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Climbing and mountainbiking in Ecuador
Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America. Despite its comparatively small area of 272000 km2 (which is about as large as West Germany) it has a huge diversity in climate.
In Ecuador, the Andes consist of two parallel mountain ranges (Sierra Occidental and Sierra Central), crossing the country from north to south.
West of the mountains lies the lowland at the Pacific coast, east of the mountains the Oriente (part of the Amazonas lowlands). These two regions have tropical climate.
The highland between the two mountain ranges is called the Sierra; it is situated between 2000 and up to 4000 m altitude. The central region of the Sierra between Quito and Cuenca is skirted by several active and extinct volcanoes; this region is famous as "Avenida de los volcanes" since Humboldt's times.
If you open two travel guides about Ecuador you will find at least three different "best times for travel". The weather is characterized mostly by the daily evolution rather than by high and low pressure systems.
The mornings are better than the afternoons when the warm air rises, leading to clouds and maybe rain. According to what we heard in the region between Quito and Ambato, the weather in December and first half of January is clearly better that end of January and February.
During our stay it was mostly cloudy with short sunny phases. The mountains above about 4000 m were always hidden in clouds.
In the towns, temperatures were between 10°C (early morning) und 25°C (afternoon, on sunny days); at the huts at 4800 m the temperature was a little below freezing at night, a little above freezing during the day. Unlike at Ilinizas and Cotopaxi, the weather at Chimborazo was quite sunny because the plateau there way completely above the clouds. However, we should not extract further systematics because our observation time, just a few days at each mountain, is too short to see a clear tendency.
You hear and read a lot about thefts and even hold-ups against tourists in Ecuador. To us it seemed no more unsafe than most other countrues.
During the three weeks there we only indirectly heard about single hold-ups where tourists were involved, and some of those were rather long ago.
Of course one should be somewhat careful at the usual spots where there are crowds like markets etc. Considering the average income in Ecuador, one should not show too expensive equipment in a provocative way - but that is valid anywhere else.
Since several years the only currency in Ecuador is the U.S. Dollar. In addition to the (as everybody knows, rather confusing) U.S. coins, there are Ecuadorian coins valued 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 centavos which are identical in value and size to the corresponding U.S. cent coins.
A double room in a reasonable hotel costs between $12 and $20 $, a dinner in a restaurant per person between $2 and $5 plus beverages. Prices for beverages or food in supermarket or stores are similar to Germany.
Our three week trip did cost in average $21 per day per person ($3 for food, $1 transportation (bus etc.), $4 restaurant, $10 hotel, $1 entrance fees). Since we were mostly with our bicycles, the transportation cost is rather low. The flight, however, was not really expensive with about 1000 Euros.
Bicycle in Ecuador
Traffic in Ecuador is something one must get used to very carefully. Generally people drive without looking too much in advance. Pedestrians are annoying obstacles. By honking as loud as possible a car driver shows that he is the most important person.
Besides the general lack of courtesy on the road, there are two specific dangers for cyclists: Cars that overtake and immediately afterwards turn right, and buses that immediately after overtaking stop on the right side in order to let a passenger get on the bus. Especially in the cities one must be aware of these problems and foresee the mistakes of the motorized opponents.
Ecuador has one of the highes accident rates worldwide in bus traffic: On the country roads the drivers usually drive close to (or sometimes slightly beyond) the limit of vehicle control. Correspondingly, they do not expect sudden obstacles like bicycles which - unlike pedestrians - cannot quickly jump aside.
The exhaust pollution by the buses should not be underestimated. For unknown reasons the exhaust is on the right side at most buses and trucks, so pedestrians and cyclists are directly in the dust cloud. It should be clear that the vehicles in Ecuador don't necessary comply with European exhaust standards.
The Panamericana is mostly paved well and wide enough, either two lanes with a good shoulder, or four lanes. One should consider in planning driving times that the area is never really level.
Paved secondary roads are less wide, but have (outside the towns) a smaller traffic density. Smaller secondary roads sometimes consist of crude stones which constitute a kind of irregular pavement. By bicycle these roads are cumbersome, while cars have no problems.
Besides food for a couple of days, we also had our complete mountaineering equipment with us. Given 20 kg of load, also smaller ascents are quite annoying. So we usually don't proceed as quickly as the guys who are taken by minibus to the Cotopaxi parking lot and driving down by mountainbike without any baggage. On the other hand, one sees a lot more details of the country being on the way by bicycle.
The most "important" mountains are not too far from the road, usually a climb takes two or three days. In Ecuador there are 10 mountains above 5000 meters, from north to south:
- Cayambe 5790 m
- Antisana 5758 m
- Iliniza Norte 5116 m
- Iliniza Sur 5263 m
- Cotopaxi 5897 m
- Carihuairazo 5018 m
- Chimborazo 6310 m
- Tungurahua 5016 m
- El Altar 5319 m (with 13 single summits)
- Sangay 5230 m
All these high mountains are either active volcanoes or the remnants of old, partially collapsed volcanoes.
We began our trip at the two Ilinizas, because Iliniza Norte is technically rather easy and a good beginning for our acclimatization, being just a little above 5000 m. After that we continued to Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.
If we would have had enough time and correspondingly good weather, Cayambe and Antisana would have been other interesting possibilities. But when the Cordillera Central is dominated by low clouds, on these heavily glaciated mountains one quickly gets into massive orientation problems.
Tungurahua is currently closed because it is active. Altar and Sangay are rather remote and therefore not suited for our three week trip.
At some of the more often visited mountains there are huts.
Mattresses are there but no blankets, so one should take a sleeping bag. In the huts at Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, beverages are available.
Prices for a night are between 10 und 16 US$. A gas stove, kitchen things and cutlery are there. For the national parks, there are entrance fees: $ 10 per person at Cotopaxi and the same at Chimborazo.
The two Ilinizas are remnants of a prehistorical volcano.
Since they are "only" 5000 m high, they are well suited as acclimatization trip before attempting the higher mountains.
Iliniza Norte (5116 m) is a rock peak with easy but exposed climbing (F, UIAA I). Due to the bad weathers we had no opportunity to visit Iliniza Norte.
Iliniza Sur (5263 m) is heavily covered by glaciers and quite steep on all sides (PD-AD). The route is not easy to find without a previous reconnaissance. We used the New Normal Route which reaches the ridge at El Hongo. Ascent 3 1/2 hours, descent 2 hours.
Between both mountains lies the Refugio Nuevos Horizontes at 4740 m (16 places, 10 $ per night). From Chaupi (3350 m) it is reached in 6 hours on foot; from the parking lot at 4000 m it takes 3 hours. One can hardly leave the bicycle at the parking lot because it cannot be hidden, so we left it in Chaupi. But the road would be good for a bicycle until the parking lot; up to 4300 m one could even push the bike, but the last 400 meters are too sandy and steep.
Cotopaxi (5897 m) is the second highest mountain in Ecuador; it is a heavily glacier-covered, more or less still active volcano. It is situated in a national park which can be reached from Lasso (SW) or from Machachi (NW). Four kilometers north of the pass where the side road to the hut leaves, the hotel Tambopaxi (see below) is situated.
The side roads is 7 km long and leads to the parking lot at 4560 m. From there it is 1 hour on foot to the hut Refugio José E. Ribas (4800 m). 16.80 $ per night. The trail to the hut is impossible by bike.
The route uses the scree and sand slope directly behind the hut. At 5100 m one goes a little to the right and enters the glacier. The route leads up between impressive crevasses and follows some not very pronounced ribs, basically towards the characteristic rock wall Yanasacha which can already be seen from far away. At about 5700 m the route traverses to the right under an interesting icicle curtain and then tackles a steep slope further right. At its end there is a not too big but quite annoying crevasse. In February 2003 it was climbed directly; latest here one will need a rope. After the crevasse it is easy again, the monotonous summit slope is about hundred meters high.
It took us 5 1/2 hours from the hut to the summit. Because the snow becomes wet quickly due to the strong sunshine during the day (and the crevasse bridges become dangerous), one should reach the summit latest at 9 am.
Chimborazo (6310 m) is Ecuador's highest mountain and a remains of a volcano. From the junction Cruz del Arenal at 4200 m where the road to Riobamba leaves the road Ambato-Guaranda, it is 10 kilometers in direction Riobamba to the side road to the huts. Cruz del Arenal can be reached e.g. by bus from Ambato.
At the end of the side road at 4800 m, Refugio Hermanos Carrel is situated. From there it is about 45 minutes to Refugio Edward Whymper (5000 m). $ 10 per night.
The current normal route at Chimborazo leads from Refugio Whymper a little to the left, past a little lake, then onto a moraine directly towards the prominent glacier terrace. On the left end of the terrace one can step onto the glacier (here scree-covered). The route ascends rightwards and then leads a little leftwards up through lots of crevasses to the west ridge a little above El Castillo. From 5500 m on one follows the ridge to the secondary summit Veintimilla and further to the main summit.The Whymper route is not used any more because the glaciers retreated substantially; the right variant over Thielmann Glacier which is described in "Bergführer Ecuador" makes only sense with good snow.
We turned back at 5510 m reaching the west ridge. After all the part until there was steep and hard ice and no improvement was in sight, it seemed too dangerous to continue in these conditions.
In Quito there are lots of hotels in any price category. In other regions we sometimes had to search a little or found a good accomodation by chance.
So we give some hinte here, without claiming to cover any kind of completeness, to add to the corresponding travel guides:
- When leaving Chaupi towards the Ilinizas you find the Hostal "Llovizna", it is the last house in Chaupi. Lead by the manager of the hut "Nuevos Horizontes", Bladimir Gallo; rustic building, familiar atmosphere. $ 10 per night and person, recommendable.
- In Machachi seems not to have too many hotels. The hotel "Estancia Real" is three blocks east of market, church, and bus station. $ 12 for a double room. Nothing outstanding but apparently the only hotel here.
- In Cotopaxi national park, between the side road to Cotopaxi and the north entrance of the park, the "Tambopaxi" is located. It is run by a Swiss couple, very clean and orderly, an interesting building. $ 16.80 per person per night. Meals are not really cheap but excellent. Recommendable.
- In Lasso at the southern end of the village on the left side there is Hospedaje Cabaña Los Volcanes, $ 6 p.p.
- In Ambato one finds cheap accomodation in the center around Parque 12 de Noviembre. In the Hotel Guayaquil (double $ 12) there was not really enough space for our bicycles; because of the differences of opinion concerning leaving the bikes during our trip, we would not recommend the neighboring Residencial 9 de Octubre (double $ 5). In Hotel del Sol (double $ 12) there is plenty of space for the bikes, but it is directly next to the market and therefore not too quiet even at night.
Bicycle transport by airplane
We took our bicycles with us on the flight from Germany to Ecuador, because renting a good bike there would also not have been really a cheap thing.
For our purpose the flight from Zürich via Newark to Quito, run by Continental Airlines, seemed the cheapest. Since the flight goes via the U.S., the American baggage concept is applied (two pieces of up to 32 kg each). In December 2002, the website of Continental claimed that a bicycle could be taken for free, instead of one peace of baggage.
Already at the airport this was corrected, and we had to pay $ 180 per bike for the transport to Quito. For the way back we were later charged $ 100 per bike.
Considering these fees, a bicycle transport with this airline is not worth it. Especially since the trip enters the U.S., including the time and nerve consuming customs procedure. One has to bring all the baggage from the bagge claim through the customs and check in again afterwards. With the slightest delay, it is just a matter of luck if one can catch the connecting flight.
Just as a passing remark, in my opinion Continental does not deserve a good credit for the service on board. A fee of US$ 4 for any alcoholic beverage including beer (but only in Economy class) can be expected on a bargain arline offering $100 flights. But the flight was not really cheap, seeing the $ 1000 regular fee and all the additional cost about the bikes.
P.S.: Since at time of booking the free bike transport had been guaranteed, we got back the fees that we had to pay from the travel agency afterwards.
Literature (in German - so this part is not translated)
- Günter Schmudlach: "Bergführer Ecuador", Panico Alpinverlag 2001, ISBN 3-926807-82-2
Ausführliches und ziemlich aktuelles Buch. Sehr empfehlenswert, wenn man auch einige der etwas unbekannteren Berge besuchen möchte. Die Routenbeschreibungen sind detailliert genug, um auch im totalen Nebel den Gipfel zu finden.
- Eckehard Radehose: "Traumberge Amerikas", Bergverlag Rother 1996, ISBN 3-7633-3006-2
Hier sind nur Cotopaxi und Chimborazo beschrieben; dafür sind diverse Berge (u.a.) in Peru und Bolivien enthalten.
As usual in South America: Topographic maps are available in the Instituto Geográfico Militar (IGM). It is situated south of Parque El Ejido on a hill. At the entrance, a passport or ID card has to be deposited.
The IGM sells maps at scales 1:50 000, 1:100 000 und 1:250 000 at a price of $ 2 per sheet..
We had a map 1:1 Mio for general overview, already purchased in Germany. But for biking this is not sufficient, so we bought some 1:100 000 sheets.
The 50 000 maps are generally more up to date, apparently the 100 000 series is not continued. But in order to cover all of our route with 50 000 maps, we would have had to buy half of the IGM - so we just took six older 100 000 maps (1974-1984).
This information is current for: February 2003
We thank for helpful information given by
© 2003 Hartmut Bielefeldt
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Last updated 10 July 2003 by Hartmut Bielefeldt