El Altar, Sanjay National Park, Ecuador

Nearly two years ago, the government of Ecuador changed the laws regarding multi-day hikes. Because so many people were getting lost or dying, all hikes in the national parks now require a certified guide. Peru has a similar law, although it doesn’t police it as stringently as Ecuador does. And at US$50-80 a day for a guide, my dreams of doing a multi-day hike in Ecuador came to a screaming holt.

My companion and I caught a bus to Riobamba, a city six hours south of Quito and set about finding a hike we could do without a guide. After some investigation we found one – El Altar – an overnight hike into an area of mountains only policed one day a week.

Day 1
We were up early and waiting for the taxi. A crazy drive through the mountains followed to Hacienda Releche, the ‘trail head’ of the hike. We met the owners of the hacienda who quoted us 5-6 hours to their lodge in the mountains and at $12 per person per night it’s far cheaper than a guide.

We began climbing along a dirt track following a gully. On either side was a thin line of trees and beyond were fields; one containing rows of flowers, the other grazing cows.

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For the first two hours of the walk the trail climbed steeply up the side of the hill with the occasional short area of boggy mud. While the skies were cloudy there was no rain. A look back along the valley gave great views of the surrounding hills. By the deep green of the hills, I’d suggest it rains here fairly regularly.

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As we continued climbing, the trail grew less steep, but the mud increased dramatically. As the easiest way to get to the lodge is by horseback, this churns up the mud. In many places, it was difficult to pass without squelching our way through. Luckily, waterproof leather hiking boots have no issues with mud and we waded our way through, trying to fall over as little as possible. This is only a problem if the mud is soggy and wet, which for the most part it wasn’t.

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We stopped for a late lunch with a view of a road across the valley, before marching on. As the afternoon wore on, the rain began, and we decided to rest out of the rain for a bit, so following a short path we found a pair of large pine trees as shelter.

While we were waiting, we heard hooves on the track. I went to have a look in the rain and discovered around ten large horned, cows trampling along the trail. When they saw me they stared for a few moments before bolting back up the trail. A few minutes later, we heard hooves again, this time it was a group of riders leading the cows. Two of the cows had climbed the bank and charged through the area where we were sheltering, scaring the wits out of my companion.

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By this stage, we’d already walked 5-6 hours with no sign of the lodge. We continued on, crossing through gullies and the occasional stream. As darkness began to fall, we still hadn’t found the lodge and my companion began making suggestions of roughing it, as we didn’t have a tent with us. So under the light of our head torches we kept an eye out for sheltered spots but continued walking.

An hour and a half after dark we rounded a hill and could just make out buildings ahead in the vague moonlight. We reached the buildings and found the first one open. It was a dorm room with bunk beds and a bathroom. We dropped our packs and investigated the other four buildings. Two were locked dorms while the others were dining areas with kitchens and fireplaces. We found a bunch of candles and set up our room, cooked some dinner and collapsed into our sleeping bags.

Day 2

The next day we were up and after breakfast, we cleaned up the room, packed our bags and stowed them away in a hidden room off one of the kitchens. We then headed out across a stretch of soggy, rocky ground towards The Altar, a collapsed volcano surrounded by peaks. The valley is at about 4000m above seas level, and even with a slight grade crossing it was a struggle because of the altitude.

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At the far side was a tough climb up the valley wall. While the sky was cloudy and mist covered many of the mountains, we could just make out a snowy peak above us as we climbed. My younger companion raced ahead while I struggled with the altitude, even without a pack. During one of our regular breaks, we discovered another pair of guys close behind us. This pushed us on and eventually we came over the ridge to see the large crater lake and the bottom of the mountains surrounding it. El Altar.

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We waited up there for almost two hours, watching as the clouds came and went. I noticed more than a dozen kinds of wild flowers growing in the area so set about taking photos of as many as I could.

At about 1pm, the sky began to clear and I was able to take a panoramic shot – something I’d not done before on my new camera.

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On the way back we passed two other groups of people totalling 10 between them, before arriving back at the lodge to meet the lodge owner’s father, who was also the caretaker. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak english and our spanish wasn’t enough to get across that we had already paid for the previous night. The message finally got across with the help of one of the other guys and we booked another night. This time, we had a more luxury room – one of the locked ones.

Day 3

After breakfast, we packed and headed down from the lodge.

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The climb down was fairly uneventful. There was the occasional rain, but nothing worrying. Most of the trail was dry mud but we also passed through several different levels soggy levels of it as we went: dirt, wet dirt, hard mud, soft mud, sludge and water pooled mud. For the most part, we found little of the last two and mainly plentiful soft mud. When climbing down a dirt or rocky trail, it can be hard on your knees, even with walking poles. But soft mud cushions your footsteps without swallowing your boots totally. As we walked, we saw more of the wild flowers…

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We finally reached the owner’s hacienda just as the rain began. After a lunch prepared by the owner’s mother, we waited for the bus that didn’t come before talking the park rangers into giving us a lift back to Riobamba. This was ironic because they would have stopped us from doing the trek if they had caught us at the beginning. We arrived back to the hotel we’d been staying at and the luxury of hot showers.

Summary
Overall, the trek was a lot longer than we expected, but we still had an awesome time and saw one of the few sights available without a guide in Ecuador. While the trail was muddy, it made the trek more of a technical challenge than an annoyance. For the views and the lodge, I would recommend this to anyone looking for an overnight and cheap hike in Ecuador.

Next we are off to Cuenca in Southern Ecuador to see Ingapirka, the most famous Inkan ruins in Ecuador.

The Trail Wanderer

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