RTWPaul: The Best of the Ecuadorian Andes

A small South American country lying right on the equator and unable to boast world’s most-known wonders like the Machu Picchu in Peru or the endless southern pampas of Patagonia in Argentina and Chile, Ecuador often gets overlooked by motorcycle travelers who rush past following the Pan American Highway.

 

And yet, Ecuador has some of the most stunning riding in the Andes on the entire continent. While Ecuador’s coast isn’t anything spectacular and its access to the Amazon somewhat limited, the Andean passes and the looming peeks of the active volcanoes in this country are a must-see on your South American ride.

Here’s what not to miss in Ecuador, especially if you love riding off-road.

Otavalo and Cotacachi

Coming into Ecuador from the East, I made my way towards Otavalo, the country’s most indigenous city nestled in the Otavalo Valley. Otavalo is well-known for its enormous and vividly colourful indigenous market where the locals sell everything from cattle and sheep to exquisite handmade textiles including traditional Otavaleño clothing. During the market days, the entire town is filled with farmers, artisans, and craftsmen from the nearby villages and settlements.

The Otavaleños swarm the town offering their animal stock, fruits and veggies, handmade crafts, rugs, and just about everything in between, transforming the entire city into one brightly colored blur of bustle and business. The market is best visited during the weekends, but be careful where you park your motorcycle as it can be hard to get in and out of the town’s center.

An even more interesting place to visit near Otavalo is Cotacachi, a small mountain pueblo located nearby. Cotacachi is famous for its skilled leather tanners, most of them indigenous families who still work on animal hides using traditional methods and natural solutions instead of chemical processing. While in Cotacachi, make sure to visit the local leather tanners’ workshops: they are usually happy to give you a tour and talk to you about their work, the town’s history, and their traditions that run centuries deep.

There are several off-road trails shooting off the main roads in the Cotacachi area, and you can easily spend a couple of days exploring the mountains nearby.

Quilotoa Crater Lake

Past Ecuador’s capital Quito, get off the Pan American Highway and head for Quilotoa, a stunning sky-blue crater lake hidden away in the deep Andes. Take the trail leading towards Sigchos and Chugchilan to get off the tarmac, and enjoy sweeping Andean vistas throughout the entire ride.

Along the way, you’ll spot small indigenous villages where people still speak a form of Quichua instead of Spanish. If you’re feeling adventurous, grab a local lunch: a guinea pig roasted on a spit right on the side of the road. It may not look very appetizing at first glance, but the guinea pig tastes a lot like roast rabbit – not a bad way to fill your belly while tackling some off-road tracks.

There are several off-road routes looping around Quilotoa, including some gnarly single track. You can also leave your bike at the Quilotoa village and take a hike around the lake, or hire a mule and a guide to get down to the water and back. According to the indigenous legends, Quilotoa was once a crater who fell in love with Cotopaxi, a neighboring volcano located east; however, the marriage of the two young lovers was forbidden by Quilotoa’s parents, and she was so heartbroken she erupted and filled the newly opened crater lake with her tears which give the water its bright blue color. Whether you believe the legends or not, Quilotoa Lake is a sight to behold, and the riding in the area is simply astonishing.

Chimborazo National Park

Next up on the Avenue of the Volcanoes – a route loosely connecting seven of Ecuador’s highest and most prominent volcanoes running along the spine of the Andes – is Chimborazo, known locally as the Father Mountain. Towering at 20,564 feet above sea level, the summit of Chimborazo is not the tallest peak in the world, but it is the closest to the sun because of the equatorial bulge it sits on. Chimborazo is easily the most spectacular sight in Ecuador, it’s lone massive, snow-capped peak looming above the high plateau. On a clear day, you can see the entire mammoth of the mountain and get incredibly close to it following one of the many off-road trails in the Chimborazo National Park.

Before you head for Chimborazo, make sure to put your thermals on. The weather at this altitude is unpredictable and can turn in minutes, the clear blue skies suddenly darkening with storm clouds. Expect cold, sun, snow, howling winds, and rain all at once, as this wild desolate country sees some harsh climates year-round.

The best way to explore the Chimborazo National Park is taking Route 491 from Ambato, then hopping on a dirt trail leading towards Simiatug and Salinas. The riding here is out of this world, and you’re likely to have the entire place to yourself as very few travelers ever come this way. You’ll see droves of wild vicunas, lone llama shepherds tending to their animals, and tiny indigenous settlements along the way. Stay the night in Salinas, a curious little Andean town boasting ancient salt mines and a co-op of indigenous families producing local cheese, chocolate, and cocoa; the locals here are incredibly warm and friendly, and it’s worth hanging out for a day or two to explore the region in more depth.

After Salinas, ride towards volcano Chimborazo following a dirt track leading back on Route 491, then take one of the trails or a paved road across the Park. There will be plenty of scenic pullouts along the way, and you can spend an entire day exploring just the territory of the Park. Some of the smaller dirt trails are softer sand and shale here, so pack light, but the route is doable even on larger ADV motorcycles. The wild vicuna love this area, so watch out for the animals out on the trails, and ease off the throttle – you are quite literally in the middle of nowhere here, and if you get off the tarmac, you probably won’t see another vehicle or a human for the whole day.

Volcano Tungurahua

If you’re feeling drained after spending time in high altitude and harsh climates, head to Banos, a small town South-East of Ambato. Banos is very touristy, but it’s a lovely town to rest up and recharge and admire Tungurahua, an active volcano that sometimes spews lava and ash from its crater. Banos has great accommodation options, excellent food, and plenty of activities if you need a break from the bike – rafting, hiking, horseback tours, and 4x4 expeditions into the Amazon all start here.

While riding off-road in Ecuador, keep in mind that it is perfectly legal to take your bike on any trails including single-track footpaths, but be mindful of private land and indigenous communities. If unsure, always ask the locals who will happily point you in the right direction. Wild camping is allowed almost anywhere, but double check with park rangers if you’re crossing a reserve or a national park.

Ecuador may be small, but if you dare to get off the beaten path, this country has so much to offer you won’t want to leave.

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