Los Tres Volcanes: Salinas de Guaranda to Quito

After a mellow day kicking around Salinas de Guaranda enjoying the beginning of the festival, I head out onto Los Tres Volcanes with a few luxurious extra squiggles I add in for good measure.  Another of Cass Gilbert’s growing list of routes, Los Tres Volcanes links together three of Ecuador’s volcanic highlights: the perfectly conical Volcan Cotopaxi, the volcanica caldera of Laguna Quilotoa, and the glaciated mass of Volcan Chimborazo.  It feels good to be riding again at altitude as I follow anything but a direct path to Quito.

Leaving the chocolate and pizza behind, a quite dirt road brings me back up into rarified air, front and center with Volcan Chimborazo. An extinct volcano, Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador topping out at 6310 m.  Due to the earth’s equatorial bulge, it is the farthest point from the center of the earth, or, the closest point to the sun.

Approaching from the northwest, the bottom flank of the volcano is lunar like with occasional packs of vicuna roaming the arid expanse.

Days before, Chimborazo is out in all its glory without a cloud in sight. Today, not so.

Low on water and wearied by a painfully slow grassy paramo hike-a-bike, I drop down a bit and pick up some deserted jeep tracks ringing the backside.

Morning brings out the glaciated top of Chimborazo in full splendor, but only for a few precious minutes before clouds sweep in for the rest of the day. Its fleeting appearance makes the moments before all the more special.

Lush volcanic dirt roads bring me over to Urbina where I reconnect with the proper route. At one intersection, Jose, a local horse guide, flags me down with a bellowing amigo from the field and runs over for a chat.

Progress is slow but vistas beautiful as I cross the boggy valley floor and make my way up the equally soggy trail to a 4300 m pass on the northeast side.

One last parting glimpse before snaking my way down to a little thermal bathed community.

Morning brings a solid dose of pea soup and cobbles winding up over the 4250 m Loma de Puenebata Pass. 

Gale force winds and rain at the pass give way to sunny skies and New Mexico-esque rocky ripio wrapping around the valley. While the highlights of the route are certainly the volcanoes, the interstitial riding is fantastic.

By afternoon the clouds are in a constant state of contraction and expansion – sunny with distant views one moment, engulfed with near zero visibility the next. 

After a night in Angamarca, it's a two pass day over to Laguna Quilotoa along sublime dirt roads.

Late afternoon clouds completely obscure Quilotoa when I arrive.  I decide to take a day off upon awaking the following morning to clear blue skies, spending the morning wandering around the rim and down to the lake surface.  I have the hike nearly to myself, stopping at various points to watch cloud shadows play out against the lakes green surface far below.

The pull of the Black Sheep Inn - famed Ecuadorian Ecolodge just down the hill in Chugchilan is too hard to resist.  After a mere 20km, I park El Gordo for the day and enjoy the Inn's amazing grounds, eco atmosphere, and wabi-sabi detailing.

Crisp modernist detailing fits seamlessly with traditional roofing materials on the dorm house.

The yoga room is an absolute oasis.  I get some Headspace on and even roll out the mat for a few Mellow Johnnies.

"I stand tall as I remember the true sun is within me."

Bottles or all shapes, sizes, and color as wall infill are found throughout the property. Here, the shower.

Inside corner detail.

Composting toilet.  "The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don't."  J.C. Jenkins The Humanure Handbook

The power of a good graphic.

Grey water bathroom irrigation system.

It goes on and on.... door details

Stair details.

Resident baby llama, check.

Rounded off with the World's highest Frisbee Golf Course.

Apart from the completely chill nature of the property, a great group of people is here for a few days and we commiserate about the recent election over bottomless cups of coffee and handfuls of free cookies. Reluctantly, I pull myself away from the allure of ditching my bike and becoming a permanent volunteer at Black Sheep Inn.

Shortly out of the driveway of the Black Sheep Inn, I pick up a trail dropping down to a jeep track that mellows its way along the valley floor.

Arriving in Isinlivi, I decide to sit out what looks like an approaching wall of rain at Llullu Llama Hostel.  The resident pooch greets me at the door without the slightest of cracked eyelids before a pounding rain settles in for the day.

Casting off from a luxurious detour, I climb back up towards Laguna Quilotoa and pick up a stout sandy hike-a-bike.  I especially like the “where are you going???” questions from the locals tending to their fields as I inch upwards.

Mama.

The following day brings another turn around the sun as I head towards Volcan Cotopaxi, but celebratory priorities first.

Crossing the Panamerican Highway, I enter Parque Nacional Cotopaxi and pick up a series of dirt roads cutting through the heavily wooded northwest edge.  The circuit follows La Vuelta de Cotopaxi, and had I been a bit more tuned in I would have realized I was only two days away from seeing it, or riding against it... Instead I enjoy a few Honey Stinger gels that landed trailside.

After scrounging for water from left over piles of hail, I awake the following morning to a clear view of Cotopaxi from on high in the surrounding paramo. Magic.

GPS map reset at 4000 m. Step one - take a deep breath and be grateful for where you are.

Similar to my tour of Ausangate, I love visually experiencing the changing faces of Cotopaxi against its adjacent landscape.

Ruben and his buddy are all smiles away from the camera as I swing through the tiny hacienda waypoint - Tambo.

The second 4000 m pass of the day is nothing short of wonderful as the typical cloud cover holds off and gives me a full day of Cotopaxian bliss. 

The northeast edge of the park opens up to buttery smooth tracks and other worldly conical grass mounds.

Too cool to just pass in one setting, I set an early camp and enjoy the morning fog burn off.  

Bidding goodbye to the Park, I leave the last bit of the dirt wiggles behind and make my way over to Quito.

Route:

Los Tres Volcanes with a detour to Chugchilan (Black Sheep Inn) and Isinlivi (Lullu Llama Hostel) 

Thanks to Cass for formalizing another fantastic route; it's one not to be missed.

Notes:

For north bounders there is not much water in the following two locations:

(1) The Salinas side of Chimborazo.  The first road you come across after crossing the more lunar section at the base of Chimborazo will take you down to a refugio/park entrance if you need water. From here you can either easily link back up with the gps track or stay low following mostly dirt roads to Urbina and then link back up as I did.

(2) As you enter PN Cotopaxi from Mulalo there's not a reliable water source until you get over the first pass.  There is a stream you'll cross before you start up towards the pass, but it was only viable with a filter.

As you descend from Quilotoa (heading towards Cotopaxi) there is a new dirt road being put in from the first river crossing up to the plateau.  That hike-a-bike from the river (3200 m) up to the plateau (3450 m ) is a sandy grinder from this direction. South bounders enjoy.