The Parque Nacional Sangay is Ecuador’s largest highland reserve, a sprawling wilderness – and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – covering more than 5000 square kilometres of the eastern Andean cordillera, spilling down into the Amazon basin. The park’s stunning sierra scenery takes in three volcanoes (Tungurahua, El Altar and Sangay), over three hundred lakes, pristine páramo and native cloudforest, providing a habitat for spectacled bears, Andean condors, pumas and deer, among other mammals, while jaguars, monkeys and ocelots inhabit the lower, tropical areas. There’s very little infrastructure for tourists and no marked trail system. Apart from the Guamote–Macas road, slicing through the park from the sierra to the Oriente, access to Parque Nacional Sangay is via a number of remote, potholed dirt roads leading to the various guarderías, or ranger stations, serving the different areas of the park, often situated near local communities that can be reached by bus. The entrance fee for foreigners is $10; the ticket is valid for two weeks in all the park’s various sectors.
Starting at the northern end of the park, the main attractions begin with Volcán Tungurahua (5023m), a snowcapped volcano normally approached via the Guardería Pondoa, south of Baños, but currently off-limits due to renewed volcanic activity. To the south, El Altar is the highest point in the park and the fifth-highest mountain in Ecuador. Once a volcano, an ancient eruption blew it asunder, leaving a jagged skeleton of rock, now a spectacular semicircle of nine summits teetering over a dazzling crater lake and a popular target for trekkers. Irascible Volcán Sangay (5230m), one of the world’s most active volcanoes, is the third great peak in the park, a difficult-to-reach and hazardous climbing proposition. Both it and El Placer hot springs are approached from the Guardería Alao, in the village of Alao, reachable by bus from Riobamba. Further south, there’s wonderful trekking around the Lagunas de Atillo and the Lagunas de Ozogoche, clutches of beautiful páramo lakes set in rugged scenery.
The best months to hike in these highland areas of Sangay are November to February, when the weather is at its driest and sunniest, though downpours can occur at any moment, so come prepared. Outside these months the area is prone to cold, wet, windy and sometimes foggy conditions.