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.
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, 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 $59 tour (which included lunch).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: $59 + tip
Where to Book: Most hostels and travel shops in Quito. I recommend the Biking Dutchman (La Pinta E 731 and Reina Victoria). 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.
Editor's Note: This story was updated February 16, 2017 to reflect updated pricing and address of the tour company.