Ecuador is a country of volcanos. Tall ones, extinct ones, and iconic ones. From Quito they are visible in every direction and they truly capture the imagination. For the beauty and majesty of spotting a distant volcano on the horizon, there is something truly spectacular about living literally underneath a nearly 16,000 foot active volcano.
Pichincha stands ever-present above the city and is impossible to ignore in your comings and goings. The city stretches up its lower flanks and has repeatedly been showered in ash throughout the centuries – most recently in 1999. The ever changing clouds and light playing off the expansive mountainside give texture to the shifting atmosphere around the city. And if the natural beauty wasn’t enough, there is the historical significance of the location as well.
On 24 May 1822, a small battle on the slopes of Pichincha between the Royalist Spanish army and the army of independent Gran Colombia, which was a pan-Andean alliance, proved to be a pivotal turning point in the history of the independence movement of South America. Fought at 3,500 metres above sea level and lasting mere hours, the decisive engagement permitted the independent forces to control Quito and therefore united the three areas of Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil under the independent banner of Gran Colombia. Eight years later those three city-states would merge into the newly independent nation of Ecuador.
The historical significance is sometimes lost in the sheer grandeur of the place, but it bares thinking about as you pass the sheer slopes, thick paramo grasses, and unforeseen gullies on your way up the volcano in the cable car. In mere minutes the TeleferiQo will take you more than 1,000 metres up in elevation and deposit you over 4,000 metres above sea level. There, if you are lucky to have a clear day, you are treated to truly panoramic views of Quito and a dozen, often snowcapped, volcanos on the horizon.
Bring your layers, as the wind whips across the open expanse, and your sunglasses, as the sun is extra intense. Then, wander up to the various viewing locations to see the entire 2.2 million person city spread out below. It is an incomparable view down, but then you turn around and see the rocky outcropping of Ruku Pichincha still another 700 metres above you.
Pichincha is one massive volcano that actually split itself into two separate summits – named Wawa (Kichwa for baby or child) and Ruku (Kichwa for elder). Wawa is the higher peak by almost 100 metres, but Ruku is the more easily accessible with a trail leading up directly from the TeleferiQo station.
The trail up Ruku is pretty straightforward with a series of short, steep climbs over the paramo grasses until you reach the rocky face. Skirting the Paso del Muerte (Pass of Death), the trail leads to a wonderfully energy sapping scree slope before the final scramble over the terraced rock face to the summit.
We have summited Ruku twice – once just the two of us with Mosa and the second time with Piper on our backs. It is not a mountain to be taken lightly as weather conditions can change quickly from lovely to atrocious, but with a good amount of fitness and sensible caution, it is one of the easier climbs of the higher peaks. In fact, it is frequently used as an acclimatisation climb by people with plans to climb the highest peaks in Ecuador.
Our climbs really couldn’t have been much different – with lovely mostly sunny conditions the first time and cloud the second time. And I mean cloud, because we were climbing in the cloud for the last parts. It gave the summit a very ephemeral feel and a sense that you were literally alone in the middle of the sky.
We have been up the TeleferiQo with numerous visitors for everything from a quick look around the views near the top station to rather arduous hikes through the paramo. Every time is a little different and unfortunately only once, when Cora was up with friends, have all the volcanos, including Chimborazo 140km away, been visible. We hope to have at least one more chance to see that expansive view before we depart, but with the schizophrenic Andean weather we will just have to wait and see!
In the meantime, we will enjoy the views of Pichincha with snow, cloud, and sun from Quito.