Rising from a highland plateau, 5997m Cotopaxi is often touted as one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. It’s almost perfect cylindrical cone is picture-postcard Ecuador, and makes for an epic circular ride… la Vuelta al Cotopaxi.
There’s several ways to get to there from Tumbaco’s Casa de Ciclistas, where I’ve been based. If you’re in a hurry, you can chance your luck on the Panamerican and tussle with Latin American traffic. Alternatively, you can pick your way along the quieter backroads via Sangolqui, negotiate some Ecuadorian cobbles and emerge onto dirt. Lastly, you can stay high, and circle around Pintag, ‘hickabiking’ your way through the backdoor of the National Park. This account involves the latter…
I was fortunate enough to share this mini-adventure with Michael Dammer, one of a brotherly trio of legendary Ecuadorian climbers. Aside from pioneering new routes, ‘Los Dammers‘ also run an organic farm in nearby Pifo, delivering milk, cheese and vegetable boxes to the communities around – more on this wonderful place later…
Our route from Tumbaco to Lasso was 155km in distance, which we comfortably spread out over two and a half days. The first post of photos from this ride can be found here.
Naturally, every adventure begins with a good feed. In Ecuador, a soup, main course and juice in a local eatery costs as little as a $1.50. The soups are generally wholesome affairs, with potatoes, corn, vegetables and chunks of grizzly meat floating around for good measure.
Let the big wheels roll! My Ogre is joined by Michael’s Specialized Carve 29er, fitted with a lightweight rack and bungeed-on roll bags. We stock up with rations in Pintag for the days ahead, and take to the road.
Our first night is spent under tarp, having picked our way across a series of fields and dirt roads, making small talk at the occasional hacienda.
The following morning, our plan is to skirt round a pine forest, linking up with a series of dirt roads beyond.
The next handful of kilometres involve sporadic riding, mingled with trapses through long grasses, deep ditch-dodging and a couple of awkward hike ‘n bikes.
Volcanoes peek over the ridgetops to either side, like Sincholagua, at 4893m.
Here’s Rumiñahui, 4721m, named after the Inca Warrior who led a pocket of resistance against the Spanish in the 16th century.
Finally, we emerge into open grassland, dodging a field of bulls bred for the fighting arena, who eye us with anticipation.
The occasional passer by provides a chance to check directions. As a farmer himself, Michael has an open, easy way with everyone he meets, greeting them with a cry of ‘compañero!’ Our ‘caballos de metal’ – metal horses – are looked upon with much amusement.
Following a faint trail across a series of fields, the clouds clear and Cotopaxi rises sheer before us. A jubilant moment!
Then the track becomes more established; we’re over the worst of it for now. In fact, the route has proved more straightforward than we expected.
Our trail wends its way towards the foot of the volcano, as we enter the park to the east of the main gate.
The plateau here is at 3800m, and the water is clean enough to drink…
Lichen rings = clean air.
And my favourites flora, the aquatic-like Club Mosses, swaying gently in the wind.
As we close in on Cotopaxi, there’s even opportunity for a singletrack diversion.
After detouring to the fancy Hostal Tambopaxi for lunch, we cut back across the plains, following a dirt road on the eastern side of Cotopaxi, which will loop us round the volcano.
When the sun shines, navigation is straightforward, hemmed in by Cotopaxi to one side and Cubillan to the other. But when the clouds draw in, a topographic map and a GPS are handy bits of gear to ensure we’re where we think we are.
Scotland? At 4000m, that is…
Later, we decide to make a shorcut across some boggy fields, culminating in a river crossing.
More challenging morcels of singletrack keep us entertained.
Eventually we close in on Hacienda el Tambo, a forlorn farmhouse set on the fringes of the moors.
There, we ask for a floor to sleep on – and crash out almost immediately.
This is real horse riding territory.
Clear morning views greet us the next day, as we make our way across El Morro.
Cotopaxi. This is what we came for…
Soon the clouds are back, and we’re following a series of horse tracks across open moorland, mined with deep, peaty cuts.
Land of Ponchos – I’m liking the stripes.
4037m and climbing… Unfortunately there are no topographical basemaps for Ecuador. If anyone is interested, I have the gpx file for this route…
Going light. My Porcelain Rocket framebag is admired by gear-savvy Michael… A well practised backpack builder, I’m sure it won’t be long before he’s whittled something up of his own.
The Ogre forges on, through gloopy mud and cowshit…
After a gutsy push onto a ridgetop, a horseback rider emerges from the mist and points us onwards…
Finally, we crest the windy pass, 4200m in elevation, and begin to reap the benefits of our toils.
Initially, the dirt road is gouged with tyre-grabbing rutts and fissures.
Then it opens out once more, as we emerge back into sunshine. Down, down, and down…
And more down… 1400m of rip roaring, 100% dirt descent awaits us. Yes, we are happy riders.
We celebrate our arrival in Lasso, a settlement on the Panamerican Highway, with a hearty meal. Thanks La Marcella for driving two tired but very content riders home!