Crossing Borders with Motolombia Part 1: A Brief Guide to Motorcycle Touring in Ecuador
Yes, this is a blog about motorcycling in Colombia, and while we’re not about to skip the border for good any time soon, we’re happy to say we have plenty of love for Colombia’s neighbours too. Just like Colombia, Ecuador’s road map is one of zig-zagging mountain highways and scenic country backroutes. Split in half by the Andes Ranges, with the mighty Amazon Rainforest flanking its foothills, Ecuador’s sweeping high altitude highways and rarely-ridden jungle tracks are adventure motorcycle touring heaven.
Sound like your idea of good, fun life-changing travel?
When they’re not criss-crossing all over Colombia, Motolombia regularly head out on guided multi-country expeditions. Several times a year, kicking off from Cali, the crew lead their leather-clad convoy into wildest South America, in search of some of the awe-inspiring riding routes on earth.
Of course, you’d need months, probably years, to truly say you “rode” this colossal continent, but if you’re short on time, Motolombia runs a 14 day South American Express, focusing on the lands directly beyond Colombia’s southern border.
Despite probably having more EPIC RIDES than any country of a comparable size Ecuador is still a little under the radar when it comes to touring. So, with this blog’s first foray into foreign territory, we hope to give you a bit of an idea about where to go and what to expect riding in Ecuador.
Colombia-Ecuador makes a great combo trip, sine Ecuador is the only country with an overland crossing on Colombia’s southern border – making it a relatively easy place to access by bike, whether you’re riding independently or joining one of our guided tours.
What is Motorcycle Touring in Ecuador Like?
Ecuador is one of the smallest South American countries, but in terms of its geography and ecology, Ecuador’s diversity is almost unrivalled. Ride 20 minutes in any direction and the landscape shifts dramatically, from rugged canyons and snow-capped peaks to mist-shrouded cloud forest, steamy lowland jungle and dry, desert-like coastline.
Despite its extraordinary natural beauty, mass tourism is yet to make major inroads in Ecuador. Once you’re out of the main cities, you’re already very much off the beaten track – wild, remote and relatively traffic-free.
Imagine starting your day blasting up the 4,776m summit of an active volcano, and by sundown, eating barbecued prawns by the sea in a rustic Pacific fishing village. That’s all in a day’s ride in Ecuador.
Why Ecuador is Adventure Riding Paradise
1. It’s full of insane mountain roads with “is this real” scenery
Cutting through the country from north to south is the Andean Cordillera, a chain of snow-capped volcanoes and glaciated peaks that form the backbone of Ecuador. Numerous highways (many of them paved) traverse the slopes and passes of this formidable mountain range, offering continuous days of exhilarating high elevation riding.
One of the loftiest is the highway snaking through Las Cajas National Park, which crests the Mirador Tres Cruces mountain pass at a breathtaking 4,100m altitude.
2. You you’ll beneath the shadows of giants at the Avenue of Volcanoes
Ecuador is a land of fire-breathing giants. Over 30 volcanoes, many of them highly active, tower above a valley forming the 200km long Avenue of Volcanoes. One of the most jaw-droppingly dramatic routes on the continent, it winds its way past seven volcanoes over 5,000m high. On a clear day you can see the perfectly conical summit of Cotopaxi, one of the tallest volcanoes in the world at 5,896m.
3. You can get down and dirty on miles of endless backroads
Off-road warriors will find themselves in dust-kicking heaven, with a vast network of unsealed roads winding their way through rural, remote and extremely rugged parts of the country.
It’s possible to hit the dirt within a couple of hours outside the capital of Quito. Just a hundred kilometres north of the city toward the Colonial town of Otavalo, you can find yourself navigating twisty mountain trails, climbing steeply above the clouds, before a dizzying descent into lush green forest and farmland.
A typical day of dirt riding will present plenty of technical and physical challenges – but the extraordinary views and the chance to see a side of Ecuador few tourists witness is well worth enduring the long days.
4. You can ride from the remotest Andean reaches to the beach in a day
From one of the highest points of the longest mountain range in the world to the edge of the ocean – that’s the sort of mind-blowing variety this compact country can offer in a single day’s ride. Start your morning descending through the freeze and the fog of the western Andes and arrive in a balmy, tropical seaside town just in time to watch the sunset over the Pacific. Ecuador has 2,200km of coastline to explore, from tranquil tropical bays to worthy surf beaches and stretches of empty sand for days.
5. It has unique culture, cuisine, heritage and history
Ecuador has a mixed cultural make-up, drawing from various ethnicities and traditions both ancient and modern. The country has 10 spoken languages, with Spanish and the native Quechua tongue being the most common. Ecuador has the highest representations of indigenous cultures in South America, as well as a large Afro-Ecuadorian population with their own traditions, food and music.
Ecuadorian cuisine varies from region to region, from the seafood-heavy dishes of the Pacific (think fresh ceviche and tropical fruit) to warming, filling highland dishes made of pork or cuy (guinea pig) and staples like rice, potatoes and quinoa.
Ecuador is also littered with incredible archaeological sites and Incan ruins. While none are as impressive as Peru’s Machu Picchu, they’re also almost devoid of crowds and commercialism. Ecuador’s ancient cities remain ghostly, mysterious and almost entirely swallowed by the jungle.
6. It’s the gateway to the Galapagos
If there’s one good reason mainland Ecuador doesn’t get enough glory, it’s probably because of that bunch of rock islands around 1,200km off its west coast.
Ecuador, is of course, the administrator of the incomparable Galapagos National Park, an isolated volcanic archipelago renowned as one of greatest wildlife-watching destinations on earth.
You won’t be taking your motorbike to Galapagos, (you’d run out of road pretty quickly anyway), but from mainland Ecuador, there are daily flights from Quito and Guayaquil.
Crossing the Colombia-Ecuador Border by Bike
If you’re entering Ecuador from southern Colombia, you’ll be using the Ipiales-Tulcan crossing on the Pan American Highway. If you’re crossing with an organised tour, all your paperwork will be sorted out at the start of your trip.
If you’re travelling independently, be ready at migracion (immigration) in Ipiales with your passport, vehicle registration and driver’s license. The name on your passport should match the name of the person your bike is registered to.
If you’ve rented a bike from Motolombia, with advanced notice, a special permit can be arranged allowing you to cross into Ecuador (but no other country).
At Ipiales, you’ll go through the standard paperwork at migracion and then head to aduana (customs) to process the temporary vehicle import permit. Once you’re done, you’ll ride over the Rumichaca Bridge into Tulcan, where your papers will be checked and you’ll be stamped into Ecuador.
Tips and Advice for Riding in Ecuador
If you haven’t read our guide to Motorcycle Safety in Colombia, much of the advice regarding urban and rural roads is also applicable to riding in Ecuador.
- Hazards and Road Conditions: Unpredictable and occasionally reckless drivers, vehicles overtaking on blind corners, unfenced farm animals and extremely variable road surface conditions are major issues when riding in Ecuador, as are long delays caused by landslips, roadworks and broken down trucks and buses.
- Route Planning: When planning your route, be sure to take into account the shape and curvature of the roads, and the fact that road conditions can change from silky smooth to a pothole-dodging nightmare, even on major highways. Don’t plan your days based on distance alone – plan for strenuous riding and unexpected delays. A 400km ride may be a breeze where you’re from, but in much of Ecuador, it may well be a dawn to dusk endeavour.
- Dealing with Altitude: Motorcycle touring in Ecuador almost invariably involves riding at high altitudes, sometimes well above 3,000m. These elevations can have pronounced effects on both you and your bike. The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to acclimatise at a slightly lower altitude first.
Plan your stops in towns below 2,500m in altitude before you embark on those high mountain roads. Quito sits at 2,850m – and so is actually a good base for acclimatising (despite being high enough itself to induce altitude sickness in sensitive folk for a day or two). If your route has a quite a rapid elevation gain, take frequent rest stops and most importantly stay hydrated! Dehydration will compound the effects of altitude sickness and can lead to things becoming more serious.
Unless you’re planning on mountain-climbing any 5000m peaks, the altitudes you hit while riding Ecuador generally shouldn’t cause any serious health problems. If you feel the symptoms of altitude sickness coming on (such as headache, shortness of breath, dizziness, lethargy and loss of appetite), get yourself to the nearest town or village and rest up. Don’t go any higher until you’ve fully recovered – this often takes a day or two.
Modern fuel injected bikes don’t suffer like older carburetted bikes from lack of oxygen at altitude causing an overly rich fuel mix due. However, you can still expect the thin air to be a slight drain on performance – a loss of about 10% power for every 1000m gained.
With majestic scenery from jagged mountain chains to deep blue volcanic lakes, lush valleys, arid plains, dense tropical rainforest and miles of deserted coastline, Ecuador is a hidden paradise for adventurous two-wheeled touring – well-off the beaten track and well-worth taking extra time to explore its most remote, dramatic reaches.
Itching to get that Ecuadorian adventure underway? Check out Motolombia’s South American tours:
(extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)