Motorcycle travel

Trip down memory lane

Many hours of my previous life were spent climbing things; rock, ice, and mountains big and small. So standing on top of Rucu Pichincha volcano, high above Quito, was an unexpected pleasure and a definite trip down memory lane. It was interesting how my comfort with exposure and scrambling on fractured rock wasn’t there at the start of the hike but by the end it was a little like old times…

Scrambling on one of the easier sections

Views from trail up Rucu Pichincha

Quito has one of the highest altitude gondolas in the world. Rising to about 4000 metres from a high neighbourhood in the west of Quito, it provides riders with an amazing view of the city (and the big volcanos of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi if the weather cooperates). It also provides easy access to a number of higher altitude trails, one of which goes to the summit of Pichincha. I hadn’t planned on doing the hike as I really hadn’t enough time and was alone, so I was up there in my street shoes and jeans. But having met two Spaniards in the teléferico were going to do the climb, I decided to walk part way up with them and turn around whenever needed to make it back to the hotel in time to check out. One of the Spaniards had only this past January climbed Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, so we had something in common! 

Acclimatization is an interesting phenomena – once having occurred it makes one feel like a super athlete. On my first days in Quito (at 2800 metres) I was winded going up a short flight of stairs, and a bit fluey feeling as well. Now after 10 days in the higher parts of Ecuador (riding above 4000 metres on 4 of those days) I could essentially run along the less steep parts of the trail and had no problem scrambling as fast as I safely could at nearly 4700 metres at the summit of Pichincha. To put this in perspective this is significantly higher than all the peaks in the Canadian or US Rockies, with only the highest mountains of the Yukon and Alaska topping this elevation.

View descending the upper screen slope, note Quito below

One of the few pics of me – note high end climbing gear like jeans and street shoes!

At any rate I walked with my new found friends for a few hours and then could sense that the summit was attainable, even with my tight time line. But I’d need to hustle. So I quickly left the guys behind (thanks to those wonderful physiological changes that come with time at altitude!). The upper reaches of the mountain require scrambling or outright rock climbing, depending on the chosen route. With the clouds streaming in and reducing visibility I ended up taking a somewhat more challenging climb on the way up than the slightly easier but slippery way I subsequently found on the way down. This would be considered more challenging than the average hike. 

Panorama from high on Pichincha

Traversing trail

My street shoes weren’t the best for the technical stuff, and without laces on them they moved around a fair bit and I had developed a raging blister in the way up.  The descent was tough as this amount of climbing over the 11-12 km round trip wasn’t something I’d done in the past very many years… Like I said, this was a trip down memory lane! Something I’d recommend to anyone who is somewhat fit, acclimatized, and able to deal with heights (or rather the drops!). It is a great way to spend half a day in Quito and an especially helpful way to acclimatize if doing higher peaks. 

Climbing the last few metres to the summit – photo: Boris (ECU)

I have borrowed one photo from to show the section in the higher reaches that I followed to the summit. With me climbing alone and the poor visibility I have no photos from there.

Motorcycle travel

Questions answered

This day had me guessing. Would I be harassed by police or military? Would I run into some frightening characters, perhaps involved in smuggling cocaine from Colombia to the Ecuadorian ports? Would the day be too long and challenging to be comfortable? Would the torrential rain have caused landslides or made the occasional cobblestone sections too slick to ride?

View from breakfast at Hacienda Primavera

I needn’t have worried. All questions had the right answers, and this day may have been the best of the trip. It was long, and there was a section I thought I would stay stuck in forever and I had my military checkpoints, but what a day!

Friendly military checkpoint

The first section from Hacienda Primavera climbed up into the cloud forest, switchback after switchback. There was evidence of landslide, including a dramatic and frightening scar from sometime this year, but nothing that was actually now blocking the road. The descent revealed the mountains of Colombia, across the river that forms the border. It is surprisingly hard to find details of this area on the usual online maps…

Tall waterfall near El Chical

Colombia on the left, Ecuador on the right

Along the border the road is dirt but wide and fast as it goes through some small towns on its way to crest at Volcan Chillies  pass. The air was clear but cold up there. The vegetation varied according to altitude; frailejones domintaed the landscape for a while, with the odd wild llama completing the Andean picture. The frequent “volcanic zone” and “escape route” signs accented the awesome geography of this area. Funny that the last time saw such signs pointing out the evacuation route were in Thailand with images of tsunamis instead of volcanos on the signs – nature can mess with you in any number of ways.

Road at 4000 metres

Near Volcan Chillies pas

Plants on the páramo

Keeping the tradition of going to hot springs and having local food alive, I devoured backwards on an old cobblestones path to the Tufiño hot springs, where there are a number of pools the hottest measuring 55 Celsius. The post soak meal was local (very freshly caught) trout as part of the usual Andean meal – soup as starter, then main with protein of choice (pork, chicken or fish), potato, rice and a salad of tomatoes and onions.

Can you see the beast in the next image?

Wild llama in the páramo

Tulcan is where the route turned back on itself and headed southwest after going eastwardalong the border for a few hours. There was a choice of following the old cobbled Colombia-Ecuador road or taking the newer paved highway – the choice was obvious. The old road went into the páramo, defined variously but essentially “the ecosystem of the regions above the continuous forest line, yet below the permanent snowline” according to Wikipedia. It is often used to refer to these areas in the northern Andes. The area I passed through went up to 3400 metres and had grasses and shrubs on it. One section of perhaps 30 km had frailejones covering the entire surface as far as I could see. It was in this section that cobblestones had disintegrated, and there were ledges, large ruts and mud holes. More precision riding than the “point and throttle” riding some of the previous loose but wider stuff had required.  It was in one of these mud traps that the bike buried its rear wheel. It wasn’t moving and more throttle only buried the wheel more. After getting off the bike and catching my breath I pushed the beast as hard as I could while modulating the throttle and finally got it out, nearly collapsing from the exertion. I was 80 km from my destination and an hour either side from the nearest settlements. Each mud hole from then in really sharpened my focus!

Puya Clava-Herculis (I believe!)

Sea of frailejones in the páramo


Descending out the páramo the landscape changed into something resembling pastoral English countryside, with rich green rolling hills nestling small towns and grazing cattle dotting the landscape. The light was a photographers dream but with the clock ticking and m3 wanting to preserve battery life in the camera (after leaving the charger behind at the Hacienda Cusin) I missed some magnificent landscape opppotunities. Some pictures are meant to stay in the mind, I guess.

Pastoral countryside near El Angel

Andean village

Farmland near El Angel

The day ended at another incredible hacienda, the Tunas y Cabras located in the desert like highlands just north of Ibarra. Again I was the only guest.

Motorcycle travel

To the frontier

I am a little embarrassed about some of the accommodation. Freedom isn’t kidding when they use the word deluxe. I wasn’t expecting anything like Hacienda Cusin or what was to come. These places certainly hammer home the differences in how people live, here in Ecuador but anywhere really. But many of the enterprises have restored beautiful, but old and decaying, Haciendas, and in the case of Cusin the owner employs a large staff of Ecuadoreans and tries to sell the beauty of Ecuador to the world. Tourism has value to the host country.

High country in northern Ecuador

High country in northern Ecuador


Library at Hacienda Cusin

Gardens at Hacienda Cusin near Otavalo

This ride would bring to just below the Colombian border, an area some locals have told me is very dangerous because of the ongoing smuggling by the Colombian cartels to Ecuador where the cargo is shipped north from Ecuadorean ports. Others have said to expect police and military checkpoints but otherwise not to worry.

The route visited Cotocachi, famous for its leather and named for the volcano towering over it. It was a beautiful little town and like all these Andean villages has a beautiful town square. This square was even a wifi hotspot! I could have stopped for a snack at the “Pastry Shop” run by an expat friend of the Freedom owner, but stuffed from a delicious breakfast at Cusin and eager to see what the day would bring I rode on to Urcuqui to gas up. This would be the last available gas for the rest of this day and most of the next day along the Colombian border. Better not miss it!


Pablo Arenas village near Cotacachi

From Timbariru, another gorgeous little village, the road began to rise. There was an option here of taking a paved section to avoid the very steep switchbacks leading up through Cotocachi Cayapas park. With the weather looking ok up high I decided to press on with the dirt roads.


Church in Pablo Arenas near Cahuasqui

Why do I like to scare myself so much?

After descending steep, exciting switchbacks into the grand canyon (my name for it) that ran through the park, the road began to rise. This was the part I was anxious about, with the grades exceeding 35% according to my road book, but it was actually fun and manageable (and a bit scary…). The descent into La Merced de Buenos Aires on the other hand was very rocky and care was required to keep the tires inflated. The top section over the height of land was stunning; beautiful weather and expansive views. There was some small scale logging going on with a man cutting the fallen trees into planks by hand with a chain saw. On the descent the rain began, and conditions became slick. This would turn into a full on rainy season downpour by the end of the ride, making one descent along a deep valley on red mud roads very slick – I was hoping the inevitable truck or bus would meet me in a less precarious area and luck was in my side – nothing tried to run me off into the void!

Precipitous roads!

Beautiful country over the pass and heading into La Merced de Beunos Aires

Gorgeous dirt switchbacks

Hacienda Primavera is very remote, with no cell coverage and spotty internet. I was to be the only guest. The staff were wonderful. Alex, the manager, is a young man with excellent English who is doing his masters in business. His girlfriend is studying chemical engineering. I’m hearing a lot of these stories; this country is going places.

Motorcycle travel

Quick notes on the day

So as not to forget I will put down some notes before the memories get replaced with new ones. Today’s ride would take me from Mindo past Otavalo to the Hacienda Cusin in the little Puebla of San Pablo.

Glimpse of Cotocachi 

Left Septimo Paraiso around 8:15, later than expected, and rode into Mindo to just check it out. Looks cute – touristy but well situated for hikes and tours. The Septimo Paraiso lodge was amazing. It seems actually to be part of the cloud forest. I really wished I had more time to walk the trails on the property and I just relax there. Perhaps another time. No rule that I can’t go back to a place, especially if I’m bringing family along to see Ecuador for the first time. The custom tour Freedom put together for me includes elements of their “Dirt Deluxe” tour and I’m figuring out why; thrash yourself and get dusty, muddy, bloody or whatever the case may be, then end the day in absolutely luxury. Quite an amazing concept actually.

Leaving Septimo Paraiso Ecolodge

Up in light rain to the main Quito road, which itself is a wonder to ride. Very quickly the GPS took me off the main road onto a cobblestoned ancient road leading up over a pass and through some incredible cloud forest. The views were varied, with expansive panoramas across the valley at times, then views from within the forest, at one point even looking straight across at the canopy as if I were a bird. Speaking of birds the variety here is incredible. Last night I was serenaded by the rain and sounds of birds and a multitude of other creatures.

Beautiful horse and embroidery

Into the cloud forest

In places the road had fallen away, like someone had taken a huge ice cream scope and spooned off half the road, leaving a crescent shaped gap with a sheer drop hundreds of feet to the valley floor. There were thin ribbons of flagging tape marking the spot! Not much to stop a distracted rider from taking a plunge. Obviously I was focussed!

On leaving this cobble and dirt section I made a wrong turn on the main road and travelled 7 km before realizing it! Back in the correct direction I found a gas station, then once again left the pavement for more wondrous dirt riding. The road drew me past small villages, isolated farms and some gently winding dirt that allowed 60-80 km/hr instead of the usual 30-40 km/hr when the road starts twisting.

I forget some of the middle section, except I was waved through a police checkpoint. Eventually as the road climbed incredible swaths of sugar cane were growing on the steeps beside the road. There was a sweet smell as a few farms were boiling the cane – a local later told me they may have been preparing a cane liquor, a sample of which I had a few days ago in Salinas de Guaranda. There was also a smell of smoke and soon I could see scorched earth where the cane had been burned.

Rio Intag

Then the road started to descend and suddenly I was crossing the great Rio Intag! Lovely riding first on dirt, then on pavement, took me alongside the river, at times guarded on each side by sugar cane growing on wildly steep slopes, then towered over by huge cliffs. I’m trying to to do more than just ride a motorcycle  (though the riding is amazing and the timelines are tight…) so with that in mind I stopped at Nangulvi Hot Springs, which I had to myself! It is truly off season. Prior to soaking up the many supposed health benefits of the springs I grabbed a meal in the restaurant. The was one other fellow and soon we began chatting. Leo is a civil engineer doing water projects in remote villages; amazingly he has a nephew in a Toronto! Perhaps some day we’ll meet up as he wants to see Ottawa. He has an open invitation.

Rio Intag near the hot springs

Tall grasses and sugar cane

The little hamlet of Apuela would be the start of the Freedom Road, so named by the owner of Freedom cycles. It was a technically challenging climb which was described as extremely steep, loose and rutted. And from looking at the topo I’d say very exposed too. As I was running a bit late and had already seen evidence of very recent washouts and rutting  from the last few days of rain, and more importantly would be alone on a seldom travelled road, I decided to give it a pass. Sometimes I’m not impulsive… ironically the paved section of the main road was incredible, snaking it’s way over the pass and vertiginous in its own right, so I think it was a win win.

The next main stop was Lake Cuicocha which means guinea pig lake in the Quechua language. The weather was stunning and the views of the lake were spectacular. I hiked down a short way to get a better view from the restaurant parking lot, and ran back up the trail to the bike. I felt like I’d just raced a 400 metre sprint! I’m acclimitizing for sure but still feel the altitude.

Cuicocha lake

The final destination of the day was Hacienda Cusin, just outside of Otavalo. First thing was getting into Otavalo – the planned route took me down a very steep cobbled path that was sometimes covered in deep sand. Gorgeous view of two volcanos – Cotochaci, rocky and severe on my left, and Imbabura, towering over Otavalo – and the town itself spread out below me. I was passing Quechua families on the way and they seemed to me very friendly. Perhaps feelings have changed since the early 1990s when racial tensions were high in Ecuador following the government ratifying legislation giving indigenous people much improved rights. Incredibly fit they were too as they were striding up the very steep grades from town without showing any strain.
We have a family connection to Otavalo, with my brother having lived there. What a beautiful place! I just rode through town and around the market square, which seemed to be winding down, then made my way through San Pablo des Lagos to finally get to the restored 17th century Hacienda where I’d spend the night.

I’ve more to write about the Hacienda Cusin and need to post some photos which the internet connection isn’t allowing me to do. For now then I’ll post what I have…

Motorcycle travel

Into the Cloud Forest again

Today’s ride ended and finished in the wet. In fact even though I seemed well on schedule to finish the 245 km ride in a timely fashion, thick mist and rain slowed me down on the approach to Mindo, and darkness falls quickly on the equator.

Septimo Paraiso Ecolodge near Mindo

The route left Quevedo on fast paved highway where I could maintain 85 km/hr most of the way. The big dirt bike with its 650 cc single cylinder lived up to its moniker of being a “thumper” (big singles have a thumping feeling and sound as the single piston isn’t balanced as well as multi cylinder engines). But this bike does really well on the highway, just not at the lose-your-license-speeds that a bike like my larger BMW can do.

The dirt started shortly after La Mana, and it was slimy and slick mud initially. As it rose the skies lightened and a stunning stretch of  gravel ran along a flat, 200 metre wide valley floor that rose almost imperceptibly, walled in on the left with majestic walls of cloud forest rising into the mist and on the right with a lower ridge where the river had cut through. This area reminded me of the area in Panama where my brother lives and it brought back lovely memories of hiking there with family.

Once the path headed for the clouds there were some extremely steep and loose sections, with the back wheel spinning out sideways in some if the rutted switchbacks. Really fun and challenging riding.

High country

This area came after the town of Pucuyacu, where I stopped to rest and once again witnessed an animated game of volley ball in a roofed open air court. The players were amused when I took some pictures and put on a little show. Like in Salinas a few days before these were not young men in sports clothes but they were quick and agile, with their play worthy of spectating as the locals cheering and laughing proved. This action was just off the town square, a large covered slab where some market stalls were open. I imagine it would be teeming on market day.

Off day at the local market in Pucuyacu

Domesticated llama

The ubiquitous village volleyball game!

The next town was high in the mountains, which I reached at 1 pm after riding some of the same high alpine roads I had taken before on my way south to Salinas (and somehow spending 20 minutes riding down the mountain in the wrong direction before clueing in…)

Farming the steeps

San Francusco de las Pampas (known locally as las Pampas) is small but busy Andean town that I had only passed through on my first day of riding. Here I had a filling almuerzo tipico, a local fixed course lunch. First an interesting soup then fried chick, rice, a chick pea like bean in a tasty sauce, and some salad. This was all washed down with a Pilsener, the most commonly found of the national beers in this part. After lunch the road (now wider and better used) descended towards the Rio Toachi,  Before getting into river valley proper I passed high over a huge hydroelectric dam being built. I’m told most of these projects are Chinese funded. I had only thought they were heavily invested in Africa…

More things to say about this day but I’m always running out of time. I’ll post for now…

Motorcycle travel

The easy day?

Salinas was supposed to be in essence a rest day. Though long the ride to Quevedo was meant to be quick enough to allow time for a 2-3 hour tour of community cooperatives making cheese, chocolate and woolen ware. I finally decided to do the tour after vacillating about when I should leave, but it was too expensive for my new South African friend (traveling around the world on a retirement budget) so I returned to my original plan. Time to catch up on some emails, upload some photos and repack my gear.

Once again the ride would traverse some of the major geographic and climatic zones. From Salinas the ride twisted it’s way up into the páramo, before descending into the cloud forest which again lived up to its name enshrouded as it was in a wet mist. 

Descending even further  the track entered dripping jungle and the thick, slippery mud tried every switchback and turn to lay me down. The elevation on the route was in fact only a few dozen metres above sea level – the locals from the Andes describe the area the ride passed through as “coastal”even though it is most certainly inland! The last stretch of jungle was drier and really fun to ride. Banana, orange, lemon, and an unknown fruit that I later found out was cocoa, were growing everywhere. The smells of the lowlands were different from those of the cloud forest, and the bugs were back!

On the last stretch to Quevedo some larger towns were visited (very different in look and vibe than the Andean villages – a little more hustle in the air…) and on the last stretch huge palm groves and plantations of other trees (balsa I think) kept the huge fruit tree groves company. The last 10 km were on a gorgeous winding stretch of pavement that ran through some of the bigger palm groves. This area was a sport bikers dream.

Quevedo itself isn’t though! But for some the lane splitting game might be great sport. After the mandatory wrong turn I made it to the hotel and took a dip in the Olympic sized pool on the property. Looking out the hotel window I saw a large stadium and other elements of an old sports complex. Google failed to provide the answer but did tell me that October is Quevedo raniest month! 

Motorcycle travel

Long day in the hills

I’m finding it a struggle to remember everything from the days in detail. There is so much sensory overload from the fantastic scenery, and mental exhaustion from riding the bike in the challenging terrain and doing my best in Spanish, that it’s important to document what I can right away. The kaleidoscope of experiences the next day tend to push the previous days memories deeper into the vault.

Yesterday’s ride took me the Chugchulan, past the amazing Quilotoa Crater lake and up into the gorgeous light of the 4000 metre high alpine páramo, back down into El Corazón along a precipitous and frightening road carved into the sheer walls rising hundreds of metres above the Rio Angamarca.

After a quick fuel stop and unfortunately no lunch (my chosen spot was closed and I was wanting to leave enough time for the unexpected) the road descended into steamy river valley, then up through thick mist and mud to the village of Facundo Vela where the weather began to clear.

The climax of the day was a climb to over 4000 metres again on the scariest switchbacks and most exposed roads I’ve yet ridden, before descending into the beautiful little town of Salinas.

The description provided by Freedom bike states “this is the day that will test your endurance” and gave strict time checks that if not met would mean aborting the route. It was indeed long and challenging, but finishing in fine weather and staying dry through the hour of rain and mud made it a different proposition than on the first day, where it had been a real struggle to finish. It was my error in not battening down the hatches soon enough and I made sure not to repeat it on this leg!