Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route: Singletrack Version

  • Distance

    764 Mi.

    (1,230 KM)
  • Days

    25

  • % Unpaved

    90%

  • % Singletrack

    35%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    10

  • % Rideable (time)

    92%

  • Total Ascent

    101,388'

    (30,903 M)
  • High Point

    14,567'

    (4,440 M)
The Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route - TEMBR - is a remote, backcountry ride that runs the length of Ecuador's volcanic corridor. There are two versions of the route. One knits together predominantly non-technical dirt roads. This is the more demanding, singletrack and hike-a-bike alternative, linking ancient footpaths, horse trails and open páramo. As such, it's uncompromising in its dedication to connecting the country via the road less traveled. Prepare to be challenged!
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Simply put, TEMBR – the Singletrack Version – is a hard, fun, technical, and extremely adventurous bikepacking mission. It’s a ride that crosses the Ecuadorian Andes on a combination of off piste páramo, ancient footpaths, epic hike-a-bikes, cobbled backroads, muddy jeep tracks, and occasional low traffic stretches of pavement. Expect everything this beautiful region has to offer, from herculean rollercoaster climbs across the highlands, gruelling hike-a-bikes around mist-swirled volcanoes, brake-searingly techy descents into lush and deeply folded valleys, and lonely yomps across the treeless and tufty páramo.

I won’t mince my words. There are sizeable sections to this ride that are nothing less than punishing; it’s the hardcore, singletrack and hike-a-bike obsessed brother to the more mellow dirt road version of TEMBR, which we’ll be publishing shortly.

The ride starts in lowland, humid Salinas – a settlement known for both its sugar cane plantations and the Afro-Ecuadorian people who populate the area – and ends in Vilcabamba, a spa town famous for the longevity of its inhabitants. In between, it runs the length of the Ecuadorian volcanic corridor; the Avenue of the Volcanoes, as coined in the 19th century by the Prussian explorer Alexander von Humbolt.

Highlights include riding singletrack in the shadow of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, the two tallest volcanoes in the country – at 6263m, the latter’s peak marks the closest point to the sun, given the bulge in the earth’s curvature. Typical to Ecuador’s lofty páramo, there are miles of remote, windswept and tufty grasslands to pick your way through; those around Piñán are a favourite, a traditional settlement that sees just a trickle of hardy visitors. Remarkable, high altitude flora abounds, like the groves of peeling, fairly tale-like polylpepis trees, and the orange-flowered chuquirahua, the traditional symbol of Ecuadorian climbers, and a favourite of hummingbirds. In terms of adrenalin, there’s no shortage of rough, uncut descents that will challenge the most technically gifted of riders; the rutted freefall into Angamarca is a fine example. Historians, particularly those with a penchant for brutal hike-a-bikes, will no doubt delight in the traverse of Ecuador’s own Inca Trail, en route to Ingapirca. And the layover in Cuenca, Ecuador’s most picturesque city, offers an impressive architectural showcase of the country’s colonial heritage, as well as a modern city vibe to kick back and relax.

Broadly speaking, the ride can be divided into 5 segments – see Trail Notes for details and a stats breakdown. If you’re through-riding TEMBR, we’d recommend factoring at least one rest day between each segment. Unless you’re feeling especially bold, don’t expect to cover more distance that our suggested itinerary. For anyone thinking of section-riding the route, each of these five parts can be connected by public buses, omnipresent across the country.

Packing light is key to TEMBR’s success/enjoyment, as is being comfortable with shouldering your bike. Expect several multi-hour hike-a-bikes, as well as steep, protracted climbs in between. Descents can be fast, furious and white-knuckled affairs, especially during inclement weather. Páramo riding is a skill until itself; it can be slow going and energy sapping. But the rewards, as they always say, are more than worth it.

The Dammer Brothers, Ecuadorian bikepacking legends, have documented the inaugural ride thoroughly on their website; section 1, section 2, section 3, and section 4/5. I’ve written up my account of our experiences for the first issue of Sidetracked Magazine.

If I haven’t made this clear yet, let me repeat myself at the risk of labouring a point. This is an uncompromising route that seeks out singletrack at all costs! And much of this is hard fought! The route will inevitably be developed further and fine-tuned along the way. But in the meantime, if you’re up for one hellova challenge, you’re a strong and adaptable rider – and importantly, you’re not afraid to shoulder your bike to reach gloriously untravelled parts of the Ecuadorian Andes – then this could be the ride for you.

Route alternative:

Riders who want to visit the region of Quilatoa could consider replacing the portion of TEMBR’s route that runs from Latacunga to Angamarca with that of the Tres Volcanes ride. This cuts out one monster hike-a-bike – but you’ll miss out on some epic singletrack too.

Want to mix and match the two versions of TEMBR? A gpx file of the dirt road alternative can be found here.

  • Highlights

  • Must Know

  • Camping

  • Food/H2O

    💧

  • Trail Notes

  • Discovering the real Ecuadorian backcountry.
  • Riding singletrack in the shadow of two of the country’s highest volcanoes.
  • 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.
  • The sheer physical challenge – this is adventure in its purist form!

 

  • June to 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 bouts of heavy rain. Traditionally, there is also a ‘mini dry season’ in December and January. Hour to hour temps can be extremely variable, depending on altitude and weather, though they don’t change much throughout the year. I carry a 0-degree centigrade bag and 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.
  • Pack light! And I mean very light. There are several brutal, multi-hour hike-a-bikes to contend with. The less you have, the more your body will thank you. I’d even recommend wearing a backpack, rather than loading everything on your bike.
  • Ecuador is well suited to ‘plus’ and fat bikes, given the cobbled backroads and the sometimes swampy nature of the páramo. Otherwise, be sure to run front suspension.
  • Ecuador is well served by public buses. Each of the 5 sections that make up with ride can be accessed by public bus from Quito, as can the smaller settlements in between.
  • It’s 2.5 hours (approx $3.50) by bus from Quito to Salinas and 14 hours from Vilcabamba to Quito (approx $20).
  • There are high-end bike shops in Ibarra (off route), Quito (off route), Tumbaco (off route), Riobamba (off route), Cuenca and Loja.
  • 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.
  • If you spot an empty choza – the community owned, traditional straw huts used by shepherds – make yourself at home. Leave it in a better state than you found it.
  • Given the narrow trenches, ruts and its tufty grasses, riding páramo requires its only skillset – narrow, SPD-style pedals are recommended over wide flat pedals. Just make sure they’re shoes you can hike in too.
  • 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 private or communally owned. Whenever you encounter anyone, please ask for permission to ride, by saying “Preste pasito, por favor”. 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 Pifo or Tumbaco, rest up, and catch a northerly bus from there. Or go straight to Ibarra – there’s plenty of places to stay and it’s a nice place to get your bearings. Then catch a short bus ride to Salinas.
  • South America’s village dogs very vocal… expect to be chased at times!
  • Every town will be able to offer cheap accommodation; around $5 per person.
  • There’s no shortage of camping spots/abandoned buildings/chozas (traditional straw shelters) along this route.
  • Vilcabamba has a variety of tourist-orientated lodging to end the ride.
  • Anyone attempting the singletrack version of TEMR is welcome to camp in Palugo, the beautiful organic farm owned by the Dammer family.
  • 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.
  • 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, offering your best bang for the buck.
  • Don’t expect to find much more than the odd, poorly stocked village shop in between towns. Carry food for 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, sample 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 cuddly guinea pigs – cuy – to tuck into as well, an Ecuadorian speciality.
  • Locro de Papa is 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.
  • The Thursday morning indigenous market in Guamote is well worth checking out – and great for resuppling on fresh and local produce.
  • Do you seek the secret of the Dammer Brothers’ ungodly strength… try adding máchica powder to your porridge oats in the morning. It’s an energy-rich flour made from ground toasted barley and other grains.
  • Always keep your eyes out for local produce and support small businesses when you can. For example, fresh cheese is commonly available in the mountains. Just add bread, a pinch of salt and a dollop of aji (Ecuadorian hot sauce).

The route can be divided into 5 segments – the hardest is the first. This is how we rode it in January 2015:

1. Salinas to Pifo.

From Salinas de Ibarra up to Cahuasqui. Follow the old trail that climbs to Cerro Yanahurco. From Yanahurco to the little hamlet of Piñan, through trails exit via Guananin to Irubi. Up on gravel roads to the base of Volcan Cotacachi, traverse to Motilon Chupa and then down to San Jose de Minas. Via Pitanga’s irrigation canal up to Mojanda lakes, down to Malchingui, Guayllambamba and finally Pifo by way of an old railway line. 

Distance for this first section: 290 Km
Days on first section: 5
Elevation Gain on this section: 9.711 m
Section Highest Elevation: 4.200 m

Hike-a-bikes: one significant one up to Cerro Yanahurco, several smaller ones throughout.

2. Pifo to Latacunga

Up to El Tablon plateau, across the ridge to Pintag and onto the slopes of Sincholagua to Cotopaxi National Park. Behind Quilindaña, through Chalupas to el Morro and finally Latacunga for a rest day and resupply.

Distance: 190 Km
Days: 4 days (including 1 half day)
Elevation Gain: 4.900 m
Highest Elevation: 4.150 m

Hike-a-bikes: Small hikes up to El Tablong, plus various mini efforts behind Quilindaña, depending on your paramo riding skills.

3. Latacunga to Guamote

From Latacunga via the old road to Pujili. Dirt and singletrack to Yanahurco and then a mixed section of intense hike a bike and singletrack nirvana to Angamarca. From Angamarca a beautiful ‘Ecuadorian’ traverse to Pimbalo and then out to Rio Colorado. In between Chimborazo and Carihuairazo to San Juan and from there on dirt roads to Guamote.

Distance: 252 Km
Days: 5 days
Elevation Gain: 7.570 m
Highest Elevation: 4.440 m

Hike-a-bikes: One protracted hike-a-bike en route to Angamarca, plus some nano hike-a-bikes between Chimborazo and Carihuairazo.

4. Guamote to Cuenca

From Guamote through the high ridges of the paramo de Cebadas to reach the Atillo and Ozogoche lakes, and eventually Totorillas. Follow the ancient trails of ‘inga-ñan’ to reach Ingapirca on single track. Finished the section riding behind Cerro Cojitambo to Deleg and Cuenca, following tertiary paved roads. 

Distance: 210 Km
Days: 4 days
Elevation Gain: 5.870 m
Highest Elevation: 4.400 m

Hike-a-bikes: The Inca Trail – Totorillas to Ingapirca – is a hike-a-hike bonanza, albeit a beautiful one!

5. Cuenca to Vilcabamba:

Leave Cuenca on the trail that follows the shores of the Yanuncay River. Some hidden single track took us to the old road that goes from Turi to Gima and Nabon. Oña and San Lucas followed to then take the Zamora river canyon to Loja. Up to the ridges of the Podocarpus to reach Malacatos and finally Vilcabamba.

Distance: 287 Km
Days: 4 days
Elevation Gain: 6.960 m
Highest Elevation: 3.500 m

Hike-a-bikes: A challenging graft to the Podocarpus.

  • http://www.theironlyportrait.com Their Only Portrait

    I can’t wait to ride this route (combined with the mellow dirt road version, obviously). Thanks for the great info Cass & Dammers!!!

  • http://www.anthonypease.com Anthony Pease

    Wow, amazing! Such wonderful images too!

  • Felipe Ruivo

    Can you make some kind of gear check? I mean, how come you don’t freeze up there packing so light as you mean. Thanks.

  • Cass Gilbert

    It’s not especially cold in the Ecuadorian highlands. The most important thing is to be well prepared for rain. Rain at high altitude can be chilly, and will work its way to your bones… A dry set of clothing for night time/camping use is recommended. Given that water is omnipresent, you can save a lot of weight by not hauling a lot of liquids.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Dirt road route is in the pipeline… The singletrack version is great – but it’s definitely not suited to heavy setups. I carried my DLSR with a few lenses, and suffered for it!

  • Tom

    Amazing. The elevation alone means this ride is brutal–most of the ride is well above 8000′. Gorgeous photos and nice write-up. Something to ponder and dream about….

  • Felipe Ruivo

    Thanks. A couple of friends did part of the route last year, they suffered a little with the weather. Maybe they went on a different season.

  • Renan Bossi

    What kind of photo equipment were you carrying? thanks!

  • Bert Schuh

    WOW …gorgeous country and pics!!!! Amazing adventure, thanks!

  • http://pedalspacksandpinots.wordpress.com/ Ben Handrich

    That elevation profile is INSANE. You must have to have some seasoned climbing legs for this route to be a success. But the pictures do make this ride tempting…

  • Kel

    Bloody hell, this is so epic. This is what bikepacking is all about! I would love to have a crack at this when I get down there.

  • http://www.theironlyportrait.com Their Only Portrait

    Hola Cass, your images are great so I guess it’s worth it to carry the DSLR & lenses! I’m sure the singletrack version is AWESOME but I won’t even try it with 2 panniers loaded with water filters & solar lights… plus a portable photography studio :)

  • Grant Henderson

    Hi – this Route looks amazing! I was wondering how you guys got on travelling through Quito and using the buses(if you did)? I’m not at all worried about the Highlands and being away from the cities but having read travel advice online (which I know always paints a bleaker picture than reality!) it sounds like there is a bit of petty crime like muggings etc…Did you fly in/out – I’d be bit edgy getting off the plane – setting up my bike then cycling out to get mugged a few blocks away. Also on the buses – is the bike stored in a hold below the seats?

    Just a brief outline of the general vibe would be great!

    I’ve been in Quito before but I was just backpacking through, I imagine having a big bike rig is going to make you more conspicuous – planning to cycle South America next year with as much offered as possible so this route popped up right on cue! Thanks for making it up!

  • Cass Gilbert

    The route doesn’t actually go through Quito. If you’re flying in, the new airport is actually very close to the route. You probably don’t even need to go into the capital. You could ride/catch a ride to Pifo. Then take a bus from there.

    Most buses seem to have room in the boot (trunk). Sometimes it’s best to find a ride from a bus starting in a particular town, so there’s time/room to fit the bike. But in Ecuador, it can generally be worked out one way or the other. We’ve travelled there with two bikes and child trailer, and it’s all worked out.

    I’ve never felt any worries in terms of security. As ever, pays to be vigilant in big cities/big bus terminals. Cuenca is totally fine. I know people have had issues here and there, but I think they’re anomalies rather than the norm.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Yeah, it’s a big one, for sure… But with the right mindset, it’s a worthwhile challenge (-:

  • Cass Gilbert

    It has the most climbing per distance of any long distance route I’ve ridden. And then there’s the hike-a-bikes…

  • Cass Gilbert

    Canon 5D and 3 lenses: 24mm, 35mm, and 70-200 f4.

  • Cass Gilbert

    The dirt road version is still a cracker too!

  • Cass Gilbert

    The weather can be a mixed bag at any time of the year – or at least that’s my experience. But I never found it especially cold, unless it’s raining in the paramo/mountains. My main tip is don’t skimp on a set of dry clothes for camping! And don’t be tempted to put them on during the day, even if you’re riding gear is sodden (-;

  • Grant Henderson

    Thanks:-)

  • Valentin

    Hej Grant,
    been around/in Quito last year with a full loaded bike. No problem to get on normal busses, my stuff always went into the trunk. In my experience, they always had an extra cashier in the buses, who always helped me to get the my equipment into the trunk.
    If you fly in, there are plenty of busses going to Ibarra, which is close to the start point….

  • http://www.theironlyportrait.com Their Only Portrait

    Hola Cass, I know I’d been talking with Michael about it :)

  • John hammer

    Hi Cass when Well you publishing the diet Road version of TEMBR ?.

  • DCE

    Hello. Any updates on the Dirt Road Version of the TEMBR?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Sorry, just waiting to dig out some photos and load them in. However, I’ve uploaded a gpx track to RWGPS with a link in the post above. It still needs some fine tuning but it’s mostly there.

  • Robert Stephenson

    can this be accomplished with panniers and 1.75 or 2″ tires?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Without more info, hard to say. It’s a Grade 10 ride, so you really want to go as light as possible. I personally wouldn’t enjoy it with panniers – too much hiking. Big tires are better in Ecuador!

  • Robert Stephenson

    Ok. are there any sections that may be best for less hiking? Looks like section 2 could be.
    basically i’m fully loaded and my partner is basically unloaded (to match our fitness). i don’t mind slogging it out with a heavy rig but a lot of carry would not be practical. my rig is perhaps 40kg and hers is perhaps 10-13kg. perhaps i need to come back for a bikepacking trip

  • Cass Gilbert

    In that case, it’s a definite no!

    Check the post above for the link to the Dirt road version of the ride. That one is much more do-able on a mid-weight setup. We’ll be posting the full details soon – but in the meantime, you can find a link to the track at RWGPS.

  • Robert Stephenson

    brilliant. will have a go at some of the dirt roadversion

  • Robert Stephenson

    how’s the weather early april? will probably be in country in a week or two cycling in from colombia

  • Markus Micheler

    Hi Cass, congratulations for this amazing trip! Your pictures are amazing, your story as well. I’m really interested to do this trip this year, my period would be mid October to mid November. What do you think about this period? Maybe do you have a packlist of your equipment for this trip?

    Thanks in advance for you help
    best regards and greetings from Austria
    Markus

  • Cass Gilbert

    Check out the Need to Know section for the best weather windows… outside of that, expect rain! Indeed, even within those weather windows, Ecuador is Ecuador, so be prepared for rain in the paramo too (-: For more detailed weather diagnostics, google a monthly rain chart for the Ecuadorian Andes. I don’t have any experience myself riding at this time.

    As to a gear list… there’s some super challenging, long hike-a-bikes en route. So definitely pack as light as you can. I’d even recommend wearing a backpack, rather than loading everything on your bike. Temperatures don’t tend to drop especially low – it’s the rain that can make it feel cooler than it is. I get by fine with my 0 degree centigrade bag and extra clothes if needed. Make sure your waterproof isn’t puny thin and keep a dry set of clothes for the evenings! SPDs rather than platform pedals are a good idea too, given all the tufty paramo!