Dirt roading in Ecuador – El Angel and the Paramo

I’m on Day 3 in Ecuador, and so far, I’m loving it here…

Special thanks are due to Steve, for guiding me by email to one of my favourite rides of the trips so far: a high altitude dirt road that wends it way amongst the Paramo, the amazing watery ecosystem unique to this northern swathe of the Andes.

Here’s a short report on the ride across the border from Pasto, Colombia, to El Angel, Ecuador.

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Leaving Pasto, we teamed up for the day with Michaels, Joost and Siska, who I'd last ridden with back in Mompos, many hilly miles to the north. Michaels is building up an impressive selection of flags, that snap in the wind like the top of a Himalayan pass.

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After an initial 14km climb out of Pasto on a busy road share with packs of local riders, a massive, swooping 25km descent led us back down valley. Before its inevitable reply...

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Medicine ball sized pumpkins on the road to Las Lajas.

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Despite the harsh weather in these parts, local country buses are often open on one side - hence the wooly hatted, wrapped up passengers.

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Stripey ponchos are in. This smiley elderly man insisted on taking me for a tour of his corn crop outside his house.

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Earth bricks drying by the roadside. Maybe I was just hungry, but they reminded me ofgiant cubes of dark chocolate...

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This is berry country. Arnaud stopped for this bizarre mish mash of a dish at a roadside eatery: various fruit-infused milk products, drenched in condensed milk, with a sliver of cheese.

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Our first stopover was Las Lajas. Built between 1904 and 1949, this santuary claims to be the most visited church in Latin America. I found its design gaudy but its setting, wedged deep down between two towering canyon walls, is definitely impressive. In one last show of Colombian hospitality, a hotel gave us a free room to roll out our matts for the night.

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People have been to Las Lajas here for many years. In fact, the sanctuary was once a more boxey affair, before the neo Gothic bridge and spires were added like layers on a wedding cake.

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A walk spirals its way down to the church, pass hundreds upon hundres of religious messages offering thanks to the Virgin Mary. The story goes that her image miraculously appeared on the wall of a nearby cave in 1754, giving a deaf-mute Amerindian girl the gift of speech.

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This plaque is from an ultra marathon runner who seems to have run from Patagonia to Alaska. Makes cycling seem rather easy...

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I'm in! Ecuador, country number ten on the journey so far.

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My entry stamp, printed over that of Nicaragua. I'm ok with that, as my passport is getting tight for space...

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Ecuador swapped over to the US dollar about a decade ago. Now it combines both US currency with chewed up Ecuadorian cents. There's also dollar coins, which I never saw in the lower 48s. Seems they all ended up down south...

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My first old Ford pickup truck.

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And my first meal. This trout was simply enormous and quite delicious - the whole meal set me back $5. By way of reference, the plate on the right is a normal size dish. The one on the left could have been on a set for Land of Giants. The restaurant was run by a Gordon Ramsay-esque manager, who ran round the packed premises yelling randomly and slapping anyone within reach heartily on the back. He was delighted to see us, and ended our visit with a knuckle-crunching handshake and warm hearted wishes for the journey ahead.

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And first impressions of Ecuador? Like Southern Colombia, only a little shabbier. So far, very friendly folk.

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Baby papaya a plenty.

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Climbing out of Tulcan on the dirt track to El Angel. In the absence of any signs, look for the unmarked road beside a modernist church, with a weird statue of a muscly dwarf brandishing a rifle...

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More timewarped trucks bouncing around the backroads.

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I was keen to reach the Paramo before sundown, and we just made it... This is the view from where we camped.

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Such unusual probosci-style plants, protruding out of the ground.

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The trail was incredible... A dirt road that wended its way across the mountains for some 50 kilometres. No traffic at all.

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So many textures...

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Fungis, ferns, epiphytes and all manner of mysteries inhabit this world.

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But amongst this high altitude, humid moorland, the 'frailejon' was really what I'd come to see. These curious looking plants, complete with furry leaves, sit atop their bendy podiums. They only sprout above 3000m in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.

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There were so many of them... The average life expectancy of a frailejon is over a century, and they can reach 6 foot in height. I'd love to see them flower - apparently they look like giant daisies.

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They were everywhere. Literally. Carpeting the whole mountain. In this ecosystem, moisture from rain and mist is sponged up by their leaves, and released slowly into the earth in the form of streams, feeding into larger rivers.

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Dotted about amongst them, weird storks poked up into the air.

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They surrounded us, almost as if they were watching...

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We weaved our way between them...

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... as they disappeared into the mist. Each seemed to have its own quirky character and punk hairstyle.

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Bedraggled, we hit the top of the trail at 3700m and huddled in the toilet block of the empty mountain refuge, before beginning a long, rough descent. This in term morphed into Ecuadorian cobbles, a new riding experience, and one guaranteed to loosen fillings: the carretera empedrada.

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The cobbles rattled us down the valley, back into the sunshine and the warmth.

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The town of El Angel.

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So far, random, bizarre monuments seem a popular roadside feature in Ecuador. This one lies at the entrance to El Angel. Stranger perhaps than the muscly, moustachio'd dwarf was the massive, gaudily painted statue of a mother about to breastfeed her baby outside Ibarra.

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Potatoes and plantanes cooked over charcoal keep the legs turning.

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While descending from Myra, I spotted this interesting zig zag of a dirt road on the other side of the valley. So many opportunities for exploration. One for next time...

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Down, down, down...

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All the way from a drizzly 3700m to a bone dry 1700m...

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... where we found our way back on the Pan American for a stint, pitching our tents in a patch of scrubby land outside Salinas.

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Fittingly, this roadside sign reminds drivers how important the Paramos are - much of the water supply of Nortern Ecuador originates from El Angel. A truly wonderful place.

14 thoughts on “Dirt roading in Ecuador – El Angel and the Paramo

  1. Bridget Ringdahl

    Wow! am sorry to have missed this side route. There is a nice side route after Quito exiting the panam from Lasso taking you around a loop via Quilatoa ( a caldera) and passing an interesting eco-lodge called Black Sheep inn (although was out of my budget) exiting at Latacunga on the Avenida de volcan once more (or rather just keep on the dirt!)

    Reply
  2. Bridget Ringdahl

    Another nice side trip is from Otovalo up to Cotacahi and high alt lake.
    From Banos you can also take a road around the base of the volcano Turunghua (sp!) in the direction of Ambato (the road was destroyed by the volcano erupting some years ago) but there were makeshift bridges joining up the dirt road that was left around the base of the volcano making for exciting riding (but perhaps its all been repaired!).
    And lots of cool tracks and dirt around Chimborazo too! But have no doubt you will find the best dirt! 😉
    Look forward to next updates..

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks for the tips, Bridget, will look them up! So many options round here…
      I already rode from Otovalo to Lago Mojanda, on an amazing dirt road that takes you up to 4000m, around the lake and drops you back down on the other side near Cayembe. Then, there was an incredible 40km dirt track/singletrack trail all the way from El Quinche to Tumbaco, near Quito. Amazing!!
      That’s coming soon…

      Reply
  3. Simon G

    Hey Cass…great to see the pics of Ecuador. Sarah and I stayed at the Black Sheep Inn for Christmas in 2008. It is a great place and I don’t think the buck rooms are too badly priced although I guess that inflation may have kicked in. I reckon there would be a great MTB track that you could do on the tourer from Lago Quilatoa back down the valley to the Black Sheep in. the whole Latacunga circuit is awesome…some great cobbles. It is worth trying to do an offroad route up to the Illiniza massif and Cotopaxi. Check out the Cloud forest up above the Latacunga circuit…awesome bromeliads and orchids…look for little frogs hiding in the bromeliads. Would love to see some photos of the orchids.

    Sarah and Noah are doing well…looking forward to catching up…off to KL for the week tomorrow.

    Hasta Luego…Simon

    Reply
  4. Philip

    I’d always wondered where Paramo jackets got their name – judging from that picture at the top, you definitely needed some good wet gear – hope yours is holding up well.

    Inspiring pics as always.

    Reply
  5. ongleym

    Hi Cass
    Can you pass on the directions for the El Angel reserve ride and also the El Quinche to Tumbaco ride as we’re in the area and will hit the road again in the next few days.
    Hope you’re back on the bike soon.
    Matt and Sylwia

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Hi, I don’t have all the details with me, but it’s pretty straight forward to El Angel. The route is shown on Googlemaps. As you’re leaving town, just ask for the dirt road to El Angel, via the Paramo. The turning is just past a weird, modernist church with a weird giant dwarf or something. It’s a dirt road. It’s about 50kms of track, a beautiful ride. Try and make it to the Paramo before you camp. If you need shelter, there is a refugio some ways in. There’s no food along the way.

      Reply
      1. While Out Riding Post author

        For El Chaquinan (the old railway route to the Casa de Ciclistas), turn off from Cayambe at Santa Rosa, heading to El Quinche (10km?). You’ll need to ask for the bike path that follows the old railway line. It starts in El Quinche itself, a few blocks up into town, a little hard to find at first, then much more established soon after. Amazing riding! Later on, the trail is called el Chaquinan. Easy going terrain, a climb or two but more descent that climbing, follows the gentle contours of a railway line, with some dark bridges along the way. It’s just under 40kms from El Quinche to the Casa de Ciclistas.

        Reply
  6. Anthony Smith

    Need your help. Would you happen to know the name of the Catholic church in El Angel? Beautiful pictures!!!

    Reply
  7. Mark

    Hi there,

    I biked many of the same routes in 95. Such good times. Epic ride from Pasto a Mocoa (successful second time). Send a message if you want some route suggestions. Cheers

    Reply

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