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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.