Climbing Rucu Pichincha – our local volcano

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Rucu Pichincha, ‘Rucu’ meaning old man in Kichwa, looms 4,700m over downtown Quito – a constant reminder that we’re high up in the Andes now. Even Quito is 2,800 meters above sea level. The active caldera is found slightly to the west behind the other peak of Guagua (“Baby”) Pichincha, which last erupted in 1999 covering Quito in a blanket of ash.

As we are almost on the Equator the mountain is not snow-capped despite its height, although after a very rainy Saturday in Quito its peak was dusted in snow last weekend. Below are photos of the view of Pichincha from both Parque Carolina and Parque Metropolitano.

We decided to climb the volcano a few weeks ago. Despite being higher than any mounatin in the lower 48 states it is possible to do as a day hike in part thanks to the recently built Teleferico which zips you up a helpful 1,200 meters in only ten minutes. We headed out at about 9 am on a rather grey day which was unlucky as most mornings Quito has clear blue skies. Despite ominous signs in the car park stating ‘no dogs’, the hound was welcome on the Teleferico and she just had to pay a fare too.

Although always game to go where we go, Tala clearly found the Teleferico somewhat terrifying and couldn’t really come to grips with how we were dangling in mid air.

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Even on an overcast day the views over Quito were spectacular. There is a clear path along a ridge which heads towards Rucu Pichincha. Once one has passed the café, a small church, and some tired horses it really starts to feel wild with a sea of paramo grass punctuated by interesting high altitude plants. The paramo is the name given to the ecosystem in the Andes found above the treeline (at about 3,500 meters here as we are so close to the Equator) but below the snowline. Some of the plants we spotted below included: bright red/pink Bomarea glaucescens, a luminescent green moss-like plant Baccharis caespitosa, beautiful purple Gentian Gentianella cerastioides, a shrub with orange blooms Chuquiraga jussieui, and an Andean Lupin (see photos below). The hound was delighted to finally be able to run around off her lead and she even managed to chase unsuccessfully some mountain rabbits, which are much more compact with tiny ears.

At the end of the ridge the path becomes narrower as it winds around the rocky base of the peak and eventually it disappears altogether near a steep slope of sandy scree. It’s around this point that I think quite a few people give up as we were certainly starting to feel the altitude with dull headaches while the clouds had rolled in so visibility was rather poor. But the exploratory hound was having too much fun, scrambling around and digging, so we kept on soldiering to the top.

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the top the clouds had come in and we didn’t have much of a view – just a heavily graffitied sign and our Garmin giving us proof that we had reached the top!

Information about climbing Pichincha:

The Teleferico opens at 9 and is a short drive/taxi from central Quito – fares are $8.50/person $4.50/small dog. Quito tends to start clouding over and often storms come in the afternoon so it is definitely best to do the climb early.

From the Teleferico to the peak and back was about 10 kilometers. We took three hours going up and two hours coming back which involved lots of breaks and picture taking. We have been living in Quito for more than a month but the altitude still knocked it out of us

Bring plenty of water and lunch/snacks – we didn’t bring nearly enough!

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