Trekking in El Altar Volcano in Riobamba, Ecuador

Volcán El Altar - Riobamba Ecuador

El Altar Volcano is one of the most beautiful trekking trails in Ecuador’s Andes. El Altar and the surrounding mountains are beautiful because they are off-the-beaten-path trekking destinations. 

You will seldom see any other visitors along this path, allowing you to fully disconnect from the world for a few days. The breathtaking picture of the lovely El Altar crater lake flanked by steep volcano cliffs is the reward for brave trekkers.

It has a total elevation of 5,319 meters, with El Obispo (The Bishop) as its highest point. El Altar is regarded as Ecuador’s crown jewel of technical climbing, but because of its tough routes and limited access, it is rarely climbed. It’s definitely one of the extreme things to do in Ecuador.

This journey is on the bucket list of any ardent mountain walker — think of far-reaching mountain views, unspoiled nature, gorgeous snowcapped peaks, and the calming sounds of waterfalls.

How to Get to El Altar

Riobamba is the nearest city to El Altar.  The roads to the mountain have signage, however, it is quite incomplete and will most likely not bring you to the proper site. The trailhead begins in what appears to be a private small ranch and is not visible from the road. A water dam near the road is the biggest marker.

It is preferable to hire someone who knows how to get here. You may book climbing excursions at certain travel companies to go on an adventure in this impressive ancient volcano.

El Altar Peaks

El Altar is made up of nine prominent peaks organized in the shape of a reverse C. Starting with the highest point in the south and working counterclockwise, the names of the summits are as follows:

  • Obispo
  • Monja Grande
  • Monja Chica
  • Tabernaculo
  • Fraile Oriental
  • Fraile Beato
  • Fraile Central
  • Fraile Grande
  • Canónigo

El Obispo is El Altar’s most popular peak since it is the simplest to reach. It is also known to be the highest peak at 5.319m / 17,451 ft above sea level. It also boasts some of the greatest climbing in Ecuador, which is terrific in good weather. The decision between the three regular routes up to Obispo is determined by the snow conditions.

El Altar Trek Adventure

The El Altar trekking tour is one of the most isolated hiking adventures in Ecuador, as well as one of the paths with the fewest people each year. The weather is quite unpredictable, so dress accordingly, and the mountains are frequently obscured by thick clouds and fog.

The trek is physically challenging, so it is best to acclimate by hiking to a few other summits before climbing El Altar. El Altar is a gratifying challenge because of the long hours of hiking at high altitudes, occasionally terrible weather conditions, and highly muddy routes.

The summit of El Altar is reachable, but the trip is exceedingly difficult and complex. Only fit and experienced professional climbers are recommended to take this climb. The trip up to Crater Lake, on the other hand, is doable for any fit mountain hiker. Thus, this is the trek that we did when we went to El Altar.

Day 1

Laguna Collanes or Laguna Amarilla El Altar trekking

Photo Wikipedia

Our guide greeted us at the hotel at 8 a.m. on the first day of our trek to Crater Lake, also known as Laguna Amarillo. Then we were driven to a shop to get our equipment checked.

We then boarded our van for a one-hour trip to the Sangay National Park’s gate, where we were registered at the Hacienda Releche. We began our journey at an elevation of 3,070 meters. Our large bags and equipment were loaded onto horses, which went ahead of us to the Refuge.

We were warned that it had rained in the area and that the path was muddy, but it was far worse than we had imagined! We moved carefully and slowly since the steep, muddy terrain was challenging. We walked three hours to a wonderful green spot for lunch.

We continued our climb after eating our lunch and resting for a bit. The path remained wet and muddy, but it was easier to manage. The view gradually shifted as we continued our trek and we could see the snowy peaks of El Altar.

We arrived at the Refuge Collanes after 7 hours of trekking. The Refuge is perfectly situated on a little hill overlooking a beautiful valley, with the spectacular El Altar peak in the distance. It was a spectacular location! 

The refuge is fairly rudimentary, consisting of only a bunk room. There is no power, so we settled with our flashlights and candles.

Day 2

We began our adventure toward our objective of reaching Crater Lake after an early breakfast on the second day. The first portion of the day was spent exploring the huge marshy grassland of the altiplano and marveling at the numerous waterfalls falling from the mountains on all sides!

We had to cross several small creeks and travel through the meadows while looking up at the spectacular white peaks of El Altar that awaited us.

We had to scale a steep wall at the finish, which was also quite slippery owing to the rain. It was quite cold up here, but we decided to go on to our target!

After a long day, we arrived at our destination, Laguna Amarilla. A stunning view of a turquoise green lagoon encircled by glaciers and the high peaks of El Altar, with atmospheric clouds flowing in and out greeted us as we breathe out of exhaustion. 

What a fantastic sensation it was to be up there! We stayed at the top for about half an hour to soak in the breathtaking views and the satisfaction of finally reaching our goal!

Day 3

We headed back to the hacienda after breakfast. The descent took us a shorter time and the weather is much better compared to our ascent on the first day.

We had our lunch at the hacienda before we traveled back to Quito at night.

When to Climb

Because of its proximity to the rainforest, the weather on this mountain may be unpredictable. Climbing El Altar is best done in December, Ecuador’s driest month.

Things to Bring

We have listed some of the essentials we packed for the El Altar climb. You can use the list below as your guide as you list down your own things to pack for your upcoming climb!

  • Warm and waterproof clothing
  • Waterproof boots
  • Cap
  • Gloves and socks
  • Field backpack
  • Water bottle
  • Compass or GPS
  • Flashlight
  • Topographic map
  • High SPF sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Whistle
  • Trekking Canes
  • Glasses
  • Personal toiletries
  • First aid kit including personal medications

Trekking Tips

  • If you are wearing eyeglasses, it might be really bothersome when it’s constantly raining. It might be better to wear contact lenses instead. Wearing a hat is also helpful to protect you from rain.
  • Wear waterproof clothing. It is common to rain in El Altar, particularly at higher elevations.
  • You can wear your regular hiking boots for the trek from the refuge to Crater Lake. Rubber boots are required for the remainder of the treks!
  • Hike with a knowledgeable guide. You will gain so much more information from a guide and it will also help you feel more comfortable on the trails. Our guide informed us a lot about the local flora and wildlife.
  • Don’t expect too much! The refuge is really basic and not so clean. There is no power and no shower. There are no bathrooms or showers available during the hike. Furthermore, the weather is unpredictable, with rain, fog, and freezing temperatures.


El Altar Volcano is a fantastic hiking trail. It’s a difficult climb but it’s definitely satisfying when you reach El Altar crater lake.

If you are up for an exciting hiking adventure, you should go to El Altar Volcano. A three-day itinerary is good but if you plan to reach the summit, you should set at least one week for your El Altar climb.

About the author

Oleg Galeev

I'm Oleg, and together with my wife, we've explored Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, journeying through more than 20 cities (Quito, Cuenca, Banos, Tena, Puyo, Guayaquil, Riobamba, Otavalo, Mindo and more) and nearly every island in the Galapagos (including iconic ones such as Bartolome Island, San Cristobal Island, Isabela Island, Santa Cruz Island and more). In this blog, I give you my real thoughts about each place we visited. This info can help anyone planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands or mainland Ecuador. I'm just a traveler, not a tour company, so I'm not trying to sell anything. That means I'll tell you the truth—both the good and the bad — about traveling in Ecuador based on what we experienced.

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