When a half-hour freeride down the world's tallest active volcano is a mere optional side trip on your mountain-bike adventure, you know you're in prime two-wheeling terrain. Cotopaxi (19,347 feet) casts a giant shadow across the lava canyons and alpine tundra south of Quito, Ecuador, home base for Tierra del Volcan's four-day mountain-bike trips. The all-inclusive tour runs from two family-owned lodges on the edge of Cotopaxi National Park, through high mountain forest and rugged paramo – verdant, treeless alpine-tundra mountains.
By late morning on the first day, you're on a state-of-the-art Bulls 29er bike for a short uphill to the north entrance of Cotopaxi National Park. From there, it's mostly gentle downhill through the trees and then a lava canyon in Santa Rita Ecological Reserve. "I've never felt anything like volcanic ash and hardened lava underneath my tires," says Vancouver photographer Dan Barham, 33, who rode the trail a couple of years ago. The highlight of the 30-mile day is the pedal (and short hike) to 300-foot Condor Machai waterfall, at 10,200 feet. Sleep at the Hacienda El Porvenir, a thatched-roof lodge, surrounded by the towering volcanoes.
Day two starts with wide-open alpine tundra and continues along a spring until it reaches a mountain lake called Yanacocha ("Black Lagoon"). But the best part is 13 blissful miles on Tierra del Volcan's private singletrack wilderness trail – isolated and surrounded by huge boulders tossed down by Cotopaxi. Overnight is at an ancient Incan structure turned mountain retreat, with awesome views of the night sky. Feast on traditional Ecuadoran barbecue – or any trout you've scored out of El Tambo river, near the hacienda.
On the third day, the 34-mile ride back to El Porvenir ends at Limpiopungo Lake, a highlight of Cotopaxi National Park for the stunning reflection of Rumiñahui volcano (15,455 feet), and views of Cotopaxi and Sincholagua (16,049). It's a short riding day so there's plenty of time to explore the lake, while condors and caracaras soar overhead and llamas graze the paramo.
Tierra del Volcan calls the fourth and last day a "bonus day" – not everyone is up for high-altitude downhilling. This year, the outfitter and a conservation nonprofit built a killer singletrack so you can let loose as much as you dare on the half-hour, 2,300-foot drop. "It starts out at 15,000 feet," says Barham. "But labored breathing turns to whoops and hollers within seconds."
More information: Fly to Quito, drive 90 minutes with outfitter Tierra del Volcan's hacienda. Tierra del Volcan's three-day Volcano Bike Tour starts at $357, including room, guides, bike, and meals. An extra day of downhilling is $129, including the extra night at the hacienda. Tierra del Volcan also offers guided climbs of Cotopaxi and horseback tours, immersing you in local cowboy culture – sheepskin chaps, wool ponchos, and all. [tierradelvolcan.com]