Epic ride: family bikepacking in Ecuador
The picturesque Quilotoa Loop has big mountains, big views... and, above all, big climbs: adventurous cycling, without doubt. But family friendly? Yes and, somewhat surprisingly, very much so.
It feels suitably off-the-beaten-track, but with a range of comfortable digs along the way, cyclists can recharge before tackling Ecuador’s tremendous inclines. Cass Gilbert describes his family bikepacking experience in this extract from Epic Bike Rides of the World.
For those unfamiliar with the topography of South America, let me assure you of this: the Ecuadorian Andes are a deeply crumpled land. A slim band squeezed between the expanse of the Pacific Coast and the vast sprawl of the Amazon, it abounds with microclimates, determined more by geography and altitude than by any season. Within these folds, one steep-sided valley dovetails into the next. Cradled between two volcanic ranges, they form the Avenue of the Volcanoes, as coined by Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian naturalist who journeyed through the continent in the 19th century.
We shared our Ecuadorian adventures with three brothers I’d first met while cycling through the country three years prior. Mountain guides by trade, they lived off-grid on an organic family farm outside Quito. In the interim, we’d kept in touch – and we’d all had children. When the chance came to visit Ecuador once again, this time I travelled with my partner and our two-year-old son Sage, so we might experience this beautiful and unfeasibly rugged country together.
In any shape or form, this ride would have been epic enough. Apart from the quiet dirt tracks, small mountain settlements, and fluffy roadside llamas, its backdrop was nothing short of spectacular: high altitude Ecuadorian paramo, the alpine tundra for which the country is known, and the emerald-tinted 3.2 km-wide Quilotoa crater lake, a definitive highlight along the Avenue of the Volcanoes.
But factor in no less than eight bicycles and five accompanying trailers, charged with a payload of children ranging in age from six months to three years, and such a journey takes on an even more memorable character. Despite the afternoon downpours and the occasional synchronised meltdowns, our pint-sized expedition proved to be an incredible life experience for everyone.
Together, we blazed a trail of family mayhem through the countryside. We rubbed shoulders with poncho-clad horse riders, picnicked amongst fields of quinoa, visited an indigenous market, and lingered in village playgrounds.
We kept distances short, and tried to harmonise riding times with napping schedules. When our three toddlers needed a break, we stopped and played football, helped them climb trees, or just explored the land. And what a land it was. A fertile patchwork of vertiginous fields clung to steep-sided slopes, surrounded by both soaring peaks and crumbling canyon cliffs. Pigs scuffled around by the road, men sauntered by with machetes on their hips, and women crammed their colourful shawls with fresh corn, their felt hats peeking out through the foliage.
The route itself looped south-east through Ecuador’s Central Sierras. After stopping to applaud the natural watery wonder of Quilotoa, and scout briefly along the knife edge of its crater, it took us through the small settlement of Chugchilán, where we detoured into the dewy delights of the Illiniza Cloud Forest. There, fingers of mist curled through the trees, enveloping the land, filling every nook and cranny with silence. When the sun occasionally permeated through, it was subtle and shadowless, painting the mountains in gigantic, camouflaged swatches.
Up and down we rode, rarely a flat moment for respite. Climbs had our derailleurs clattering frantically through the gears, spinning our legs in the lowest cadences we could find, the ballast of our toddler cargo weighing us down. In immediate riposte, descents demanded we pull on brake levers like reins on a horse, lest our trailers shunt us forwards. Added to this, the terrain was often bumpy, sometimes even cobbled. Yet when I looked back to check on Sage, more often than not he was sound asleep, oblivious to our efforts.
Travelling over the winter holidays, we celebrated Christmas in Isinliví, a picturesque settlement perched in one of the region’s verdant valleys. As we came to appreciate, South Americans know how to party, whatever time of the year. The main square was awash with revellers, countryside cowboys and a roving brass band that relentlessly circled its stony streets. To Sage’s delight, it even boasted an antiquated funfair, featuring a merry-go-round that spun with dizzying speed.
Isinliví was also our last staging post before we tackled the longest climb of the trip, a Herculean undertaking that involved 1000m in altitude gain, on an unpaved road at that. Inevitably, this final undertaking had us all off the bikes and pushing, our Lilliputian team of toddlers enthusiastically lending a helping hand too.
When the summit finally came, it was rewarded with a feast of local produce, cheese and deliciously ripe avocados that had filled our panniers. Then, with a last gaze out towards the highland paramo, we dived into the whirligig descent that lay ahead, the flags of our trailers snapping in the wind.
Despite the diminutive daily distances, I won’t lay claim that family bikepacking is easy; without doubt, it poses its own set of mental and logistical challenges, quite apart from any physical toils. But I couldn’t more highly recommend trying one out, wherever it may be in the world, for however many days you may have. Gather the troops and brew up a plan. Choose a route that everyone will enjoy. Take the time to luxuriate in being off the bike as much as you are on it. I can guarantee that such undiluted family time will warm the heart and feed the soul. For everyone involved.