Mountain Biking - Cotopaxi National Park

Posted by Lisa Pagotto

Volcanic terrain in Cotopaxi National Park
Volcanic terrain in Cotopaxi National Park

Ecuador - a natural selection of some of the richest diversity in South America. Only a continent could give you more.

Located two hours outside Quito, is Cotopaxi National Park. To reach this natural wonder, the drive is more than spectacular. Weaving through the ‘Avenue of the Volcanos,’ you wish you had more than one pair of eyes. Left, right, behind you, suddenly looming in front of you are some of the most striking volcanic peaks towering above. Some snow-capped, some entangled in the dizzying heights of the swirling clouds.

Cotopaxi volcano looms in the background
Cotopaxi volcano looms in the background

Cotopaxi National Park is high in altitude as well as being an abundant wildlife reserve surrounding the highest active volcano in the world, Cotopaxi.

This arid landscape offers one of Ecuador’s best mountain biking experiences. Dirt and gravel roads, challenging mountains and open vast flat plains. On your trusty two wheels, cross through a unique paramo ecosystem whilst being surrounded by impressive volcanic scenery.

Bound by the volcanos of Ilinizas, Sincholagua, Ruminahui and Pasocha, some snow- capped, some not, some jagged with exploded crater rims, some a perfect peak, you will feel like you are on another planet. Sparse and eerie lunar landscapes contrasted with crystal clear glacial lakes, golden bending grasses and sandy terrain. Towering over all is the mighty Cotopaxi Volcano.

If it is clear, you will be able to see its glacial peak glistening in the sun, but at 5897m, more often than not its peak is encircled in a loft of cloud.

A frozen glacier at the top of the volcanoes peak
A frozen glacier at the top of the volcanoes peak

For your mountain biking experience, there are many options depending on your capabilities and comfort levels. We drove up to highest accessible part of the mountain at 4500m. The scenery changes dramatically along the windy road as we passed the tree line and moved into moonlike lunar landscapes. Dark charcoal soil with seemingly no vegetation and rusty red looking powdery rocks greet us at this point as steam seeps out from small cracks.

A dizziness washed over me as I swayed through this car park, one of the many effects of the altitude.

Arid landscapes surrounding the volcano
Arid landscapes surrounding the volcano

We had the option to start our bike ride from here (4500m) which would give us the opportunity to descend the steep face of this sheer volcano and wind down the twisted road continuing on into the valley below. Due to my dizziness, I felt it would be best for all involved to start a little lower where I wouldn't fall off the side of the volcano.
As we began to descend Cotopaxi (from a lower altitude), the view beneath us was breathtaking. We crossed through typical highland wildlife and vegetation changing from baron to more fertile lands, some lush and green, others golden and grassy.

More volcanoes in the background
More volcanoes in the background

We visited Limpiopungo Glacier Lagoon, a crystal clear small lake with a mirror like reflection of the snow dusted volcanoes overlooking its azure waters, this image only interrupted by the ripples of Andean waterfowl frolicking in the icy waters.

We zig-zagged and weaved down grassy knolls, alongside small waterways fed by the melting glaciers where small deer and stray fluffy horses sipped from the edge.

There was not another soul to be seen in these areas as we cycled on. Away from the main roads of the National Park, the only sound is the crunch of our tyres over the gritty soil and the click and grind of our chains as we change gears.

As we descend, the scenery changes dramatically
As we descend, the scenery changes dramatically

The ride lasted around 2.5hrs before we reached some Pucara Inca ruins. Here we were given a peak into the western hemispheres most powerful ancient civilisation.

Although not much in comparison to the grand scale of the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, these ruins pre date the Inca times, which made them all the more fascinating.

Soil becomes rich, grass becomes green
Soil becomes rich, grass becomes green

We continued on through sandy terrain, dodging volcanic rocks and boulders spurted from the angry mouth of Cotopaxi in years gone by, before enjoying a picnic of local delights on the crest of a grassy knoll, overlooking the kingdom we had conquered below on our two wheels before returning to the colonial and artistic city of Quito.

They say a picture says a thousand words, but I can assure you, this experience will leave you speechless. Another one for the bucket list!

A lush green valley below
A lush green valley below

Looking for more Active experiences on your travels? Check out our Active small group tours!