Trekking El Cocuy National Park

Itinerary: Guican > Rio Mosco, Parada de Romero, Cabañas Kanwara > Ritacuba Blanco > Valle de Los Frailejones, Laguna Grande de la Sierra > Portal de Lagunillas, Pulpito y Pan de Azucar > Guican

Yes, Colombia has glaciers.

Based on the number of bemused reactions I’ve received when I’ve mentioned my recent 4-day trek through El Cocuy National Park, I thought it might be best to quickly clarify that Colombia is not just rainforests and coffee farms. It also has stunning mountain ranges and (at least for the next decade or so) gorgeous glaciers. This post is pure nature and a tad long, so if that’s not your thing, don’t worry — more big city stuff to come.

Unknown to travelers and Colombians alike, El Cocuy is one of Colombia’s many national parks, but sparked my interest with its unique páramo ecosystem, which seldom found outside the Colombian Andes. It’s basically an alpine bog, with valleys and lakes carved out by glaciers, trailing rivers and waterfalls in their wake. It’s also home to the frailejon, which looks vaguely like the offspring of a cactus and a sunflower, and reminded me of something you might find in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, another bizarre and wonderful place.

Thanks (as always) to Lonely Planet’s brilliant recommendation, I booked a four-day, three-night trekking tour with Colombia Trek, leaving from Guican, one of the two small towns that serve as entry points for the park. The other aptly named El Cocuy.

My fellow hikers and I enjoyed a hearty home-cooked meal at the hotel while awaiting our guides, who joined the group and began building the soon-to-be-familiar gear pile with our massive backpacks and several days’ worth of food. An unfortunate closure of much of the park back in 2013 included a ban on camping, which meant that we would be staying in cabins throughout the trek. And while the closure means that large swaths of the park are no longer accessible to visitors, and as much as I relish setting up camp after a long day of slow-going backpacking, I was absolutely delighted with our ‘glamping’ accommodation and fancy meals throughout our trek (or rather, glorified day hiking with our big bags being shuttled around by a driver).

After coordinating our entrance fees and trying in vain to understand the well-intentioned liability and welcome information from Spanish-speaking park officials, we set off with a short car ride to the first trailhead. Though it may be unkind to admit, I was relieved that the other three hikers — from the States, Germany and France — also spoke little Spanish; it turned the trip into a great opportunity to learn the language with our two local guides, one of whom knew enough English to help translate, but not enough to stop us from trying out our Spanish.

The first day was a fairly short 5-hour hike through a the Rio Mosco valley, traversing various livestock enclosures as we made our way to our first cabin campgrounds. The Cabañas Kanwara were nestled into the mountains, overlooking the valley below and looking up to the glacier that we would tackle the next day. We stayed there two nights, enjoying the company of the resident dogs and cooks and camp host.

Our second day of hiking was without a doubt the most challenging and most rewarding of the trip. Setting off right from our cabins, we made the ascent to Ritacuba Blanco, encountering countless frailejones and several river crossings and cascades. The peak of Ritacuba Blanco is 5330 meters, and while we didn’t go quite to the tip top, the air was thin, and our hearts and lungs struggled to keep up with our legs’ demands.

The third day we woke a little earlier and watched in somewhat skeptical amazement as our guides managed to strap the infamous gear heap to the roof of our transport to the next trailhead. After safely depositing our things at Hacienda La Esperanza (only to reload and unload once again later that day), we set off on our hike to Laguna Grande via the Valle de Los Frailejones. The beginning of the hike started out much like the first day, passing through fields of sheeps and cows. Then a leisurely meander through the frailejones valley before getting into the climb to the lake. (Not quite as steep or as high altitude as the second day, but enough to warrant a healthy amount of water breaks.) The lake itself was crystal clear glacial water, untarnished by sediment. I was positive that you could see to the very bottom if you got a bird’s-eye view, and was pleasantly reminded of the ‘Keep Tahoe Blue’ stickers adorning many of northern California’s Subarus.

We spent that night at Hotel Cabaña El Mirador, which was an absolute treat. Or as my fellow American put it, it looked like ‘a honeymoon spot.’ The cute cottage had a warm kitchen with picnic tablecloths, and we lavished in our own rooms. Located on a crest, you could look down on the town of Guican and up into the park. The lovely ladies running the place were kind and welcoming, and we enjoyed a low-key concert with the communal guitar.

While we were sitting around, one of my wise guides shared this quote in my travel journal (translated from Spanish), which felt very profound in that moment and that I gratefully carry with me today.

“Look in the mountains for the greatness of nature and find the humility of people.”

Our final day, we set off, much to my dismay, downhill to start, and then leveled out for a long distance before picking up any incline. (It’s certainly more indicative of my neurotic tendencies than the quality of a hike, but I’m never a fan of uphills at the end.) Unfortunately our well of good weather fortune ran dry, and we ended up in a cloud as we got to the peak, unable to see the stunning views all around us. But still lucky enough that we didn’t get rained on!

I was truly touched by my experience in the mountains — troubled to learn that climate change was rapidly reducing the glaciers and spreading an infestation that threatened the frailejones; ecstatic to overcome shortness of breath to reach the peaks; rejuvenated by the relaxing sound of rivers and little else; comforted by the company of likeminded people; sad to leave, and yet energized to tackle the next big cities.

Next Stop: Cartagena and Medellín


DETAILS, TIPS & TRICKS

Colombia Trek
Run by Rodrigo Arias and recommended by Lonely Planet, this tour company was phenomenal; from the time of inquiry to getting dropped off at my hotel at the end, Colombia Trek was professional and coordinated every detail. Plus, the guides were fun and fantastic, and the food was plentiful and quite filling.

Bus from Sogamoso to Guican
I connected through Duitama, where buses from Sogamoso are frequent but buses to Guican are not — I ended up spending a few hours at the bus terminal just to ensure I would make the transfer. I definitely recommend triple checking the times the bus leaves for Guican, and then expect the ride from Duitama to take about 8 hours with all the stops and breaks along the way. Fortunately the buses are fairly comfy, and the road is paved the whole way until just before El Cocuy, at which point you’re overlooking a river valley and should just enjoy the view!

Accommodation
Guican: Hotel Brisas del Nevado — as far as accommodations go, not my favorite of my trip, but probably the best in Guican. The woman who runs the show cooks a mean meal and although very hard to understand at times, is very pleasant and kind.