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Laguna Amarilla - Volcán El Altar (4,300 m.a.s.l)

Laguna Amarilla - Vulcano El Altar (4.300 m s.l.m.)

I’ll be honest, after 24 years living in my beloved Ecuador I had no idea that such an extraordinary landscape existed in this country. But after seeing photos of those giant rock peaks in the shape of leaning monks surrounding a yellow lagoon which is actually the crater of the El Altar volcano, my heart started to beat faster and shouted to me that I had to get there at all costs.

A few years later, that’s how dedicated I am, I found myself on the way to this natural wonder inside a van with my friend Gaby and several strangers listening to our guide explain that “El Altar”, located in the province of Chimborazo-Ecuador, was once a super volcano that hundreds of years ago had such an eruption that burst its own crater leaving rocky peaks that form a type of altar, hence its name.

Laguna Amarilla - Volcán El Altar (4,300 m.a.s.l)

The summits “nun” and “bishop” are the most known and the hardest to climb in this country because they require lots of stamina and climbing technique. Of course, I do not have these, so the story of how it was scaled will remain pending for another couple of years. However, you do not need much skill to reach the lagoon and take the incredible photos like the ones I took. Don’t be fooled, this does not mean it is that easy to reach.

Our two-day journey started at Plaza Foch in Quito on Saturday at 3:00 AM. At this meeting point we met the other adventurers that found the information of this hike on Facebook like me and decided to join the plan. After a few words in the cold early morning allowed us to exchange we boarded our van heading for Penipe, the closest town to our destination, where at approximately 7:00 AM we arrived to get a good breakfast.

Laguna Amarilla - Volcán El Altar (4,300 m.a.s.l)

Finally, at 9:15 PM we found ourselves at Hacienda Releche, the starting point. We put on our rubber boots, took out the walking sticks and set out on the long but exciting hike towards the volcano shelter. At this point I must emphasise that the climate of this place is semi humid as it receives tropical air currents from the Ecuadorian Amazon that collide with cold mountain ones condensing the water in light but constant rainfalls. A waterproof coat is fundamental.

First lesson of the mountain: only take what is necessary and nothing more. In the mountains and long hikes in general all weight counts. The saying “better safe than sorry” does not apply. That is, if something is not absolutely necessary don’t bring it because even a pin weighs ten times more in the mountains (at least for your perception). It is the typical beginners mistake to be too prepared for these trips: we carry too much water that we don’t drink, food we don’t eat, electrical devices we don’t use, I took make up on the first time (what a nightmare! ). The physical effort that is made in altitude to give us this luxury is very big.

But don’t worry, for a trip like the one I am describing it is very common to hire carriers or mules to carry the heavy equipment that is your sleeping bag and a change of clothes for the shelter. You carry the rest in a rucksack which I recommend has a maximum capacity of 35 to 45 litres (if you don’t know what I mean google it) and should contain a light pair of gloves, hat, a warm coat in case the temperature drops, a one litre bottle of water, sun cream and your lunchbox.

Laguna Amarilla - Volcán El Altar (4,300 m.a.s.l)

For the clothing I strongly recommend the rubber boots that I mentioned since the amount of mud that you will find is unimaginable, a lightweight sports top that is not made of cotton, a waterproof jumper, a waterproof coat and trousers made of lightweight fabric that dries quickly or are waterproof (lycra is acceptable). You do not need mountain equipment for this type of hike, so I will refer to those in another blog.

Finally, returning to the story of our adventure, 9 hours later we finally arrived at the shelter after going through a path only complicated by the huge amounts of mud that we found. In drier conditions, which you can find in the month of October, this takes five to six hours. When arriving at the end of the day, from the shelter you can observe the sun timidly hiding behind the imposing peaks of the Altar. There we learned that all the effort to get there was worth it.

Laguna Amarilla - Volcán El Altar (4,300 m.a.s.l)

When it got dark we changed into dry clothes and enjoyed the dinner prepared for us by our guides. We met other groups that were looking for the same finish line and between laughter and story exchanging we were ready to sleep in our sleeping bags. At 7:00 AM we were already having breakfast and preparing ourselves for the hike to the great Laguna Amarilla (Yellow Lagoon). This is two hours away from the shelter at a moderate pace. Fortunately, when we arrived the sky opened, and the lagoon was more green than yellow astonishingly at the foot of the snowy peaks that surrounded it.

Laguna Amarilla - Volcán El Altar (4,300 m.a.s.l)

Laguna Amarilla - Volcán El Altar (4,300 m.a.s.l)

It is hard to write in words a sensation like the one I felt in that moment. It seemed like a fantasy movie with the best special effects on a screen of the highest definitions. By this I mean that it didn’t seem real. But it was, and I was very happy to be there. The tiredness passes but the memories remain.

Laguna Amarilla - Volcán El Altar (4,300 m.a.s.l)

As additional information if you are not very sporty you can still get there. The path allows you to go on a horse or a mule from the Hacienda Releche to the shelter. On the other hand, if you have good physical ability and some experience in the mountains there is the possibility of another four-day hike to see the other wonderful lagoons around that are formed by the glaciers of this place. To do this contact and Ecuadorian guide that knows the path.

This was one of the last adventures in the mountain that I have done so far. But I have started the chain of my blogs with the story of this trip since it was the Altar that awoke this great passion within me that I am starting to practice and with luck you can also encourage yourself to do it.


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