The Colombian Andes in all their splendor at El Cocuy National Park! Glaciers, paramo, scenic trails, and camping at over 4,000 meters in this vast natural park located in the northeast of Colombia, near the border with Venezuela. Join us!
Friday, September 22nd, 2023
After the hike in the Paramo de Oceta, we drive for 3 hours on an extremely dusty track. By evening, when we settle in a field for the night, the interior of the Jeep is covered with a fine white layer. Quite a horror! It's already dark, but we manage to find a microfiber cloth from the depths of the Jeep to remove most of the dust. We have a pasta dinner and then head to sleep in the Jeep since we aren't entirely sure of our location.
In the early morning, a surprise awaits us: we discover that we're set up with a stunning view in front of us! Oh, the beauty of travel, waking up to such a sight. Moreover, it's sunny and warm, so we sit in the sun for breakfast. It's not always easy to live outdoors all the time, but sunny mornings are among the sweetest moments of this road trip through the Americas 😊.
A yogurt, a pitaya, tea, coffee, and a little workout to stay in shape, then it's time to hit the road. No tent to pack up, so we can leave quickly after doing the dishes. We're headed to El Cocuy National Park. The problem? We are far, very far from the main road that winds its way much lower and further west in the valley. From Mongui, we've followed a trail that took us into the heart of the Colombian Eastern Andes. From here, to reach the small village of El Cocuy, we must cross the mountains. And when it comes to mountains, it means winding and dizzying tracks!
In the village, we leave the main trail, and it's a good thing! The region is filled with coal mines. Many trucks are speeding by, showering us with dust. A new trail takes us along the mountainside, through a dizzying landscape. Here, we no longer encounter anyone! As the kilometers slowly pass by, we feel increasingly isolated.
And it's going up! The kilometers keep adding up as we gain altitude. We get so far away from everything that for the first time in Colombia, we come across a few deer, unbothered by our presence. Now, there are no more houses, farms, or even a single scooter. A rare sight in Colombia! 😅
Soon, we reach the paramo, this rare biotope of the Andes that is found between 3,000 and 4,000 meters above sea level. The first frailejones appear. At first, just a few, but as we climb higher, they stretch out before us, hundreds of them as far as the eye can see! Between the Paramo de Oceta where we were yesterday and the Paramo of Nevado del Ruiz two weeks ago, we're getting to know these iconic paramo shrubs well. At 4,100 meters above sea level, the fuel gauge is at its lowest, and Jeepy is showing signs of weakness. So, we stop to add a fuel can.
Then, we're off again! We pass a mountain pass at 4,200 meters, which takes us into a different valley.
Next, we begin the descent to the village of El Cocuy, located at 3,600 meters. We expected a small touristy village, but not at all! The place is very quiet, almost deserted. All the houses display the same green and white colors: green representing hope and white representing peace. We stop to eat at a small family restaurant, but our main purpose is to visit the El Cocuy National Park visitor center. We'd like to explore the national park, but it seems that it's not a straightforward matter...
The El Cocuy National Park has been closed to tourism for a long time to protect the ecosystems and the sacred lands of the U'wa indigenous community. After several openings and closures, the park was opened in 2017 for a trial period of 6 months to assess the impact of tourism on the ecosystems. Today, the U'wa community is demanding the complete closure of the park to tourists because they believe that tourism is degrading their land and the environmental balance. Discussions are ongoing, and it's not impossible that one day access to El Cocuy National Park may be completely banned for tourists. In the meantime, access is highly regulated.
Since 2018, only a very small part of the park and three hikes are accessible to tourists. A local guide is mandatory, and the fees are not cheap. For foreign tourists, the park entrance fee is 85,000 COP per person, 9,000 COP per person for insurance, and 200,000 COP for a guide. In summary, to hike in El Cocuy Park, you would need to budget nearly 90 euros or... 125 CAD! It's a significant expense. However, we learn at the visitor center that while access to hike is paid, you can still visit the park with your own car without spending a single cent! And that's interesting 😁.
It's in the rain that we make our way to the park. The clouds are low, and it's hard to distinguish the snow-capped peaks and glaciers. El Cocuy National Park is one of the most beautiful natural parks in Colombia! It's a high-altitude park with nearly 150 high-altitude lakes and more than 25 peaks covered in eternal snow and glaciers, reaching elevations between 4,800 and 5,530 meters! Thus, the park represents the largest glacial mass in the country. Up there, the mountains, barely visible behind the clouds, are massive. Wow!
We explore the trails to the north of the park, in search of a place to spend the night. The park boundaries are somewhat vague, and we're not quite sure where we are allowed to camp and where we're not! Technically, camping is not allowed in the park. But... where does the park officially begin? 🤔 There's no one around, so we decide to set up for the night alongside a scenic trail. We're at 4,100 meters above sea level, and no one should come to disturb us here, especially since the trail ends in a dead end a few kilometers ahead.
In front of us, the snow-capped peaks occasionally appear between the clouds. The evening is cool, very cool. For the first time since the United States, we quickly cook at the back of the Jeep and eat inside. As night falls, lightning tears through the sky below us, but we are high, very high above the storm. We snuggle into our sleeping bags, hoping very strongly that the view will be clear tomorrow morning! 🤞
Saturday, September 23rd
It's 5:30 a.m. when the sun's rays pierce through the Jeep's windshield. We are so blinded that we have to wait several minutes before we can step out and admire the view. And what a view! Not a single cloud obstructs the horizon, and we can finally admire the park's towering peaks and glaciers. It's so beautiful! For long, timeless minutes, we watch the sun rise in the sky, illuminating a magnificent landscape with its rays. The mountains are beautiful and formidable in El Cocuy National Park!
At such an altitude, good weather doesn't last. So, we immediately set out to explore one of the park's scenic trails. The views are breathtaking. The highest peak in the park, Mount Ritacuba, reaches an altitude of 5,330 meters. In total, the park boasts 13 peaks towering above the 5,000-meter mark.
On one side, the snow-capped peaks and glaciers; on the other, the lush valley and its glacial rivers!
Unable to go hiking, we spend the morning exploring the incredible scenic routes of the park. The good weather persists, allowing us to admire the mountain peaks and glaciers from every angle. Once again, it's incredibly beautiful!
"Slowly but surely, the clouds gain ground and hide the glaciers. Soon, we can no longer distinguish the white of the glaciers from the white of the clouds. We descend slowly but surely into the valley, all the way to the village of El Cocuy. The road - or rather, the trail - is still long, very long, to reach Barichara, our next Colombian destination. How long? We don't know yet! We leave the mountains of El Cocuy National Park, marveling at so much beauty and grace. One thing is for sure, we're already in love with the Andes Mountains! And yet, it's only the beginning.