Hiking at high altitude in the Andes is a joy. The air is thin but clean. The views from up high are incredible and even cloudy days can provide surprise glimpses of panoramas as winds play havoc with mountain peaks. It’s very hard to tell when a gust of wind might change a socked-in gray day into a singular moment of blue sky. And even if that doesn’t happen, the landscape of the high Andes is worth knowing in all types of weather.
Why Guagua Pichincha Is A Favorite Hike
The problems of hiking at altitude are compounded by long trails. That’s one of the reasons we love hiking at Guagua Pichincha. By taking our vehicle to the Refugio, we save our bodies a lot of wear and tear and can focus on getting to the crater rim, a 30 minute hike; to the shrine of the Virgin of Lloa, 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 times… we’ve had Ecuadorians fly past us on these trails)
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 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 in the morning, the better your chance at seeing clear views at the crater rim. Your chances are also improved by hiking 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.
But a cloudy day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt the steep hike. If you are a birder, cloudy days might mean better opportunities to see certain birds. 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. One of the worst days on the slopes of Guagua is also the day we saw the Andean Snipe and that my friend snapped excellent photos of the Ecuadorian Hillstar Hummingbird, both male and female.
Flowers are always in bloom and don’t care if the weather is poor. And you can see high alpine varieties that exist only in the high Andes.
And there are the 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.
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.
Recognizing High Altitude Sickness
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.
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.
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.