It started as a dream that I had in 2014. I had heard about it…”The Altar”..one of those off-the-beaten path type of place that you just had to go to at least once in your lifetime. A challenging multi-day hike in the middle of the Andes to a beautiful lagoon surrounded by towering peaks. Who wouldnt want to go there? Alas , I never got the chance…that was until January. A friend of mine and I were casually sitting in the kitchen one day chatting and I mentioned it finally being time to go. This year I was turning 30 and what better way to celebrate than an epic adventure? Having been to Ecuador multiple times my friend was able to recommend Activexpedition as she had gone on multiple tours with the owner, Christian, and his team of fun and knowledgeable guides.
BEST DECISION EVER.
I armed my crew and off to Ecuador we went. ATL-UIO
Arriving in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, late in the evening the twinkling of the city lights captivated me; starting the magic that would be the best experience of my life. We had previously arranged with Activexpedition to be picked up from there airport and sure enough there was someone waiting for us with a sign and a smile. Into the city we went to rest up before a day of exploring the rich and historical city of Quito. (Although a city tour isnt included in the 5-day El Altar adventure with the company, I completely recommend having Activexpedition arrange to show you around. )
The day had arrived. I was overwhelmed with excitement. Early in the morning our guide picked us up in the Activexpedition van, the name blazed on the side. We hopped in and started our drive to La Candeleria, the nearest city to where the trail begins. There are no words to describe even just the drive towards the start of our trek. Even with some clouds in the sky and a light mist falling we were surrounded by non stop views of local farms and stunning mountains. Even my friends couldnt peel their eyes away from the beauty of this magnificent country.
Now let me tell you a little bit about why this place was so high on my bucketlist (I might be paraphrasing from what our guide, Christian, told us). El Altar is located in Parque National Sangay near Riobamba in the central area of the Andes in Ecuador and in the foothills of the highest volcano in the country, Chimborazo. Away from the chaos of the city and tucked into the mountains this hike can be anywhere from 2-5+ days. The stretch of the park containing The Altar, a collapsed and extinct volcano with crown like peaks forming literally an alter around a beautiful turquoise lagoon with other igually stunning lagoons within the complex, is a hikers dream.
Most companies that offer service to El Altar only take people to Laguna Amarilla but with Activexpedition we were able to see not one but THREE of the lagoons. Being able to see the peaks from such different perspectives was truly something that will be burned into my memory forever.
This trek is only available November through March due to the unpredictability of weather in the region and due to it beign typically more dry and clear during these months. I definitely recommend heeding to those recommendations. We were greeted by lady luck and had clear views an no rain during our adventure.
Now dont get me wrong, this expedition is not a walk in the park. The day after arriving to La Candeleria we hiked about six hours to the refuge where we would be spending the next few nights. Rain boots and trekking poles are provided to you to help muscle through the ups and downs through the muddy trails towards the refuge….and for good reason.
I am not the worlds most coordinated human, and neither were the rest of my crew. Slipping and sliding definitely happened a few times but everyone had a blast on the way. Christian made jokes and helped us out of the mud whenever we slid. He also taught us about the species of plants that dot the way. You would never think it, but there are actually lots of little colorful flowers along the trail which just added to the magic.
We got our first views of the Altar peaking around the corner after about 4.5 hours of hiking. Wow. After another hour or so we were arriving into the valley of Collanes. Wow again. Green ridges forming the walls with veins of river flowing through from the heart in the center: The Altar. The refuge lies at the head of the valley and would be our home for the next few days. A cozy place to spend every night I never have felt more comfortable in a camping experince. Gourmet food, a warm fire…It was perfect.
The following morning after a delicious breakfast we set off for our days adventure. Today we would be visiting two lagoons in the complex: Mandur and Azul lagoons. Both of these lagoons are on rock tracks on the edges of the altar lending themselves to views of the outer-lying mountains: layers of browns and golds touching the robins-egg blue sky as far as the eye could see. Wow again. We spent most of our day out and about exploring these areas as the are on opposite sides of the central lagoon. My day ended breathless from the arduous hike and endless laughter of a day well spent.
Then came the day…Laguna Amarilla, the gem of The Altar. From the valley we were led over the rivers and streams that cut through it upwards through a forest towards the hardest but shortest part of the hike. A 1,000 foot stair-like ascent upwards to the lagoon. Step by step we were carefully led up towards the rim of the lagoon…Step, step, step…WOW. My jaw was on the ground.
There it was: the lagoon. Shining the most beautiful shade of blue and green in the sunlight as the snowy peaks showed their faces high and proud with barely a cloud in the sk. TEARS. Never had I seen such a spectacular place. My friends and I all hugged and cried. The effort of the hike along with the absolutely stunning payoff left as all at a loss for words. Just wow.
We took pictures, we danced, we sat down and snacked. It was perfect.
The next morning we packed up and made our way back towards La Candeleria. On the way back to Quito my mind played back the memories of the previous days and I couldnt help but smile. I couldnt have asked for more for my birthday. The experience was beyond words and the level of service was exceptional. I will definitely be back to Ecuador to continue exploring with Activexpedition.