A beginner’s guide to hiking in El Cocuy

El Cocuy National Park by Felipe Mesa
El Cocuy National Park by Felipe Mesa

Frost and dew cling to my Timberlands as I march across tundra, rising slowly with every step up the mountain. As my brain drifts, a silence sets in and my guide, Raúl, leads the way. The mist has dissipated among the towering frailejón and El Cocuy’s haunting beauty comes into view. Empty valleys give way to sky and the sky seems another valley. At high altitude, there is symmetry in simplicity. Words are no longer necessary. “This is beautiful. This is majestic. This is tough,” I recite to myself.

After a 10-hour drive from Bogotá, we made it to El Cocuy, the white-walled town of neatly trimmed green doors, nestled in the shadow of these snow-capped peaks. The town has all the amenities for the adventure traveler in addition to a smattering of family run tiendas in the flower-filled plaza and a handsome church.

Cocuyanos are a reserved lot, but they seem to welcome outsiders. Years of abandonment by the central government resulted in two attacks on the town by FARC guerillas, and although the return of the national army has made both the municipality and surrounding hills safe for climbers, a certain apprehension remains.

After the endurance test of crossing three departments: Cundinamarca, Boyacá and Santander, we decided to spend the night in El Cocuy at the Casa Muñoz. On the main Plaza and with decent rooms, Casa Muñoz serves up a hearty breakfast of potato soup and hot chocolate. It is early and the carbs manage to lift my spirits as we head out of town towards the Lagunillas valley, passing cottages and an alpine forest.

We ascend towards a hacienda, where mountain guides dressed in thick woolly ruanas greet us, having already prepared our mules for the excursion into the Cocuy. For the first hour or two, we meander with our beasts of burden along clear mountain streams.

As we rise above 4,000 meters, the tundra becomes a bog where boulders and rocks provide some protection from the strengthening winds. The paramó – a high Andean wetland – of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, begins to reveal its unique landscape. More than 700 rare and endemic plants have managed to adapt to the extreme conditions of the Cocuy.

The first hours of climbing are difficult and we make several stops to quench our thirst and rest among the frailejónes. The tall stems and thick husks of these silent sentinels rising from volcanic rock is eerie.

“This is the last frontier,” I think to myself, the plants my protectors, nature’s warriors in our midst.  Our mules scatter among the grass feeding themselves on wild berries and shrubs. For my mountain climbing companions its guava bars as a midday snack. Another hour of crossing this lunar landscape and we arrive at our camp, the Laguna Grande.

Grand and solitary, Laguna Grande is a high altitude lake and one of the main bodies of water in Cocuy. After crossing over moraine and desolate land, we perch our tents on the grey shores of the lake. With our heads pounding from the lack of air and with tired limbs, we soak in the elements. We are surrounded by sheer rock face, water and the splendid hues of the afternoon light.

Extending over 1,500 square kilometers, El Cocuy forms part of one of the most impressive mountain ranges on the continent. From its cavernous valleys to snowy peaks, the park is one of Colombia’s best-kept secrets.

Those who have climbed its summits prefer to understate its beauty, afraid that tents and tourists will invade the park. Although tourism has indeed increased over the last several years, El Cocuy is not for the faint or the foolhardy. Experienced guides are mandatory, as are strong shoes, sunscreen, mountain gear and warm clothing.

The park has several different trails, from a day’s hike to a week, depending on distances covered and one’s level of experience in mountaineering. Guides with horses can be hired at relatively reasonable rates, and in towns El Cocuy and Guican, local tour operators will tailor expeditions to suit your needs.

We settle in for the night after a meal of trout, some farmer’s cheese and rice. As the wind bears down on the mountain, the night sky opens up and Orion sparkles, as does the lake. At 4,600 meters, we are at the snow belt. A light dusting has fallen on the black granite of the El Toti glacier.  Surrounded by white, darkness sets in.

A splash of ice water and a mug of hot tinto welcome the day in the Cocuy. The mission: a three-hour hike around the lake and a walk on the El Toti glacier. The impact of climate change has eroded much of El Cocuy’s ice sheet. Only 11 square kilometers of glacier remain. From the grand lake, experienced hikers with crampons and ice axes can tackle peaks such as El Concavo (5,200 mts) and Pan de Azúcar (5,120 mts).

Our stay in El Cocuy is limited as we spend the day wandering beneath the heavens within reach of the black outcrop of granite known as the Devil’s Pulpit. The views are breathtaking, literally. By midday it was time to return to the verdant pastures of the lowlands. As a beginner to El Cocuy, the adventure left me wanting more.  Maybe it was the crispness of the air, the swirling sky and the solitude I felt in the mountain.


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