In October 2018, Eva Merkx from the Happy Gringo team went with a group of friends on an adventurous trekking trip to El Altar Ecuador – one of the most breathtaking mountain peaks in the country. It was an unforgettable trip to the area’s awe-inspiring Crater Lake that reaches an altitude of 4200m (13,800 ft.)
This trip should be on every avid mountain hiker’s bucket list – imagine far-reaching mountain views, untouched nature, stunning snowcapped peaks, and the soothing sounds of waterfalls.
Read on to learn all about the Eva’s stunning but tough El Altar trek. How to organise an El Altar hiking tour? What to expect each day? Plus lots of trekking tips and facts about El Altar Ecuador.
El Altar Volcano (5319m /17.451 ft.) is one of the most spectacular mountain peaks in Ecuador, and is located on the western side of the famous Sangay National Park. The park is located south of Quito in the Chimborazo and Tungurahua provinces of Ecuador. Sangay National Park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains two active volcanoes: Tungurahua (near Baños), and Sangay (Central Ecuador). Spectacled bears, condors, Andean gulls, white-tailed deer, and foxes are some of the region’s resident wildlife.
El Altar is an extinct volcano. After a giant eruption approximately 500 years ago, the volcano cone completely collapsed and created its iconic cathedral-altar shape. Today, nine peaks surround a beautiful green glacial crater lake. Before the eruption, it is said that the volcano was one of the world´s tallest peaks.rything you need to know about the best day trips from Quito. Which destinations make the cut on Happy Gringo’s recommended list?
The old Kichwa name for El Altar is Kapak Urco– ¨Kapak¨ meaning King, and ¨Urco¨ meaning mountain. With the arrival of the Spanish, its name was changed into El Altar due to it’s likeness to 2 nuns and 4 friars listening to a bishop give mass at an altar.
It is possible to climb the summit of El Altar, but the hike is a highly demanding and extremely technical climb, only suitable for highly experienced expert climbers. In comparison the trek up to the Crater Lake is do-able for any fit mountain hiker.
The El Altar trekking tour is actually one of the most remote hiking trips you can take in Ecuador – it’s also one of the trails that receive the fewest tourists each year. The weather is highly unpredictable, so go prepared for rain, and the mountains are often covered by thick clouds and fog (as you can see in some of my photos).
Although not a technical hike, but rather physically demanding, you should log a few other summits to acclimatize before taking it on. The long hours of trekking at high altitude, sometimes harsh weather conditions, and extremely muddy trails make the El Altar a rewarding challenge.
For nature lovers, the El Altar trek is especially interesting – ecosystems along the route range from tropical forests to glaciers. At the starting point of the hike, the landscape seems a bit tropical- but the higher we climbed, the landscape gradually transitions into the grasses and herbs of the Andean Paramo. The Andean Paramo is a tundra-like grassland above the continuous forest line, yet below the permanent snowline.
I just loved the beautiful colors of the landscape surrounding El Altar! The yellowish to olive-brown grasses covering the nearby hills and mountains, and combined with the snowy peaks of El Altar in the far distance formed an absolutely gorgeous panorama.
Our guide explained the importance of the Paramo for the water supply in Ecuador. The Andean Paramo has an incredible ability to store water by way of its vegetation and unique ecological and geological qualities.
Unfortunately, deforestation, overgrazing, agriculture, the introduction of exotic plants and climate change has placed a burden on this vulnerable ecosystem- limiting the water supplies in Ecuador. One of the handful of untouched regions to survive, this is a very special piece of wilderness and a very important eco-system in the country!
My favorite part of the nature hike that impressed me the most was at around 4300m / 12.566 ft. After departing the refuge we reached a so-called “altiplano”, a plateau surrounded by mountain peaks
Standing there it seemed like we were on a different planet! The swampy plateau was covered with massive stones, and there must have been over 20 waterfalls cascading down from the surrounding mountains.
The sounds of the waterfalls, the colors of the mosses covering the landscape, and the towering peaks were just overwhelmingly beautiful! I was impressed to notice lots of tiny flowers in this seemingly harsh landscape. There were also huge rosette plants-small bushes with red berries.
Elsewhere there was a forest with very old trees covered in mosses in different shades of grey, brown, and green. The vegetation of the Paramo is highly adapted to the strong solar radiation, night frost, and low oxygen levels, that’s why the landscape seemed a bit unreal to me.
Aside from the all-encompassing beauty of Ecuador’s wilderness, the El Altar trek is also a very challenging hike on very muddy trails – so be prepared!
The El Altar hike is usually offered as a 3 Days/2 Nights package, but because of time restrictions we decided to do the hike in just two days – against the advice we received from the tour operator! Well, after this experience I can highly recommend doing this hike in three days for more enjoyment of the incredible surroundings, and also because it was a challenging hike.
We based in the town of Riobamba for the night before the start of the trek, staying at Hotel Mansion Santa Isabella – a nice mid-range hotel close to the city’s main tourist area. This elegant colonial style hotel has clean rooms with private bathrooms and comfortable beds. Ask for a room that doesn’t face the street to avoid noise from the buses and traffic passing by. The rooms located in the new part of the hotel are more tranquil. Very important before taking a mountain hike – the buffet-style breakfast was hearty and plentiful!
On Day one of our trekking adventure we were met by our guide at the reception at 8am and taken to a shop to check our equipment. We were given gumboots, hiking poles, rain ponchos, and a boxed lunch with a thermos of warm coca tea.
We then got into our van for a 1-hour drive to the entrance of the Sangay National Park where we were registered. At the Hacienda Releche at 3070 m. / 10.072 ft. altitude, we started our hike. Our big backpacks with clothes, food storage, and some equipment were packed onto horses that took off ahead of us to drop everything off at the Refuge.
We started off on what looked like an easy ascending trail, but soon the path became very muddy. We were warned beforehand that it had been raining in the area and that the trail was covered in mud, but nothing could have prepared us for this!
It was very slippery, and in some places, the mud reached up to our knees – the rubber boots were absolutely necessary! The uphill muddy trail was definitely not easy so we went steady and slow. Every time we stepped into the deep mud, we would get stuck and our feet would come out of the boot – very unpleasant! It took us 3 hours (approx. 350 m ascending) uphill through the mud until reaching a nice grassy part to enjoy our lunch – a nice vegetarian wrap and coca tea for energy!
After this point, the trail continued to be slippery and muddy, but it was a lot easier to manage. The scenery opened up and gave us hope again! At times we could see the snowy peaks of El Altar through the clouds in the distance.
After 7 hours walking, we reached the Refuge Collanes, named after the river that is formed at the Crater Lake of El Altar, which we had seen all the way down in the canyon. What a fascinating place! The location of the Refuge is just perfect, on a small hill overlooking a beautiful valley with the majestic El Altar peak in the background!
The refuge itself is very basic, just a simple bunk room. Luckily we had very warm sleeping bags with us because it became extremely cold in the evening. There is no electricity in the refuge but we got by with our flashlights and some candles.
One of us had brought a bottle of wine – a great idea! It was nice to go over the day together with candlelight while sipping a glass of wine. We forgot all about our muddy adventure of the day!
For dinner, we had quinoa soup and a plate of pasta with veggies. Before heading to bed, we saw a pair of Andean wolves (also known as Andean Foxes) coming very close to the refuge. With our flashlights, we could see them wandering around the refuge – wow, what a day!
On the second day after an early breakfast, we continued climbing upward toward our destination of Crater Lake. During the first part of the day, we crossed the immensely swampy grassland of the altiplano, enjoying the sight of the numerous waterfalls coming down from the mountains on all sides!
We had to cross some small streams, and walk over the grasslands, all-the-while looking up to the impressive white peaks of the El Altar waiting for us. After the plateau, we continued up a small trail for about two more hours, regularly stopping to catch our breath and enjoy the sweeping mountain views. Towards the end, we had to climb a steep wall, which was also very slippery due to the rainfall. It was very cold up here but we decided to push forward to reach our destination!
After a heavy day, we finally reached our goal – a breath-taking sight over a turquoise green lagoon, surrounded by glaciers and the snowy peaks of El Altar, with atmospheric clouds drifting in and out. What an incredible feeling it was to stand up there! We spent about half an hour at the top to fully take in the marvelous views and the feeling of having finally accomplished our goal!
After leaving the scenic vista, we started our journey back. As said, this tour is best done on a three-day trip, but we opted for two days – living proof that it is just much smarter to do this trek in three days! Now we had to make it all the way back to Riobamba by dark.
Downhill hiking is much easier than uphill for most people, so we thought it would take us less time to hike the same trail backward, but in fact it took us longer!
After a night of rainfall, the trails had become even muddier than the day before. These conditions paired with being tired, and feeling some pain in the knees, made descending a slow-going endeavor.
The first three hours of descent went very smoothly, we were still impressed by the beautiful sight over the Crater Lake, and enjoying spending more time in the beautiful natural surroundings.
But, after three hours we reached a heavily muddied section of the trail again! Going down was extremely slippery, so we had to go very slow. We soon realized we would not be able to reach the starting point before dark!
We tried going faster, but couldn’t! The mud was just too difficult to get through. After 6pm, with darkness descending, it became a bit scary and made us go even slower. Luckily we had our flashlights with us, otherwise, we could not have continued at all! We ended up hiking in the dark with our flashlights through the mud for about an hour and a half!
One important lesson I learned from this experience – never underestimate a hike, and respect the advice of your guide! With hindsight, taking a hike that is meant to be three days, in just two days was not a great decision.
Fortunately, we made it in the end, and it was a great adventure, but hiking in the dark is just not smart-especially on such a muddy trail! Also, I honestly think we could have enjoyed it more if we had done the trail in three days – we would have had one extra full day surrounded by the incredible mountains of Ecuador’s Andes, to appreciate it more.
Finally, after a day hike of almost 13 hours, we reached the starting point of the trail where the van was waiting for us to take us back to Riobamba.
Looking back, trekking El Altar Ecuador was an absolutely incredible experience, and something that I will remember for many years!
The El Altar trek is at high altitude, so acclimatization is very important! On Day 1 we climbed approximately 800 m, and on the second day another 500 m, reaching an altitude of 4300 m. / 14.108 ft. at the highest point of the trek.
Everyone on our hike lives in Quito, so we were already used to the altitude and didn’t need much additional preparation. But if you come from low altitude then proper acclimatization is a must, not only for safety reasons, but also to increase your chances of reaching the lake.
I recommend spending at least four days at high altitude before doing the El Altar trek. You could either spend some time in Quito, or other destinations in the Andes such as Cotopaxi Volcano, or off-the-beaten-path Quilotoa Loop as acclimatization. Coca tea also helps reduce the effects of the altitude!
• Big backpack where you will pack all of the things you use at the refuge
• Medium-sized day pack
• Good hiking boots (preferably waterproof)
• Clothes: thermal underwear, warm trekking socks, long sleeved t-shirt, long trousers (waterproof), fleece sweater, waterproof jacket and pants, wool hat, and gloves
• Sun cream with a high protection factor (50 or more)
• Lip balm
• Personal toiletry articles
• Personal medicine
• Flashlight (put this in your daypack on the way back! Just in case you’re hiking in the dark!)
• Water bottle
• If you wear glasses just bear in mind it can get very uncomfortable when it’s raining all the time – at one point, I couldn’t even see much! Wearing a cap against the rain helps, and wearing contact lenses would greatly improve visibility.
• Bring waterproof trousers! I had only a pair of jeans to hike in, but after a couple of hours on the trail, I was already soaking wet and very cold! On the El Altar hike, you can expect rain, especially at the higher points of the hike.
• We could use our regular hiking boots for the hike from the refuge up to the Crater Lake, which was great! For the rest of the trails, rubber boots are a must!
• Hike with a specialized guide! With a guide, you get so much more information and it also makes you feel more secure on the trails. Our guide told us a lot about the flora and fauna of the area.
We met two tourists who climbed to the Crater Lake without a guide – one of them had stepped wrong in one of the swamps and got soaked up to his hips! I was glad our guide knew the best route around the swamps!
• Don’t expect to get comfortable! The Refuge was really very basic and not very clean. There is no electricity and no shower. During the hike, you can’t take a shower, and there are no toilets. In addition to this, the weather is unpredictable and you can expect rain, fog, and cold temperatures! What we liked most:
• The stunning view over the El Altar Crater Lake!
• The beautiful location of the refuge in the Andean Paramo!
• Being in a very remote area just surrounded by nature!
• The impressive El Altar itself – the sight of its stunning snowcapped peaks! What we didn’t like that much:
• The very muddy trails! (especially the first 3 hours of the trail)
• The changing climate – we had a bit of sun, then rain, then fog…The weather changed often and quickly.
• The uncertainty of being able to actually get the view over the Crater Lake at the end – on very rainy and foggy days, there may not be a view! We were very lucky!
• The very basic refuge…especially the bathroom that was not clean.
This blog post is a personal review from one of the owners of Happy Gringo, Eva about her trek to El Altar in Ecuador. Eva is from Holland but has lived more than 15 years in Ecuador.
Contact us to organise your own trek to El Altar Ecuador, or tour other destinations in the Andes such as: Andean Summits trekking, The Volcano Trail, Quilotoa Loop Trekking, Avenue of the Volcanoes, Illinizas Trek, Pasachoa Trek, Pichincha Trek or Cotopaxi day tour.
In conclusion, El Altar Ecuador is a hugely enjoyable hiking route. It’s a tough climb for sure, but that just makes it all the more rewarding when you finally reach El Altar crater lake. If you have 3 days free in your Ecuador sierra itinerary then look no further – get your hiking boots on, treking poles at the ready, and set out for El Altar Volcano!