29 January 2014

Tumbaco to Tulcán: adoquines, páramo and people

It wasn´t easy to leave the comforts of Santiago's home in Tumbaco, but eventually we had to if we were going to start our tour. Having been so many days at the Casa allowed us to see various cycle tourists come and go, and with that, lots of good advice regarding routes and gear. By the time we left Tumbaco, we had a rough route outlined all the way to the northern border. Our only requirements for the route to Tulcán would be to avoid the Pana (the infamous Panamerican highway) as much as possible, to visit the market town of Otavalo, and to cross El Angel páramo reserve. 

Santiago sees us off on the Grand Depart
The first day from Tumbaco involved the ciclovía most of the way to El Quinche, a popular off-road route which follows a disused railway track that used to connect Guayaquil with Quito, and eventually to Tulcán. Being a Monday, it was quiet and nice (despite the barking dogs along the way) path to ease us into the first stage of our trip.
After a $2 lunch in El Quinche we picked up a quiet-ish section of the Pana towards Cayambe. 

The gradients were very gentle up until now, and we quickly found ourselves cruising at 3200 m of elevation, without any problems. Some selected sections of the Pana can be very quiet, if there is a faster alternative for the traffic, as was this case. On the left, the third highest peak in Ecuador, though partially covered by clouds, the Nevado Cayambe 
 Around 4pm we spotted an empty, half-finished building at the Mirador de Oton and decided to wait around until dark to camp.

 View from the Mirador de Oton
Then, just around dusk, a group of men at the Mirador struck up a conversation with us. One of them, Rene, was a member of the local government and had a spare room we could stay in underneath his ferreteria shop. He is a musician who has accepted a lot of hospitality when he tours so he was paying it forward to us.

Rene and his family offered us tea with quimbolito, a sort of steamed corn dumpling wrapped in banana leaf. The usual conversation of routes, nationalities, etc followed. We also had a nice time playing with his adorable toddler.

 Downstairs there was a tiny restaurant which served desayuno and almuerzos. We were so hungry we asked if they were serving any meriendas (dinner or cena in Ecuador) and they were quick to bring us the traditional cheese pastries with a hot drink of rice pudding, helped with a sopa de verde. We ate everything in minutes, all very tasty and filling, and were surprised when they refused to take our money claiming that we were tourists. Here is the great Ecuadorian hospitality all travellers had been talking about.

The following morning we continued on the Pana to Cayambe, where after a quick midmorning snack we turned onto quieter roads towards Otavalo. On the way, we passed the Equator!

00*00' 00.0"

Nothing seems to be flat in Ecuador, but especially not the side roads.

From Zuleta there was a sign promising a paved road with a multimillion $ investment, but that would have to wait a few more years, we guessed. The cobbled roads saw us slowly grinding up hill back up to 3200 m, but the scenery was so incredible that we did not mind. A friendly farmer informed us that the worst part of the climb was now over, and that the new road was only a few km up ahead.
We reached the roadworks, where one of the workers used his claw-machine-thing to create a ramp of dirt so we could push our bikes up to the new road surface. 

With the new asphalt the descent to San Pablo was very quick, and we made our way to the Cascadas de Peguche where there is a campsite.

Although peaceful during the day, in the evening we were treated to a truly dreadful campfire jam session. A good reminder of why we have earplugs and why designated campsites are not always best!
We briefly visited the town of Otavalo, famous for its indigenous market, which is in full swing on Saturday. Luckily of us, it is quiet on weekdays, and we enjoyed a walk around before heading for the cobbled roads that run parallel to the Pana. Carrying heavy bikes often leads to conversations with locals and foreigns alike, and this time, a couple of Colombians from the coffee region (which we intend to travel through) gave us a number of route tips which we very much appreciated.

From Otavalo we again escaped the Pana via Cotacachi and then had a slow, but quiet ride to Urcuqui, where we decided to call it a day ahead of the descent to Salinas. 

At the Hostal Primavera we enjoyed wifi, hot showers, and a view of the Volcan Imbabura all for only $6 each.

It's election time in Ecuador

Rolling hills before the descent to Salinas, at 1500 m

The infamous Panamerican "Pana" highway before the turnoff to Mira, on the old Pana. There's contruction works everywhere, and one can appreciate the heavy traffic cyclist that choose this route endure

The Old Pana Norte, on the way to Mira. It was real hot, but luckily there was an small restaurant where an old man gave us some fresh water. 

At the same time, we could not refuse having a much needed sugary drink at his restaurant. 
After a tough morning's climb to Mira we were feeling really off. We checked into a hospedaje and soon were wishing we had splurged the extra $2 for our own bathroom! All to be expected as we adjust to a new diet but it was definitely unpleasant.

The volcan Imbabura as seen from the town of Mira (2500 m). Something we ate caught up with us, which forced us to stay here for three days.

After a couple days' of unplanned rest in Mira and a short day to the town of El Angel, we were finally feeling well enough to tackle the route across the paramo reserve.  

From El Angel, the old Pana goes up to 3700 m towards the reserva de El Angel, most of it on cobbles, yet not nearly as steep as these initial sections.

The vegetation soon turned into the infamous paramo, with the frailejones being their most visible representative

High above the coulds, with frailejones of all sizes

The road from El Angel leads up to las Lagunas de Voladero, where a fantastic (and free) refugio can be found. It soon will be fully functioning with solar panels, hot water and heating. 

There's an easy trail to the lagunas de Voladero, where apparently there's great trout fishing (and swimming). The scenery is quite surreal and we did not tire of looking at it.
We spent the evening in the refugio del Voladero, with the night guard, Jose Luis. He was great company and we enjoyed discussing many topics with him, sharing some food and playing cards. We had discussed with another cyclist in Mira, Doug, about whether cobbles are worse going up or going down. Jose Luis rides his (unloaded!) mountain bike from El Angel to the refugio most days so he may be the most authoritative source in terms of comparability - and he says it's worse on the way up!

Jose Luis was the guard on duty while we stayed there. Si lees esto, llegamos bien a Tulcan (en 2 horas!) y sin apenas perros, como dijiste. Muchas gracias por todo.

The following morning we faced a chilly and slippery descent out of the paramo thanks to the previous night's rain. 

The downhill to Tulcan involved some water crossings.
But gradually the road improved as we descended and before we knew it we were in Tulcan having an early lunch.

And finally a laid-back crossing out of Ecuador and into Colombia
Notes regarding route selection:

- Tumbaco to El Quinche: we did mostly the ciclovia, which to Puembo, is very easy to follow. The last km to El Quinche we did on the Pana, which was relatively quiet. There were loads of dogs, but none of them attempted to do more than bark. 

- El Quinche to Cayambe: we took the Pana, on the advise that it would be quiet, as most traffic goes via Tabacundo as it is shorter. The shoulder is quite wide.

- Cayambe to Otavalo: after Cayambe we made a right onto the town of Olmedo, then Zuleta. The first section is on a very quiet good road, that after Olmedo, turns into dirt then cobbles. From Zuleta there's a very steep climb on cobbles (which will eventually be paved), then the new road takes you all the way to San Pablo. The road parallel to la laguna de San Pablo is good and fast, to Peguche, near Otavalo.

- Otavalo to Salinas: a brief section of multi-lane Pana, then left (exit to the right) to Cotacachi for more cobbles almost all the way to Urcuqui. Then a quick descent on good roads to Salinas.

- Salinas to Mira/El Angel/Paramo and Tulcan: after yet another sort section of Pana, a long climb will take you from 1500 to 2500 m to the town of Mira, on a good and quiet road (the old Pana). Onwards to El Angel is also good, then turns into cobbles and later rocks pretty much all the way to the top of the lagunas de Voladero, and downhill to Tulcan. The last 15 km to Tulcan are on dirt road, so probably best to do this route in the opposite direction.

For more details on this route, please feel free to drop us a message


  1. Qué bonito todo!!
    Muchas gracias por compartirlo con todos, muchos besos para ambos!!
    Por favor tened mucho cuidado en las carreteras, me pone los pelos de punta veros sobre el asfalto de allí!!!
    PD.: a lo mejor les gustaría poder seguir aquí vuestras andanzas por Ecuador a la familia de Rocío...

    1. Hola Juan. No tengo sus direcciones de correo, pero pasádselas y así van siguiendo un poco la ruta. Apenas pisamos carreteras con tráfico, pero creeme, en el Reino Unido eran infinitamente peor, tanto por la calidad de la carretera, como por la actitud de los conductores! Besos

  2. Hola, no sé si en alguna parte tenéis un mapa con la ruta que vais haciendo cada día, pero estaría bien para poder seguiros. Besos

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