Trekking El Altar
Alberto and I just returned from the most spectacular trekking trip in a long time – that of the volcano El Altar. Packing 10-15 kilos worth of food and camping gear each, we headed towards the charming, little Andean farming town “La Candelaria”, where the trek begins. On the way the locals told us that it had been raining “de más” (really hard!) the past week up around the volcano. It made us a little nervous, as the narrow dirt-trail tends to get very muddy, which makes it difficult to navigate. Furthermore, cloudy and rainy weather would make for poor views of the volcano peaks and the infamous Laguna Amarilla located at the foot of the volcano. Nonetheless we headed towards the entrance of the trek full of enthusiasm and hope.
We were extremely lucky as the weather started to clear up just as we began our trek from the beautiful Hacienda Releche at approximately 3.070 meters above sea level. The first 1.5 kilometres are steep, but very easy as the trail is wide and paved with stones. After this you better get your rubber-boots on or you won’t make it! From here on the trail is narrow and muddy the whole way with exception of one single grassy part before reaching the base-camp. Most places the mud is calf-deep, and you will get stuck so that your feet come out of the boots. For that reason, we would walk only 1 km an hour most of the way! If you saw pictures of La Laguna Amarilla and are thinking about going there you should seriously consider if you are the type of person, who would be able to handle it – this trek is NOT for the faint-hearted! I myself had to cross some boundaries of my own to reach the final destination.
Despite of mud and struggles the views certainly make up for it along the way. Such spectacular sceneries of the lush Andes mountains decorated with rainbows crossing over the river at the bottom of the canyon and all of this to the sounds of rushing waterfalls nearby. Reaching the base-camp is utterly amazing. You take one last turn around a small mountain-hill and there you go; The snowy peaks of El Altar in the distance looking over a lush valley with grassing horses and deer surrounded by mountains with waterfalls coming down from the sides. One would think that they arrived in paradise itself. There is also a very basic mountain-refuge at this point that you can sleep in, if you prefer that. We reached the base camp in about 6 hours, but you should count on 7-8 hours depending on the weather.
We put up our tent here and spent the night in the middle of the wilderness completely alone and isolated. Due to the unstable and usually cloudy and rainy weather along with the difficulty of the muddy route you will often find yourself and your partner/group being alone on this trek. For that reason, El Altar is one of the lesser known treks in Ecuador, but in my opinion that just makes it even better. No mass-tourism here, just you and nature. In the middle of the night a fox came in to the front part of our tent and stole our empty tuna-cans and gas-stove! So be careful guys always make sure to pack away your garbage and belongings really good.
The next day we started hiking towards the lagoon at 5 am with our headlamps on. As we were crossing the flat grassland we suddenly came across the biggest bull I have ever seen. And yeah guys, he was not too happy about us walking past… Every time we tried to take a step forward, he would be on the verge of attacking! So, we had to stay put behind a big rock until the bull luckily decided to cross the river and move far away from us. This trek will really give you first hand impressions of the wild nature and don’t get me wrong, it is liberating!
Well, as you continue you will get to the end of the grassland and from here on it starts to get quite steep. If the clouds allow it, you will have stunning views of the snowy peaks of El Altar along the ascend and it is absolutely breathtaking. The final part of the ascension you will have to scramble (walking up steep terrain involving the use of one’s hands) and this part is a bit exposed, so be careful where you put your hands and feet! It is for a very short part only though and it is not difficult.
Finally, you will arrive to an absolutely stunning viewpoint of El Altar and La Laguna Amarilla at 4.245 meters above sea-level. When we arrived, the clouds had covered the lagoon looking like a cotton duvet, only revealing the majestic peaks of the volcano above, which made for some quite unique views! Lucky as we were, the clouds totally disappeared after about 10 minutes though and the most stunning turquoise lagoon showed itself with its 9 snow-capped peaks above 5.000 meters forming a horse-shoe shape around it. The old Quechua name of El Altar is Capac Urcu – Capac meaning powerful/majestic and Urcu meaning mountain. However, the Spanish name “El Altar” (The Alter) really makes sense as you stand there surrounded by nature’s grand alter of snow-capped mountain-tops. I’m not going to lie, I found myself becoming quite emotional at this point – overwhelmed by the beauty of nature. This place will make up for all your struggles – it’s a sight that you will never ever forget.
We made it from the base-camp to the lagoon in 2 hours and back down in 1 hour. Normally the round-trip would be around 4 hours though. We were running down as we had to catch a bus at the entrance at 3 pm! The descent back to the entrance was just as hard as the ascent because of the mud and naturally from being very tired. We managed to get all the way down in about 5 hours and reach our bus at 3 pm.
We did the trek in 2 days, but as an agency we are going to offer El Altar trek in 3-days, as this is more recommendable and gives you more time to enjoy the lagoon and its amazing surroundings. The trek is very hard so think twice before you head out there! We are talking about a high-altitude trek with a total ascension of about 1.175 meters and 13 kilometres from the entrance to the lagoon – so in total 26 km. It is important that you are properly acclimatized before going on this trek, so spend 3-4 days in Quito visiting either Cotopaxi National Park or the Quilotoa loop.
If you decide to go expect to get wet and muddy but also experiencing the trek of a lifetime! I will never forget this experience.