We’re driving slowly up the hill to Chingaza National Park, a wet mountain wilderness just east of Bogotá. The city is now far behind and we’ve passed through the lush hills of La Calera and its bucolic fincas, small farms with wood-smoke curling up from homestead chimneys. Craggy mountains loom ahead, their sides coated in stunted woodland shrouded in puffs of grey clouds. The dirt road in front climbs the flanks of barren ridges, a yellow ribbon running into the grey clouds.
The air chills. It’s all looking a bit Middle Earth. Is this is how the Hobbits felt leaving the Shire? The sudden appearance of the skeletal hulk of an abandoned cement factory seals the deal. Are we on the road to Mordor? But there are no trolls or orcs up here. In fact the first sign of life is a cute white-tailed deer calmly grazing by the roadside. The kids are thrilled, convinced that (being close to Christmas) we have now arrived at reindeer HQ or at least a sub-branch of the North Pole.
Actually we arrive at Piedras Gordas, the Chingaza park entrance. Friendly park wardens check our entry permit and show us a short video on the park’s fauna and flora, and clips or pictures of pumas, foxes, mountain tapirs, condors, spectacled bears which live in the zone. We push on into the park.
Chingaza covers 70,000 hectares of rugged moorland called paramó, a tundra-like wetland unique to the high Andes. At lower altitudes this is formed of dense thickets of amazingly diverse flowering shrubs. The higher paramó is grasses and mosses and the frailejones, a flowering plant with leathery leaves and a long stem.
This high moorland looks like the toughest parts of the Scottish highlands – with more rain. Which means a lot of rain. In fact the whole of Chingaza is one mega-marsh that sponges up the water from tropical clouds steaming up the hill from the hot Llanos plains below. Supposedly 99 percent of the water then seeps out to flow back as rivers back into the Orinoco thousand of kilometers east. And one percent flows west to become Bogota’s water supply. Just one percent. For a city of 8 million people. Get the picture? Mucha agua. So, yes, bring a raincoat, rubber boots (and, if you’re an optimist, suncream).
There are plenty of walking trails and a campsite at the park centre, Monteredondo on the banks of the Embalse de Chuza, (the dam lake that collects all that water for Bogotá and sends it by tunnels to La Calera). The headache is that since you need to pre-book your visit with National Parks, so you can’t just stick your head out of the window in Bogotá and say: “Oh, the mountains look nice today, lets go camp in Chingaza.” So we decided to ditch the hiking or camping option and just go for the day by car.
Chingaza’s bleak climate ensures the rather miraculous fact that such an area, so rich in wildlife and so devoid of human life, can exist so close to a megacity like Bogotá. In fact some corners of the park are still being explored. Hunting of large mammals has taken its toll, though, and the Andean spectacled bear was almost wiped out in the park a few decades back, and only a few (15 at the last count) have reestablished, and they are very shy, and only really seen with trap-cameras. Condors have also been hunted down, though a few pairs remain.
For the casual car visitor like us the chances of any significant wildlife sighting is very low. Anyway we are not really appropriately camouflaged to spot wildlife. So instead we enjoy the scenery and the soggy vegetation.
The wet, acid, cold organic soils of the paramó are not very fertile, which explains the slow and stunted growth of the plantlife. Ironically though the tough ambience has also created a diversity of life here. A paramó is one of the most rapidly-evolving ecosystems on the planet. It is also quite delicate. Draining of highland swamps, for example to graze cattle or grow potatoes, has destroyed many if these rich habi- tats. Chingaza’s role as Bogotá’s water supply has been a key reason for its protection over the years.
We have pass the park office at Monteredondo, and drive another hour over the hills to the Laguna de Chingaza, a misty lake in the heart of the park, and eat our sandwiches in the drizzle by the banks of the Rio La Playa, a fast clear river where some other visitors are trying to catch trout. A park warden warns us to get out of the park by 3 p.m, when the ‘serious clouds arrive’ and it will be hard to see the road ahead. We start heading home.
Five hours later, back home in Bogotá, I get some water from the tap – a little bit of liquid Chingaza. I’ll drink to that!
Tips for travel.
In theory you have to book three weeks in advance via the National Parks website, or call them on (57) 1-353 2400 or email to reservas.ecoturismo@ parquesnacionales.gov.co with your proposed dates for entry.
Then comes the usual bank errand of paying the entry fee – US$6 per day for nationals, US$15 for foreigners – scanning and sending the receipt, and getting the entry permit by email.
Since the road climbs to 3,500 me- ters (almost a kilometer higher than Bogotá) then there is a risk of sorroche or mal de paramó. This is unlikely to affect people living in Bogotá, but recent arrivals to the city (less than a week) may suffer from headaches at this higher altitude. Tips for this are
• do not undertake any physical exertion
• drink plenty of warm or hot sugary fluids (tea or hot chocolate).
• use mild painkillers for headaches (acetaminophen or ibuprofen).
In my experience Coca Cola is the best cure for altitude headaches, it has plenty of sugar and caffeine. (It also works for hangovers).
Don’t forget: Binoculars, raincoat, warm clothes, boots, snacks, drinks.