It’s been raining for 2 weeks straight on El Altar Trek. It’s probably very muddy but we don’t care. We are going anyway.

That was the plan. I had been hiking in the mud before. I knew it would be ok. Some muddy areas make any hiking trail more exciting and entertaining. But what I didn’t expect here in Ecuador is that we were going to be hiking in the mud literally the whole way.

“El Altar” is a truly spectacular extinct volcano located in the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes. Up to 12 snow-capped peaks over 5,000mts (16,000ft) protect the yellow lagoon forming a C-shape, with the open side facing a magnificent glacial valley.

The weather is very unpredictable here and can change very fast too. Clouds normally cover the area and it is always on the verge of raining. For that reason, the Altar Trek is one of the lesser known hiking routes in Ecuador, and the one that receives less tourists year around.
 

 

LEARN HOW TO CHOOSE HIKING GEAR FOR YOUR NEXT ADVENTURE

 

 

THE “UNCONVENTIONAL WAY” UP TO EL ALTAR

Nothing could really prepare us for what was waiting. Not even when our guide gave us a pair of gum boots and told us we were going to be hiking in them for the next three days. 

A few weeks back we had spent 4 days camping at Cotopaxi National Park waiting for the clouds to clear so we could see the volcano at its best. We had lots of rain during those days and even though the trails were muddy, it wasn’t too bad.

 

El Altar Trek Ecuador

Hiking up to El Altar

A “MUD FIGHT”

But the reality was that no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that the trail would be ok, I realized how bad the situation was within the first 5 minutes of the hike. Calf-deep mud, uphill and slippery terrain would be the joys of the day. Definitely, not an easy adventure like the Ausangate lodge to lodge route in Peru. To make matters worse, both Amanda’s and my boots were a bit too big which made the walk much harder. Every time the mud was over the ankle the boots would get stuck and our feet would come out of the boot. Not nice.

 

trakking adventure in El Altar, Ecuador

Crossing one of the several rivers on this route.

 

It took us over 3 hours of uphill muddy as walking to reach a grassy area where we enjoyed our lunch. The good news was the fog was clearing out and we could see the first views of the snow-capped peaks of El Altar.

From this point, the terrain became much more manageable. Or perhaps we were becoming more skilled dealing with the deep mud by now. Either way, and probably because we were getting closer to the end and the scenery improved a lot, the second section felt much easier than the first one. After 7 hours of continuous hiking, we finally reached the hut. Our home for the next 2 days.

 

hiking in Ecuador

Our small group working our way up. 

 

THE ALTAR: ONE OF THOSE PLACES YOU WILL REMEMBER FOR YEARS

The location of the hut couldn’t have been better. On a small hill overlooking the valley with the magnificent Altar in the background. What an incredible place. 

It made me forget about the mud straight away. It’s a tough way to get here but you get your reward. Carrying only water and some food we set out on our second day to explore El Altar and its surroundings.

We decided to hike up to the yellow lagoon, the lake in between the peaks, and have our lunch there. The rest of the day would be spent wandering around the area, enjoying the impressive views and taking advantage of the countless photo opportunities.

 

El Altar in Ecuador

El Altar and the Yellow Lagoon

 

It’s a good idea to bring several pairs of socks, they will get wet and muddy every day. You should also bring a full set of clean clothes so you can get changed when you reach the hut. Be mentally prepared to be hiking through the deep mud for several hours. 

You need a minimum of 2 days to hike to El Altar and come back. An extra day will allow you to climb up to the yellow lagoon. The 4 and 5-day options will let you visit several other lagoons and use a different route to get to the hut.

If you don’t like hiking in the mud you need to go during the summer season. July & August are the best months for this trek. 

The tours leave from Riobamba and the companies pick you up from your hotel. It can be very tricky to find your way if you decide to hike this trail independently.

 

 

 

 

WHAT WE LIKED THE MOST

+ The location of the hut. Right in the valley with impressive views over the Altar. 

+ The feeling of solitude. We were the only people in the area.

+ The Altar itself, with the ever-changing weather you never know when it’s going to be revealed.

 

 

WHAT WE DIDN’T LIKE THAT MUCH

Two days of walking in calf-deep mud.

– It’s very weather dependent. On a bad day you cannot see more than just fog.

 

 

WHAT TO BRING WITH YOU

MULTI-DAY HIKING GEAR LIST

 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Hiking El Altar Trek is a fantastic option if you are looking to hike the lesser known routes in the Ecuadorian Andes. Here you will be far away from any big tourists groups and will be able to experience pure nature at its best.

But the the trail also has its downsides. The weather is very unpredictable and sometimes you can only see fog for days. It’s a very humid area and the trail tends to be very muddy. Going out of the summer months means walking in calf deep mud all the way to the hut.

 

22 Responses

    • Antonio Cala

      You are probably right. Snow is worse. But mud is sticky and makes all your clothes dirty. Not fun! 🙂

  1. Lesley Carter

    Wow! You must have burned so much energy trekking in those conditions. Those views were totally worth it though. I’m sure the pain of hiking is gone but The Altar will stay with you forever.

  2. Mia

    What an amazing experience! I like to hike but the sun has to be out, minimal dirt and no animals so kuddos to you for taking on this challenge. Although, I can see why you did it because the views are absolutely stunning.

  3. Meg Jerrard

    Great tip to bring several pair of socks – we’ve been hiking through the mud before and it’s not nice to be hiking in socks which arent dry!! Surprising how much more comfortable that makes you!

    Ive heard Ecuador is awesome for volcano tourism – we’ll have to add it to our list for when in South America next. Your photos are epic – the climb was worth it for the view once at the top!!

    • Antonio Cala

      The volcanoes are quite impressive in Ecuador and for some reason the hikes are not crowded which it’s a big plus.

  4. Jen Seligmann

    What incredible scenery! To me it looks like another planet almost. Shame about the mud but with views this good I can see how it would be totally worth it.

    • Antonio Cala

      Yes, the mud was a shame and we didn’t expect to be that bad. So we were not mentally prepared at all.

    • Antonio Cala

      Ecuador receives lots of tourists every year but, while Galapagos and the Amazon receive the most, the hiking trails are normally empty.

  5. Stacey jean Inion

    Your candid description of the terrain make your photos all the more striking. Thanks for taking us there. We look forward to taking in Ecuador on our journey southward.

    • Antonio Cala

      You are welcome, Stacey. Glad you liked the article. Have a great time in Ecuador and, if you have any questions, you know where we are 🙂

  6. sarah

    Wow you guys are hard core! Can’t say I’ve ever hiked in knee deep mud but for those views I’d definitely give it a go.

  7. Orana

    What an amazing looking hike! How about those blisters while trekking in gumboots? 😉 The andes are such a magical place, they will always be my favorite of all the mountain ranges. Thanks for all the great tips.

    • Antonio Cala

      I guess you could do it if you start very early and don’t want to explore the area around El Altar much, which it’s the best part in my opinion.

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