Mountain Biking Cotapaxi Volcano

Parking lot at Cotopaxi Volcano
Parking lot at Cotopaxi Volcano – 4,500 meters above sea level

Mountain biking Cotopaxi Volcano was easily the most scenic, exciting bike ride of my life. And one of my favorite day trips, ever.

I first learned about this high-altitude adventure from Jack and Jill Travel Travel the World, in a post about activities that did NOT kill them in Ecuador.

Excellent.

But I had a few concerns before I’d be ready to sign up.

First, can I find a tour company that uses quality bikes, and keeps the brakes in good working condition?

Yes. After Googling around, I discovered several positive referrals for the Biking Dutchman, which has been running tours to Cotopaxi for an odd 25 years, before anyone else I’m sure. And that’s just one of many trips they run all throughout the country (for more serious riders).

And second, how would I feel at our dropoff point, 4,500 meters above sea level, when I was already having light headaches while acclimatizing to Quito’s 2,800 meter elevation?

When I visited the Biking Dutchman’s office a block from Plaza Foch in the Mariscal neighborhood of Quito, I was met by the daughter of the company’s founder. Of course she’s taken the bike ride, and assured me it was no big deal.

And unlike other bike tours, their’s was more focused on the bike riding, and did not include the (strenuous) 300-meter walk up to the base camp used for summit attempts (aka the refuge). In other words, we’d be driven up to the parking lot at 4,500 meters, and almost immediately beginning our descent.

So I paid a $10 deposit on the $45 tour (which included lunch, but not the $2 park entrance fee paid on arrival).

Welcome to Cotopaxi Volcano
Welcome to Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador’s second tallest at 5,897 meters.

My trip left the next day, a Saturday morning, which meant trying to get a good night’s sleep in the hostel was near impossible.

How to Mountain Bike One of the World’s Tallest Active Volcanoes on 2 Hours Sleep

At 7 or 8 AM, I grabbed a quick breakfast at one of the few open restaurants in Plaza Foch, and met up with the guides and our group for the day outside the Biking Dutchman’s office.

We piled into two 4 x 4 trucks, with the mountain bikes on top, and drove about 2 hours through Southern Quito to Cotopaxi National Park, stopping for snacks once along the way.

During the drive, I got to know some of the others in my truck. Most were Americans, and there were even two older couples, one in their 40’s, and one easily in their 50’s. I admired their sense of adventure.

Once inside the park, we stopped at a rest area where I had the chance to drink my first coca leaf tea, which is suppose to help with the effects of high altitudes.

For $3 per cup, it better!

This was also where we were fitted with helmets, and given gloves, which are as much for warmth, as protecting our hands from the day’s riding, and in the event we should bite the dust on the rocky roads.

And then we began the ascent up the volcano to the parking lot at 4,500 meters. A new high for me, though it lacks the sense of accomplishment when you don’t get up that high by trekking.

Downhill mountain biking Cotopaxi Volcano
Downhill mountain biking Cotopaxi Volcano. This photo was shot just below the parking lot.

Our guide matched each person individually with a bike based on our heights, and then gave us a safety briefing, including tips for how to properly go mountain biking down Cotopaxi Volcano (or anywhere for that matter).

Tips for Mountain Biking Cotopaxi Volcano

  • Use the back brake 70%, and the front brake 30%.
  • Don’t mix up the brakes, because if you press the front only you’ll immediately fly over the handlebars.
  • Stand up, with the pedals parallel to the ground, your right (dominant) foot forward, and knees bent.
  • Lean your weight backwards, especially on the steeper terrain.
  • It’s better to allow the bike to gain some speed than to be riding the brakes hard the whole way (let the bike’s front shock absorbers do their job, and you’ll have a more comfortable ride).

And then we were off and riding down one of the world’s tallest active volcanoes!

At first, I was riding the brakes pretty hard, however as I began to trust the bike more and more, I loosened up and did better maintaining a constant speed.

The road was very rutted, and keeping to the inner or outer edges often helped reduce the bumps.

Traffic continued to go up the road in the opposite direction, but it was slow enough that you always saw them coming, and could adjust your position and speed accordingly.

Cotopaxi Volcano
Cotopaxi Volcano as seen from about 3,800 meters. If you look closely, a little below the yellow “refuge” tent on the volcano, you can see the parking lot where we began.

The main downhill portion runs 8 kilometers from the parking lot to relatively flat terrain, and it’s over pretty quick, even if you’re stopping to take pictures along the way.

The sweeping views of the valley and nearby mountains were gorgeous, and our partly cloudy weather offered near-perfect conditions according to our guide.

Dressing in layers is important, as you’ll want to be warm at the top, while a t-shirt or long sleeve shirt is sufficient by the bottom. Sunglasses are an absolute requirement due to the elevation, and reflection of the sun off the glacier. Sunscreen is also a good idea.

One of the 4 x 4’s was always behind our group in case someone needed a break, which was the case with the oldest woman on the downhill section.

Everyone else rode down at their own rate without any trouble.

Mountain biking below Cotopaxi
Don’t let the flat ground deceive you, it was still a lot of work to pedal as we were over 3,000 meters in elevation the whole day.

With the Biking Dutchman trips, you spend more time mountain biking Cotopaxi Volcano National Park after the downhill section, versus other trips which spend that time hiking to the refuge, and if possible, further up to the snowline.

The terrain in the valley may look flat, and easy to ride, but when you’re pedaling at altitudes of 3,300 – 3,700 meters, it’s still hard work.

Unless you want to be out of breath the whole time, it pays to keep a slow but steady pace.

We enjoyed a lunch of pasta, and some kind of spinach pastry, overlooking Laguna Limpiopungo (3,830 meters). The chocolate brownies for dessert were the bomb. And worth the price of the trip on their own.

Fresh ginger tea was served, a reminder of my time in Nepal.

Cotopaxi Volcano from a distance
A look back at Cotopaxi Volcano from the end point of our bike ride, just as storm clouds begin to roll in. If you look very close, you can see the faint signs of the road winding back and forth down the middle of the volcano.

Our mountain biking trip through Cotopaxi National Park concluded some 26 – 30 kilometers from where we started up on the volcano.

Toward the end, we passed wild horses grazing near the road.

Some sections were more fun to ride than others. At times, I was surprised at how fast I’d be going over what appeared to be some very rough terrain.

Our guide was right about learning to trust our bikes — the more time I spent on it, the more I relaxed and enjoyed the bumps.

Storm clouds and lightning had begun to roll through the valley, and our guide wisely suggested we stop, whereas they normally allow riders to keep going for as long as they want.

I highly recommend mountain biking Cotopaxi Volcano to everyone, regardless of age, sex, or physical fitness.

Though obviously it helps to be in good condition, the spirit of adventure will serve you just as well.

_______

What You Need to Know

How Much:  $47 + tip ($45 for tour, $2 for park entrance)

Difficulty:  Moderate

Where to Book:  Most hostels and travel shops in Quito. I recommend the Biking Dutchman (Foch 746 & Avenida Amazonas, opposite the Magic Bean restaurant in the Mariscal neighborhood). They use Trek mountain bikes, and maintain them well. Nobody in my group complained of bad brakes.

What to Bring:  A daypack, your own supply of snacks and water (at least 1 liter, preferably 2), sunglasses, sunscreen, several layers including a light jacket in case it rains. Extra cash for cocoa leaf tea ($3) and tipping the guide at the end.

Comments

  1. says

    Nice write up, very informative, about Cotopaxi!  It’s a really great day visit from Quito and a fun little adventure trip.  Though that 300m hike up the base camp is a ball kicker if your not used to the altitude! lol :)

    • says

      Thanks Kevin. I have a ton more with the clouds covering the summit, but I wanted to try and show the glacier in this post. Have you climbed it? I know you wanted me to! Not ready for that yet, but maybe after I’ve spent more time trekking in S America.

      • says

        I sadly haven’t summited Cotopaxi yet because while I was there I didn’t have the money to. It is on my list though and I know that I will return someday pay a visit to the summit :)

        I’ve been inspired by this post to not only summit but mountain bike down a portion of the volcano.

  2. Ruth says

    I have always wanted to do this.  I have seen it before on other Ecuador articles.  However, I have never seen the photos of the top of the volcano.  They are completely amazing.

  3. Ruth says

    I have always wanted to do this.  I have seen it before on other Ecuador articles.  However, I have never seen the photos of the top of the volcano.  They are completely amazing.

  4. says

    Sounds like the perfect outing for me and the hubby. He’s all about biking, I’m all about volcanoes, and we both love travel. Thanks for the write up and the inspiration!

  5. pia jasinski says

    Nice account.
    My husband treated me to a holiday in Ecuador for my 50th birthday three years ago. The Galapagos islands were supposed to be the highlight, and while they were absolutely wonderful, the highlight of our trip was biking down from Cotopaxi. We were lucky enough to be able to make that rather strenuous climb to the refuge (we took the short cut straight up across that gravel) and up into the snowline for a wee bit before heading down, eating a little snack and getting onto our bikes. I had the luxury of having the 4×4 cruise about 50 metres behind me, should I need it, but I didn’t :) my hubby meanwhile went across country with the main guide and had the time of his life. We cycled for some 30 kms before reaching the end of the run so to speak. It was, to use a word you Americans love to use, absolutely awesome!

  6. Michelle says

    Great description of a great day tour!:) I did it myself about 4 weeks ago while being in Ecuador! One of the coolest things ever! I wanted to do it with Biking Dutchman but they did not leave on the days I had time to do it so I did it with the agency right beside of their office Gulliver Expeditions( http://www.gulliver.com.ec/index.php/Biking-Tours/Cotopaxi-bikes.html ) which were also really professional and the bikes were in a great conidition. We hiked up to the refugee and then to the Glacier which is really hard at that altitude but totally worth it! Next time you should go up;)

  7. Bart Scrivener says

    What is the nature of the trail? How steep is it? How rocky is it? How much speed does one build up? Is it a technical descent? Are you ever on singletrack, or always on a road? Is it twisting or relatively straight? Are there water crossings? Is there a choice of route? What kind of bikes does the Dutchman use? Do they have disc brakes? What was the biking like after the (short!) downhill?

    Friendly note: The plural of brake is brakes, not brake’s.

    • says

      The trail is actually a dirt road, so it’s quite wide, and only really steep in the first section when leaving the parking lot. Once you reach the bottom, then you may ride some lines that take you off the roads.

      You can build up as much speed as you want. Our guide flew by us because he had the confidence and experience to do so. Most of the people in my group, myself included, were not serious mountain bike riders, so we went slower.

      On the descent there are small rocks. I don’t know how else to describe it. You’re on a volcano, so think scree, but it’s nothing an average adult or even a teen couldn’t handle.

      No, it’s not a technical descent. There are more hairpin turns near the top, where it’s steeper. As you go down, the distance between turns is longer, allowing you to gain more speed.

      There were no water crossings. No, I believe all the tours take you down the road, though some may take different routes at the bottom. The pictures I included in the post show what it’s like biking at the bottom of the volcano. It’s flat, but the altitude is still high enough to make it challenging (especially if you’re not acclimatized).

      To find out more about the bikes, visit the Biking Dutchman website. If the info isn’t there, you can email them.

  8. Brandon Kober says

    Hello there!
    I adore your posts. They are so informative!
    I was wondering what time you arrived back in Quito from this daytrip. I am curious because I am considering doing the trip and trying to fit both it and the busride to Banos in one day.
    Thanks for any advice!
    Brandon Kober
    Canada

    • says

      I don’t remember exactly, probably late afternoon, as it wasn’t dark when we got back to Plaza Foch (where the office is located).

      I found the Cotopaxi biking to be tiring in itself. The bus ride to Banos was another 3-4 hours if I remember correctly, and also by itself, a bit tiring.

      I’d recommend getting some rest after the bike ride, and then taking the bus to Banos in the morning.

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