El Cocuy, Colombia (20-25 December)

We’ve just returned to the nice little white and green painted town of El Cocuy from the mountains. El Cocuy National Park is a fantastic wilderness and its actually a bit of a shock to the system being back in this quiet little touristy town and planning the next part of our trip!

From the very first day going up, we were in paramo, which is a quite other worldly seeming high altitude tropical ecosystem. There are generally fewer flowers and its been generally dryer than the paramo we’ve been to in Parque Natural Iguaque or Finca San Pedro near Sogamoso, but it is more stunning because of the scale and remoteness.

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Paramo

Its worth noting that this is the dry season, which generally means dry and windy with hot days and cold nights. The park would be quite different in other times of year – which from accounts means wet and cloudy with less temperature variation.

On the first day we set up camp by the Pintada Cabana and walked though patches of frailejónes [fry-le-hones] (which are the weird and wonderful plants related to sunflowers that are common in this environment), passed several lakes to a mountain pass at the southern extent of the park as a relatively low altitude ease in. It was really great to be walking in such an environment but we were just a little too late to see any views of the other side as cloud had descended over us. There we met a nice French chap (sorry Ive forgotten your name!) who we would bump into a lot until we left the park.

This didn’t used to be the southernmost extent of the park but in the last year most of the paths on the western side of the main mountain range that forms the park are off-limits. The official story is that the indigenous people living there near the Venezuela border don’t want tourists walking there (or perhaps more likely that they want a just share of the tourism profits – my speculation!). But it seems that this is only part of the story and the other reason is that the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) – a communist organisation that opposes Colombian governance, are known to be present in this area and are believed to be a risk to tourists. The FARC do have a history of kidnapping for extortion though it seems that lately the risk is much lower than it used to be. This is all a great shame as there is a classic 7 day trek around the Cocuy range which is mostly on that side, which is where the most spectacular scenery is supposed to be. However aside from upsetting the locals and the potential terrorist threat, this walk appears quite technical in places and since it is officially closed, guides cannot be found. Therefore the east side would have to do for us, and we assure anyone who was put off by the restrictions that is is most definitely still worth it!

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Frailejones (they grow between 1-4cm per year)

The next day we walked up to the snow line below the Pulpito del Diablo at around 5000m – the last bit consisting of an easy walk up flat glacial rock sheets. We set off early (first brushing the ice off the tent!) to avoid the potential afternoon cloud but the air stayed crystal clear providing us we stunning views of this incredible glacial formed landscape all day. We were both feeling OK with the altitude – walking slowly and drinking lots of water seems to keep the symptoms to a light headache. Apart from some lizards and distant vultures, the only other evidence of life were lots of little round droppings at high altitude – perhaps from the furry rabbits, or marmots that are supposed to live here.

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Pass beneath Pulpito del Diablo

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Pan del Azucar

We then attempted to walk around from the pass that is below Diablo to Laguna Grande de la Sierra which lies at 4500m, just below 6 of the high Cocuy peaks. However, bad just doesn’t describe the official map that is provided and the path was not clear – there being multiple cairns (clearly built by other lost hikers) that would lead us in circles if followed! We ended up taking a very tortuous route over countless ridges in a large boulder field with the occasionally frailejón bog until we eventually reached a nice looking lake that people had obviously camped at before so very tired by now, we decided to stay there. We knew we must be close to Laguna Grande, but many more ridges of boulders and lots of streams dissuaded us from trying. Just as we had finished dinner we spotted the French guy. He’d managed to get nearly to the top of Pan del Azucar (the peak next to the Pulpito del Diablo) without any crampons or ice axe and then also had a very tricky time tying to find the Laguna Grande. He decided to camp near us as it was a stunning location – lakes glaciers and boulders all around – it felt like another planet.

The old official map which has the 7-day trek on it is much much better than the new one and it looks like it would enable safe navigation around the park. However, since the trek was off-limits the map is no longer readily available. The only place we know where this can be found is Esperanza Cabana as a copy was given to our French friend.

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Laguna Grande de la Sierra

It had been pretty cold camping at Pintada Cabana the night before, but this must have been at least -10 degrees. We awoke to strengthening winds (and our French friends tent was rather flatterned). Fortunately the wind seemed to keep the ice from forming on our tent, but as soon as we were out we were wearing everything we had to stay warm! Because of the wind we chose to pack up and walk down to Esperanza Cabana (towards the middle of the park) rather than to explore the glaciers around the lake more as wed planned. We had a nice walk down, but only once we’d finally found the path so it was another long day! XT was rewarded by an unexpected hot shower in the Cabana but sadly the power failed by the time I went in – they kindly heated up a bowl of water for me but it was not nice in an unheated room! A new experience to my pampered western upbringing but not new to XT! So although cold, at least I was clean.

We decided to have a “rest day” the next day – catching the milk truck “el lechero” to the Ritacuba stop and walking to Cabana Kanwara in the north of the park. The milk truck was late (as expected – it is Colombia after all) but great fun; the passengers basically stand or prop-themselves or sit on a milk tub in the back of a medium size open-slatted truck surrounded by tubs of milk and some other produce like potatoes and cheese. We bounced around for over 1.5 hrs thought lovely alpine countryside to the junction, collecting well over 1000ltrs of milk at very frequent stops and distributing a lot of beer for Christmas! We bought one of their cheeses at a great price as a treat before setting off up hill to Cabana Kanwara. This cabana is very luxurious and situated below some impressive glaciers of the northern mountains. Though a rest day, after setting up camp we walked up the road above and discovered the most impressive panorama of the park we had seen – we could see most of the mountains in the park. On our way down we saw the French chap walking up to the road! He had climbed over the pass from the Laguna and down to Laguna de la Plaza, which is supposed to be the most beautiful laguna in the park, and then down most of the way, but too tired to reach the cabana, camped.

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Path above Cabana Kanwara

The winds had been consistently strong from when we left Laguna Grande but the next morning we were encouraged by a very light breeze to try to camp beneath Ritacuba Blanco and Negro at about 4600m for a special Xmas eve. However, as we got part of the way up the wind started blowing pretty strongly, and by the time we got to the exposed and not very inviting camp site on rocky ground it was gale force! We decided instead to dump our camping gear and walk up further to get to a view point as we had done for Pulpito del Diablo. It was the highest we’d been and very hard work walking, but we were rewarded near the snow line of amazing views of the glaciers and some amazingly folded rocks to the north.

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Ritacuba del Negro glacier

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Folded rocks in the north of the park

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Cushion plants

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Glacial terrain

After a long walk down and in lieu of camping high, we decided to treat ourselves to a room in Cabana Kanwara. We wanted to see the sunset from the viewpoint we went to the day before, but when we got up there the cloud was descending rapidly so we thought we’d be disappointed when XT spotted a bird flying towards us, it was a condor! It flew so close to us, about 10 meters I think, and then circled up on a thermal triggered by the hill we were sitting on. It was number 85 from its tag – they are reintroducing them to the area but there are very few around. Seeing this made up for the lack of a sunset by a long way! Not a bad end to Xmas eve and the Cabana which was more like a suite as we had a small building to ourselves and even got a wood fire going! We were still cooking our trekking rice and peas though as the cabana meal didn’t sound great, but two whole bars of chocolate were a nice treat!

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Condor

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The Cocuy range from above Cabana Kanwara

We’d done all the day hikes we realistically could, and were not so keen to hire equipment and a guide to climb to some of the tops or walk some of the illegal paths so it was sadly time to leave the park the following day. We caught the milk truck again and bounced down to the town of Guican only to find that everyone said that there were no busses or taxis to El Cocuy where our luggage was being held – everyone was hungover or still drunk from the Xmas celebrations! Eventually we found a random street where other people wanting to get to El Cocuy were waiting and trying to flag down cars and after a while a bus that wasn’t supposed to exist turned up – phew!

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Guican Xmas day

Next stop is San Gil to hopefully fly or perhaps just look at Chincamocha canyon. The downside is that from El Cocuy its a one stop (first going in the wrong direction to Tunja!) 14 plus hr night buses. Our bus leaves at 8 pm and this I am not looking forward to after the last, but its the least worst option!