Backpack to El Altar

Candelária, Unnamed Road, Ecuador

  • Activities:

    Camping, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking

  • Skill Level:

    Intermediate

  • Season:

    Year Round

  • Trail Type:

    Out-and-Back

  • RT Distance:

    8.1 Miles

  • Elevation Gain:

    4000 Feet

Bathrooms
Forest
River
Scenic
Waterfall
Wildflowers
Wildlife

Backpack into what many locals consider Ecuador's most-beautiful spot. Camp in a massive valley below a ring of glacial peaks and hike up to dozens of technicolor tarns and lagunas. 

Local Ecuadorian outdoorspeople constantly tout El Altar as the best place in Ecuador for outdoor adventure.  Ecuador’s 5th highest peak, El Altar (17,451 ft.) is actually several peaks, the remnants of an ancient volcano that blew its top leaving a ring of glacial peaks surrounding a turquoise laguna.

The journey to El Altar can be a bit complicated, as not many people know where it is.  By bus, leave from Riobamba on one of the semi-daily buses headed to the tiny town of Candelaria.  If you’re driving, head towards Penipe and follow signs along the newly paved road for 13 km to Candelaria.  Once in town, continue through the town center until you see signs for Hacienda el Releche, which sits atop a dirt driveway.  Register at the Parque Nacional El Altar entrance station and continue up to the Hacienda.

If you arrive later in the day, consider staying in the Hacienda for the night.  Dorm-style rooms are $12 USD per person, though use of the kitchen is an additional $10 USD.  We suggest using your backpacking stove instead to avoid this ridiculous fee.  The trail to El Altar isn’t difficult by any means, but beginning around 11,000 feet above sea level, those not yet acclimatized may find the 11 km journey to be a struggle.

Horses and a rider are available to help ease your load by carrying your packs, but in recent years the fees have become exorbitant.  What was once a $10 service has ballooned to $80, so we opted to carry our own gear.  You can also cut down on weight by deciding to stay at the refugio deep in the valley.  This is privately owned as well and costs just $12 per night (with the ridiculous $10 kitchen fee in addition).

Once in the valley, take time to explore the vast, flat river basin.  Wild horses and bulls roam the verdant landscape within the confines of the near-vertical walls.  When the clouds part, enjoy views of El Altar’s many summits and the glaciers that hang from them, including the main glacier at the back of the basin, after which the mountain was named (early explorers thought the glacier looked like an altar and the peaks like worshippers gathered around it.)

Camp in the valley but continue on along the north side of the Rio Collanes to the steep, but short, trail up into the crater itself where stunning views of Laguna Collanes (or Laguna Amarilla) will take your breath away (if the 13,800 ft. altitude hasn’t already.)  Countless waterfalls drop hundreds of feet from the glaciers hanging above.  There are a few campsites at the opening to the crater as well, sometimes even supplied with firewood.

Hike back out the way you came and enjoy the gentle downward grade back to the hacienda.  The bus from Candelaria runs every three hours back to Riobamba, so try and time your descent accordingly. 

Pack List

  • 10 Essentials
  • Water Filter
  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag and Pad
  • Backpacking Stove
  • Camera and Tripod
  • Sturdy Hiking Boots
  • Waterproof/Warm Layers
  • Gaiters
  • Topo Maps (these are almost impossible to come by--visit this site and select this map and this map, print them/upload them to your phone, and bring them along)
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Hiking Poles
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Reviews

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My boyfriend and I attempted this in Jan 2018. Some updates: - There is now a public bus from Riobamba that goes past Penipe and will let you off directly in from of Hacienda Relenche (well just down the driveway). It only runs a few times per day. We caught a noon bus and got to the hacienda around 2:30pm. We talked with Sebastian who owns the hacienda and he discouraged us from starting so late in the day (which we were thankful for the next day). Sebastian did mention that this year had been abnormally bad as far as weather and subsequent trail conditions. But we weren't fazed. We spent a chill night at the hacienda where we paid a little extra for a home made, hot meal. - The next morning we set out at sunrise, around 7AM. The first 3 hours were a struggle up, up, up the mud ridden trail. We then reached the plain where we had been told that the trail disappears. You just need to go straight across and eventually pick up the trail again, they said. Unfortunately the plain was completed fogged in. We couldn't see anything more than 15 ft in front of us and it just kept seeming like we were dropping off hills. We had no bearings at all. We also didn't have a decent map. After ~45 min of fruitless wandering we decided to call it and head back down. We had traveled light to Ecuador and had no camping gear. We had planned on staying at the hacienda in the valley. We also had planned on using that kitchen and had little food (just MRE's). To say the least, we weren't prepared to wait out the fog/rain all day to find the way. - What did we learn? What we already knew - always come prepared. We thought this would be a straightforward overnight trip - and it probably would be if the weather was nice. - Tips for next time? Since currently there is only one tiny map of the entire region that I know of and because the trail disappears, I'd do it with a guide so you take out the ability to get lost in the fog when the trail disappears. I'd get a current update if possible on the trail/weather prior to attempting - because it's quite a commitment to get to hacienda relenche to begin with. Apparently Sebastian is working on improving the first part of the trail, but hopefully the infrastructure for the whole trail improves in the next couple of years. - It was a nice night at Hacienda Relenche and Sebastian was great, but we tried this at the end of our quick, 7 day trip and given our disappointment, were eager to return back to Quito and make the most of what time we had left.

4 days ago
4 days ago

I lived in Ecuador as a child, once my dad lead a group of us on the Altar trip, including my brother and I who were only 10 and 13 at the time. We did use the horses/mules offered by some locals to make the trek easier. Well worth the trip, just make sure to pack layers and rain gear, the weather can change in a blink of an eye. Waiting for the opportunity to go back and do it again in the near future!

about 1 year ago
about 1 year ago

Are we missing something? Suggest an edit

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