up for any uncomfortable moments. Our first ride out from Quito (the capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site) involved descending from 2,850 metres before crossing the mountains to reach the market town of Otavalo. It was stony, hilly and remote, with not much to draw the attention from the heat and the effort required. And then, just as we felt we couldn’t go on, the butterflies came, hundreds and hundreds of them like a Disney movie, pushing us on and providing fluttery encouragement. Remember hard is good and good is not hard to find here.
5 The Authenticity
Even towns that are well set up for tourists have an authenticity about them. While tourism is well established in Ecuador, it has not taken over the place and beyond the cities, towns and obvious tourist hot spots, cycle tourists are still something of a novelty, giving you a chance to experience regular Ecuadorian life.
We were run into villages by groups of gringo welcoming kids, invited into schools to speak English and kept awake into the small hours by the local fiesta in San Jose de Minas. We shopped at local markets, like the weekly one in Otavalo, a spectacle that goes back many hundreds of years to pre-Incan times and a great spot for people watching. You know those pictures of the indígena in embroidered white blouses, felt hats and colourful ponchos, selling local produce and traditional crafts? Well we didn’t get any of those but we sat and watched the Otavaleños for hours. For real. And our memories are as sharp as any photo.
6 The Routes
In the time since we were in Ecuador cycle touring on the roads has got a lot less bumpy with improvements to infrastructure bringing new roads, smoother roads, wider shoulders and even some bike lanes in some places. You might think development could take the edge of your adventure but it also means you can cover miles more easily, allowing you to explore further afield and see more in less time, all great if you’re time is limited.
The coast of Ecuador is reportedly much more cycling friendly now allowing you to pedal between Canoa and Puerto Lopez without too much drama. Coastal riding makes for a great contrast to riding in the Andes and believe me when I say the descent to the coast from over 3000m down to the sea makes for a memorable downhill.
There are also new networks of roads in the provinces including Imbabura, Cotopaxi and Tungurahua. In general you are still better avoiding the Pan American Highway where you can due to high levels of traffic and fumes. Although it is fast, and flat, parts of it have wide shoulders, and miles can be covered more easily if you want to make up time. Be warned though it can be a big game of chicken. And you, of course are the chicken.
7 The Juice
All that biking is making me thirsty. But your thirst can easily be quenched. Ecuador is famous for its fruit and one of the joys is juice. Forget orange, the flavours come thick and fast and highly exotic. They’re cheap too. And freshly squeezed. And pretty pastel coloured.
8 The Descents
There’s no time to get bored on your bike in Ecuador; the scenery is ever changing, going from coast to jungle, from semi tropical forest to sparse plain in just a few hundred miles. You can even cross the Equator and then tell your friends you’ve cycled from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere. Or if you’re not so boastful just take a photo with one wheel in each hemisphere.
You do need to think about the altitude though. The capital, Quito, is at 2850m and beyond there you can quite easily find yourself riding in the Andes at altitudes of 4000m or more. You need to allow time to adjust to the altitude so don’t overdo it in your first few days. Read up on acclimatisation and plan for it before you go. Having said once adjusted and done the hard bit of climbing, the descents are incredible. You can lose 2000m in a few hair raising kilometers (can you believe we even had to get off and walk down once it was so steep) or spend an afternoon, freewheeling down 4000m over thirty forty or more.
Do be aware though that darkness descends quickly and early too and you won’t see much of the scenery or the road after 6pm at any time of year. (Being near the Ecuator day lengths are consistent all year round.) Try not to get caught out by the darkness before you’ve put the tent up.
9 The Wildlife
Much of Ecuador is a wild place and cycle tourists are not the only wild animals out there. There are bats at night. And parrots by day. It wasn’t unusual to look out the window and see a llama peering back in. And everything in between mills around the jungle and the plain on various amounts of wings and legs. And not far away, if you have the budget, is the ultimate animal watching paradise – The Galapagos Islands. Did you know you can go cycling in the Galapagos?
One downside is the dogs. Commonly nicknamed Ecuadogs, the wild ones are the worst. Expect to be sniffed when you enter a village, barked at when you pass a remote farm and chased at some point. We took dog tasers and carried a few stones in our pockets. Others recommend wielding a stick. Up to you how you manage them but do go prepared.
10 The Amazon
Have you ever experienced cloud forest? I remember biking from the top of the jungle to the bottom without meeting another car, flying through patches of rain and sun and mist. Awesome stuff.
11 The People
You will be welcomed wherever you go and if your bike is a good one they will want to stop and chat and find out all about it. Especially how much it costs! If it’s a good one, probably best not to tell. Appearances can be deceptive in the remote villages – the buildings and smallholdings may look unkempt but the people are proud and you will wonder for ever just how they manage to get their children off to school each day in immaculate uniforms while you struggle to emerge from your tent looking respectable. Perhaps you should pack that travel iron.
12 The Price
Compared to Chile and Argentina we found Ecuador cheap. And biking is one of those activities where it’s nice to be able to splurge when you stop. You should be able to afford a good meal at the end of the day. Whether you will find a restaurant up that volcano is another matter!
A cycle tour of Ecuador is something of a serious adventure proposition so do your homework before you go. Read up on others experiences, get good maps and appropriate insurance. A lot of regular travel insurance does not cover cycle touring so you may need a specialist policy. Tom’s Bike Trip has useful advice on cycle touring insurance.
LANChile and other airlines offer flights to Ecuador from Europe, North and Latin America. LANChile also offer internal flights connecting Quito, Guayaquil and The Galapagos. An open jaw ticket can be useful for cycle touring, allowing you to fly into one airport and out of another. We flew into Quito and out from Guayaquil allowing a tour which took in the capital and second city, an exploration of the North to Otavalo, riding the avenue of Volcanoes, a crossing of the Andes and some coastal riding. If you are travelling with bicycles do check carefully your chosen carrier’s policy on bicycle carriage and any specific packaging requirements. Also make sure they know you are bringing bicycles and allow plenty of time at the airport for checking in, in case of problems.
There are many and varied tour companies that operate cycling tours and expeditions in Ecuador. If you’re not keen on independent touring or lack experience and want a helping hand, do consider using the services of a professional guide or expedition organiser or join an organised tour. They are also a good source of route ideas for indie minded tourers too!
Disclosure: This post is brought to you in a collaboration with LAN. The ideas, research and opinions remain, as ever, entirely our own.