Paragliding in Roldanillo, Colombia

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Paragliding over Valle de Cauca

General Description:

Located on the west side of the Valle del Cauca at the foot of the Cordillera Occidental, the small town of Roldanillo provides easy access to some of the best XC sites in Colombia. Primarily an agricultural region (mostly sugarcane), the north-south Valle de Cauca has highways that run along the east and west sides of the valley and the central valley area is bisected north‐south by the snaking Cauca River. 

The best flying is between November to April and according to some locals, even wet season offers some lovely flyable days. But we had some unusually wet days during our visit between late January and February this year. However on some days, even if it was raining in the morning it could turn into a cracking XC day later. Conditions were still good when we left at the end of February but by then there were not as many visiting pilots.

On good days, flying conditions can start as early as 9:30 a.m. and last as late as 5:30 p.m. Al flew 5.5hrs one day! Normally good flyable conditions started between 10:30 and 12:00, 4 hrs being normal. Although if you have a slower wing like my HOOK 3 (size XS, flown at mid-weight), it could be difficult to cover distance as you often need to fly cross or into wind because you need to cross the valley and the wind can change directions.

Many visiting pilots, including us, had been given the impression from various articles we’d read that thermals in Roldanillo were big and smooth. What shocked most of us is that though there were big smooth thermals at times, on many days conditions could get very rough indeed, and not only in the mountains but also in the flats. You definitely need to be prepared for rough and complex changeable conditions when you visit! For us, we would not have flown Roldanillo as beginners or if we were not current with our active flying. We were glad that we flew some other thermic sites in Colombia and asked many locals for advice before flying in Roldanillo. The complex terrain and afternoon Pacific wind can make conditions change fast and you have to be prepared for it!

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Crossing Valle de Caucau

Main Take-offs: There are 3 locations to take-off around Roldanillo. You can find other pilots to share transport at the main town square (El Parque Principal) next to a juice bar (Jugos). Meet time varies between 7:30-10:00 a.m., depending on the day’s conditions and how many pilots there are. Just ask around when you get into town.

  • Los Tangues: Around 1 hour drive from the main town square. It is a big and grassy take-off; there is a restaurant at the bottom and donkeys/locals who can be hired with 3000 pesos to get your gear up the steep stairs. There are also toilets and water taps for filling up ballast bags. It costs 3000 pesos to access the take-off during the peak season. As this is the highest take-off of all three, when the westerly pacific wind comes in, it impacts Tangues first. During the time we were in Roldanillo, the wind can be blowing from the back as early as noon, making the take-off dangerous, but it mostly came in at about 2pm.
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Looking back at Los Tangues Take-off

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Walking up to Los Tangues Take-off

  • Pico: Around 40 mins drive from the main twon square to launch, or just below depending on the vehicle you take and the track conditions. The take-off is a lot smaller than Tangues (tiny actually – you can probably only lay out 5-6 wings at the same time) and it’s frequented by local tandem operators as access is free. There are also local buses passing by the dirt road to take-off frequently (if you take the local bus, the walk up to take-off is around 30 mins). Thanks to its easy and cheaper access, many pilots prefer this take-off and it can get very crowded during weekends in peak season when more tandems are flown. On some days, we had more than 40 pilots on the take-off, which can get very chaotic. On light wind days (which is almost always the case when we were there), thermic cycles can come through from either side – there were frustrating days whenever I picked a side, thermals decided to come through from the other! Locals say that pacific wind impact this take-off later than Tangues, which makes it a safer bet when the day starts late.
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Pico Take-off and One of the Local Bus that Goes to Both Tangues(mainly) and Pico(sometimes)

  • Aguapanela: This is a much bigger and grassier take-off just behind Pico. Some prefer it because it is not as crowded as Pico and stronger thermic cycles come straight onto take-off while in Pico, it is usually lighter and may not come up at an easy angle. However, part of the reason it is not as popular as Pico is that it is a longer glide to the reliable house thermal (which is right in front of Pico) and you have 2 sets of high tension power lines to clear. We took off from here once and both felt utterly uncomfortable when we barely cleared the power lines before we hit some usable lift.
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Getting Ready on Pico

Landings:

  • Official landings: For Los Tangues, it is a nice grassy airstrip big enough for micro-lights. For both Pico and Aguapanela, the most popular landings are a grassy field just south of the town or a soccer stadium. The latter is often used by tandem pilots, but you could be locked in if there was no tandems operating. But it is possible to climb out from the back of the stadium as Al found, and if you are taller than me (1.56 m that is)!
  • XC landings: There are plenty of options everywhere. Even in sugarcane plantations, there are usually wide dirt roads that you can land in. Watch out for black fields, which could have been just burnt and can scorch you and your wing. Some of the pasturelands have small fences running through them frequently. And of course, watch out for power lines although usually they are not too bad. Its best to always have a Plan B, for when down low, you noticed that your plan A is a death-trap! As many will tell you, be strategic about which side of river you land on. There are only 2 bridges across the river in the normal flying areas so if you picked the wrong side, the return journey can be a lot longer.
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Landing in the Stadium in Roldanillo

Notes:

  • The Pacific westerly wind can bring strong conditions all the way to the east end of the valley. Locals advised us not to attempt landing close to Roldanillo after 1:00 p.m. as you never know whether you would be landing backwards. We once landed near Obando (30 km north of Roldanillo on the east side of the valley) around 2:30 p.m. and after 30 mins, the wind was already blowing enough to make us land backwards. We did not anticipate the westerly wind could hit the east side of the valley so soon so we were both relieved that we landed early! Just keep in mind the conditions can change quickly and the westerly wind can come in unusually early! The ever-present fires in the valley can be good indicators.
  • The wind direction when landing can be unpredictable. Don’t be surprised despite all indications of a particular wind direction, that your final approach suddenly becomes downwind because a thermal is released nearby or there is wind shear. Run like the wind if this happens!

Pros:

  • Potential for big triangles and various XC routes: The wind is usually light so you can fly either north or south along the west side of the mountain range in the morning, cross the valley before the pacific wind comes in, and fly the east side in the afternoon. There are different points you can choose to cross the valley, but to avoid potential long walk out, you can play safe and follow the major roads and bridges.
  • Extremely friendly and hospitable locals: The lovely and generous Colombians really make Roldanillo a place that you’ll want to go back to again! Our landlady in Roldanillo treated us as family: offering us food when we return early, folding our laundry, giving us the best room in her house. The drivers to take-off are all very friendly and are extremely proud when they hear that you are having a good time in Roldanillo! One of the drivers invited us to his farm for dinner and treated us to juices and fruits they grow on their farm. And when he heard that we were craving spicy food, his family even drove to neighbours’ farm and got some chillies for us! You can also find locals offering you free ride after your XCs, and the list goes on! There are not many places I travelled to where people are equally genuine, friendly and generous.
  • Easy, quick and cheap retrieves: The buses are very economical, frequent and always stop anywhere for you, especially on the east side of the valley where there are dual carriage ways. Direct buses to Roldanillo on the east side are less frequent but you can also catch a bus passing Zarzal where there are very frequent buses to Roldanillo. The local bus cooperative Occidente has paragliders and handgliders printed on their buses so it is hard to miss them when you are waiting! Hitchhiking is relatively easy as well and normally free.
  • Relatively low living costs:
    • Accommodation: We rented a very comfortable room with a local family for 400 USD/month. You can also find similar priced rooms for rent for shorter period of time. Always ask if they have hot showers though if that is important to you (Locals only have cold showers, but in the early morning and at nights, this can be a bit hard to handle for those not used to it!). There are many affordable hotel options in Roldanillo as well.
    • Food: We cooked most of the time, and for two people, it only costs about 10-15 USD/day – fresh vegetables and fruits are cheap! The options for eating-out are more limited – for us picky foodies, Colombia food tastes are not that varied and can be too oily, salty and meat-centric!
  • Many other easily accessible flying sites nearby:
    • We only visited Ansenmanuevo, a town 1 hour 15 mins drive north from Roldanillo. (Unfortunately we couldn’t fly it as it was raining!) Like Roldanillo, you can find pilots to share rides up to launch at the main town square. It is a beautiful flying site also located on the west side of the valley. The launch is very spacious and grassy – big enough to top land. There is even a hotel located right next to launch which offers cheap accommodation. Although the road to launch is not as nice as in Rolda so a 4 wheel drive is normally required (though we did just get up in a battered old 2wd pickup it is normally only the Willis Jeeps that come up!).

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      Ansermanuevo Take-off

    • Piedechinche is another site on the west side of the valley close to Cali south of Roldanillo that every one raved about how great it is, but also said it isn’t as good for XCs. From what we heard, it seems easy to get to launch if you are on your own.
    • Other sites in the valley: There are many other sites you can fly on both the east and west side of the valley. Paragliding Earth provides details for many but some of those can be hard to get to if you don’t have your own transportation to launch.
    • Other sites in Colombia: You can easily travel around Colombia via buses and visit those lovely sites one by one if you have time. We flew these two:
      • San Felix (near Medellin) has lovely launches and great XC potential: you can base yourself in Medellin and get rides to launch from local tandems or by buses/taxi. Medellin is about 5.5hrs drive from Roldanillo. While we were there one pilot flew all the way from Roldanillo to Medellin!
      • Chicamocha Canyon: This is a 9 hour drive from Roldanillo, but an easy stop if you are travelling from Medellin back to Bogota for your flight out of Colombia. We flew into Bogota, visited Chicamocha canyon first, then Medellin then headed south to Roldanillo before flying out of Cali. See details for Chicamocha Canyon from our blog here.

Al also made a great video to offer some glimpses of flights around Colombia:

Relatively easy to arrange other touristy activities: Valle de Cocora is only about 3 hrs bus ride from Rodanillo (less than 2 hour drive if you have a car), where you can explore the beautiful wax palm filled valley. Or for the more adventurous, you can hike through cloud forests into the south end of the amazing PNN Los Nevados. For details, see our blog here.

  • EASY TO FLY ON YOUR OWN! All the above pros adding together means that you can easily explore the area on your own!
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The People (and their animals) who Made us Feel at Home

 Cons:

  • Sometimes very rough flying conditions: It can be strong and rough especially close to the west mountain range side where all the main take-offs are located. In a northerly wind, the house thermal off Tangues is in the lee side and it can be rotory! Based on local advice and our own observations, wind directions change quickly and often; one moment you could be flying on upwind side on a ridge, the next, you could be in the lee! The flats can be rough as well. Some days we suspect it was the mixing Pacific and meteo winds, but some days we just couldn’t explain why! Just keep on the ball with your active flying and keep your margins. I know one pilots “rough” is another’s “smooth”, so to put things another way – while we were there, many reserves were thrown and a few serious accidents happened due to the conditions and one pilot from Sun Valley equated Roldanillo’s roughness with the mountains of home. Click here for an account of a tragic accident of a great Swiss pilot happened while we were in Roldanillo.
  • Many loud nights for those who prefer early bed time: Colombians love to party and have many holidays! (They definitely get the life/work balance right :p) Loud music and dancing parties can happen on weekends and weekdays! It is great if you love parties, for those who need our beauty sleep, you would want to find a quiet street for your accommodation or bring your earplugs. Our room unfortunately faced a busy major street in town but by the end of our month stay in Roldanillo, we miraculously developed an ability to tune the noise out!
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Al Enjoying the Last Flight in Roldanillo after a Month Stay

Other things not to miss:

  • Cholado: It is a local ice-shaving desert. There are many flavours you can choose from; our favourite is lulo! A local fruit.) “Fruit salad” is laced with ice cream and mild cheese – a perfect treat after a hot walk out of the landing field if you land early in Roldanillo!
  • Juices: for around 1 USD, you can get a litre of freshly squeezed juice (with milk or without) in Jugos, the juice bar next to where you get your ride up to launch every day. Some of those are the best juices I have ever had! My favourite is again lulo juice with milk, a fruit that is exclusive to the Andean mountains of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Chapada Diamantina, Brazil (31 Mar – 5 April)

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Between the table mountains of Vale do Capao

Arriving after dark on the 7hr bus ride from Salvador, we were surprised to find Lencois, the normal gateway into the park, a very touristy but pleasant little town with many useful shops including a trekking shop where we could find a couple of topographic trail maps. The town also has some really nice, if pricy restaurants. We stayed in Casa Colonial: it is right in the town square and put on a huge breakfast including beiju – tapioca pancakes – yum!

Day 1: Lencois – Vale do Capao

We were planning a 3 day hike past the base of the famous Fumaca waterfall to Vale do Capao. Unfortunately, the local who we found to show us the start of the trail took us to the start of the northern-most trail, the “conventional” trail (as locals call it) between Lencois to Vale do Capao. We realized this fairly soon but we decided to continue on this lovely path and visit the falls later. However, this turned our planned 3 day trek into a 1 day rush because of our relaxed start! Luckily the trail is well walked, has a gradual climb at the beginning and is quite flat for the rest. Reportedly, the Fumaca trail and the Vinte e Um waterfall trails are both steeper and harder to navigate on your own – we heard it requires scrambling or possibly even rock-climbing in sections.

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Sandstone landscape

The scenery on this walk is quite unique – lots of flat sheets of sandstone, sometimes with thin soil supporting short shrubs, cacti and flowers. It’s pretty dry here at the moment, but there are still a few streams if needed to top up water supplies.

We didn’t see so much wildlife apart from the millions of lizards, a few vultures and eagles and humming birds. We were warned its snake season, but we never saw any – they must be very rare, or maybe its just another ploy to try to get us on a guided tour!

The trail goes 18k to reach the 4k dirt track that leads into Capao. We started around 10 am and just managed to finish it before sunset (but that did include a 30 minute detour when we were seduced off the path by some paths around a camping area!). We could have powered through into Capao but instead camped at a lovely spot just outside “town” near a large clear stream. Though not marked on the map, the site has good views of the surrounding rocky terrain and many have camped here before. There are also couple of campsites earlier along the trail including a lovely one near the river which looked perfect for a swim.

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River next to a camp ground

Day 2: Capao – Fumaca

It is a 4k hike from where we camped to Capao on a dirt track. There is not much scenery so we hitch hiked half of the way and then based ourselves in a lovely pousada (Cantagalo Eco Adventure) which has nice rooms, camping spots and a good kitchen. It is just 5 mins away from the trail head of Fumaca waterfall and about 20 mins walk to the main town centre.

We chose to take an easy day and hiked to the top of the Fumaca Waterfall which is the second highest in Brazil .Its a lovely and easy walk (about a 4 hour round trip) although the start looked like it may be very slippery in the wet. The waterfall is stunning, even now in the dry season there was some water going over and it is quite amazing to see how it evaporates before reaching the bottom as it falls down the sheer Cliff Drop 340m below.

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Fumaca

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Fumaca feed water

Day 3: Capao – Gerais Dos Vieira

We decided to take the west-most and highest trail into Vale do Pati. There is a 6k dirt track from Capao to the start of the trail in Bomba and walking it would not reward you with anything much except for dust from passing vehicles, so we decided to spend 15 R$ each for a motorbike taxi. It was terrifying to hare down the very bumpy track at speed with no helmet, our sweaty hands desperately trying to hold on, but the drivers were good and we both survived. XTs driver was feeling especially pleased with himself for overtaking Al’s bike towards the end!

The trail first crossed a few streams, which we imagine might require a paddle in the wet season, then climbed up through forest and eventually opened up into sweeping grassland (actually mostly mini bamboos) dotted with wild flowers and framed by hills. In places you could get a true 360 view of this vast landscape – truly spectacular. We were hoping to swim in a pool near a waterfall, named Purificacao, but either the path to it is very unused, or the map is wrong (not the first time) so we could only admire it from above.

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Big spaces!

It was only about 9 k to the campground (marked on map and easy to find for a change) which we reached in 3 relaxed hours. The campground was great: there was a small waterfall going into a large pool complete with little fish, a couple of lime trees, and a wattle & daub hut complete with a fireplace. The pool water however was dark dark red like most of the pools in the park we saw. It gave Al the creeps but we both swam and it was nice to swim under the waterfall for a much needed shower! We were visited by a group of very colourful blue/green birds, some tiny marmoset monkeys, a big bat and a tiny blue humming bird which was very sociable and hovered in front of us for a while when we were cooking. And as sun set we were treated to a show by hundreds of glow-worms.

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Playing with fire

Day 4: View of Vale do Pati – Toca do Gaviao

We continued on the west-most trail, which first climbed the west slope of the valley and then stayed on top of a ridge nearly all the way. The trail starts by the stream that is crossed to get to yesterdays campsite and is a bit of a chaos of eroded paths crossing several wet bits – search around the west side of the stream crossings for the path! We had grassy hills on our right and stunning views of the valley’s table mountains on our left as we travelled south to Vale do Pati. The vegetation and the views constantly changed with wild flowers dotted in the grassland and glorious purple and yellow flowers lighting up the lush green valley. We saw some truly weird plants too – seems it can be both boggy and extremely dry here with extremes from mosses to cacti!

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Vale do Capao

We hiked about 14k and got to our campsite around mid afternoon. Our campsite was a cave where we’ve pitched our tent (again marked on the map and fairly easy to find). It was not as spacious as the night before but offers a view of a range of rocky hills between the vegetation and the company of some cheeky over fed little birds looking for crumbs. We climbed the rocks above the cave, dodging cactus and observing some of the alien plants up close. As the sun set and we watched our view turn red, we used the nice fireplace to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Later, the bright almost-full moon lit up the valley and we joked it was light enough to walk by (and certainly it would have given us a better view than the next day!). It was very peaceful with just a few bird, frog and monkey calls lulling us to sleep.

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Camping caveman style!

Day 5: Toca Gaviao – Cachoeirao – Vale do Pati (Ponte)

We woke up around 5:30 a.m. to a mist that concealed the chirping birds 5 meters away. This persisted as we set off to the waterfall marked on the map as “Cachoeirao”. The layered sandstone terrain and the strange vegetation surrounded by the fog made it seem very alien! Luckily there were some chalk arrows on the rocks to follow as there were no landmarks. In some places the arrows were pointing in multiple directions but we followed the thickest, clearest arrow, which consistently gave the right direction.

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Alien landscape

As there was not much information we could find about the park except about the Fumaca waterfall, we had no expectations about Cachoeirao and even thought it could be a small dried up waterfall we walked past as we headed on to find the trail that should lead us back into the valley according to the map. So we were stunned when our path abruptly dropped vertically away more than 100m beneath us! When we arrived the mist filled the valley so we were happy just admiring the four waterfalls dotted around the high cliffs dropping down into the valley. Then slowly, the valley opened up in front of our eyes as the sunrays hit it through the thinning mist and we could see more of the high cliff faces in the distance and the awe-inspiring narrow gorge around us – it was purely magical!

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Cachoeirao waterfall valley

We were still high on this serendipitous dose of the wonder of nature when we set off to find our way down into the valley (marked as trail No. 15 on the map). But after an hour going to and fro following various conflicting and increasingly indistinct arrows in this landscape of countless natural paths of bare rock interspersed with shrubby vegetation, we could not find the trail. So, before we got lost completely, we were forced to retrace our steps about 4k and then get down to the valley from the west end of the park. Though long, this was a beautiful hike and led us onto some trails that offered views of both the west and east end of the valley and the table mountains. The vegetation in the valley is more lush and we saw a variety of vegetation distinctly different from in the high ground. There were also more exotic birds and butterflies including many groups of beautiful green parrots that fled in mass making very loud noises when they detected us getting close. Here there are a few local homes that take in tourists, but they all seemed very packed so we powered through to the north-end of the valley all the way to a bridge (ponte) that marked the start of the trail that exits the valley to Andarai.

We had walked 8 hours in total (including the hour trying to find the elusive no. 15 trail) and about 25 km. But our very tiring but scenery-charged day ended well when we found a nice camp spot just past the bridge (marked on the wrong side of the river on the map but easy to spot as you trek past the bridge towards the southeast). We went for a sunset swim in the cooling water of Rio Paty with the beautiful cliffs either side of the valley as our backdrop. No one was travelling past, so we cooked and ate our dinner on the bridge as we dangled our feet over the large river rushing past. We then laid on the sunray soaked surface of the bridge as the full moon rose up to light up the whole valley and dim the stars.

Day 6: Vale do Pati – Andarai – Lencois

This was a 14k hike with the first 4k climbing gradually 400 m to a pass. It was a great way to appreciate the changing vegetation between the valley and the hills: Lush tropical forest gradually becomes shorter and drier and it gets easier to get the last glimpses of the beautiful valley from different angles. Beyond the pass exiting the valley towards Andarai, the landscape gently drops away to the flatlands in the distance and we could see patches of wetlands between Andarai and Lencois. It almost seemed surreal that those deep gorges, high cliffs and lush valleys existed just few km west of here! The terrain became increasingly dry with lizards whooshing around cactus and bromeliads covered rocks. And close to Andarai, we entered a landscape of gigantic conglomerate rock formations, made up from naturally cemented pebbles and where the diamonds of the park’s name had been found, making us feel we were walking on a different planet!

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Looking back at Vale do Capao for the last time

According to locals in Andarai (an interesting former diamond mining town), there is one daily bus departing from Andarai to Lencois and the departure time varies between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm. We missed it of course but luckily met another 2 travellers and shared a taxi back to Lencois, which cost 160 R in total. Though it is possible to hike along a dirt track (about 25k) back to Lencois it did not sound worth it based on information in Lonely Planet.

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Bromeliad and cactus invasion

Notes for trekkers

Multiple day hikes in the park are completely possible without a guide. Lonely Planet gives very limited and out-dated information in this regard. However, local guide agencies in Lencois are hostile towards independent hikers and wouldn’t give us any information. With the trail maps we purchased in Lencois (“Trilhas e Caminhos” and “Trilhacerta”) and a compass, we enjoyed a six day trek around the more easily accessible North end of the park starting in Lencois and ending in Andarai. The scenery was amazing on all the trails and full of contrasts: from rolling grasslands to tropical jungle, high cliffs and alien looking cactus covered rocks. We hardly met anyone on the trails and always had the beautiful camping spots to ourselves.

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Tourist map of the park

The Trilhas e Caminhos map is probably the best you can find and gives the basic information you need to navigate but it isn’t very accurate or detailed and does not mark all the points of interest or camping spots in the park. Some of the campsites are marked in the wrong places and some of the trails marked can be very hard to find on your own (if they even exist any more!?). Also, beware that the map isn’t quite aligned North up! Compared to the other one, the Trilhacerta map has more detailed contour lines, marked couple of trails more accurately. However, it has very little other information and is missing many of the trails marked on the other map. The trails though mostly well walked, are generally not well-marked and it’s easy to miss junctions if you’re not looking out for them. A few more difficult parts of some trails are marked with chalk arrows on the rock and the occasional cairn. These are mostly helpful, but sometimes confusing so beware – at one point we encountered arrows of various styles pointing north, south and west!

We trekked in the park from March 30th to April 5th and there were still loads of other trails, waterfalls, wetlands and caves we didn’t have time to explore. It was very very hot and mostly dry, but it did rain heavily in the night a couple of times and we were lucky to avoid the thunderstorms in the valley on the afternoon of our last day.

In addition to your usual trekking gear – don’t forget to take; trail map & compass, water purification, waterproofs and mosquito spray!

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Kitchen/dining room Day 6

We had a really fantastic time in this amazing and unique park and highly recommend it to anyone who likes hiking. Also, do go without a guide if you prefer, but be prepared to use your navigation skills and keep your plans flexible!

For a brief intro to the park click here.