Ecuador’s El Altar Trek Beginner’s Guide


El Altar is located in the Sangay National park in Ecuador. It is an extinct volcano that’s rarely and remotely accessed, so if you’re looking for an adventure this trek could be your next choice. Hiking El Altar is considered a moderate difficulty trek among hikers with the highest point of 17,450 feet.

However, the El Altar trek is rarely done, even though it is considered to be a gem of technical climbing. Its difficult accesses and routes are not very attractive for a lot of hikers. Still, this spectacular mountain is worth seeing due to its beautiful nature and scenery.

Getting There

Riobamba is the closest city to El Altar. Signage that leads to the mountain exists, still, it is not complete and you will probably go in the wrong direction if you end up following it. The beginning of the trailhead looks like a private small ranch and you, most likely, won’t be able to see it from the street. A water dam by road is the best indicator you’re in the right place. Keep in mind that it is always better to have someone who knows the way to get you to the location. Also, the mountain can get rainy quite fast, so make sure you have a rain jacket with you.

Once you’re on the trailhead you shouldn’t have any problems getting to the Campo Italiano. You are, however, going to need knee-high hiking boots since the trail is very muddy (which is also why some people don’t like hiking El Altar). Surprisingly, the trail has trail markers, but they are not very well executed. You will notice that they start to show a bit late and end too early.

It seems that, at some point, someone was trying to make this an actual trail considering the street signage in Riobamba and the trail markers. However, making this an enjoyable hike was probably not an option due to the thick mud all over it.

Hiking El Altar

El Altar trek can be done in two or three days, depending on your hiking preferences. Most likely, you will be starting in Candelaria, a tiny village southeast of the Penipe village. Riobamba is usually your starting point, and you will go to Penipe from there. From the Terminal Oriental in Riobamba, there are 3-4 weekday buses to Candelaria. Also, there are Riobamba-Baños buses that go frequently (they can get you to Penipe too). You should be able to see a truck at a square once you’re there, it will cost you about $10.

Spending the first night at the Hacienda Releche is a very popular option. You can use the kitchen here, but also get some good meals prepared for you. Hiring a guide and a horse is usually what you will do next after spending a night here. You will go to the Collanes plain (will take about 5-6 hours) which is located at the foot of the volcano. There is running water and cooking facilities at the spot, but you will need a sleeping bag for sure. Paying the $10 entrance fee once you pass the park ranger station is inevitable. You will be only a couple of hours away from the gap in the crater rim once you reach the plain. Once there, going down to the edge of the lake will take you about 30 minutes. Keep in mind that you will have to go back to the plain, which will take about an hour (so think about bringing trekking poles), and add 3-4 hours to get back to Candelaria. Hiking El Altar without rubber boots or gaiters is a really bad idea, especially after a rainfall, so don’t forget to bring those with you.

Optimal Three-day Hike

Day 1 – Leave Riobamba at 9:00 A.M. You should reach the Hacienda Releche after a 1-hour drive. The location is at 10.499 feet altitude. Hire a horse and a guide and put your hiking gear on a horse. Start going up a steep hill on your horse to make the hike a bit easier. Reaching the trail to El Altar will take you about an hour. Soon afterward, you will start enjoying the scenery of the valley of Collanes river and the extinct volcano. The Collanes shelter is about 5 hours away, so you will have to continue hiking to the location at 12.632 feet. This is where you will be spending your night (hiking at night is not recommended at this location).

Day 2 – Have breakfast and head to the El Altar’s crater lake through the Collanes Plain. Once you’re there, you will be at the plateau at 14.108 feet. You will be able to experience snow-capped peaks and a turquoise-green lake from the highest point of this trek. Also, you will notice there are a lot of condors around. Return to the refuge in the afternoon.

Day 3 – Hike down to Releche from the refuge in the morning. Riobamba is your final location, where you should arrive at about 2:00 P.M.

Major Peaks


As already mentioned, El Obispo (The Bishop) is the highest peak on the El Altar trek. There are 8 other major peaks at the mountain. None of these peaks is easily ascended, so make sure you have the right hiking gear with you if you decide to go to any of these:

  • The Bishop (El Obispo) – 17,450 ft.
  • The Great Nun (Monja Grande) – 16,930 ft.
  • Small Nun (Monja Chica) – 16,666 ft.
  • Tabernacle (Tabernáculo) – 16,995 ft.
  • Eastern Friar (Fraile Oriental) – 16,601 ft.
  • Devout (Fraile Beato) – 16,568 ft.
  • Central Friar (Fraile Central) – 16,633 ft.
  • Great Friar (Fraile Grande) – 16,694 ft.
  • Canon (Canónigo) – 17,257 ft.

Globo Surf Overview

Some peaks at the El Altar trek are considered to be moderately difficult. But, some will require you to come prepared and ready to get dirty. El Altar gets a lot of rain, meaning there is a lot of mud too. So, going there without at least having knee-high boots is not an option. However, hiking El Altar is worth experiencing due to its beautiful scenery. Also, when will you get another chance to look at the extinct volcano? Don’t forget to hire a guide to get to the location safely!

More Backpacking/Hiking Reviews:


  1. Sangay National Park,
Globo Surf
My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!