El Altar

Due to it’s relative remoteness, El Altar or Capac Urcu is yet to become a top destination for locals and foreigners in Ecuador. Nonetheless, the muddy and long hike to reach this extinct volcano and see the iconic “Laguna Amarilla” is definitely one of the most amazing places in the Andes.  The Spanish named it El Altar because of it’s resemblance and each of it’s peaks has religious names.

To access this volcano, the trail begins at hacienda Releche (located about an hour away from Riobamba). From there, there is a 5-hour hike through a very muddy trail that will take you to the hut or refugio. The trail is well marked so it’s difficult to get lost. During this hike, you’ll traverse throughout a beautiful variation of vegetation; tropical climate and paramo that also includes crossing small rivers.

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Arrieros transporting goods to the refugio
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Parts of the muddy trail

It had been raining a lot for the past few days which is usual around this place so it’s extremely important to wear rubber boots or waterproof hiking boots. You will certainly get wet and muddy! After almost 6 hours of walking through deep mud, we could finally see the refugio and a cloudy background of one Ecuador’s most incredible places. There is also the possibility to hire “arrieros” to carry all your belongings in horses.

At the refugio, there is no electricity so you’ll have to carry your own food/snacks, sleeping bag, extra dry clothes, flashlight, etc. A night at the refugio and hacienda releche starts at about $15 per person and $2 to use the kitchen.

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View of El Altar from the refugio

The next day at 6am, we started the final hike to reach “Laguna Amarilla” and after almost 2 hours of going uphill, we made it. The day was clear and somewhat sunny with almost no wind or too much coldness.

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Some of the technically difficult peaks of the volcano
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Capac Urcu

When you are lucky enough to see a place like this one, there are no words to really describe it. You just experience it in that particular moment and truly feel connected with nature and its beauty. On the right, Obispo summit stands as the tallest of the many peaks of this volcano with a reflection of the volcano on Laguna Amarilla. El Altar is one of the most technically difficult peaks in Ecuador, if not the most. It’s easy to see why.

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Cayambe Volcano

There is no other feeling like being in top of a mountain, it’s hard to explain in words. But I’ll try. For myself, its one of the closest and greatest connections that humans can have with nature. Every mountain is different with it’s own beauty and although making it to a summit might be challenging, the reward it’s surreal. It’s a moment of peace, a combination of joy and frustration, it’s a moment of greatness. There is no other feeling like that.

I started climbing mountains just two months ago and I do regret not climbing before in life but it’s never too late to do it. I’m lucky to live in Quito, located in the highlands and surrounded by many beautiful Andes mountains that are relatively close and easily accessible.

It never really crossed my mind what I was aiming for but my first mountain experience was at Ruco Pichincha. I will not go into details of my previous summits and weekly cardio training but it included climbing El Corazon, Pasochoa, Ruminahui (all of these mountains between 4200 m and 4700 m) and the glacier school in Cayambe. I would recommend to summit a 5000 m mountain like Illiniza Norte for acclimatization before attempting Cayambe. Drinking plenty of water the days before for hydration is always a good idea before climbing.

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Reaching Cayambe on training day
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Glacier school – Cayambe

The day to face my biggest mountain yet, finally came. On August 21st of 2016, I was going to climb Cayambe. My friends and I reached the refuge or base camp at 7:30 pm and is about a 2.5-hour drive away from Quito. Our guide was already there with other groups of maybe 15 people. We cooked some pasta and tried to get some rest. It was a bad idea to sleep outside in a tent as it was super windy and I really managed to get zero sleep. A night at the refuge with food included is $30 USD.

At 11:30pm we started getting ready, putting on our equipment, harness, boots, etc. I had some hot tea with coconut cookies. Personally, I don’t recommend eating too much food before going up but that depends how your metabolism works and after putting our helmets on with headlights, we were all set to begin. Cayambe is a one-day climb, so you can carry only the essentials in your backpack (water, snacks like granola bars or fruits, extra gloves/jacket). There is about 45 minutes of hiking up until you reach the glacier so the crampons were not necessary from the beginning.

When we started hiking up, I felt confident and not really tired even though I did not get any rest. The night was pretty yet windy, filled with stars and with some moon light. As I kept walking and slowly getting tired, I started having different thoughts; that I could be home sleeping or questioning why I was doing this. But those thoughts, I tried to keep away from my head with some Bonobo and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs songs playing in my head.

We made it to the glacier and it was time to put our crampons on. It’s a very good idea to set them up with the right measures to your boots before departure so that you don’t waste too much time in the cold doing this. Our guide and three of us were in one group secured with ropes in our harnesses and I was the last one in line.

The climb continued and hiking up in snow and ice can be more tiring and challenging than the normal hiking. In front of me, as the night was still young, I could only see the lights of my fellow group members and two groups way ahead of us. 2 hours passed, 3 hours passed and in between a couple of short breaks for hydration. The altitude started having an effect. My chest was making more effort and overall, I was getting more and more tired. One step at a time, I thought. Keep climbing and I’ll make the summit in no time. 4 hours passed and for certain moments, I thought about giving up. At this point, we were passing by large crevasses that looked beautiful yet potentially deadly. We were lucky enough to climb through a safe route that did not demanded great technical challenges for us.

At 5 hours, the sun started to rise. It gave me hope to know that we were so close yet far away. The last hour of climbing was the hardest. A perfectly shaped triangle shadow formed in front of us. With some light, we finally started to see the morning beauty of going up a mountain.

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At certain moments, I felt that I could have trained more but I kept going, step by step. By now, our lights were turned off and it was time to put on our sunglasses. When I heard screams of joy from the first groups that made it to the summit, I felt relieve. I knew we were there.

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Our guide with other groups of climbers at the top
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Cayambe Summit

My body and mind were too tired to fully process this moment, I hugged our guide and my friends. We just climbed Ecuador’s third highest mountain at 5790 m or 19000 ft. I knew that by far, this was one of the hardest things that I’ve done in my entire life. But it was definitely worth it, so worth it. I sat for a bit to take some breath. The day was clear and perfect and I contemplated the “Avenue of the Volcanos” for a while. I could see in front of me; Antisana, Cotopaxi and further away, the mighty Chimborazo. On the other side, Reventador volcano was in action. It was surreal, it was one of the best moments that I’ve ever experience in my 26 years of life.

Galapagos Islands

Arguably Ecuador’s number one touristic attraction, I visited the Galapagos Islands in late December of 2015. The islands are known for its vast diversity of marine species as well as Charles Darwin’s observations that contributed to his theory of evolution. I took an early morning plane from Quito to Baltra (2-hour flight) and the fee entry to the National Park varies depending on your nationality (most foreign tourists pay 100 USD to get in).

After my arrival to Baltra, I took a boat to Santa Cruz Island (one of Galapagos biggest islands) where my hotel “Lobo de Mar” was located. Around the hotel there are many good places to eat with a mixture of Ecuadorean and international cuisine such as La Garrapata (main dishes 15-20 USD ). As a 3 star hotel “Lobo de Mar”can be pricier than other options like Darwin Hostel, which has double rooms that can cost around 30 USD per night. The afternoon consisted mainly in visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station where you will certainly stumble upon the mighty Iguanas!

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In the afternoon, I grabbed a couple of beers at the Red Mangrove located on the bay and with beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. I was lucky enough to find some Galapagos Sea Lions resting on the hotel benches.

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Red Mangrove

The next morning, I visited “El Chato Tortoise Reserve” (admission 4 USD) where you can see and walk around the giant tortoises. What’s most fascinating about this part of the trip, is that you get to experience the natural habitat of these glorious animals. Be ready to walk around a muddy trail!

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El Chato Tortoise Reserve

Next Stop in the afternoon; Las Grietas. There is a 15 – 20-minute walk through a rocky trail to get to this place so is a good idea to wear comfortable shoes. Las Grietas is a nice place to do some snorkeling between two huge cliffs. With some luck, you’ll find plenty of fish down there!

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Las Grietas

It’s now January 1st of 2016 and the year starts with Tortuga Bay. Perhaps one of the greatest spots to visit in the Galapagos Islands. The 45-minute walk to this place is definitely worth it. You’ll walk through a beach where Iguanas are swimming and walking throughout the beach.

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My last day consisted in visiting Santa Fe Island, about eight miles south of Santa Cruz. Snorkeling here is a must, as you can swim next to sea lions, various fish, small sharks (don’t worry they are not aggressive towards humans) and the beautiful Galapagos Sea Turtles!

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Santa Fe Island

That’s the end of my first story folks, I hope you enjoyed it!  The Galapagos Islands are definitely a place to visit in a lifetime!

Next Stop: Bogota.

Cheers!