An Accessible but Challenging Hike From Quito’s Cable Car
Just north of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, the Pichincha Volcano towers above the city and last covered it with ashes in 1999. It gave its name to the Province of Pichincha that Quito belongs to.
The volcano actually summits in two main peaks: the Rucu Pichincha (“Old Pichincha” in Quechua) at 4698 m and the Guagua Pichincha (“Child Pichincha”) at 4784 m. It is the smaller Rucu Pichincha that I climbed, as it is directly accessible from Quito’s Teleferico (the cable car).
It was my third time in Quito and even though I had visited the Teleferico every time, it was my first attempt at climbing Rucu Pichincha. As a trekking and mountain enthusiast, I was happy to finally get to do it!
When I did my usual research before the trip, I read that this trail used to be a little dangerous, with some gangs roaming around attacking tourists. Seeing that the trail to the volcano was an increasingly popular attraction for tourists, the Ecuadorian government did a great job at making the area safer, and I can confirm that this hike is now safe from thieves.
Nowadays, it’s a popular climb and chances are that you will share the trail with other hikers who will show you the way if at some point you feel a little lost in the mountain.
GPS (start of Pichincha trail): 0°10’55.71″S, 78°32’19.25″W
Best way to go: Taxi to the cable car
Entrance fee: 8.50 USD
Opening hours: The cable car is open everyday from 8 am to 8 pm. Go as early as possible to climb the volcano.
Duration of the trek: 3-6 hours go and back
Best season: June to August
Official website: Quito’s Teleferico
What to Expect
The trail to the volcano is easy to find, just follow the path with the beautiful view of Quito on your right, and you will quickly spot the Pichincha Volcano sign. The path is easily visible, you just need to follow the track where the vegetation is gone (but becomes a little less clear in some areas closer to the top).
At first, you are going up and down some hills covered with grass, from which you can keep contemplating this amazing view of Quito occupying the whole valley. At this point already, you understand that it will not be a walk in the park! The altitude is already above 4100 m (13,500 ft) and breathing is not that easy. Climbing the long slopes is already really tiring.
Slowly, the lanscape becomes more rocky, wild and austere. As you go up, the weather conditions worsen, the wind gets stronger, the clouds hit your face, and the oxygen is seriously lacking.
At some point, the clear path turns into wild rock climbing. It can be a little confusing when you have been following a clear path and suddenly find these rocks in front of you. You wonder if you have to avoid them, if you are following a wrong path, or if you have to climb them. The answer is yes, you have to climb them! The rock climbing can be a little challenging for less fit persons and those who easily suffer from vertigo. It is important to not rush it, take your time and pay attention to where you put your feet.
When you start climbing rocks, you know the top is not too far anymore. And it gets really steep! Now at around 4500 m (14,800 ft), it’s really difficult to just walk. You force 10 steps up the slope and need to take a break. Then force 10 more steps and stop again to regain your breath.
Your heart beats much stronger and faster than normal. Since there is less oxygen in the air, each heart beat carries less oxygen. As a result, it is beating faster to try to catch up the lacking oxygen and provide the body a normal level of oxygen.
In these conditions, you can almost hear your body scream “stooooop! Go back down right now!!” It’s all in the mind, you can’t rely on your muscles and your lungs anymore, it’s just between you and your motivation to reach the top!
Just before the top, you have to climb a sandy slope that is pretty fun to go down, but going up this slope is hell. Sand is not a firm and stable ground, making the climb even harder. The clear path is just a remote memory and you have to follow the footprints to guess where the path actually is. Don’t hesitate to ask other hikers. But when you think about it, as long as you are going up you are on the right direction anyway!
Reaching the top of the mountain is amazing. The suffering makes way for joy, and you instantly feel really proud of yourself for not giving up. It feels good and quite effortless to finally walk on flat land again.
I wish I could describe the view from the top, but all I will be able to describe is how plain, featureless and white the clouds are from inside! The view was totally blocked but I admit I quite liked the idea of “exploring” the inside of a cloud without being in a plane.
Going down is of course easier, and I enjoyed myself like a kid running down the long sand slope. After a bit more than 4 hours of intense efforts, I could catch sigh of the cable car station again, and treated myself to a well deserved long break sitting in the grass. I am quite impressed to see what our body is able to withstand, even without being fully acclimatized to high altitude.
As an exploration junkie, on top of exploring a volcano I can say that I have explored my physical limits!
Video of The Trip
Live this experience in video and watch me struggle my way up the volcano!
Climbing Rucu Pichincha
When I went to climb the volcano, I had landed in Quito only 40 hours before, coming from Europe. As a result my acclimatization to the altitude was a little limited. I may be a well trained hiker, but I can say that I really suffered on this mountain.
Therefore, I advise you to not follow my example and stay at least two or three days in Quito before attempting the ascent of the volcano to give your body enough time to generate more red blood cells. It is even better if you can visit a few places around Quito at a higher altitude, to stimulate the acclimatization process.
The trek should definitely be done in the morning, as the weather at the top often gets bad in the afternoon. I strongly advise to get ready to climb as soon as the cable car station opens in the morning, to give yourself the best chances of a great experience and a great view from the top (which I didn’t have!).
I did this hike in April, and the weather was fine as there was no rain at all, but the top of the volcano got totally engulfed in the clouds quite early in the day. Later in the year (particularly July-August), your chances to have a clear sky and clear view from the top increase greatly.
Climbing the Rucu Pichincha is a must for anyone seeking a challenging hike that they can do on their own, without a guide. The path is clear most of the time, and there are always people around so you don’t feel totally isolated in the wild.
Good weather and good view are never guaranteed, but the clouds make a really special and mysterious atmosphere that I like, and at least I can really say that I touched the sky!