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.
Twenty-five kilometres east of Riobamba, EL ALTAR (5320m) is an extinct, heavily eroded volcano rising to the south of Volcán Tungurahua. Named Cupac Urcu, or “sublime mountain”, in Quichua, El Altar boasts a breathtaking crater set within an amphitheatre of jagged, ice-capped peaks studded with hanging glaciers that are constantly rumbling and cracking. The principal of the volcano’s nine craggy summits is El Obispo, a difficult technical climb not conquered until 1963 and best left to experienced mountaineers. Lying in the bottom of the crater is Laguna Amarilla (4300m), whose yellow-green waters are dotted with blocks of ice that have calved off the glaciers above. A wide gap in the west side of the crater opens onto a flat plain known as the Valle de Collanes, providing easy access down to the lake.
El Altar can be reached on a highly rewarding two- to three-day round-trip hike, starting from the tiny village of Candelaria, a fifteen-kilometre drive down a dirt track southeast from the village of Penipe, which sits 22km northeast of Riobamba on the road to Baños. There are three to four weekday buses to Candelaria (two on Sat, none Sun; 1hr 30min) from the Terminal Oriental in Riobamba; alternatively, you can get to Penipe on any of the frequent Riobamba–Baños buses, and once there hire a truck from the square (about $10, ask around).
A popular option is to spend the first night at the Hacienda Releche (t03/2949761; $21–25), a fifteen-minute walk from Candelaria, where you can get good meals or use the kitchen yourself (extra charge). From here, you can hire horses and a guide for the five- to six-hour haul up to the Collanes plain ($8 each way), at the foot of the volcano, where the hacienda keeps a simple refuge with cooking facilities (same prices) and running water (you’ll need a sleeping bag). You’ll pass the park ranger station en route and will have to pay the $10 entrance fee. From the plain it’s only a couple of hours up to the gap in the crater rim, from where you can scramble down to the edge of the lake in about thirty minutes. Heading back, count on taking about an hour to get back up to the plain and another three to four hours back to Candelaria; some stretches of the path get extremely muddy after rainfall, so consider taking gaiters or rubber boots.
An alternative to doing it independently is to join a guided hike here, offered by Julio Verne Travel and Marco Cruz Expeditions in Riobamba.