“The route around Cotopaxi to Hacienda El Tambo along the northwest road and El Tambo Singletrack.”
— UnWise Owl
This route offers spectacular views of Cotopaxi, with other volcanic peaks such as Ruminahui, Antisana visible along the way to the Hacienda El Tambo. First ~15 miles are along a gravel road which offers great views of the vast paramo and of Cotopaxi. The remaining ~10 mile segment is along the El Tambo Singletrack
, which brings you through another alpine valley and down a lahar to Hacienda El Tambo. This trek ranges in elevation from ~12,500 feet to ~13,500, so this high altitude and intense equatorial sun combine to add a significant challenge to this ride.
Need to Know
Hire a guide. Wear sunscreen.
Hacienda el Tambo is an operational ranch located in a remote river valley operated by live in care takers. They have a generator for electricity, which runs mainly at night. They sell cold beer.
This route is similar to a White-Rim (Canyonlands NP, Utah) style trek, where riding through a spectacular landscape is the appeal, more so than the difficulty of the trail. This ride is described as starting at the intersection of the road leading to the High Altitude Refugio on the slopes of Cotopaxi. The first segment depicted follows this wide gravel road leading to the refugio for ~1/2 mile before turning left onto a secondary gravel/two track road which follows a water canal for ~10 miles. Long portions of this road are cut into the sides of the cliffs of the massive domes along Cotopaxi's northern flank. As this section follows the water canal, the grade is relatively low and you can ride along leisurely and take in the stunning view of the lahars to the north and Copotaxi to the south.
After ~10 miles, the grade increases as the road leaves the canal and begins a constant climb to ~13,500' through a lahar. The view continues to evolve as you traverse around the base of Cotopaxi and peaks like Cerro Quilindana become more prominent. After the 'summit' which is more of a hill crest within the lahar, the route follows a short downhill section before veering left onto another gravel two track which descends into a rocky ravine. There is a short section of rocky singletrack here, which follows a narrow 'side ravine' on the north side of the road. Short but fun section with loose cable, huge boulders and natural rock terrain to navigate.
After the singletrack, the road continues a short distance down the ravine, which is more of a small canyon with short (~15m) but sheer walls on each side. At a certain point the road switchbacks at a confluence with another canyon/lahar, which joins the canyon the trail follows from the south.
These joining canyons are critical because it this point the route leaves the two track to follow more of a singletrack and off road experience until its conclusion at Hacienda el Tambo.
Look to the southwest for a trail resembling an atv route/singletrack along the southwest rim of the joining canyon. This trail will take you to the el Tambo singletrack! But first you must climb through another lahar to the 'second summit'; this is where the ride gets a little more real.
This ~2.5 mile climb follows a similar grade as the lahar climb on road. You'll start following what feels like an old atv trail up the canyon to an abandon farmhouse before taking on more of a traditional singletrack feel. After the abandoned farmhouse, the canyon gives way to more of an open lahar. This section of singletrack is loose and slowly picks it's way though massive boulders. Each pedal stroke brings you closer to the eastern foot of Cotopaxi and the gate of the private reserves and ranches in this area. Make sure to take a break at the gate; this view of Cotopaxi is stunning. You'll also appreciate being fresh for the next section of trail.
After the gate, the ride cuts east to follow ~2 miles of bench cut singletrack, which cuts down the slopes of an expansive paramo wilderness to another lahar. You'll experience mixed emotions because you'll want to bomb down the trail but have the constant urge to stop and take in the view. You may also be reminded that this trail is multi-functional as it is also used by free range cattle and the occasional Chagra so hoof damage may be present in some of the areas prone to saturation. But have no fear, you'll have a blast ripping this section and the following lahar section.
This segment follows a braided trail down the lahar, crossing a few streams on the way. The grade is lower than the previous section of singletrack in the paramo but is still fast, fun and continues to provide outstanding scenery. It will take you about ~2.7 miles to Rio Tambo, where is possible to cross to the south side of the river using the walkway over a concrete wier.
Scramble up the southern bank to follow some farm trails another few miles to the spectacular Hacienda el Tambo, built on an Incan Ruin.
History & Background
Hacienda el Tambo is partially built on an Incan ruin. The ruin is mostly just the foundation of a refugia used by Incan message runners, who would run messages between Quito and Cuenca, pony express style.