Towering above Quito is active Pichincha Volcano, which last covered the capital city of Ecuador with a layer of ash as recently as 1999. While the slopes of an active volcano might seem like an odd location to build a capital city, there is very little alternative in Ecuador. Its mainland alone is home to over 30 volcanoes and it is second only to Iceland in the number of volcanoes compared to the size of the country.
While Quito’s location at the base of Pichincha Volcano might have its dangers, its position in the heart of the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ makes it the perfect base for trekking Ecuador’s iconic volcanoes.
The Teleferiqo (gondola) station is a bizarre start to the ascent of Pichincha Volcano. At the same time as the gondola was built about 15 years ago, they built an amusement park, conference venues, cafes, restaurants and enough parking for the majority of the local people from Quito to visit every day. The trouble is that the local people only used it for the first year. It was too expensive, so having experienced the gondola and amusement park once, no one ever returned. The result is a horror movie-like film set of deserted buildings, rooms and theme park rides.
The only aspect of the development that remains open is the gondola, which transports tourists from its base at 3,117m to 3,945m, which is the starting point for the trek to the top of Rucu Pichincha. Even at this early point I felt pretty excited, having already surpassed my previous highest altitude, which was the 3,726m summit of Rinjani Volcano on Lombok Island in Indonesia.
I was thrilled to finally be on a volcano in Ecuador. I booked my trip months ago. Having followed advice from various locations including my trekking company (Cumbre Tours), the summit of Pichincha Volcano at 4,687m was the first of three volcanoes that I would be climbing in order to acclimatize prior to my meeting with Cotopaxi at midnight on day five/six of my tour. The second and third would be Illiniza Norte (5,126m) and Ruminawi (4,721m) respectively.
I am happy to admit that I had no idea exactly what to expect from even the first day, let alone the following five. What would it be like to be over 4,000m, and later 5,000m? Even more importantly, what would it be like to climb…steeply…on ice at that altitude? And what did ‘climb’ and ‘steep’ even mean?
All I knew was that I had done an extremely effective job of unwinding a significant proportion of the benefits of my exercise regime that I had undertaken for the few months in the run up to leaving England. While spending two weeks photographing a number of stunning Haciendas and Jungle lodges in Ecuador, my fitness level had been under attack from enormous breakfasts, three course lunches…four course dinners…and very little exercise (unless walking from my room to the dining rooms counts?!). Thank you to Gentian trails for the incredibly luxurious anti-fitness programme!
At this point I shall introduce you to my guide for today; Darwin from Cumbre Tours. He explained that we would spend about 3.5 hours climbing up to the summit of Rucu Pichincha, the most popular, and second highest of Pichincha Volcano’s two peaks. It would then be a quick 2.5 hour descent.
I guess my time would be the first indicator of whether I had any chance of reaching Cotopaxi Volcano’s iconic summit later in the week.
After naively setting off at power-walking pace as if I was rushing to the local shops back home in England, Darwin told me to slow down. Too much excitement and adrenaline perhaps? Also, I think I was given a false sense of comfort by the expansive views over Quito and the surprisingly friendly path, steadily rising through the Paramo landscape.
The opportunity for horseback assistance part of the way up the slopes of Pichincha was very tempting but quickly passed us by!
Having barely seen the sun for the first two weeks in Ecuador, I could not believe how lucky I was with the weather. From one end of Quito in the north, to the other extremity, 50km south, the entirety of Ecuador’s capital city was sprawled out before us.
After about an hour and a half of walking, we reached a cave for some shelter from the ever-strengthening wind. Eagerly delving into my bag, I pulled out the lunch that I had been provided. It was the most purpose-made lunch I have ever seen. Seeds, fruit, chocolate. Energy, energy, energy. Here started my education on eating at altitude.
While the chocolate and sweets might be the tastiest sugars, apparently it is the natural sugars found in the fruit and seeds that are the most beneficial as they do not have to be broken down by the body. No amount of useful facts however was going to stop me eating the chocolate, and packs of Rainbow Mentos that I had brought specially with me all the way from England.
Up to this point, I was pleasantly surprised. I had expected much steeper, much rougher and much more uneven terrain. Crumbling rocks, slippery sand and sheer drops. Essentially I had pictured the next section of the trek.
We zigzagged up the ever-steepening sandy slope to around 4,500m. Darwin assured me that, while it was one of the slowest sections on the way up, it would be the quickest and most fun on the way down.
Half way up this section, I started to get a faint headache. Nothing that couldn’t be ignored, but it did made me ponder about how I might feel when 1,400m higher on the summit of Cotopaxi…if I made it.
The nuisance of a headache set it. It didn’t hurt. It was just there. Annoying! The terrain changed from slippery sand to rugged rocks. Nothing too challenging at first, but after another 100m, with mist rolling in and the summit getting closer, the scramble began.
A short time later, I arrived to the 4,696m summit of Rucu Pichincha; my first confidence–boosting peak of an Ecuadorian volcano. No views to speak of, but I honestly couldn’t have been less bothered. I had enjoyed fantastic sights on the way up (which I was later informed was very fortunate and uncommon) and had successfully dragged myself to the top in 2.5 hours. Result!
We took a short break to re-fuel, before setting off on the 800m descent. Carefully navigating the steep rocky sections proved more difficult on the way down than the way up.
We reached the top of the sandy slope. Here the fun began. Practically skiing, we reached the bottom in the blink of an eye. Completely out of breath, we took another short rest to empty our shoes, which by this point were completely overflowing with volcanic sand.
From here on it was a steady downward path past the shelter of the cave and onwards through our old gentle friend, the Paramo. Looking down on Quito, which was now bathed in full sunlight, I was very contented about having completed my first 4,000m+ peak.
Some advice for climbing Pichincha Volcano
Do I need a guide to climb Pichincha Volcano? This was the question I asked myself in the run up to booking my six day volcano adventure. I could save money by simply climbing Pichincha by myself. Having now completed the ascent, I can tell you that the short answer is no, you do not need a guide. The longer answer is no, but it will likely make the experience a lot more enjoyable and less stressful if you do. If you decide not to organise a guide, make sure you take precautions such as those listed below;
Never climb alone
There are stories of muggings and being in a group will go some way towards minimising the chances of this happening to you.
Pay attention to your route on the way up
It will be useful on the way down!! This is especially the case at the top, where you are essentially just scrambling over rocks.
If the weather turns nasty, turn around and head straight down
It is often said that Quito experiences four seasons in one day. The weather can change very fast and visibility can become suddenly shortened, so don’t tempt fate.
Don’t push yourself too hard
This is often a first hike after arriving in Quito, so you may not be used to the altitude. Take your time and drink obscenely over the top, excessive amounts of water.
Leave as early as possible
The sooner you can get yourself out of bed, the better. Clouds and mist often roll in in the early afternoon, so give yourself the best chance of great views by leaving early.