Pichincha Volcano

With virtually nothing open on Sundays, the end of the weekend is good for exactly two things: relaxing or adventuring.

Not being a city person, I was craving some fresh air. Quito is no concrete jungle, the term of which is more generally applied to Ecuador’s most populated city of Quayaqil. But the constant sounds of traffic are still overwhelming to this country girl. Luckily, all one need do is glance to the west to see the Pichincha volcano, or to the South to see the great snowcapped Cotopaxi volcano. So, instead of a day spent savoring my latest Dan Brown novel, we decided to explore the magnificent landscapes that surround Quito.

We took the TelefériQo, which is a gondola propelling tourists up the side of the Pichincha volcano to Cruz Loma peak with impressive lookout points over the city and a variety of hiking trails. The station is based at around 10,000 feet (the average altitude of Quito), and ascends to around 13,000 ft.

Many gondola systems are very quick, but as I know, nothing in Ecuador is even remotely fast. The Teleférico slowly climbed over the treetops, and with an intense fear of heights I spent the ride nearly hyperventilating with Ecuadorian women asking if I was all right.

While many cities have similar lookout points, showcasing the architecture or the landscape, I can honestly say that I have never seen one like this. Being so high in the mountains, the once large concrete city molded with the lush rolling hills and the white-capped volcano peaks. I could see everything. There is a sign at the base of the Teleférico that says “Toque al cielo” or “touch the sky”, and nothing could be more accurate.

Once ascended, we decided to do some hiking. Pichincha volcano has two peaks, Rucu Pichincha at around 15,300 ft and Guagua Pichincha at around 15,700 ft. Let me preface this—at the time that we decided to hike we had been in Quito for two weeks, but we were far from acclimatized. While walking around the city was getting easier, we were totally unprepared for the thin air at over 15,000 ft.

We followed a trail that skimmed the top of a hill awarding us with views of the city and distant mountains as well as the scenic mountains looming before us. Ever step we took drew labored breath, and climbing some steep hills left us utterly breathless, forced to take lengthy breaks every ten minutes. We were not tired, but our lungs were totally unable to fulfill our requests. My chest hurt and Kirsten was light headed. But, we pushed on, enjoying the serenity of the natural wonders of the volcano.

Truthfully, we do not know how far we got. Guagua Pichincha is evidently a 5 or 6-hour hike to the peak, so we definitely did not get there. We may have been at Rucu Pichincha, but we did not see any clear marking that we had arrived. The rout was made more exciting with a few scrambles, little areas to rock climb, and a nearly vertical sand dune to the top. Freezing cold with bitterly strong winds, we decided to turn back.

The entire 5 hour hike was so mind-numbingly beautiful that I absolutely cannot wait to see what else this country has to offer. Maybe in a few months when I am fully acclimated I will be able to take on some of Ecuador’s higher peaks.

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