Gina had mapped our way out of Tumbaco along a small road which would eventually lead us to Cotopaxi. Santiago had given us some route advice as to how to get there the quickest. We set off early before the sun was high, but about 15km in, I took a look at our map and saw we were missing a route I had wanted to try starting from the town of Tambo in the exact opposite direction, I spied what looked like a real remote route through the mountains all the way to Cotopaxi. We ended spending a day cycling there climbing from 2300 to 4000m, only to find out that the route is private and costs 5 dollars per person to pass. To top it off, it was a horse track with “mud up to your thighs”. If it had been free to pass we would have tried, but there are so many beautiful free places to visit, why bother.
We returned to Pifo and rode to Sangolqui along an uncomfortable highway but soon merged left onto Juan de Salinas. From here the traffic began to thin as we skirted through small towns. Finally, a brief steep pavement climb brought us to a “rock” road. These roads are popular in rainy areas as they consist of various sized and shaped rocks embedded into the dirt, which allows the rain to drain through them instead of ruining the road surface (which is already ruined if you ask me). They are one of the most uncomfortable surfaces to ride over but Gina reminded me that at least it was better than the Panamerican. We lowered tire pressure but as I bounced around, I dreamed of the dirt to come.
Our original route was simple, continuing through Rumipamba and taking us to the a North Control of Cotopaxi. From there we would head to the Laguna de Limpiopungo, camp, and head back downhill into the central valley where most of the cities and large towns are found. It was with luck that our sore bottoms prompted us to stop early for the day at a campground with wifi! Our logic was that if we kept going, our next day to the Laguna would be incredibly short. I’m not sure what sparked it, but I decided to do a bit of reading and check out Mike Howarth’s blog as he had cycled the route northbound recently. Some frantic googling and I found out that Cass Gilbert had found a hike a bike route around the south side of Cotopaxi some years ago. It sounded much more exciting than what we had mapped, and I felt like we couldn’t take the easy route while riding fat bikes. A quick food check assured us that we would be good to go, and aside from Gina’s general frustration with me constantly changing the route, the plan was made.
The next morning we continued on the rock road for 5 kilometres, and all of a sudden hit beautiful dirt. A gradual climb over the next 10 kilometres went unnoticed as the beautiful landscape opened up and the base of Cotopaxi came into view. We reached the North Control in good spirits, and after providing the guards with passport details and buying some emergency chocolate (4 bars), we hit the road in search of this gem of a route. The top of Cotopaxi was shrouded by cloud, but once in awhile we could glimpse it’s snow covered peak. It wasn’t hard to get off the main dirt road and find single track, or ride wherever we wanted for that matter. The terrain was smooth under tire, and we made our way to the track on the left hand side of Cotopaxi which smoothly climbed to a plateau. We circled around the eastern flank on a beautifully flat dirt track and reached a high point of just over 4000m. Descending 200 meters we found water and set up camp. Apparently we were near a water purification centre as a friendly security guard came down from out of nowhere to say hi.
After a quiet night’s sleep we hit the trail to Hacienda El Tambo from which the trail became absent. We essentially had a 10 kilometre section of grass and tussock to climb. The going was slow even on our fat bikes and despite most of it being cycle able, Gina and I opted to walk slowly with the bikes as it seemed like a nice change of pace. Intermittent rivers crossed our path where we were required to descend and climb a few steep meters. We found our energy levels low, most likely due to being lazy and elevation (in that order). Eventually, three horsemen passed by and informed us that the final climb to the summit was extremely steep and laughed at us in that “I’m so happy I’m not you” kind of way. We plodded along and eventually crossed a river which led to very steep path up the side of a hill. It was only a 100m climb but Gina and I didn’t see the path and ended up bush whacking our way up. It smoothed out up top with beautiful views of the surrounding peaks and Lagunas. Another 2 kilometres further and we hit the summit which was essentially a precarious slippery dirt pass. None of it felt dangerous, only adventurous. From the summit we followed a trail down and then to the left over another pass which led to a road. At this point, you can choose left or right. We chose left to Latacunga.
This route was amazing! So many beautiful camp spots to choose from, and lots of opportunities to hop onto single track. If leaving from Tumbaco, bring ample food as stores are scarce past Sangolqui. It took us around 3 days but we don’t travel super quick so take that for what it’s worth.
Thanks to Cass Gilbert for finding this gem, and Mike Howarth for posting photos on his blog which convinced us to check it out. Also, Velofreedom (we haven’t even spoken with you!) your blog was a really useful resource as well. We ended up entering the prohibited area too but confirmed with multiple people that it’s not a problem.
Route info: See/download GPX route here
Running from the storm
The elusive photo of Dan 😉
Waiting for some better views
Just look at that smile on her face
Pick your path!
Camp at 3800m
Pushing through tussock
On top of the world