”Where are you coming from?” asks the farmer. “Bojacá,” I reply, referring to my destination. “That’s a real tough ascent.”
Escaping from Bogotá for a day’s hike means rising before the sun. The surprising thing is how many others do the same. At the corner of Avenida Boyacá and Calle 13, buses fill up with passengers leaving a grey city towards our destination: Tena.
Most travelers on these buses are visiting friends and family across Cundinamarca, the highland farm belt that rings Bogotá. We are on a slightly different mission: to hike back up towards the city, taking in a few waterfalls along the way.
Although Colombians enjoy exercise, hiking remains a specialized pastime. But those who do it, do it to the max. This includes my good friends Juan and Rosa, who for decades have spent their free time walking through the wilderness at a ferocious pace. Uphill, down dale, over páramo and through jungle, hacking at vegetation overgrowing old Spanish caminos herraduras, the stone horseshoe trails that linked the colony and ancient indigenous routes.
They share their passion with a group of hard-core hikers who loosely plan and meet up at the chilly bus stop.
Today our group heading to Tena is small, just four of us, and I am worried about being left behind. It has been over 20 years since I went hillwalking, and Juan and Rosa are fit as whippets. “Today we take it easy, just four hours walking,” says Juan. I wonder if the local trait of understating driving times also applies to hiking.
Breakfast in Tena is cornmeal arepas with cheese, a bowl of beef-rib broth and a mug of tinto, black coffee. It’s the kind of breakfast that might make you crawl back into bed, but not today.
We are soon heading up a steep hill towards the cliff-face, Cuchillo El Tambo, which broods over green wooded fields. It seems to be farmland — cows are grazing — but the track is a public right of way, even if it is not signposted in any way.
You can find routes marked on maps by the Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi, the national geographic service, but on the ground it is sometimes a case of bushwhacking between points and traversing fields to pick up the trail. In places, farmers have run fences along the trails, which helps identify them, and in others, mule trails are well-paved in stone, as they have been for hundreds of years.
At our first stop, a waterfall tumbles from the El Tambo cliff into a small ravine where you can swim in the clear cold pools. After a dip we pick our way up the hill and follow mule track through woods, emerging at some fields filled with the fragrance of herbs.
It is in fact a herb farm. Three farmers are braced against the steep slope sowing mint and marjoram.
Our plan is to cover 12 kms from Tena, at 1,384 meters above sea level, ascending to around 2,800 meters to cross the steep hills that ring the south of Bogotá, then dropping off to 2,600 meters and the town of Bojacá, which lies on the plateau just southwest of the city.
This route is most easily walked by my companions, but according to my calculations it’s a 4,800-foot climb — higher than any mountain in the British Isles. Ben Nevis in Scotland is only 4,409 feet.
The problem is, it doesn’t look like it.
The amazing thing about Colombia’s tropical mountains is you can walk for miles up them and still feel like you’re in someone’s slightly lush and overgrown backyard. Still, I think, I can easily forgo brooding Scottish highlands for Colombia’s garden of Eden.
Nature here is rampant. I count at least 10 varieties of butterflies flitting through the dappled sunlight in the gulley we are now climbing. The sun is hot so we are glad for the forest’s shade as we head into a large wooded bowl in the mountains. The path zigzags relentlessly up, and many times my walking companions are far ahead as I stop to take a breather and revel in the long-forgotten feeling of being alone in nature.
We rejoin as the valley closes in to form craggy cliffs above us, and another waterfall, El Velo (the Veil), formed by a thin sheen of water falling from 30 meters overhead. The liquid curtain twists and sparkles in the breeze, watering a vertical row of bromeliads that cling to the cliff behind.
The solitude of this beautiful place is remarkable considering we are only 40 kilometers from the crowded megacity of 8 million souls. I am surprised so few others are out hiking, though far below I can see a distant stream of cars as people head for a weekend break in Anapoima and La Mesa.
Up here, with birds and butterflies, the whole mountain seems ours.
Most walks are day trips, but the fitter hikers take on much longer treks for many days across the ranges, sometimes following historic trails such as the Ruta Libertadora (Independence Route), which follows the trail of Bolívar’s liberation army from the foothills of the eastern Los Llanos plains across the Boyacá and Cundinamarca highlands.
If interested in the Tena–Bojacá walk you can either get the direct bus to Tena or get off on the Bogotá–La Mesa bus at a point on the main road called Los Alpes. From here, it’s a short 20-minute walk downhill to Tena. The bus ride back from Bojacá to the main terminal in Bogotá is short and leaves from near the main plaza.
If you want to join an organized trek, these entities offer regular excursions to the countryside. Most universities also have hiking groups.