Los Tres Volcanes, Ecuador

'Los Tres Volcanes' is a challenging, high altitude bikepacking route that connects Ecuador's most iconic volcanoes: the perfectly conical Cotopaxi, the crater lake of Quilatoa, and lofty Chimborazo. Terrain covers everything the Ecuadorian highlands have to offer, from dirt roads, singletrack and open páramo, to cobblestones and hike-a-bikes. Throw in regional cuisine and a thriving market scene, and you have all the ingredients for a fabulous ride.
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This is a route that can be ridden in its own right, as the backbone of a visit to Ecuador, or weaved into a longer Trans-Americas journey. The ride begins in Pintag, a short bus or bike ride from the country’s capital of Quito. Wending its way into the lush, misty and enigmatic páramo of Cotopaxi National Park, it retraces the trails of the classic La Vuelta de Cotopaxi, an annual two-day stage race. Perched at close to 4,000 metres in altitude, the area has a gentle, subtle allure, with its lattice of crystal clear streams, lichen-covered boulders, páramo grasses and delicate fingers of lycopodium, an Andean plant that grows only at extreme heights.

After descending from the Cotopaxi to cross the Panamerican Highway, the route climbs once more, striking into the fertile highlands of Quilatoa. The landscape here is completely different; its steep sided hills are home to shepherds herding sheep and llamas, as well as patchwork quilts of quinoa and potato fields, staples of the Quechuan diet. Teetering high on singletrack above the turquoise waters of Quilatoa’s impressive crater lake, a dirt road then unravels towards Angamarca before hopping on trails to Volcan Chimborazo – a peak that marks the closest point to the sun, thanks to a bulge in the earth’s curvature. Looping around Chimborazo’s remote, south eastern flank under the watchful eyes of vicuñas – the lithe, athletic siblings to llamas – encapsulates the essence of Ecuadorian highland riding.

Given the various challenges of this ride – high altitude pedalling, protracted climbs, technical singletrack, tufty páramo and a few burly hike-a-bikes – respite is gratefully received. This comes in the form of a glorious dirt road descent into Salinas de Guaranda, a mountain community famed for its homemade chocolate, local cheeses, regional sustenance… and delicious pizza.

You can read an account of this ride published by Singletrack Magazine here.

Quilatoa alternative route:

For a more mellow and touristy loop around Quilatoa, complete with several excellent guesthouses, ride around its eastern side. Follow dirt roads to Isinlivi (the Llulu Llama hostel is highly recommended), picking up a quiet unpaved shortcut to Chugchillan (lots of accommodation options), avoiding Sigchos. From there, it’s a short stretch of pavement to Quilatoa. See Trail Notes and this blog post for more details and images.

  • Distance

    242 Mi.

    (389 KM)
  • Days

    5

  • % Unpaved

    90%

  • % Singletrack

    20%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    8

  • % Rideable (time)

    95%

  • Total Ascent

    35,670'

    (10,872 M)
  • High Point

    14,550'

    (4,435 M)
  • Highlights
  • Must Know
  • Camping
  • Food/H2O
  • Trail Notes
  • Riding singletrack through Cotopaxi National Park.
  • Negotiating the tufty terrain of Ecuador high altitude, ethereal páramo.
  • Oggling the stunning crater lake at Quilatoa.
  • Sleeping in a community owned ‘choza’, the traditional huts that dot the Ecuadorian Highlands. If you spot one and it’s empty, make yourself at home. Leave it in a better state than you found it.
  • The gorgeous, dirt road descent into Salinas.
  • Feasting in Salinas!
  • This is a high elevation ride. Allow a few days to acclimatise first. And take it easy.
  • June to September is the high season in Ecuador. December can be good too. But always expect mixed weather in the highlands. Be prepared for four seasons in one day!
  • Many cyclists take up residence at Santiago’s wonderful Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco. From there, it’s an easy ride to Pintag.
  • To get back to Quito, public transport is straightforward and bike-friendly; hop on a shared pickup to  Guaranda (40mins) from where it’s a 4-hour bus ride back to the capital.
  • Pack light – there are some challenging hike-a-bikes to contend with.
  • A Plus or Fat Bike is well suited the Ecuadorian highlands, given the grassland, bog and cobbles. Otherwise, a 29er with suspension will get the job done too.
  • If you need to cut the ride short, you can drop down to the Pan American Highway when you hit Urbina. Buses run to Ambato and Quito.
  • There’s no shortage of camping spots/abandoned buildings along this route.
  • We camped at Tambopaxi Lodge on the first night but dorms are available too if a storm strikes.
  • Quilatoa is a small tourist enclave with all the facilities, or you can push onto the nearby town of Zumbahua, which offers an assortment of cheap and cheerful hotels.
  • Salinas has a variety of cheap backpacker digs. We stayed at La Minga hostel and would recommend it. Plus, it’s right next to the pizzeria!
  • Streams and rivers abound. A couple of water bottles is generally all you’ll need in the highlands of Ecuador, plus a means to purify what you find en route.
  • Tambopaxi Lodge offers set dinners and breakfasts. The food is very expensive by Ecuadorian standards but plentiful and good.
  • Every town can serve up a belly-filling set lunch and dinner menu.  ‘Completos’ costs just a few dollars and includes a soup, main course and juice, offering your best bang for the buck. Don’t expect to find anything than the odd, poorly stocked village shop in between.
  • The intersection of the Panamerican Highway has a couple of restaurants and a small supermarket.
  • If you happen to be crossing the Panamerican on a Wednesday, it could be worth detouring to Saquisilí for the night to catch the Thursday market, an Ecuadorian classic.
  • The best resupply point is at Zumbahua. Saturday is market day in this mountain town. It’s a colourful, flamboyant affair that draws indigenous Ecuadorians from all around.
  • Don’t miss Don Max’ International Bar. Situated at Mile Marker 190, this shack isn’t as grand than it sounds. Test your stomach on dodgy pork crackling and toasted corn, washed down with a lethal local liquor.
  • In Salinas de Guaranda, Pizzeria Casa Nostra is especially recommended. Be sure to take a visit to the chocolate factory (as if I had to say it).

Most of the route is rideable. The first hike-a-bike is the slog over El Morro (approx mile marker 50), dividing Cotopaxi National Park with the Pan-American Highway.

The second trouble spot is a tough, technical descent leading down to the river at mile marker 107. This is followed by a long climb and then a hike-a-bike (mile marker 111) up to the crater itself. If you want to avoid the latter part of this rather challenging segue, simply continue along the dirt road directly to the settlement of Quilatoa. If you choose to ‘ride’ it, the reward is a short but utterly blissful slice of singletrack.

After cresting the pass between Chimborazo and Carihuairazo (approx mile marker 200), the often boggy descent requires careful navigation. If you follow the gpx file relatively closely, you should encounter a spot where you can cross the river and continue along your way.

Quilatoa alternative route:

For a more mellow and touristy loop around Quilatoa – avoiding a technical descent and a possible hike-a-bike – ride around the crater lake’s eastern side. Continue on from Toacaso towards Isinlivi. The road turns from paved to cobbles to pavement to dirt. After Isinlivi, pick up a quiet unpaved and very scenic shortcut to Chugchillan –  keep an eye out for the left hand turn at the bridge, after the descent). This avoids the extra ride out to Sigchos. From there, it’s a short stretch of pavement to Quilatoa to rejoin the route onwards to Zumbahua.

 

Additional Resources

  • You can read Alexis’s detailed account of the ride here.
  • If you need more inspiration to bikepack in Ecuador, this is where you’ll find it. The Dammer family are living legends!
  • This route can be weaved neatly into the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route, both Singletrack and Dirt Road versions.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Cass’ story about this trip in Singletrack was nominated for the ‘Best Written Article, 2016’ … cast your vote: http://singletrackworld.com/2016/09/best-written-article-singletrack-readers-awards-2016/

  • Fabricio Finardi

    amazing pictures. wich camera was used in this trip?

  • Brian Mulder

    Nice write-up and stellar images per usual, Amigo.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks! It’s a Canon 5D.

  • Peter

    This is amazing! I plan to spend 1 month bikepacking in the Quito area in June 2017. I am new to bikepacking and hope to do the easier version of your route. Do you think a rigid Salsa Fargo will be able to handle the route (and other routes in the Quito area)? Would you have any suggestions on how to go about finding other bikepacking routes in the Quito area, i.e. is it easy to get route information/suggestions locally (in Quito)?

    PS: Your posts really inspired me to get into bikepacking. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.perubybike.com Manuel Aristondo

    Good pictures

  • http://www.perubybike.com Manuel Aristondo

    Hi, Peter, I’ll be in January 2017 in Quito, I’ll be traveling from Quito to Cusco,

  • Peter

    Hi Manuel, thanks for letting me know – this sounds like a lot of fun! I would love to hear about your gear/route choices, and your experience. Is it possible to reach you at perubike.com to follow up?

  • DamagedSurfer

    Wow, incredible photos as usual! It seems the more I travel the more I keep adding locations to my ‘must visit’ list. Even amidst such turmoil and strife, our world still offers such beauty for those willing to seek it out. Damn, I need a good photographer on my trips as well.

  • Bryan Young

    Beautiful photos!

  • Scott Pauker

    So lovely to see this route again though a different set of eyes and lenses! Looks like y’all got better views of Cotopaxi than I did, but so sweet that you stayed in that same Tambo hut on the South side of Chimborazo! Great photos and such an excellent route.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I think a Fargo would be ok, for the most part. In previous years, I’ve ridden an alternative version of this route on an Ogre and a Troll. Personally, I prefer the ride/braking position of a flat bar setup for this kind of terrain. But if you’re ok with steep, tufty riding in the drops, then you’ll be fine!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Scott. We did the trip on the cusp of the rainy season last year, so we didn’t actually have the best views of Cotopaxi… I might have snuck in a couple of pics from previous trips in the area (-; Likewise, we didn’t actually stay in that particular choza due to timing on this occasion – but the Dammers and I have used it before, and it’s a favourite! For this trip, we hunkered down in one before the pass. Gotta love those chozas!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Cheers Brian. Look forward to hearing (and seeing) how you get on in Ecuador. It’s getting close!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Oh, and have a trawl through the Dammers website (link above) – there’s sure to be some more ideas. Those guys know this beautiful land like the back of their hands!

  • Peter

    Hi Cass, thanks for your feedback – it is very much appreciated! Actually I put a flat bar (Jones Loop bar) on my Fargo, good to know that this should help. I have another question: do you think it would be worthwhile putting a 29+ (3in) front tire on the Fargo, or should I be OK with a 2.4 Maxxis Ardent in the front (I have a 2.35 Maxxis Ikon in the back)? Again, thank you so much for your feedback!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hi Peter, I think ‘plus’ tires suit Ecuador’s tussocky terrain and cobbled descents really well. But you’ll be fine with 2.4ish tires, especially if you’re running relatively wide rims and (ideally) a tubeless setup so you can run lower pressures.

  • Peter

    Great – thanks Cass!

  • Georgie Rutherford

    Hi!
    thanks for the write up. Great photos. Was wondering your thoughts on time of year for this and similar trips in the area. Was also wondering on drivetrain choice. My LBS wants to sell me a 1×11, which I have no experience with and not sure how capable at tackling equadorian/ peruvian hills.

    cheers,
    Georgie

  • Cass Gilbert

    Check out the Must Know section for seasonal info.

    My only experience is with doubles and a Rohloff. If you’re going with a 1×11, I’d suggest a smallish chainring at the front to give you plenty of low gears. The climbs are sometimes steep and always prolonged – factor in too the weight of your bikepacking gear and the altitude, and I think you’ll be glad to be spinning rather than pushing big gears!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Cheers!

  • Georgie Rutherford

    thanks!

  • Andy Bates

    Wondering if you can help this ol’ climber. I would like to ride this route but with (easier) variations. Can you tell me where I can find a good hard copy topo map for the areas this route goes through? Or is the best map I can get a generic one from a bookstore in Quito? Thanks!
    Andy (hand me a wrench)

  • Cass Gilbert

    Sorry Andy, I don’t know where hard copies of topo maps are to be found. I have mine stored as high res pdfs, which I can print out. You could try dropping a line to the Dammers and seeing if they can point you in the right direction. With so many climbers based in Quito, I’m sure there’s some around.

    http://www.nahual.com.ec/

  • Andy Bates

    Thanks Cass- I assume the standard way to follow these routes is with the GPS coordinates and a Garmin. Question, if one wants to stray from the route to avoid hike a bike sections, would a topo map be needed ?

  • Cass Gilbert

    I use the Gaia App on my phone – the OSM basemaps have all the info you need for detours. A Garmin with Ecuador maps will also have everything you need – I just find Gaia clearer to navigate with, especially when heading off a gpx file (though it’s hard to beat a GPS for battery life, visibility on the bike etc…)

    More details here:

    http://www.bikepacking.com/plan/smartphone-as-a-gps/

  • Cass Gilbert

    PS…

    This ‘work in progress’ TEMBR file (dirt road version) will give you some more ideas for rideable alternatives:

    https://ridewithgps.com/routes/17898723

  • Andy Bates

    Thank you- You made my trip with this last route. Regarding East side of Cotopaxi, is barb wire still in place on decent as described by Alex? Any other beta about East side of Coto? Thanks man.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hi Andy,

    It’s a great ride – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

    I’m not sure which barbed wire you mean exactly, but in any case, it shouldn’t be am issue to lift your bike over it.

    It could be that the section of the gpx route that climbs alongside the western flank of cotopaxi may have gone slightly awry. I’ll correct it – so it mimics the route on TEMBR Dirt, albeit in the opposite direction.

    Please let me know when you ride it – and how you get on!

  • Andy Bates

    Flying out today- kit down to 15lbs w/ food- here is the wire I referenced. take it easy.—Near the top we saw two massive andean condors up close. What a way to start the day! We were then rewarded with an incredibly fact 20km descent down to a low valley. From there, we had a super steep, sandy climb up switchbacks to yet another pass, albeit a lower one than El Morro. From the pass, we had a fun descent on a mix of sandy double and single track. We were speeding our way down off the paramo when I looked up and noticed a small strand of barbed wire strung across the trail at neck level, and Cass was racing toward it at high speed. I called out when he was just a few meters from getting clotheslined, just as he himself noticed the wire, and he slammed on his brakes-

  • Cass Gilbert

    Please let me know if that gate/wire is still there. And better still, if you could get a waypoint for it, I’ll mark it on the map. Thanks!

  • Felipe Meneses

    might be too late, but I can provide digital topomaps and then you can print them in a plotter, can also help you with n easier variation of this route.. cheers elreydelbosque@gmail.com https://www.epicecuador.org/

    anyhow Instituto geografico militar will have copies like in 3 to 5 bucks