Cotopaxi 360, Ecuador
67 Mi.(108 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
Images by Cass Gilbert and Michael Dammer.
Easily accessed by public transport from Quito, Cotopaxi 360 begins with an extended climb away from Pan American highway along forested dirt roads, before meandering onto the network of double track and singletrack that course through Ecuador’s most popular national park.
And what a park it is! A beautiful and otherworldly landscape, Cotopaxi National Park is like nowhere else in South America. Given its tropical latitude and lofty elevation, plant life is typified by a diverse array of mosses, lichens, and groves of Polylepis, a tree that grows only between 3500m and 5000m. My personal favourite? The finger-like lycopodium, a plant that looks like it’s more at home on the bottom of an ocean than on land. Keep your eyes peeled for fauna too, as aside from some 200 plant species native to the park, there are also pumas, marsupial mice, llamas, wild horses, Andean wolves, deer and birds to be spotted.
As for riding, much of the terrain surrounding Cotopaxi feels almost lunar-like; dark, hardpack dirt roads chicane through lichen-speckled rock and unusual, triangular volcanic formations created by volcanic deposits. Elsewhere, the landscape is typically Ecuadorian, with faint singletrack wending its way through a complex puzzle of tufty páramo, the tropical tundra that lies high above treeline.
Cotopaxi 360 is based on the popular Vuelta al Cotopaxi, a long established highlight in the Ecuadorian cross country racing calender, devised by Daniel Espinos and held towards the end of October. The exact route changes from year to year; this particular version has been fine tuned by Michael Dammer, to work in some the lesser travelled tracts of páramo and singletrack that are found within the farther reaches of the park.
If tackled in a clockwise direction, as suggested, there’s one stout hike-a-bike to contend with, a short but awkwardly challenging graft up and over Cerro El Morro, a hilltop marked by a huge chunk of andesite that stands sentinel on the horizon – an igneous rock type named after the Andes itself. From there, it’s a fast descent on rutted dirt roads in various states of repair… down, down, down towards the Inter Andean Valley once more. Only a tough traverse lies ahead to close to loop, across a series of quebradas – deep canyons created by Cotopaxi’s volcanic eruptions – following sandy tracks and village roads.
When it comes to views of Cotopaxi herself – which, at 5,897m, is Ecuador’s second highest volcano – these can sometimes be fleeting, depending on the time of year and the whims of lady luck. But whatever the weather, the unique landscape and the very nature of Ecuador’s volcanic trails mean there’s nowhere quite like bikepacking through Cotopaxi National Park.
This route has been awarded an 8, reflecting Ecuador’s challenging terrain, the altitude of the national park, and the region’s often mixed weather conditions. The riding for the most part is relatively non-technical, though negotiating the tufty paramo requires its own particular skillset. If tackled in a clockwise direction, as suggested, there are two short but steep hike-a-bikes to contend with, in order to hurdle the rugged outcrop of El Morro.
Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times since 1738. The most recent eruption lasted from August 2015 to January 2016. It’s only just reopened, after being officially closed for climbing since then.
- Riding mellow and meandering singletrack across the high plateau that surrounds Volcan Cotopaxi.
- Learning new riding skills required to negotiate Ecuador’s treeless páramo.
- Marvelling at the profusion of miniature flora… like lichens and mosses.
- Enjoying panoramic views of Cotopaxi… if you’re lucky with the weather!
- We’ve mapped out this route from Lasso, as it’s easy to reach by bus from Quito. But you could also base yourself at one of the area’s many hostels, allowing yourself time to acclimatise and relax before tackling the ride. These include Tierra del Volcan, whose owner Jorge Perez rents bikes and has been developing local trails, or the popular Secret Garden.
- Entrance to the park is free.
- June to mid-September is the high season in the Ecuadorian Andes and is the driest time of the year. Outside of this, be prepared for extended bouts of very heavy rain. Traditionally, there is often a ‘mini dry season’ in December and January.
- Always expect mixed weather in the highlands of Ecuador, whatever the season. Be prepared for persistent rain at times, and/or four seasons in one day. Bring a quality, reliable waterproof jacket.
- 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 them that you will close all gates behind you (“Yo cierro las puertas”).
- This route is well suited to ‘plus’ and full-fat bikes, given the unorthodox nature of the páramo. Otherwise, we suggest a 2.25in tire with front suspension.
- Clipless pedals are preferable to platform ones, as they’re less likely to get caught up in the tufty, grassy páramo.
- There are high-end bike shops in Quito, including Cikla, whose owner, Daniel Espinosa organises the yearly Vuelta al Cotopaxi. A broad range of Revelate bikepacking gear is available at the shop.
- Quito is well stocked with quality camping gear. The Ecuadorian chain Tatoo has an REI-like selection of high-end gear. Pressurised cannister bottles are available and denatured alcohol is easy to find locally, under the name alcohol industrial, sold in hardware stores and pharmacies.
- A general note on buses. Most have room for a bike or two in the trunk; wheels may need to be removed and an extra charge may be levied.
- Camping in the park is only allowed in designated areas – see map – but once outside its boundaries, it’s not an issue.
- The route passes by Tambopaxi Lodge, where rooms, dorms, and camping are available. Food is expensive but good, and there’s wifi too.
- Bring food for the loop. Other than Tambopaxi lodge, there is nowhere to resupply en route.
- Clean water is readily available; use a filter if unsure of its source.