After being here for over a week now I figured it was time to do some hiking in Quito. Trust me, you need to acclimatize to the altitude here before attempting any of these trails.
With the great views come the difficulties of hiking at high altitude. The trail starts at 4050m/13,287ft above sea level. You will probably feel out of breath just stepping off of the cable car! Before hiking in Quito you really should spend at least a few days or more in the city to get used to the altitude before attempting any hiking. I hiked in the mountains of Panama before I got here, but that was nothing compared to this.
How to get there.
The starting point of this hike will be the ticket office of the TeleferiQo, Quito’s famous cable car. For me this was a quick $5.40 Uber ride from my apartment in the Centro Historico of Quito
During COVID times the cable car was running limited hours. To do this hike during the week would be difficult because of the limited opening hours (10 am to 5 pm). On weekends the hours are 8.30 am to 6.15 pm. I also chose to do the hike on the weekend as there would be more people around. This is not the kind of hike you want to attempt solo.
My Uber driver dropped me off at the TeleferiQo base at 8.15 am. To my surprise, there were already about 50 people in line already. By the time the ticket office opened at 8.30 am there was at least another 50 in line behind me. Hiking in Quito must be popular. The TelferiQo only reopened on Oct 1st so I guess many people were itching to get out again. Due to social distancing measures, the line stretched out of the building and quite a ways up the road. They were also limiting the number of people per cable car and no sharing with other groups. This also extended the wait time.
The cost for foreigners for the cable car is $8.50 and a little cheaper for locals. Credit cards are accepted. It took 50 minutes for me to buy my ticket and actually board the cable car, and about another 10 minutes to the top. Make sure to keep your ticket for the return journey, you will need it.
The cars also have bike racks for mountain bikes at an additional cost, and there are several downhill trails to enjoy. I never actually saw any bikes up there the day I went.
You can also take up your dog to enjoy the day with you. There were quite a few people up their with their dogs. A few even made it to the summit!
It is a beautiful ride up but save your photos until you get to the top. There are many view points to enjoy before or after your hike.
What to wear and pack.
- Layers of clothing – The temperature changes a lot from the cable car station to the summit of the volcano. Also, the weather at this altitude can change rapidly so be prepared. I was comfortable in a t-shirt and lightweight hoodie all the way up. Once the wind picked up on the summit the temperature dropped dramatically and I needed a jacket and hat.
- Good shoes – Good hiking shoes or boots with a good grip are essential on this trail
- Sunscreen – The sun at this altitude is very strong. make sure you have some strong sunscreen and a good hat.
- Water – I took 2 liters of water with me and it was about perfect. There is water for sale at the cable car station at reasonable prices.
- Lunch – Although there are a couple of restaurants up there, why eat in a restaurant when you can picnic at the summit while enjoying the views and a much-needed rest. You will also need to refuel for the tough walk back down!
- Face mask – At the time of writing, face masks are mandatory everywhere in Ecuador.
El Sendero Ruca Pichincha begins behind the restaurant and is very well signposted. On the weekends, just follow the crowds. All the early morning passengers were there to hike. This is quite a different story in the afternoon.
With the exception of the lack of oxygen, the trail is fairly easy to start. You will actually see many families out on the lower part of the trail in the afternoon. In fact, for the first hour or more you might wonder why this trail is rated as difficult.
You will pass a few viewpoints, a small restaurant, horse riding opportunities, and even an Instagram swing.
If you want to have your photo taken on the swing, I suggest you do it on the way up. Trust me, after this hike you won’t have the energy to do it on the way back down. Not to mention the afternoon crowds of sightseers waiting in line for it.
Once you pass the small restaurant there is nothing else but mountains ahead of you. The trail begins it’s climb and the air gets thinner. The trail is easy to follow for the first couple of hours with plenty of places to stop and admire the view while trying to catch your breath.
Face masks are mandatory everywhere in Ecuador. But from this point on the hike became mask-free for most people. Seriously, you try hiking at this altitude when wearing a mask. Unless there was an oxygen tank attached to it, there is no way I was wearing a mask. It was nice to see peoples faces again. It just felt normal again for a few hours.
After about 1 1/2 hours you will reach a cave. Cueva del Oso is more of a rock overhang in my opinion but it marks the end of the easy trail. If you thought it was tough hiking up until this point then you really should think twice about going any further. From here on out it gets much steeper and way more technically challenging.
From here the trail gets much narrower and you will soon come across a few rock faces to cross. If you look carefully you will find some alternate trails to avoid these dangerous rock faces.
In the distance, you will see a big sandy slope with many fools trying to climb it. This is where things get tough. You are welcome to try and climb in the sand at 4500m or do like I did and use the small zigzag trails off to the side.
When you make it to the top of the sand you will probably be questioning your sanity at this point. I know I was. You can stop to catch your breath, but really there is no breath to catch. I was definitely feeling light-headed at this point and had to consider if I should continue or not.
It was another 30 minutes or so to the summit. I’d come this far, there was no way I was turning around now. At this point you realize that you should never be hiking alone out here. There were plenty of people around, most of them struggling as much as me.
From here to the top, the trail was not so easy to follow. Different groups would head in different directions looking for the easiest route. There was no easy route.
Luckily people stuck together and helped each other out, whether they knew you or not. There were definitely a few sections where a helping hand to pull you up the rock faces was most welcome. If I had come during the week and hiked alone I know I would not have made it past this point.
After about 30 minutes of rock climbing/scrambling, I reached the summit, 4696 meters/15406 feet above sea level!! I’d been this high before in a jeep in Bolivia but never on foot.
I wanted to just grab my camera and start taking pictures but sitting down before I fell down seemed like a better idea. I found a flat rock to sit on and just admired the view for a while. Now you realize why you packed a lunch. Ecuadorian empanadas taste pretty good anytime, but after 3 hours of hiking at this altitude, they taste even better!
The views were outstanding. No matter which direction you looked it was amazing, although midday is definitely not the best light for photos. Still, I took plenty.
After about an hour at the top, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped and it was time to head back down. I waited for some other people to start back down so I wasn’t doing the tough part alone. Finding any kind of trail back down the rocks was tough. After a few small falls, I finally made it down to the sand where I felt a little safer to continue alone.
Once you get past the sand stretch the trail is fairly easy back down. But by this time your legs are tired so you have to take it easy. The descent took me about 2 1/2 hours, not including a second lunch break.
The small restaurant I had passed earlier was now quite busy. The smell of BBQ chicken in the air got me tempted. I knew I had no food in the fridge back at my apartment. I also knew that once I was home there was no way I was going back out for dinner that night. The $2.50 plate of “pollo asado con papas” was soon to be my early dinner for the night. They also had beer for sale, but only at room temperature and in liter bottles. With another 30 minutes of hiking back to the cable car, I knew this was not a good idea and settled for more water.
When I finally made it back to the cable car station the light for photos was a little better. I checked out a few of the viewpoints before getting in line for the ride back down to the city. It would be a spectacular place to watch the sunset from but unfortunately with the reduced operating hours that was not possible.
What a great day hiking in Quito it had been. But now came for the toughest part of all, waiting in line for the ride back down! The line to go back down was huge now and it took almost an hour of standing in line to finally get back on the cable car!
Next, I was wondering whether with all these people heading down, would I be able to get a taxi or Uber? Or more importantly, how much would I have to pay? As I was the only gringo here today I was fully expecting to get ripped off. But I was wrong. A guy approached me about a taxi as soon as I got down and only asked for $5, less than my Uber ride to get there. He walked me to the road and got me the next taxi that pulled up and I was on my way home finally.
After a 20 minute taxi ride home I realized the day wasn’t over yet. I still had to actually get out of the taxi and up the stairs to my apartment! I never thought something like that could be so difficult!
Have you done any great hiking in Quito, or the rest of Ecuador. Let me know in the comments below if you have recommendations for me.