Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route: Dirt Road Version
858 Mi.(1,381 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
Important Route Update May 9, 2018: After recent reports concerning safety around the village of Buenos Aires (south of the border with Colombia), we sugggest bypassing the area due to the activity of illegal gold mines and the ensuing tension between miners and local people. This is the sad consequence of unregulated mining and has as nothing to do with FARC or any guerrilla related issues, as has been suggested. The government is stepping in to close these mining operations but until it happens, we recommend playing it safe and dropping down from El Angel to Ibarra, and taking the back road to Otovalo, from where you can pick up the TEMBR route. We’ll update this post when the situation changes.
TEMBR Dirt is the mellower hermano to the unremittingly challenging TEMBR Singletrack. It strives to encourage bicycle tourists to escape the hectic traffic of the Panamerican Highway and delve deep into Ecuador’s backcountry, without missing some of the country’s classic sights. Staying high in the Andes for much of the time, it’s a showcase for Ecuador’s remarkable mountain diversity; patchwork fields in its rural settlements, the technicoloured hubub of its markets, its quiet and ethereal páramo, the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, and of course, the majestic volcanic backdrop for which Ecuador is known. In tackling this route, it’s hoped riders will spend their time and money in small communities along the way, helping encourage low impact, positive tourism across these often overlooked regions.
Unlike its hike-a-bike obsessed sibling, the TEMBR Dirt is almost completely rideable, bar the odd push and shove, depending on the vagaries of Ecuador’s tempestuous weather and its impact on road conditions – be sure to read the Difficulty Box Out for more details. Although the mid-fat (2.8 to 3in tire) platform suits the country especially well, this is a ride that will appeal to anyone with a standard mountain bike, a relatively light load, a good level of fitness, and the desire to experience the Ecuadorian Andes.
The crux of this route runs from the Colombian border to Cuenca – effectively, the country’s volcanic corridor. Cuenca also provides a wonderful finale and easy logistics for returning to Quito. But for those continuing their journeys southwards, the route also suggests an additional, predominantly low-traffic connection to Vilcamaba, near the Peruvian border. See Trail Notes for details.
Piecing this route together has been a collaborative effort. Enormous thanks are due to the Dammer Brothers for sharing their unparalleled knowledge of the country and to Nick Gault, for his extensive beta testing and feedback. TEMBR Dirt is still being fine-tuned and is subject to modifications. For the latest updates, be sure to download the gpx from Ride With GPS and take note of the many waypoints we’ve included. Please let us know if you run into any issues or inconsistencies. Thanks!
Reflecting Ecuador’s beauty and diversity, TEMBR strikes a balance between revealing remote backcountry riding and visiting points of touristic interest. As such, it opens with a fascinating meander through groves of otherworldly frailejon, by way of the El Angel Ecological Preserve, followed by a herculean climb to the equally beautiful páramo near Piñan – don’t miss it, it’s worth the effort! Descending back down to the Inter Andean Valley, R&R takes the form of a stopover in Otovalo, home to Ecuador’s biggest textile and handicraft market. A classic, Ecuador-style cobbled climb leads onwards to windswept Lago Mojanda, from where an unconventional dirt and sandy descent funnels riders to Guayllabamba, home to delicious the cherimoya fruit. From there, it’s a relatively flat stint (at last!) as the route picks up a bikepath along the old railway line to Tumbaco.
Onwards, a network of unpaved, sometimes grassy backroads sees riders gaining altitude once more in search of the perfectly conical Cotopaxi volcano, its National Park speckled with delicate, mossy flora, particular to Ecuador’s tundra. Striking into the fertile highlands around Quilotoa, the landscape here is completely different; 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. A popular backpacking destination, Quilatoa and its surrounding villages are home to a number of excellent choices in accommodation, details of which you’ll find on the GPX file. Beyond the rustic market town of Zumbahua, the riding becomes remote once again, en route to forlorn Angamarca and rugged Simiatug. Nearby Salinas de las Montanas is home to a thriving, grassroots tourism and local business infrastructure – amongst its many projects, this small settlement even boasts a chocolate factory.
No visit to Ecuador would be complete without taking in the grandeur of Volcan Chimborazo – assuming the weather gods are on your side – connected via a series of paved and unpaved backroads to Guamote and its colourful Thursday market. Ahead lies the push to Cuenca, reached via Ecuador’s most noted Incan ruins, Ingapirca. Cuenca itself is the country’s most appealing city, where you’ll find a rich display of colonial architecture, as well as a strong artistic and musical vibe. For those headed onto Peru, Loja marks the last sizeable settlement before the border, from where dirt roads will lead you to Vilcabamba, a quirky town known for the longevity of its local inhabitants – and the North American and European expats who have now usurped the area.
TEMBR can be completed in its entirety, or section ridden. Public transportation between segments is easy, cheap and omnipresent – see Trail Notes for more details on how to break it down. Help is often at hand if you need a ride up one of the route’s many long climbs; a number of pickup trucks and local buses ply the highlands and will take you and your bike, generally at the cost of just a dollar or two. This means sections of the route can become a feasible undertaking for adventurous families too, the section around Quilotoa being an example. For a recent gallery of sections of the route and ride impressions, see here.
Just be warned. Ecuador is an extremely rugged country, rippled with arduous climbs. When locals tell you the road ahead is plano – flat – they are talking ‘Ecuadorian flat’. Altitudes along the whole of TEMBR fluctuate wildly, from the hot and steamy lowlands, where coffee and sugar cane grow in abundance, to extended stretches at 4000m and more. Embrace the climbs, savour the dirt… and enjoy!
Ecuador being Ecuador, TEMBR Dirt is a very challenging undertaking: you’ll need grit, determination, acclimatised lungs, and mountain legs to complete it successfully. Although there’s no technical singletrack or hike-a-bikes to contend with, we’ve awarded this route a solid 8 in difficulty due to its prolonged climbs, extended stints at high elevation, cobbled surfaces, linguistic hurdles, and its overall length. Grades can be steep and terrain very mixed. Even during the summer, weather can be extremely variable; during the rainy season, conditions can become particularly challenging in places. Check out the elevation profile below to see what you’re letting yourself in for and pack light. Lastly, use this route as a guide – during the rainy season, you may well need to detour around smaller, unsurfaced tracks and resort to more paved backroads.
- Discovering the real Ecuadorian backcountry, away from the motorized frenzy of the Panamerican Highway.
- Experiencing the vibrancy – and culinary delicacies – of Ecuador’s market towns.
- Meandering across the beautiful, enigmatic páramo, Ecuador’s high altitude, treeless tundra.
- Sleeping in a community owned ‘choza’, the traditional huts that dot the country’s highlands, if you’re lucky enough to come across one.
- Riding through Cotopaxi National Park and around Chimborazo – the latter’s peak marks the closest point to the sun.
- Treating yourself to comfortable, eco-friendly accommodation in Isinlivi, on the Quilatoa Loop.
- Getting fit – with the amount of climbing on this ride, you have no choice!
- Mid-June to mid-September is the high season in the Ecuadorian Andes. By Ecuadorian standards, this is the driest time of the year. Outside of this, be prepared for extended bouts of very heavy rain, which will effect road/trail conditions. Traditionally, there is also a ‘mini dry season’ in December and January. Hour to hour temperatures can be extremely variable, depending on altitude and weather, though they don’t change much throughout the year. A 0 to -5c bag is generally sufficient with wear extras layers if needed. Ambient dampness can make nighttimes feel cooler than they are.
- Always expect mixed weather in the highlands, whatever the season. Be prepared for persistent rain at times, and/or four seasons in one day! Bring a quality, reliable waterproof jacket (rather than the kind that pack up tiny but wet out quickly).
- For the same reason, waterproof footware or shoes that dry out quickly are recommended.
- This is a high altitude route, so allow time to acclimatise first. Never rush into high mountain rides.
- High quality topographic maps can be obtained in Quito but following this gpx with a general country map (eg ITMB or Reise Know How) is all you’ll need. An ideal navigation solution a navigation app (eg Gaia or Mapout) on your smartphone and/or a GPS for the handlebars. Make sure your smartphone is stored in a watertight sleeve. There are charging opportunities en route but bring a cache battery too.
- Ecuador is well suited to ‘plus’ bikes, given the cobbled backroads and the sometimes swampy nature of the páramo. Otherwise, we recommend 2.25in tires, ideally with front suspension though lightly laden, fully rigid touring bikes will be fine too (I’ve used a rigid Surly Troll and a rigid Surly Krampus in the past – the latter being more enjoyable). For the most part, it’s definitely not a route that lends itself well to a gravel or cyclocross bike, though there are intermittent sections where skinnier tires are advantageous.
- There are high-end bike shops in Ibarra (off route), Quito (off route), Tumbaco (on route), Riobamba (off route), Cuenca (on route) and Loja (on route). Euadorian shops stock, or should be able to order, all the latest gear, even 27.5+ tire sizes.
- With its strong tradition in climbing, Ecuador is well stocked with quality camping gear. The Ecuadorian chain Tatoo has an REI-like selection of high-end gear – they have stores in Cuenca and Quito. Pressurised cannister bottles are available in big cities. Denatured alcohol is easier to find in smaller locales.
- If you spot an empty choza – the community-owned, traditional straw huts used by shepherds – make yourself at home. Just be sure to leave it in a better state than you found it. And if there are any locals around, check in with them first.
- A grasp of Spanish will certainly come in useful. A few words of Quechua will be especially welcome by indigenous locals.
- The route passes through isolated areas, some of which can be communally owned. Whenever you encounter anyone, please ask for permission to ride, by saying “Preste pasito, por favor”. Where necessary, be sure to reassure anyone you meet that you will close all gates behind you (“Yo cierro las puertas”).
- A general note on buses. Most have room for a bike or two in the trunk, depending on the bus, wheels may need to be removed and an extra charge may be levied. Although buses can often be hailed down from the roadside, it’s often to find one that starts in a particular town, so there’s time/room to fit the bike.
- Getting there: TEMBR isn’t routed through Ecuador’s capital, Quito. If you’re arriving by plane, you can ride/catch a taxi from the airport to the town of Pifo, and catch a direct bus to Tulcan (on the Colombian border) from there. If you want to decompress for a couple of days, consider catching a ride to Tumbaco and heading out from there.
- Quito is probably best visited by bus as a side trip; on Sundays, much of the center is car free between 8am and 2pm.
- Most large towns have ATMs – but carry extra cash in case any don’t work, to tide you through to each segment of the ride and even beyond. Note that there’s no ATM between the Panamerican Highway (Lasso) and Guaranda. Generally speaking, carry enough cash to tide you through each main segment (see Trail Notes).
- South America’s village dogs are very vocal… expect to be chased!
- Every town will be able to offer cheap accommodation; $5 per person and upwards. A few recommended options are marked as POIs on the Ride With GPS page.
- There’s no shortage of camping spots/abandoned buildings/chozas (traditional straw shelters) along this route. Generally speaking the Ecuadorian Andes is a safe place to travel; we’ve never had any safety concerns outside Quito. Always aim to camp out of eyeshot of any road and ask if you end up close to a community. Football pitches are often good options.
- Streams and rivers abound. To save weight, a couple of water bottles is generally all you’ll need to carry in the highlands of Ecuador, plus a means to purify anything you find en route. Water filters that work quickly, like Steripens, are great for this.
- Every town can serve up a belly-filling set lunch (almuerzo) and dinner (cena) menu. ‘Completos’ costs just a few dollars and includes a soup, main course and juice. They offer the best bang for the buck. Western food (Pizza etc…) is generally available in large town and cities.
- Carry a minimal camping stove setup for cold/damp nights in the mountains and supplement this with cheap local eats along the way.
- Don’t expect to find much more than the odd, poorly stocked village shop in between towns. Carry food for 2-3 days at all times.
- Ecuador has an abundance of exotic fruit. Be sure to sample chirimoya when you’re passing through Guayllabamba. Better still, track down the locally made Chirimoya ice cream.
- Other treats to look out for include tostadas – toasted corn – and mote – soaked corn. At the weekend, these are often served with hornada – delicious crispy, roasted pork . If you’re not squeamish, there’s roasted guinea pigs – cuy – to tuck into as well, an Ecuadorian speciality.
- Locro de Papa is a hearty soup that will keep you fueled. It’s loaded with potatoes, onion, garlic, cumin, achiote, milk, cheese and cilantro, garnished with avocado and spicy aji (Ecuadorian hot sauce).
- Always keep your eyes out for local produce. We suggest supporting small businesses when you can. Fresh cheese is commonly available; just add bread, a pinch of salt and a dollop of aji.
- Market towns abound – we’ve listed the days of those that are more established in Trail Notes. They’re great for resuppling on fresh and local produce, as well as experiencing an important part of Ecuadorian life.
At over 1300km in length, TEMBR Dirt can be tackled in its entirety, or broken up into six parts that can be section ridden. Listed below is a suggested breakdown, splitting the ride into five digestible portions. Although the segments vary in length, each offers a suitable locale to spend a rest day or two off the bike.
Note that TEMBR Dirt is still being fine-tuned and is subject to modifications. For the latest updates, be sure to download the gpx from Ride With GPS and take note of the waypoints and the details within each. Please let us know if you run into any issues or inconsistencies. Thanks!
Tulcan to Otovalo: 235km (5 days)
El Angel is small, low key, with a good GH and food; a good rest spot. There is an enormous climb to Buenas Aires and onwards the Pinan paramo. Given that this is region is a highlight of the route, we’d urge you not to bypass it! If necessary, consider taking a bus from the junction to Buenas Aires, which passes through en route from Ibarra – details on the gpx file.
Riding north and like singletrack? Try this trail to Buenas Aires.
The descent to Otovalo follows an awesome water channel.
Otovalo to Tumbaco (possible side trip to Quito): 121km (2-3 days)
Otovalo is touristy but a nice place to rest up. The climb out of town is cobbled; dirt roads begin after Lago Mojanda.
The ‘rail trail’ south of El Quinche is a little rough going in places (watch for dogs!) but much quieter than the paved highway alternative.
Tumbaco to Salinas de Guaranda: 325km (6 days)
After the wilderness of Cotopaxi, the settlement of Isinlivi makes a great hangout. There aretTwo good accommodation options in town. Zumbahua has a great Saturday market if you can time your route accordingly, otherwise you can detour around town – see gpx file.
The climb out of Angamarca is steep, protracted, and sometimes muddy. Consider leaving Zumbahua/Quilatoa early and riding beyond Angamarca to clear the first big climb – a few possible campspots are noted – to divide it in two. Then, ride from there to Salinas de Guaranda; a big but do-able day (many rolling hills), with the promise of a great town to rest up in. Stopping short in Simiatug is also a possibility. Be especially aware of local sensibilites in this area, as there’s been disputes between locals and mining interests in the past.
Salinas de Guaranda to Cuenca: 390km (5 days)
The detour to the refugio in the Chimborazo National Park (free entry, free camping, water available) is highly recommended if the weather is on your site. There are some fantastic views on the way up and the gravel road is mellow.
Expect a larger percentage of paved riding between Achupallas and Cuenca – this section is still being developed. Let us know if you find improvements!
Cuenca to Vilcabamba: 309km (5 days)
There is more paved riding on this section than prior to it.
Short on time?
The crux of the ride – and the Avenue of the Volcanoes – is from Tulcan to Cuenca; both cities are well served by buses to Quito. These sections included the very best of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route. The last segment, Cuenca to Vilcabamba, provides a useful low traffic link for those on longer itineraries, headed south into Peru. If you’re just come to ride the TEMBR, Cuenca makes a great terminus to the ride.
For a shorter route, consider riding from Otovalo or Tumbaco to Ambato, which can be easily reached after the descent from Chimborazo, see this gpx file for info. This city offers good transportation back to Pifo using the (bike-friendly) CITA line, a town that’s just a short ride on the rail trail back to Tumbaco.
Mix and Match
Note that TEMBR Dirt, TEMBR Singletrack, and the Tres Volcanes route can all be woven together. For those running a lightweight, bikepacking-style setup and who are game for relatively short but sometimes very challenging hike-a-bikes and paramo/singletrack yomps, consider the following:
After Pifo, use TEMBR Singletrack as a way to enter Cotopaxi National Park. Once in the park, hop on the Tres Volcanes route for a fun but challenging hike-a-bike over Cotopaxi (if the weather is clear, branching off onto the Singletrack version and looping around Quilindaña instead). Later, plug in TEMBR Singletrack/Tres Volcanes’ route to circle around Chimborazo (note that this option is mostly recommended in a southerly direction and means missing out on wonderful Salinas de Guanranda and its chocolates!). From then on, stick to TEMBR Dirt, to avoid the infamous hike-a-bike challenges of Ecuador’s mini Inca Trail, unless you seek an extremely challenging ‘shortcut’ to Ingaparca.
Markets remain the lifeblood of Ecuador. They tend to occur on Thursday and at the weekend. Here’s a few of the more colourful indigenous markets to bear in mind when planning your trip.
- Otovalo: Daily, largest on Saturday morning (touristy but well worth visiting for textiles).
- Saquisili (off route): Thursday morning (touristy but still maintains local vibe)
- Zumbahua: Saturday morning (recommended).
- Simiatug: Wednesday morning (very local).
- Guamote: Thursday morning (recommended).
For a 2017 gallery of the route, see Cass’ post here.