El Altar Mountain, called Kapak Urku (meaning “sublime mountain” in the indigenous language), is an extinct volcano on the western side of the Sangay National Park, about 106 miles (170 km) south of Quito. It’s part of what is sometimes called the “Top Ten” in Ecuador, the group of peaks over 16,000 feet (5,000 meters) tall.
Spaniards named it the Altar because they thought it looked like a group of nuns and friars gathered at a church altar. The names of the individual peaks are also inspired by the Catholic religion: Bishop, Nun, Tabernacle and the Three Monks. El Altar is made up of nine major peaks arranged in a horseshoe-shaped ridge around a crater at about 13,800 feet (4,200 meters).
El Altar is perhaps the most-demanding climb in Ecuador, and December through February is the best time to attempt an ascent. The hike to the lake within the caldera of the mountain is more accessible.
For those who dare the climb, the views of Andean valleys, rain forests, active volcanoes, and hundreds of shimmering lakes all make the effort worth it.
There is a $10 fee to enter the park, which can be reached by bus from Riobamba.