To discover the Ecuadorian Andes we cycled parts of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR). The Trans Ecuador MTB route crosses the country from north to south connecting the most interesting sights via remote dirt roads. Although we don’t have a mountain bike, we took our chances and started cycling the TEMBR on our fully loaded touring bicycle.
Start cycling the TEMBR in Quito
The majestic mountains of the Andes is the main reason why we are cycling in South America. And although we enjoyed cycling in Colombia, it felt that the real deal ánd the real stunning views were about to start by following the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike route. Very excited for what was to come we left Quito. The first day we took it easy and cycled only 30 km to a small village Pintag. A relaxed ride, maybe even too relaxed? At the end of this day, we had some arguments because Pim hoped that after a day cycling it would feel like a real work out, while Nienke was just enjoying the views and not going full speed that day. To quote Pim, ‘I want to cycle and be tired at the end of the day. I don’t want to have such an easy ride’. The rest of the TEMBR, Pim regretted that he ever mentioned this, because we got our share on cycling the TEMBR. It was far from an easy ride….
The cobblestone roads of Ecuador
The route from Quito to the Cotopaxi volcano was our introduction to the notorious Ecuadorian cobblestone roads. It is quite challenging to cycle up these roads with the thin two inch tires and a fully rigid bike. When going up, you go slow and it is difficult to steer over the large rocks. It’s hard to find rhythm in climbing and it takes a lot of power. When going down, you have to go slow as well. A fully loaded bike of in total 45 kilogram bounces of the cobblestones. It makes braking and steering difficult and needs a lot of focus. With this constant bouncing off and vibrations, you cannot help to think that the bike might fall apart or something will break off. Especially the Ortlieb panniers had it rough. A couple of times the screws came loose and we had to improvise fixing the bags. The scenery was nice and the sun was shining which made up for the uncomfortable ride.
There is nothing between uphill or downhill, this part of Ecuador doesn’t seem to have flat roads. On the contrary, the climbs are often incredibly steep. Hike-a-bikes became a daily ritual. Especially getting out of the small valleys with the rivers at the bottom is a real challenge. Gradients often surpass the 20%. We were desperately hoping the road surface would change to anything but cobblestones to make the ride a little bit easier. After 50 km of cobblestones the route took a turn left, and the cobblestones were gone. What a relief at first! But, what we got instead were trails through sandy and sometimes muddy agricultural fields until the trail completely disappeared and we had to push our bikes through grasslands and pastures of farmers. We were not sure if this was any better. It felt strange to be cycling through someone’s pasture, without any track or indication of going in the right direction. We definitely felt out of place there.
After an hour of pushing our bike through these pastures, we got back on a – cobblestone – trail. Unfortunately however, the trail was fenced by barbed wires, there was no way to get through. One thing we knew for sure, we had to cross the river which was at the bottom of a small canyon. We carefully inspected the roads on our GPS, and found some hiking trails that could bring us to the other side of the river. From there on, we could follow a better road again. We asked a local farmer to show us the best location to cross the river. He led us to a narrow wobbly makeshift bridge. Two tree logs bound together. After crossing, we realized that we would never make it to Cotopaxi as was our plan that day, so started looking for a camping spot. We found a really nice spot next to a small restaurant.
The next day the better road meandered to Cotopaxi national Park. It was such a delight to ride on firm gravel. Because it was a relatively easy ride, it gave us the chance to consider our plans. Leaving the TEMBR was definitely on our minds, because we found the previous day a bit too rough. This idea only lasted an hour because of the following:
We don’t meet too many other cyclists on the road, but from a far distance we could see three cyclists rolling down the hills. A man, a woman and their kid. And what a fantastic coincidence, this was Mathias Dammer and his family. Mathias Dammer and his brothers are the founding fathers of the TEMBR. They know every road, trails and singletracks in Ecuador. All had three inch tyres and front suspension, which indicates that our gear was definitely not ideal for these roads. It felt like fate to meet him, because we were about to give up on cycling the TEMBR. We asked Mathias about the road conditions and how much more stretches of cobblestones we could expect. He reassured us that from that point on, we had done most of the cobblestones and that the views would only get better. Our spirits were lifted again and full with excitement we continued our route to Cotopaxi.
Cycling the TEMBR: Avenue of the volcanoes
Arriving at Cotopaxi National Park was spectacular. It provides the open and mountainous landscapes that we love. And the Cotopaxi with its perfect volcanic shape creates an image of a postcard. With views on the Cotopaxi volcano covered in snow and clouds euphoria takes over. You would almost forget the tough moments on the bike that led to this moment. It makes the hardship worthwhile, that’s for sure!
Although there is some traffic in Cotopaxi National Park and we had to share the road with other tourists, at moments we still felt we had the place to ourselves. That was the first time on our trip we had that sensation. Another reason for euphoria. We found a nice place to pitch our tent, made a campfire and watched the stars with Cotopaxi Volcano on the background. A perfect finish for a perfect day.
The road between Cotopaxi and the Quilotoa crater was an highlight on its own. The road meandered through green mountains with patchwork agricultural fields and great vistas. We’ve stopped probably tens of times to soak in the beautiful landscapes. The remote roads, which are of reasonable quality and beautifully carved in the mountainsides, brings you to small mountain villages where life is lived in traditional ways. The indigenous Ecuadorian people, the ‘quechua’, are dressed in traditional clothing and live an isolated and agricultural life. Time doesn’t really affect this region which makes it feel tranquil and peaceful.
We stopped in a nice town called Isinlivi. A lovely little town with small tourist infrastructure. The place had a good atmosphere and a good hostel, so we stayed an extra 2 nights. We shared the field where we pitched our tent with three cute lamas. Sleeping between lama’s we experienced that also lamas can snore quite loudly.
Relaxed, well fed, and rested we continued our route to Quilotoa crater lake. An expected easy day of thirty kilometers turned out to be one of the toughest. The roads in the beautiful valleys around Quilotoa are very sandy. It is actually solidified remnants of the eruptions of the Quilotoa volcano. The volcanic flows left thick layers of pyroclastic flows on the hillsides and filled the valleys surrounding the Quilotoa crater with ashy sands. This meant pushing our bikes up the sandy hills. It was a déjà vu of that second day on the TEMBR, because it was such tough going. Tired and exhausted, lake Quilotoa revealed itself after climbing up to the rim at 3900m. We took our time the next day to walk around the crater lake, which has a wonderful deep green color when the sun shines upon it. Again, we discussed if we should continue with cycling the TEMBR…
Cycling can be a mental challenge
We decided to give cycling the TEMBR one more chance to the next Volcano on the ‘avenue of the volcanoes’: Volcán Chimborazo. The legs felt strong and things went smoothly. The scenery was familiar. Mountain passes above 4000 meter, agricultural fields and small mountain villages.
The relentless climbs, exhausting hike-a-bikes, tough downhills, general fatigue, cycling on less than ideal bicycles for this terrain and days covered in fog and clouds led to an absolute low of the journey so far. Pim had reached a point where all of it felt useless. Why would you put yourself through physical and mental hardship without rewards? A thought that had been lingering in his mind for some days. The result was an emotional outburst of anger, frustration and sadness. It took forty five minutes to calm down and talk about what happened. The answer, eventually, was easy. The fun of cycling the TEMBR was far to be seen, the balance was off.
Travelling by bicycle is a demanding thing. It’s is not just about going from a to b as many might think. A lot happens on one day on the bike and the impressions alone are much to take in. The fact you’re in a country which is not your own, can be stressful as well. Not being able to fluently speak the language takes a certain amount of energy. There is a constant level of fatigue, sometimes a high, sometimes a low level. But it is always there. Planning can be stressful. You need to make sure you eat and drink enough, sleep in a safe place, take care of your equipment, have rest days at the right time and at the right place. These are just some examples of things that occupy and fill the mind. If this side of travelling takes over and fills the entire space, there’s no more room left for all the reasons to travel. It’s off balance. We need space in our minds and bodies to be able to enjoy and have fun. So, lesson learned! More balance, more rest and relaxation, more space for joy and fun.
We jumped back on the bike and decided to take a collective to Salinas de Bolivar. Arriving in the village Salinas was a pleasant surprise and the best we could have hoped for that day! An exception and contrast to the villages we crossed before. A place where the roads are clean, kids are playing on the common plaza and where people greet you on the street. A place where the inhabitants have dreams and hope again. The whole village is specialized in making very tasteful cheese and chocolate. We had difficulty finding a cucumber, but chocolate and cheese is abundant. A lovely town to take a restday.
Cycling to the place on earth closest to the moon.
We had to cycle over one more pass of 4400 meter. The oxygen level at this altitude is only 50% compared to sea level. At this altitude, you do get out of breath quickly though, so we took our time. The road was not too steep and we found a steady pace to go up. We were incredibly happy that once we got our first glimpse on the Chimborazo, the clouds disappeared. The Chimborazo was standing as a lonely giant with a small brother volcano ten kilometers away. We were so impressed by this volcano and felt rather small cycling next to such a giant. Chimborazo is the highest volcano in Ecuador. Although not the highest mountain in the world by elevation above sea level, but its location near the equator makes the summit the farthest point from the Earths center. Therefore, it is actually the place on earth closest to the moon. A fun fact, but and something take in while cycling at its base.
Spending the night with a view on Chimborazo the next morning was the end of the TEMBR for us. We had decided to cycle to the next big town, Riobamba, and take a bus to Cuenca. Although it sounds we were suffering quite a bit, cycling the avenue of the Volcanoes with Cotopaxi, Quilotoa, and Chimborazo it was actually one of the highlights of our trip so far. The TEMBR dirt roads showed us challenging cobblestone roads, steep climbs but above all beautiful mountainous landscapes. In the end the rewards outweighed the hardships.
Tips for cycling the TEMBR on a touring bicycle
Cyclng the TEMBR is doable on a touring bicycle, but we think it is way more fun with a bike packing setup. If we would come back one day to cycle in Ecuador, the main thing we would do different is having another bicycle and less luggage!
- We have 2 inch tires. With the sandy dirt roads and cobblestone you would like to have at least 2.4 inch tires preferably even 3.
- Some other people cycling the TEMBR, send packages up front. The less weight the easier are the steep climbs and hike-a-bikes.
- Getting water and food is not a problem. There are some stretches with few shops, but you’re never far away from one.
- There are enough places to sleep and finding a camping spot is not a problem.
- The weather can be very grim. Rain, fog and clouds are what you’ll encounter most. Enjoy the sunshine and views when possible!
- Calculate a few more resting days than anticipated. Isinlivi and Salinas are perfect towns to have a rest day.
- Take enough money with you. ATM’s are sparse.