2024 Update – Before planning this hike, please check current conditions with the GAD in Lloa. Guagua Pichincha is an active volcano and local officials sometimes close the access road and refuge. 

I hike places like Guagua Pichincha because hiking at high altitude brings me pure joy. The air is thin but clean. The views from up high are incredible. Even cloudy days provide surprise glimpses of striking panoramas as winds play havoc with high mountain peaks. A gust of wind might change a socked-in gray day into a singular moment of stunning blue sky.


The problems of hiking at altitude are compounded by long trails. That’s one of the reasons I love hiking at Guagua Pichincha.

By taking our vehicle to the Refugio, we save our bodies a lot of wear and tear. We can focus on getting to the crater rim, about a 30-minute hike from the Guagua Pichincha Refuge; or the Virgin of Lloa shrine, about a 35 minute hike; or to the summit itself, an hour according to some, though the only time two of us might have made it was on a foggy day and it was impossible to tell if the correct high point had been reached. (And these are gringo hiking times… we’ve had Ecuadorians fly past us on these trails).

Trail to the Summit

At the very least, a trip to the crater edge is well worth the trek. You will want to come well prepared for cold and windy weather with possible rain in the afternoons. That means gloves and a warm hat on top of your windbreaker and rain jacket. I also wear rain pants to act as a layer against cold wind. The earlier you hike, the better your chance at experiencing clear views at the crater rim. Your chances are also improved by hiking in late spring (May has been especially good this year) and in August, when the summer winds are known to scour the sky free of those pesky clouds.

Cashpachina is a purple flower that looks like a crocus

But a cloudy day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt the steep hike. If you are a birder, cloudy, foggy days tend to mean no wind which can make life a little easier for small birds. They are less likely to be hunkered down and hiding from view. If you are a nature lover in general, then the high alpine flowers will intrigue, from bright purple crocus-like cashpachina to strange-looking dead man’s fingers, a plant that could only exist in such a stark habitat.

One of the worst weather days on the slopes of Guagua Pichincha was also the day we saw an Andean Snipe and that my friend snapped excellent photos of the Ecuadorian Hillstar Hummingbird, both male and female. Every day birds on the slope include the Carunculated Caracara and the Plumbeous Sierra Finch. So don’t let clouds stop you from hiking.

Carunculated Caracara
Plumbeous Sierra Finch, female

And there are surprises – that moment when a gust of wind opens a window to a mountain peak and you see a cross waiting up high, a cross that you didn’t even know was there moments before. A few deep breathes later, and it’s gone but the secret is out and you know there is something else to find when you reach the top.

Deep fog covers the trail on Guagua Pichincha
Two hikers take advantage of the clearing fog to head to the peak
A lone hiker heads towards a cross at the top of a peak of as the fog clears on Guagua Pichincha

Hiking in the Andes makes my spirit sing. Although hiking can be strenuous on my lungs, I feel an energy that is different from hiking the Sierras of my lovely California. My husband tells me that I experience a high altitude high, not unlike feeling a little drunk. And he could be right. Altitude can have strange effects on people and it is important to know the signs so that you can prevent symptoms from becoming dangerous.

A cross rises above a peak at Guagua Pichincha


First, dehydration. The high Andes is very dry and if the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, dehydration can quickly become dangerous. The day before you plan on hiking is the day to hydrate. Drink plenty of water and refrain from alcohol the night before. Take plenty of water with you on the day of your hike.

Second, the headache. This is related to dehydration and the best prevention is the water mentioned above. However, we also recommend taking your favorite headache medication, be it ibuprofen or acetaminophen, the morning of your hike. If you are a coffee drinker, don’t skip your caffeine that morning. Or, better yet, bring a small thermos of coffee or tea and have some when you arrive at the Refugio. We swear by Argentine mate but know that not everyone has yet taken the plunge.

Third, lack of blood flow and sometimes, coordination. Some people will have problems with fingers and toes as their blood is less oxygenated and circulation seems to suffer. You might notice that your fingers are swollen or that they have a bluer tinge than normal. You might notice that you are stumbling a little as you hike. These are all clues that the altitude is playing with you.

Two sets of hands held out to the camera show signs of swelling, a symptom of high altitude sickness

Fourth, lack of energy. The high altitude can drain you of any energy you have left. Sometimes a shot of caffeine (or the natural cocaine in coca tea or mateine in mate) can alleviate this. Locals swear by chocolate and we always hike with a couple of bars. Whether it is the sugar or the small amount of caffeine or just the placebo effect that helps, we’re not sure. But it has become a habit to break out the chocolate when the hiking gets tough.

Fifth, euphoria. This is the high my husband tells me I am feeling and the truth is that it doesn’t feel like a bad thing at all. But it is important to be able to tell when that good feeling starts to effect good judgement. Altitude can be just like alcohol and effect the part of your brain that makes good decisions. Keep an eye on your friends that seem particularly happy and if you yourself are feeling ready to conquer the world, just think twice about the next steps you take. And never, never hike alone on this mountain. Always hike with a friend.

Split in the Trail

If you or a friend experience multiple symptoms, it is best to go back down the mountain. Everyone handles altitude differently and the same person can have a completely different reaction on different visits. Just play it safe so that you can come back and visit this gorgeous mountain again.

This article was originally published in May, 2015