Inspired by the dirt road antics of Tom and Sarah – a couple who left North America in 2010, but leapfroged me during my touring hiatus – I set off to ride the ‘Quilotoa loop’, so named for the water-filled crater that lies en route.
Intensely rugged scenery, quintessential mountain villages and a few cool, eco-friendly hostels make this a worthy side trip for anyone hankering to experience some Ecuadorian backcountry. The area is criss-crossed by a web of dirt tracks, cobbled roads and footpaths. But ‘progress’ is coming to the valley and I expect it won’t be too long before asphalt encircles it, bringing with it all kinds of change.
I began the loop in Lasso and dropped down to Latacunga to complete it – but ended up backtracking to Zumbahua, after I found out about a dirt road alternative to Salinas that avoided Ambato and the Panamerican Highway. More on this equally rugged, backcountry segment of the journey here…
After a pavement climb from Lasso, I turned off the main road to Sigchos and headed for Isinlivi. Thankfully, intense cobble conumdrums eventually gave way to mile upon mile of smooth dirt.
The villages were few and far between. Ogre and I attracted plenty of attention from the local school kids.
Too cool for school. Like all those who lived there, the blotched faces of these kids were a telltale sign that I’m back at altitude.
Rugged scenery abounds along the Quilatoa Loop. The back way to Isilinvi climbs, climbs and climbs – up to 4000m – before plummeting back down to 2900m, on a rough cut dirt road that wraps snuggly round the valley.
Downtown Isinlivi: not much more than a grocery store, a couple of places to stay, and a furniture makers, set up by Italians to train local residents in the art of carpentry for export.
I’d planned to camp out on a hilltop I’d been recommended, but since I arrived with plenty of time to spare, I set up my tent in the Llullu Llama hostel instead. There I enjoyed an evening chatting around the fire with Canadian Nick, working between travels south on his motorbike.
Breakfast was included in the price, and an impressive spread it turned out to be… Eggs, homemade bread, fruit salad, juice, coffee and cereal.
I’m a sucker for good granola. The yoghurt’s even made in house.
This is Melanie, Gladys’s daughter, the Ecuadorian lady who runs the hostel. A little cutie.
Resident hound of Llumu Llama.
From Isinlivi, the road continued to corkscrew down the valley, until it bottomed out at a river.
I was tempted to try the hiking path that wended its way Chugtilan, but sense percevered and I opted for a jeep track I’d heard about – which bypassed Sigchos. It was a beautiful ride, and I had the road to myself.
After following the river, I climbed steeply back up on a loose, sandy track. The rewards were open views across the valley, and a distant Isinlivi where I’d come from.
The last portion pitched up extra-steep, requiring some brute force, and some high altitude huffing and puffing.
That night I stayed in the Black Sheep Inn, a coveted eco lodge set up 17 years ago by a North American couple, and now run by Ecuadorians. I’d planned to camp but was kindly upgraded to a room, making the $20 dollar charge – which included 3 generous organic meals, as well as endless cups of tea and coffee (and all important wifi) a real bargain. The normal price is $35 – but well worth the splurge if you want to treat yourself!
The expansive vista across the valley from the dormitory.
The beautiful, relaxing yoga room…
…with outside porch for a morning practise in the sun…
The Black Sheep Inn’s eco-credentials are well documented by international travel magazines. This is one of its famous ‘eco-toilets with a view’… Grey water from the sink feeds the plants.
The loo is dry composting.
There’s even a gym, with dumbells made from poured concrete.
Recycled bottles provide ambient lighting.
Old bottles were also the theme of the shower, which came complete with piping hot water. Bliss!
Freshly made bread for breakfast, served with homemade jam.
And another tasty bowl of cereal (am I obsessed?), chowed down after my morning yoga session.
Unidentified plants in the grounds…
As well as its namesakes, the black sheep that roam the farm, a couple of kittens padded about the lodge. This one crept into my room at night, curling up next to me and wrapping his skinny little tail round my wrist, like a bracelet.
A piece adorning the wall in my room, typical of a community of artists based in nearby Tigua. At only a few dollars each, I wish I’d found room for one in my panniers.
The Chilling Pod.
Escaping the luxurious clutches of the Black Sheep Inn, I worked my way ever higher towards Quilatoa, the crater lake after which this loop is named.
Sights of interest, aside from grand views of a multi-layered plateaux, included this pig snoozing in the sun and snoring loudly, while her piglet vied for attention.
Work is underway to improve the road, which doubtlessly means slapping down a layer of asphalt – so expect more speeding traffic soon. As ever, the photo above doesn’t come close to conveying the steepness of the grade…
But the view at the top was sweet: Quilatoa, a 2 mile wide, water-filled caldera – or collapsed volcano. You can teeter on the edge and hike all the way round the rim, or head down to the lake, 400m below.
From Quilatoa I was back on pavement, give or take the odd kilometre where road crews were hard at work completing their task.
Hunger strikes in Zumbahua, 3800m, where I stopped an one of the outdoor vendors on the edge of town.
A serving of greasy egg and chips got me over the next double pass…
Classic Andean patchwork fields en route to Zambahua.
And rugged scenery on the road to Latacunga…
‘Progress’ seems to prefer the latter. I try and keep to the former…
The need to know bit:
It was 84km from the Cotopaxi North Gate (380mm) to Isinlivi (2900m) with a high pass en route – paved, cobbled, and dirt. Then 26 tough kilometres to Chugchilan (3200m) that took me over two hours. This route isn’t on the map: just turn left at the bridge and take a right when you reach the school. It’s just over a hundred clicks to Latacunga, via Quilotoa (3900m) and Zumbahua, which has a great Saturday market. Despite the long descent down to 2900m, it’s still a tough ride with a double pass and a bonus bump for good measure, and took me close to seven hours.
There are lots of other dirt road options, including a route that goes directly from Isinlivi to Quilatoa, and lots of singletrack potential – all involving some intense hike and bikes, by the looks of things. The hike round the volcano rim is well worth doing, and takes half a day – which I ended up coming back for from Latacunga.
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Cat is a little scary though. Wishing I was there but, for now, your photographs are incentive enough for a daydream … ahhh, that’s better 🙂
Brings back wonderful memories!
I’m loving Ecuador. Must… stop… dallying…
brings back memories for me too. Did the crater route out of Latacunga over 20 years ago on a touring bike. There was no infrastructure at all then, not even a grocery store, certainly no tarmac or eco-friendly hostel. And how can I forget the cobbles and the stinging volcanic ash driven by a blistering wind? I sheltered in a hut full of guinea pigs that day.
I picked up one of those Indian acrylic paintings on a hide ‘canvas’ for a few pennies which is one of my most treasured souvenirs.
Dave, that is so cool to hear. I was sorely tempted by one of the pieces of artwork myself, nowadays the smaller ones still run at just a few dollars. The roads are certainly getting better, but the crazy wind whipping round the valley is still there….
I guess the Black Sheep Inn opened up a few years after you were there. Unexpected luxury for sure!
Hey Cass…Sarah and I spent Christmas 2008 at the Black Sheep Inn (great Christmas Lunch and awesome time on the Death Slide. Fantastic memories of walking round the Caldera and then walking back along the valley floor and up to the Black Sheep Inn. Looking forward to hearing your stories from the trip down to Baños (I am guessing that you are en route).
BTW it is an Echeveria (fairly common South American succulent) difficult to tell which species without the flower.
Two days and counting now…
The Black Sheep Inn was well worth the splurge. The moment I arrived, they sat me down in front a massive slab of watermelon and a sizeable brownie…
Didn’t end up going via Banos, found a nice backway to Riobamba…
Hey Cass…looking forward to reading about the leg to Riobamba. News from our end is that Reuben Zachary Giles was born this morning at 9.30am…he is on the modest size (compared to Noah) at 7lb 4oz. He is looking forward to meeting you when you have your next sojourn in the UK. Sarah is doing well and should be back home by the end of the weekend. Next time you are on a Skype connection we’ll introduce you.
Cass! This looks so magical! I am happy you made it back to Ecuador.. now I know that whenever I travel to bikepack. Seems like the best way to see the world. I have some questions about the flagstaff trail, I am heading through Idaho, Utah, Arizona this summer, do you know if my LHT will handle this trail? Will it be too hot for summer? I am new to this, I just got back from a backpacking trip all through california, so I am not in biking shape… but with Schwalbe 1.9 tires will my bike be ok? Do you have any tips for newbies (and very much so not knowledgeable about bike stuff?)… I definitely should learn some bike repair stuff… any tips where to start? I really appreciate your gear lists and what you bring!! Peace!
Hey Joelle. I’m not sure that a LHT is the ideal bike for the Coconino Loop, as it’s very much a mountain biking trip, rather than the Great Divide Mountain Bike Ride, for instance – which is more dirt roading. Sedona has some technical riding, and you need to pack light, as it’s pretty relentless.
You could definitely ride the Arizona Trail between Flag and the Grand Canyon though. That’s a mix of dirt and singletrack, most of which is mellow and flowy. I’d recommend fitting the largest tyres you can cram into the frame. That takes 2-3 days.
I’m not an expert on summer conditions. I expect it will be hot in Northern Arizona – though Flag is high elevation. Sedona would be backing. Another ride you should consider, out of the height of summer, is the Canyonlands White Rim loop, near Moab. That’s a beautiful ride, 100 miles long.
It’s definitely do-able on your Trucker.
Unless you really wanted to get a mountain bike for some reason, I wouldn’t rush to replace your LHT – it’s a very versatile bike, perfect for riding the dirt roads of the South West. Although lots of people like drop bars for touring, I favour flat bars – so the Surly Troll is my preferred choice.
By the way this is Joelle Friend from Olympia, WA
Cass you gotta edit your wordpress code so your images show up larger. Another awesome loop. Chimborazo loop next?
Just rode backroads from Quilatoa to RioBamba, via Angamarka, Simiatug and the dirt ‘road’ between Chimborazo and Carihuairazo… This country is amazing!
Cass, I am Edmundo, Black Sheep inn Manager, congatulations, for your trip and your fantastic pictures
Really enjoy reading your blog and viewing the amazing pics… inspiring! That plant may be an Aeonium… easily propagated: snap off small branchlet, stick in dirt. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeonium
All you need is Ecuador