I am super excited to be able to share this last trip of ours – our trek to “El Altar,” an extinct volcano and crater lake in Ecuador. El Altar collapsed in the 1400’s and was once known to be the tallest volcano in the world. It now stands at over 5,000m, tucked away in Ecuador’s Parque Nacional Sangay.
My birthday is a federal holiday in Ecuador, and this is how I wanted to spend my birthday on our extra day off of work: going on a new adventure with Eduardo to hike and camp this beast of a volcano! To give you a fair warning, this experience was the most challenging – physically and mentally – that I have conquered in this life so far (all half marathons and challenging hikes could not compare). Over the course of two days and 16 hours of gorgeous yet grueling hiking, I laughed and I cried (more than once), but I did it. Writing this from my cute cafe in Cuenca, it is hard to believe that not so long ago we were knees up in dirt, pushing our bodies to the limit to accomplish this goal.
We prepared for this trip unlike any other. Physically, this definitely requires training. We had run the Cuenca Half Marathon just two weeks before, but I still felt totally unprepared for this expedition! Since it was a federal holiday, the refuge cabins were full, and all of the mules were pre-reserved. So, camping and carrying our packs it is! We had been looking forward to this trip for so long and did not want to delay this trip any longer! Bring on the challenge!
For those who know us, you know that we are usually traveling on the Royal Enfield. Not this time. For this adventure, taking the bus was the obvious choice. Beings that we were carrying our packs with camping equipment, the ride on the motorcycle just wasn’t an option. Plus, the thought of riding 5-6 hours back to Cuenca after a hike would be extra exhausting.
Coming from Cuenca, we decided to make Riobamba our base. We took a 6-hour bus, slept one night in Riobamba, and got up early for a 6:00 am bus to Candelaria (which turned out to be 6:30am) for a one-hour ride to Hacienda Releche. Whether you’re taking the bus or driving, the best way to start the trek is to go to Hacienda Releche (you could also sleep here the night before you hike – must reserve ahead). Once you arrive at Hacienda Releche you will register for entering Parque Nacional Sangay (no cost) and also register that you are leaving from the Hacienda. The owners are very nice and will answer whatever questions you have via email or when you arrive.
Here’s the deal. This hike should ideally be done in three days if you have time, but we did it in two.
Starting from Hacienda Releche, the hike to the Refuge is 12 kilometers, which they estimate to be a 5 to 7 hour hike. Given our path conditions (often times pools of mud), we did this spurt in 8 hours. Many other groups did it up to 12 hours. This trek for us was very, very challenging despite how prepared we were, how experienced we are hiking, and the fact that we are already adjusted to the high altitude.
The first 1.5km of the trail is a dirt road, and from there on we experienced pure muddy, wet conditions until the Refuge. It is a must to do this hike in rubber boots and find (or bring) a walking stick. I never hike with rubber boots or a walking stick, but I can surely say these tools saved us. I got stuck several times deep in the mud with even my rubber boots – not pretty (Eduardo physically pulled me out of the mud and pulled a ligament in the process)! Yes, I did cry tears of frustration several times. The day we went up we were in the fog (to be expected in Ecuador) for about 7 hours. On our last hour, the sky opened up to the most beautiful blue I’ve seen with views of the ice caps. Throughout the first 7 hours of the trek I was dreading the fact that we very well could arrive to a fog-filled view. This spectacular view really gave us the extra push and motivation to finish the hike strong.
Once you get the the Refuge, you are tucked into a stunning valley with a beautiful mix of greenery, marshland, blue skies, and mesmerizing ice caps. Given the refuge was full, we set up our tent for the night, sat back, and enjoyed the view. We were exhausted and at 7pm we were basically ready for bed. Much to our surprise, gusts of winds came in so strong that the tent blew away while we were inside it. Madness! Needless to say, we relocated our tent to behind the cabins where we would be more protected from the wind. Staying the night up here is no joke. It is bitter cold and windy. Come prepared.
The next morning we started our day early and hiked up to the famous “Laguna Amarilla.” From the Refuge, you will be hiking 5k roundtrip, at an estimated total time of 3 to 5 hours. To get to the lake you will cross a marshy area, arrive to a forest, and then trek very steeply upwards. This is not rock climbing, but by the top you will be using your hands to pull yourself up. Uphill is not my favorite and I found it very physically challenging, especially given the exhaustion from the day prior.
Good news is that you can keep your belongings safe at the Refuge while you hike to the lake. Once you get to the top be prepared to be amazed! The crater lake is surrounded by snowcaps. We had a cloudy day and it was gorgeous, I can’t imagine a blue sky backdrop! The wind current up here is strong, so be sure to bring your appropriate layers. We just stayed at the top, but there were some folks hanging out towards the bottom of the lake. Personally I could not imagine hiking down to hike back up again, but that’s just me!
Once we got back down to the Refuge, we really had to book it. Knowing that the last bus to Riobamba left the Hacienda at 5pm, we felt pressured to get back in time. At this point we were really, really exhausted physically and mentally. I thought that we were going back all downhill, which should make it easier and faster. I really didn’t remember having so many ups and downs on the second half of the hike, which meant that we did have quite a bit of uphill to get back down. On top of that, Eduardo (the more athletic and tough one out of the two of us) had pulled a ligament in his knee on day one and was pushing through the pain. There was no other way but down! The trail truly was almost impossible. Given the rain of the past week and the impact of horses and mules, getting down really was not much easier. I found myself in tears again, and the both of us screaming that we were over it. We were ready to be done!
We stumbled upon a local family hacking through the forest alongside the path. Turns out they were marking a new path to help people get down! What a blessing! The sweetest 8 year old child, Richard, showed us the way to the alternate path, which meant no more mud!!! It was a challenge that I will never forget, but we made it! By the time we got back down to the dirt road, a truck from the Hacienda was meeting hikers as close as they could do give them a ride down to the bottom. We did the downhill 12km (riding in the truck the last kilometer) in 5 hours. We were really pushing it as hard as we could to make in time for the bus.
Once at the bottom we had the most delicious beer of our lives (Pilsner, which isn’t even our favorite), and washed as much mud off our boots as we could. We waited for the 5pm bus to Riobamba to arrive. It was extremely punctual and honked as it passed every small town, almost as if it was a train tooting its horn.
Back in Riobamba, we showered until the dirt came off (just kidding, it wouldn’t fully come off for days), and loaded up on hot, fatty foods (I’m not sure why we were craving KFC). After two days of dried meats and fruits, bread, and river water, we were so ready to fuel our bodies! I’ve got to say sleeping in a bed after the hike was a great decision for us. Other folks came down off the mountain and went directly home. It was great to relax, transition back to city life, and walk lightly before sitting on the bus for 6 hours. We really enjoyed our day in Riobamba before heading back to Cuenca. Check out this post to see some of our favorite things about this mountain town + regional hub for adventures!
Things to Consider
Depending on where you’re coming from, you’ll definitely want to think about how your body deals with high altitude. The lake sits at about 4,200 meters. Coming from Cuenca and our Cajas National Park we are acclimated to the altitude, but if you’re not, be sure to take some time and do lighter high altitude hikes before you attempt this one.
When to go
If you’ve been to Ecuador, you know that the weather is unpredictable and always colder than you’d expect. In the sierra, our summer time is November, December, and January. Thus, this will be the time with the best trail conditions and less rain. Nonetheless, come prepared
I can’t stress it enough, come prepared. Whether or not you hire a mule to carry your belongings, you’ll want rubber boots, layers ready for rain, strong winds, and cold temperatures, and sunscreen. A walking stick is a huge help, but you can find a wooden one there. A good lantern to guide you at night is also a must. If you’re camping, bring your usual gear considering winds and cold temps.
Food & water
There is no access to food or water once you’re on the trail. We brought purifying water pills (available in Cuenca at sports stores) and filled our bottles from running water sources. Being fully honest, our stomachs were not 100% after this trip, so bring whatever filter and purifying resources you can. You can carry water, but the extra weight may not be worth it. As far as food, if you’re in the cabins you will have access to a shared kitchen. We loaded up on dried meats, dried fruits, and sandwiches for the two days.
Camping versus refuge
Depending on the type of experience you’re looking for, you can camp or reserve a spot in one of the cabins. They are very simple, and really just come with the basics.
At the refuge and the Hacienda a the base, you will pay $15 per person for a 6-person room. At the hacienda at the base you can also get a matrimonial room for $20 per person. Reservations are required, which you can make via phone (cell: 098-464-9634; landline: 033014067) or email. You will need to pay a 50% deposit by making an online transfer or deposit at the bank. Prices do not include the 12% Ecuadorian IVA tax.
As a cabin guest you can also have access to the kitchen for $10 (maximum of 5 guests; increases by $1 for each additional guest), which has all of the basic kitchen gear you would need. There is nowhere close to the Hacienda that has groceries, so come prepared.
You can also request the Hacienda’s food service in advance. All of the materials will be at the Hacienda, and each group prepares their own meals. The costs are $6 for breakfast, $8 for lunch, and $8 for dinner per person.
Camping is $20 a night per tent (not per person).
If you’re carrying a lot of weight and have financial wiggle room, it is smart to hire a mule. One mule costs $45 and can carry up to 80 pounds. The guides for the mules cost $45, and each guide can bring up to three mules. Hence if you’re alone, you’ll spend $90, but if you’re in a group, you can share the mule guide. If the mules are carrying your packs, they will not be walking with you, so you’ll need to bring your day-supply of food, water, etc in a small bag.
There is also the option to ride a horse or mule up to the refuge, but you’ve been warned it is a bumpy ride! The same costs apply: $45 for the ride, and $45 for the mule guide (who can bring up to three mules/horses).
You can also hire a guide for your group, which costs $60 per day with a maximum of ten hikers. You will not get lost on the trail, but it would be nice to have a guide especially depending on the level of experience of your group members. There is only one time with the trail opens up to a field, and you need to cross straight over the field to pick up the trailhead. Again, reserve ahead.
If you’re considering hiking El Altar, I’m so excited for you! It was an experience of a lifetime. So challenging, and yet so worth it! If you’ve done the hike before, send me a message! If you’re looking to do the hike and have more questions, send me a message!