This weekend new found friends and local Ecuadorian family offered to take us on the Teleferico to hike to the top of Pinchincha. That’s the volcano that erupted back in 1999. It benignly looks over the city of Quito and is most often covered by clouds in the late afternoon. That meant an early start so we could increase our odds of seeing a view once we got to the top.
For those of you who haven’t heard of the Teleferico, it’s a cable car that will take you up the mountain-side. It doesn’t reach the peak but it comes within a 2 hour hike of it. As of this last weekend, it cost $8.50 for a non-resident and $4.50 for a resident, for a round-trip ticket. Trust me, it’s well worth the money! You could chose to hike a dirt road instead but its hairpin-turns meander up the mountainside and it could take you a few hours to reach your final destination. Better to just cut to the chase and hop on the Teleferico!
We chose a wonderful day for the adventure. The sky was clear when we arrived with clouds building up in the far distance but certainly not immediately threatening. We caught glimpses of both Cayambe and Cotopaxi, snow covered volcanos near Quito. But more impressive were the views of this huge city. Although only 2 million people live here, the city is very, very long and it could take upward of 2 hours to transverse the entire place. Yet the city is very narrow, fitting into this high mountain valley by pushing up the sides of the mountains. The only places left to grow are to the north and to the south. It’s very apparent from up high that the growing is still taking place. It is no longer possible to see the northern boundary even from the height of the top of the Teleferico. At the southern boundary the houses look so small that it is almost impossible to make them out in the distance.
One of the problems of hiking to the top of Pinchincha, especially for people coming from sea level, is the extreme altitude. Quito is already at 9,300 ft (2,830 meters). The top of the Teleferico is at 13,451 ft (4,100 meters). The top of this peak of Pinchincha, is 15,413 ft (4,698 meters). It is called Rucu, or The Old One in Quichua. You can also hike to Guagua, The Child, from another access point. It is also the active part of the volcano.
Some people experience symptoms of high altitude sickness at the top of the Teleferico – headache and nausea are most common. If you feel those symptoms immediately, it is not a good idea to hike the trails. Just enjoy the view and then head down below. You can try the local cure if you’re not scheduled for any immediate government drug tests, coca tea. It’s an infusion made from pouring hot water over the leaves of the coca plant. It’s a mild stimulant that similar to caffeine and is a common folk remedy for the symptoms of altitude sickness. A single cup of coca tea can leave a residue of cocaine alkaloid in your system causing you to test positive for cocaine use even though you never snorted a thing.
We were fortunate not to feel any high altitude affects immediately. We’ve been in Quito for over a month and only my husband has left to go down to sea level since we arrived. So we were good to go and started hiking. Now, hiking at altitude is more difficult than hiking at sea level. Your heart can feel like you’re running a sprint even though you’re only walking up a slight incline. Your lungs fight to get every ounce of oxygen out of the thin air and you’re tempted to breathe through your mouth, taking huge gulps to compensate for what won’t come through your narrow nasal passages. The later is a mistake as it can fill your tummy with air which only adds to the possiblity of feeling nauseous later on. My advice? Take your time. You’re in no hurry to get to the top and you’re more likely to get there if you don’t push your body too far beyond its comfort zone.
Hiking this terrain is a wonderful experirence. The mountains are covered with tufts of golden grass, each tuft about two feet tall. There are no real trees though we did see lots of scrubby bushes. In the distance, some mountains look like they’re covered with soft, golden brown velvet. Others are dotted by small farm fields and look like patchwork quilts of greens and golds and browns. And then there are the mountains without plants, the sheer faces of volcanic rock. Every direction in which you look provides a new view and it’s important that while you’re hiking up, that you take the time to stop and look around. There are so many things to see. Flowers grow very low to the ground for most of the trail. About an hour and a half in, we found orange pin cushion flowers growing on low scrubby bushes. In this same area, we watched hummingbirds flying around and could hear small songbirds singing in the distance. It was about this spot that my husband realized he couldn’t hike anymore. The signs of altitude sickness had arrived… and this is where we’re going to talk about what you need to look for when your hiking partner says they don’t feel good but can still go on.
As I mentioned before, nausea and headaches can be pretty normal when hiking at high altitude. And it is possible to hike with these symptoms. I know because I spent a long, long day on the Inca Trail in this exact condition. But the safest route is to turn around and consider trying the hike on a different day. This is especially the case if you or your partner start vomiting, show signs of clumsiness, or that headache becomes extreme. In my husband’s case, his body’s circulation was slowing down. Just holding his hand was a sure sign that something wasn’t right – it was freezing cold and though his fingers didn’t look swollen, they felt slightly puffy. So we headed down. My son tackled the summit with our friends, making it to the top just after the clouds came pouring in… so no great view. He did get to see a new bird, however, a Carunculated Caracara and he has a story to tell, he’s hiked to the highest point in his life!
On the way back down, my husband and I took the time to smell the proverbial roses. We caught a picture of one of those gorgeous hummingbirds, purple-head, white chest, sitting proudly on the orange flowered bushes. We followed the sounds of the song birds but could only catch an occasional flash of dull colored wings in the tall grass. And we relished in being outdoors in a beautiful location. Despite turning back, we had a wonderful day. I only hope my husband will dare to tackle it again… but only when he hasn’t recently been at sea level!
If you plan on hiking at high altitude any time soon, I suggest visiting this page to learn more about the symptoms and what you can to do alleviate them. Happy Hiking!