I covered about 800 miles over eight weeks hiking the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (the TEMBR). I started in Tulcan in the north (near the border with Columbia) and hiked to Vilcabamba in the south (near the border with Peru). These were my impressions:
- The weather. Ecuador stays about the same temperature year-round and, in the mountains of central Ecuador, it’s perfect for hiking and camping. I had a few chilly mornings (in the 30’s) way up in the mountains and a few sweaty afternoons at lower elevations but mostly, temps were in the 60’s and 70’s. I planned this hike for June through September because I had read that this was the ‘dry season’ but I found that it rained at least as often as it seems to in the States. Sometimes for three or four days in a row. You’ll need a waterproof shell and lots of ziplock baggies if you want to be comfortable hiking in Ecuador.
- No bears, no bugs. Honestly, not even ants! I got a few bites from tiny black flies at lower elevations and I saw a few Tarantula Hawk wasps (we have them in the Southwestern United States, too) but, essentially, no bugs. I saw both a skunk and an opposum but they didn’t bother me. I didn’t even see any mice. Maybe it was the elevations at which I was hiking but I was glad for it.
- The Currency: Is good ‘ol US dollars! And the dollar goes a long way down here. A small hotel room near the airport was only $31. A liter of water or soda is about $.50. The bus ride from Quinto to Tulcan was $6. I could easily resupply for 3-4 days on less than $10. I would suggest, however, carrying lots of small bills. If you pull out a $20 bill in a tiny tienda, they are not going to have change for you. Also, they are very fond of the $1 coin which, while convenient, weigh a ton. I always had to remind myself to get rid of all my change before leaving town lest I looked like Kramer going to pay for his calzone. Keep in mind, too, that very few businesses take a credit card down here and ATM’s are only located in bigger cities so you have to plan accordingly.
- The Scenery. Hiking past (or climbing up!) 20K’ asl volcanoes like Cotopaxi and Chimborazo is an unforgettable experience. Central Ecuador is the start of the Andes mountain chain and amazing views are to be had every day. I just wish the camera on my iPhone could have captured them better.
- Navigation. I used the Map Out app with GPS waypoints (plotted by bikepacker Cass Gilbert) that I found at Bikepacker.com. His trail is actually a combination of two routes: one called the Dirt Road Version and one, the Singletrack Version. The TEMBR Dirt Road is easy follow, runs at lower elevations and has a few more towns along the way. The Singletrack version is occasionally more difficult and runs at higher elevations. The two coincide and diverge often enough that you can pick which one you want to follow every couple days. My hike wound up being a combination of the two. Overall, Ecuador was very easy to navigate. I also carried National Geographic maps (just in case) but only used them for ‘big picture’ planning.
- The People. Overwhelmingly very friendly. I wrote about them in a previous blogpost but I was humbled by their generosity and impressed by their work ethic. If only I spoke more Spanish, I could have gotten to know more of them better.
- Dogs. I didn’t think any country could have more stray dogs than Mexico but, Holy Smokes, the streets of Ecuador’s small towns are filled with packs (of up to 10 animals) of barking, pooping, traffic blocking, ownerless dogs. They just have a different view toward pet ownership down here so, if dogs scare you or if the sight of mangy, badly injured dogs bothers you (or seeing dogs feeding upon one of their own), think twice before hiking in Ecuador.
- Wind. I think this is true if you’re hiking above 10K’ asl anywhere in the world but sustained, heavy winds can make everything more difficult and much of this hike is above 10K’ asl. Winds strong enough to knock you off your feet. Hats blow off, sunglasses blow off, maps get ripped from your hands and setting up your tent can be very frustrating. Be ready for it.
- Camping. This topic could go in either category: the good or the bad. Some nights I was able to find a peaceful, flat spot with four inches of pine needle duff and a fresh water source nearby. I’d set up my tent without the rain fly so I could see the stars and sleep like a baby. Other nights, I’d find myself walking faster and faster, desperately looking for a spot, through fenced-off farmland that seemed devoid of even a few square feet of flat ground, let alone something that wasn’t obviously private property. As the sun sank, I wondered if I’d ever find somewhere to camp. Sometimes I’d settle for lumpy, uneven ground right by the side of the road or sometimes I’d breakdown and ask a farmer if I could camp on his property (I’d offer a few bucks, of course). At least a few times, I’d pick a spot that I thought was ‘stealthy’ enough only to be ‘discovered’ by the property owner. I’d try to explain who I was and what I was doing in my broken Spanish and they’d let me stay. I was never once told to leave. Figit and Neon of Her Oddesy fame used the (more practical) technique of asking for a ‘room to rent’ in the nearest small town. Their hosts were often very generous but, for me, I prefer to sleep outdoors.
Want to hike the TEMBR? I think it’s a fantastic trail (one of my top three hikes) that could be done by even a novice hiker. If you are comfortable with international travel, speak a little Spanish and don’t mind camping in some weird places, give it a try! Contact me first; I always love to talk about hiking!