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Laguna del Altar

 

 

Also known by its Quichua name, Capac Urcu, or “almighty mountain,” El Altar (5,320 m/17,400 feet) is not the highest volcano in Ecuador, but it is one of the most impressive. The view from the Collanes Plain, down below, is humbling: eight snowcapped peaks rising up and standing vigil over a crater lake that tumbles down the open west face of the volcano.

 

Flocks of birds circle above, crowning the majestic landscape with open wings. Hundred meter waterfalls spill off the páramo surrounding the giant “C” shaped crater, and a rocky approach leads to the turquoise lake, the Laguna Amarilla. In short, this mighty mountain is a stunning, majestic volcano located in Ecuador’s wild backcountry, and a trek to its flanks, its crater, or its crisscrossing ridges is a high-altitude trip almost unheard of outside the Andes and the Himalayas. The Spanish called the mountain “El Altar” because its many peaks resemble the shape of a colonial church altar. Not surprisingly, the scale of El Altar and the surrounding mountains really do seem to mimic the design of a cathedral. Unlike more popular climbs in Ecuador, such as Cotopaxi or Chimborazo, El Altar is further removed from both the highway and cities. Consequently, a visit is not a one day endeavor, but a three day round-trip trek through unspoiled páramo, boggy lakes and creeks, and remote snow-covered ridges, all of which mean a dearth of tourists. Due to the difficult terrain, the safest way to see El Altar is with a guide, although serious trekkers could probably manage fine without one.

 

The trek begins in the hamlet of Candelaria, winds upwards through fields and pastures, and then ascends to the páramo and elevations of 3,800 meters and above. After four or five hours of hiking, trekkers arrive to the soggy Collanes Plain, an insane full frontal view of El Altar, and a campsite managed by Candelaria’s Hacienda Releche. A number of treks are possible the following day, including ones to the Laguna de Mandur, Laguna Negra, and the Campamento Italiano on the snowy south slopes, the páramo of the northern ridges, and the yellow-tinted crater lake. The latter hike is a half day trip from the campsite, through rocky debris leftover from an October 2000 flood, past high altitude polylepis trees, and onto the smooth ledge of the cave-filled crater. From the crater, occasional cracks and creaks can be heard as chunks of ice break away from the glacier and drop into the lake.

 

It is possible to hike to the crater and make it back to Candelaria in one long day, but this is not recommended. It is better to witness the spectacle of the sun setting over El Altar from the front of the lake, as light streams in through the corridor of the Collanes Plain, highlighting its serpentine rivers and marshy páramo. The sky turns orange, then red, then purple over the enormous crater, and clouds gather around the rim, in one of the finest natural spectacles in the Andes.



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