This great terrace, which holds the city, raised over foothills and filled in cliffs, is part of a grand mountain range, that with hospitality, has always welcomed Quiteños and foreigners alike. On the slopes of the great Pichincha, the initial boundaries of the capital city spread out in every direction, which back in the 50’s most likely, when there were but 200,000 inhabitants in the “Carita de Dios” (little face of God), meant said boundaries were the steep San Juan neighborhood to the North, the cliff of Jerusalem (current viaduct and 24 de Mayo boulevard) to the South, El Dorado and La Tola to the East, and San Diego, San Roque and El Tejar to the West.
The first excursions were made to nearby places, which did not require any major journeys. Destinations such as the Puengasí hill, El Panecillo and the riverbanks of the Machangara were close at hand. In the other direction, farther away, one could descend towards Guápulo, traverse the Iñaquito pastures and reach Cotocollao. Others, who were more daring, would search for la bondad de La Chorrera above Toctiuco, and the altitude and cold of the Cruzloma moorlands at the foot of the Rucu Pichincha, in order to spend a glacial night.
To head deep into the moorlands has always been something only few could do: chagras (Highland cowboys) on horseback, day laborers from haciendas, hunters or crazy mountaineers have lurked the heights around Quito. The reason behind the fascination for walking between the pinnacles and cliffs of the great Pichincha is an obsession for the marvelous scenery offered.
20 years ago, travelling along the entirety of the Pichincha was quite different than it is now; the route went from East to West and began at the foot of Av. Occidental, passing through Cruzloma and towards the first stop at the “Cueva de Whymper” (Cave of Whymper), at the beginning of the rock at the Rucu, a Quichua word meaning old.
The next day, one could reach the mountain’s peak by the normal route: the eternal sandy area where for every 4 steps forward, one took three steps back. After several hours of descending towards the West, and traversing the foothills of the Padre Encantado (Enchanted Father), a peak located in the middle of the route, the old Civil Defense shelter was reached, where travellers could spend another freezing night. On the third day, the sulfurous edge of the peak of the Guagua and young Pichincha volcano was reached. On the way back, passing by the mountain shelter, travellers descended towards the rural parish of Lloa, so that with any luck, they could find a good Samaritan that would give the dusty and exhausted travellers a ride to the South of Quito, where they would begin to find their way home.
Times change, and currently, the distances and efforts have been reduced. In a time of cable cars, downhill, ironman and triathlons, the mountain is the same and precautions are the most important aspect to keep in mind when starting off on an adventure such as this.
One of the best options to travel the same route, is to begin from behind, with an itinerary that lasts 8 to 10 hours beginning on the side of Lloa, in other words West to East, to end with a (mimo a las rodillas) descending towards the city in a cabin suspended in the air with the best view of Quito.
The route begins a the Guagua shelter, it descends towards the mountain pass that joins this active volcano with the Padre Encantado, and connects at the Western base of the Rucu. This is probably the most complicated part: the climb to the window that gives way to a spectacular view point: the tableau of modern Quito, of the North, the valleys and the surrounding mountains.
From there, on a clear day, the panoramic view will take anyone’s breath away, and allows travellers to see the volcanoes from North to South: Casitahua, Pululahua, Cotacachi, Mojanda, Imbabura, Cayambe, Cerro Puntas, Ilaló, Antisana, Antisanilla, Sincholagua, Cotopaxi, Pasochoa, Rumiñahui, Ilinizas, Corazón and the Atacazo, the closest one. Travellers can find themselves bewildered in but a few minutes, and recognize the city buildings, its parks, the new airport, the valleys and the places each one considers landmarks. The final hour of the walk is in the direction of the top cable car station.
In order to live this adventure, it is necessary to carry a light backpack, water, a pair of trekking sticks, proper footwear and clothing for the sun, cold and wind, and of course, have a guide who knows the way and the surrounding area well (www.aseguim.org).
Travellers can make several “technical” stops in Lloa for supplies at the beginning of the route if the direction they are taking is Guagua-Rucu-cable car, or to get their strength back by enjoying local cuisine: chicken stew, corn on the cob with cheese, broad beans and fritada (fry-up), in the middle of the Lloa central park.
These days, it is quite simple to reach or return from Lloa. There is regular daily public transportation between the parish and the detour to Cinto in la Mena, in the South of Quito. The road is paved up to that point, and in order to reach the shelter, it is necessary to use an all terrain vehicle.
The chuquiragua is the flower of the Ecuadorian Andes. It grows like a large bush that can reach a height of between 2.5 to 3 meters. One of the places where it is most commonly found is the moorlands of Guagua Pichincha.
The volcanic activity of the Guagua is perceptible at the edge of the crater. The strong smell of sulfur is not the best reward for reaching that point, though it is a test of skill. As far as the year 1999 there were hot springs in the crater. After the eruption between that year and the year 2000, they disappeared.
Written by: Ramiro Garrido / Picture: Romel Sandoval, Carolina Sánchez Guerra