27 May 2014

Tumbaco to Latacunga via Cotopaxi and Quilotoa: Entering the avenue of volcanos

We stayed in Tumbaco longer than we had planned – it's hard to escape the gravitational pull of such a warm family and comfortable place. But it turned out to be an excellent decision to stay, as in addition to great times with Santiago and family we met plenty of other cyclists with information to share, including Marc and Noemie who would become our riding partners for the next stage of our route, one of the most challenging, but rewarding, stretches of riding so far.

Alberto enjoyed using Santiago´s excellent workshop to service our bikes
Alfred, from Sweden, was heading North to Colombia
Rafa, from Poland, has been travelling by bicycle for ten years, earning money by playing guitar on the street
Henrich and Jack from Colorado were headed to Brazil for the World Cup
We set off from Tumbaco on the via Intervalles towards Sangolqui heading to Cotopaxi. This is a quiet but hard way of getting to Cotopaxi's national park, much preferred by cyclists instead of the Panamerican highway to Machachi. By mid-afternoon, the rain was coming down hard and we called it a day in the tiny village of Rumipamba. The awning of the (locked) local government building was just big enough to fit four cyclists sleeping side-by-side and apart from a midnight chorus of dogs we had a good night's rest.

Saying goodbye to Santiago for the second time... hopefully not the last!
The road south of Sangloqui soon turns into hard cobbles. 

Lucy, Marc and Noemie, waiting out the pouring rain under a conveniently-located awning

Getting cozy in Rumipamba
The following day the climbing continued, but mercifully the cobbles ended mid-morning and we enjoyed a great-quality dirt road to the northern entrance of Cotopaxi National Park, home to Volcan Cotopaxi, Ecuador's highest active volcano. The top of the volcano was hidden in clouds but we set up camp, hopeful that the morning would bring clear skies.

The route took us onto empty dirt roads with great views all around. Here the volcano Rumiñahui at 4700 m

And finally the northern entrance (or control norte) to the park. The mighty Cotopaxi hides behind the clouds.

Having decided against the more remote Eastern route used in the Vuelta al Cotopaxi mtb race, we headed West around the volcano, 

And then just before sunset, we all got excited to see the snowline

Getting ready for a chilly night at 3900 m
When the morning dawned clear and bright, we excitedly set off to get as close to the volcano as possible, by climbing to the parking lot of the Refugio Jose Rivas, altitude 4620m. It can't really be said that we rode there, as there was just as much pushing as pedalling, and it took nearly all day to climb just 6km, but we made it! The highest we've ever been with our fully-loaded bikes, by quite some bit. It definitely qualifies as the hardest ride of the trip so far.

A 4am pee, a wake up call by Noemie and we catch our first full view of the mountain. If you look close you can see a bright light of a climber heading up towards the summit

And finally, at 6 am, the full view in daylight! We couldn´t contain our excitement!

And also Rumiñahui just behind our camp

After a quick hot coffee, we got the group picture

Then headed up towards the refugio

The road to the refugio was so rough that even cars and 4x4s had trouble going up it

Marc still cycles, while the rest of us get to pushing

At some point, Alberto and Marc split from the girls at their own paces. Here taking a much needed breather!

The view from the road was superb, and we can only imagine how great it must be from the actual summit. Spot the two dots on the road: that´s Lucy and Noemie pushing their bikes!

We all reunited at the top of the climb at 4620 m. Bitterly cold but happy faces!

The summit doesn´t look that far from here...perhaps next time
A quick ride back down the hill and we set up camp again. As we cooked dinner, the fog and rain rolled in, and by morning it still hadn't let up. After a few hours of waiting we gave up and descended in the fog, for a brief ride on the Panamericana highway before turning right in the direction of Sigchos. The Quilotoa Loop is a relatively popular backpacker route, but we seemed to hit it in the off season (good for us).

The descent was equally stunning. Here the last glimpse of the volcano

The following morning we barely saw 20 m ahead of us, so we were glad to have had a full day of almost clear skies

The paved road wound through beautiful countryside, and we thought we were in for a relatively easy day until we were informed that we had misunderstood the location of Sigchos. Instead of being in the valley at the bottom of a long descent, it was actually 500m above the valley floor, up some of the most punishing switchbacks we have ever experienced. We were all tired after a long day's ride (not to mention the cumulative effects of all the climbing since Tumbaco). There was nothing to do but get on with it, and eventually we arrived in Sigchos with the light fading and checked into a cheap hospedaje for the night.

Stunning valley road through to Sigchos
The next day we set off on the dirt road to Quilotoa. The morning was sunny and crisp, the road was in good condition, and the climbing was gentle. It was cycle touring at its best, and we all felt we deserved it after some tough days of riding.

After lunch was a different story. The gradient picked up and the roads deteriorated, as virtually the whole section between Chugchilan and Quilotoa is in some stage of road maintenance. We dealt with heavy machinery, thick layers of gravel, and delays as we waited for parts of the road to be clear. When we finally escaped all that, a few kilometers from Quilotoa, we were back on paved roads but they were steeper than ever. 

Cycle touring does not get much better than this

The mountains in the background form the crater lake of Quilotoa

We saw a lot of piglets

Soon the road to Quilotoa will be completely paved

We huffed and puffed our way through the final stretch and soon found ourselves in Quilotoa, not so much a village as a collection of accommodation for visitors to the Laguna Quilotoa, all run by the indigenous community in the area. At 4,000m it was very cold and we decided against camping. We bargained a cut-price rate for a freezing cold cabin, put on our warmest clothes, and went out to see the laguna for the first time. At the viewpoint, who should we find but Rafa, who had had a few days head start on us from Tumbaco!

Rafa offered us hot tea on arrival, almost as if he was expecting visitors

The Laguna Quilotoa. Pictures don´t do it justice

The following morning the five of us set out on what was supposed to be a relaxed morning walk around the crater's rim (the lake is in the crater of an extinct volcano). It soon turned out to be harder than we anticipated, and in the end took most of the day, but it was well worthwhile. The rain started to come down just as we reached the end of the walk, and didn't let up all night – so again we felt extremely lucky with the weather.

Check the colors of the water!

This one is for our parents

We enjoyed the ever changing views of the lake

The trail took us literally on the edge of the crater

That´s the hightest point of the trail, at almost 4000 m

Marc and Noemie lit a fire in their cabin to keep the chill out and we all cooked dinner and rested after a hard day's effort. Rafa brought out his guitar and sang some old favorites. A great way to spend a rainy evening.

How many cycles and bikes can you fit in one cabin?

We were all looking forward to getting to Latacunga the next day, where we had hopes of finding such luxuries as a supermarket and a hot shower. It was a beautiful day and the morning's climb was very gentle. Once we reached the top, we had an exhilarating downhill all the way. We pulled in to Latacunga in the early afternoon earning a much-needed afternoon of relaxation.   

A quick descent and we reached Latacunga
Route notes:

- Tumbaco to Control Norte of Cotopaxi National Park: we took the intervalles to Sangolqui, where another road heads South to Cotopaxi. After Sangolqui it is mostly cobbles and quite steep, with a few small villages where you can get essential supplies, although best to stock up earlier. After you reach the plateau at 4000 m, the road turns into a nice packed dirt, which was very pleasant to ride. There´s no more resupplying other than one fancy hospedería past the Control Norte (Tambopaxi). Water is available though, from a number of canals.

- Control Norte to the Panamerican highway: we considered doing the route to the East of the Cotopaxi, going all the way to Latacunga (see Whileoutriding and Nathan´s blog) but ultimately ended up doing the most traditional Western route. The climb up to the refugio is on a gravel road with loose rocks and steep slopes, barely doable on a loaded bike. Other than that, the route is not challening and the descent is almost fully paved.

- Panamerican highway to Sigchos, Quilotoa, Zumbahua and back to Latacunga: it´s a quiet paved road to Sigchos, very scenic, but we believe there´s alternatives on dirt via Isinlivi. From Sigchos is unpaved but in very good condition to Chugchilán, where the climb begins. There´s small villages providing essentials, but not much else. There was heavy construction works from Chugchilán all the way to Quilotoa, as they work to pave the road. In Quilotoa there´s ample accommodation, but at tourist prices, so best to bring your own supplies. From Quilotoa to Zumbahua it was all paved, but Zumbahua is the only re-stocking opportunity befeore Latacunga.


  1. Wow... more power to you for making the trip up to the refugio! Looks like it was worth the haul.

  2. Yep, awesome views from the car park and all the way up to it. We wanted to repeat the haul up to the Chimborazo´s refugios, but the weather was so bad that it will have to wait for another future visit :)

  3. Please help me. I am trying to get in contact with rafa. I met him in Cuenca Ecuador. He gave me his email but I lost it in my wallet at the border of Ecuador and Peru. My e mail is apairofsockies@aol.com My name is Jeremiah sarkes you can find me on facebook to see that I was in Cuenca. Good Luck¡¡

  4. Lucy & Alberto,

    Really enjoyed this trip with you; frankly I'm exhausted ☺! The photography is stunning!

    And, Happy Birthday Lucy!!

    Uncle Rich

    1. Thanks Uncle Rich! Glad you are enjoying the blog -- It´s not hard to make Ecuador look good in pictures!

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