Cocuy Circuit | Colombia, 2015

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Laguna de la Plaza

The Colombian Andes.

The most northern part of the world’s longest mountain range.

The hiking highlight of this month’s trip to the region was a circuit of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, a sub-range of the Andes situated approximately 300 km (186 miles) NE of Bogota.

A spectacular area, it contains the second largest concentration of glaciers in Colombia and a collection of towering peaks rising up to 5,330 metres (17,487 ft) above sea level.

Trip Summary

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Sierra Nevada del Cocuy | Situated a few hundred Km NE of Bogota close to the border with Venezuela.

Distance  59 miles (95 km approx.)

Time:  5 Days

Start:  El Cocuy (town)

Finish:  Cabanas Kanwara / Guican (town)

Season:

  • July & August (the season in which I did this hike) is a meteorological crapshoot in the Colombian Andes. Windows of clear conditions, mixed with rain, snow and high winds.
  • December to March is your best chance of fine and dry conditions.

Maps / Info

  • IGM 1:100,000 El Cocuy #137 and Chita #153 cover the whole trek. I was unable to locate these sheets before starting my hike and as a result had to make-do with the maps available on the website mentioned below.
  • By far the best online source for the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy is Pnn El cocuy. Trekking maps, logistics and FAQ’s. Excellent all-around source of information.
  • The majority of hikers that do this circuit take a guide. However, if your navigation skills are good and you have the necessary equipment for high altitude conditions, you should be fine to go independently.
  • Resupply: Provisions are available in the towns of Cocuy and Guican, but pickings are relatively slim. You are better off buying what you need in Bogota. Note that it is possible to arrange meals at both Hacienda La Esperanza and also Cabanas Sisuma (Laguna Pintatda).
  • Water: Ample. I never carried more than one litre. Once I had left Hacienda La Esperanza, the only time I purified my water was on the final day close to Laguna Grande de los Verdes (i.e. livestock in the vicinity).
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Overview map of trekking options in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy Range (from Pnncocuy.com)

Prohibited Area

  • Since September, 2013, the eastern part of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy has been officially off limits to trekkers. According to the Colombian National Parks Service, this is because of the wishes of the local indigenous people (the U’was).
  • Before heading to the region, I had done quite a lot of online research and was prepared to limit my hiking to the western parts of the range. However, after arriving in Cocuy I had the opportunity to chat with various local people, including an ex-pat who had resided in the region for some 4 years. It soon became apparent that the official reasons for the closure, were quite different to the word on the street. As a result, I made the decision to go ahead and do a circumnavigation of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy.
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Laguna Panuelo

  • My doubts regarding the accuracy of the official line from Colombian National Parks, were later compounded when I encountered a number of U’wa people in the vicinity of Laguna Grande de los Verdes. None of them seemed interested in what I was doing in the “prohibited” area. Indeed, one U’wa gentleman actually went out of his way to show me the best line to take up to the final pass (i.e. I was hiking in heavy fog at the time).
  • All that being said, I am not recommending that others follow my lead and venture into the eastern side of the park.
  • I suggest making your own inquiries when you arrive in the area. Ask around and decide for yourself. To reiterate, if you do end up hiking in the aforementioned prohibited area, you will be doing so in violation of current Colombian National Park regulations.
  • Ok………..with that out of the way…………
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Laguna Grande de los Verdes

Route / Trip Notes

My circuit of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy was hiked in a counter-clockwise direction.

The route I took deviated from the classic “six day circuit” (as it was hiked pre-September, 2013) by ascending into the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy via the Valle de Frailejones.

The standard route follows the Rio Lagunillas up to the Laguna Pintada and the Cabanas Sisuma.

The two routes link together at the Laguna Pintada.

Day I –   El Cocuy to Hacienda La Esperanza

  • For acclimatization purposes (I had arrived in Colombia only two days previous), I decided to begin my hike in the town of El Cocuy (altitude 2,750 metres). From there I hiked about 6 hours to the Hacienda La Esperanza (3,500 metres). The route was mainly on dirt roads, with the occasional short cut along obvious pathways.
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El Cocuy plaza – Starting point of the trek.

  • For those that are already acclimatized upon arrival in the region, it is possible to get public transport to Hacienda La Esperanza via “El Lechero” (the milk truck). A cool and quirky way to begin your trip!
  • Hacienda La Esperanza is a great place to stay. The old homestead has been in the family of it’s owner and host, Marco, for some four generations. Meals and hot water available.

Day 2 –  Hacienda La Esperanza to Laguna Pintada

  • The route ascended the Valle de Frailejones to Laguna Grande de la Sierra. From there I headed SSW to the Alto de Conejo, before dropping down to the Laguna Pintada. There was some cross country hiking involved, however, navigation was relatively simple.
  • Highlights included thousands of frailejones, the Laguna Grande de la Sierra and the Devil’s Pulpit.
  • The weather was a mixed bag. Sunny windows mixed with driving wind and rain, thick fog and some late afternoon snow. I spent close to two hours before midday riding out the worst of the inclement conditions in a handily situated cave known as “la cueva del hombre” (translation: “man cave”).
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Valle de los Frailejones

Cave Colombia

Riding out a storm in “la cueva del hombre.”

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Laguna Grande de la Sierra

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Devil’s Pulpit

Day 3 – Laguna Pintada to a small tarn a few miles south of Laguna Panuelo.

Another beautiful day on the scenery front. The highlight being Laguna de la Plaza and the snow capped peaks which surround it’s frigid waters.

My meteorological karma seemed to be working well; whenever a particularly scenic spot was coming up, Mother Nature invariably afforded me a window of clear weather. Once she felt I had seen enough, the fog rolled back in and it began to rain again.

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Small lake SE of Laguna Pintada

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Laguna de la Plaza

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Laguna de la Plaza

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Hiking near the Laguna Hoja Larga.

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Tarptent ProTrail | Day 3 Campsite.

Day 4 – Two miles south of Laguna Panuelo to Laguna El Avellanal

  • The climb up from Laguna Panuelo to El Castillo pass was done in heavy fog and steady rain/snow. Visibility was usually no more than 70/80 yards. The route is periodically cairned. The snow cover on this stretch was somewhat sketchy. Deep in parts, thin in others and lots of largish rocks. Very slow going.
  • Upon descending the pass, conditions cleared and I was afforded incredible views for the rest of the day over Laguna El Rincon and the Valle de los Cojines.
  • In regards to the latter, the valley floor is for the most part trailless and extremely boggy. Initially I skirted the western side of the valley, however, it wasn’t long before I made my way to the shores of the riverbed itself, which provided much easier hiking.
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Laguna Panuelo

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Ascending El Castillo pass.

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Laguna El Rincon

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Valle de los Cojines

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Valle de los Cojines

Day 5 – Laguna Avellanal to Cabanas Kanawara

  • After yesterday’s sunny afternoon, the precipitation gods returned with a vengeance. Hard rain, temps just above freezing and 85% of the time walking in heavy fog.
  • Highlight of the day was the Laguna la Isla. I didn’t see too much of the reportedly spectacular Laguna Grande de los Verdes.
  • I reached the Cabanas Kanawara just before dark, and was very lucky to score a ride all the way back to the town of Cocuy (where I had my extra stuff stored).
  • Upon arrival in Cocuy, a great trek was celebrated with a huge meal and a couple of very ordinary Club Colombia beers. There is a good reason why Colombia is famous for its coffee, rather than its beer.  😉
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Laguna de la Isla

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Laguna Grande de los Verdes

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Club Colombia | There is a good reason why Colombia is known for its coffee rather than its beer.

 


Comments

Cocuy Circuit | Colombia, 2015 — 20 Comments

  1. Cam. Really enjoy your adventures and cant wait each time for the next instalment. look forward to seeing you if possible next time you are back,
    safe travels.Many thanks Peter

  2. did you actually trek by yourself?
    i would like to make the 6 or 7 days in about 2 weeks from now… so far on my own, by understanding the park is closed, still closed?
    Erica

    • Hey Erika, I´m thinking as well about making the hike as well from the 23rd upto the 28th. Maybe we can go (parts) together? I´m a Dutch girl travelling around South America, going home the 30th of November so this will be the cherry on my travel pie.
      Cam, thanks for your post!
      Lena

  3. I also want to go there, probably in next couple days. I just wonder if it’s possible to rent some equipment over there, because currently I’m traveling “light”

    • anyone going trekking soon” either this month or december, contact me by email 67rica@gmail.com , i’ will be in Bogota this saturday, really wondering about the trek, weather(rain, snow) ???, needs, can you sleep each night in a cabin, food??? saves me from carrying a tent,and food
      i will be in El Cocuy, around 24th 25th nov’
      or at the end of my trip around 16th december, around 🙂
      looking for people to share the trek, and a meeting place in El Cocuy’ Erica

  4. helloo” i will be in El Cocuy around 15the dec, looking 4 people to share the full circuit, 6 or 7days hiking , i do not carry a tent, any information is most welcome, weather, food, sleeping , and the price thanks Erica

  5. Hi,

    Will be there from 2nd to 6th of Jan. I will be on my own and plan to do the 5/6 days trek. Looking for people to share the circuit (full or part). I am a french guy in Colombia for 3 weeks. Jc

  6. Thanks for the great info! If anyone is planning on being there around March 23rd to April 10th or so and wants to join me on the hike please email me at aguerra(dot)1993(at)gmail(dot)com. I am trekking in Los Nevados National Park and in El Cocuy but I am unsure which I will do first.

  7. I will be coming to Colombia on February 24 and staying until March 15th. I am interested in the 6 day trek if anyone would like to link up about doing it together it. Otherwise I may resign myself to a couple of day hikes. I also plan to do some hiking in Chingaza National Park, volunteer at a farm outside of Bogota and attend the Estereo Picnic festival March 10-12, I hope you all are doing well and to hear from you soon.
    Patrick

    • Hey Patrick,

      When do you plan to hike? PM me, dean_cunanan(at)yahoo(dot)com. WE may have a chance to hike together if you plan on starting around the end of Feb. We’ll be happy to hike with company.

      Dean

  8. HI,
    We are thinking about this trek in November this year. Did anything change regarding the possibility of tent/sleeping bag rental? Or do we need to bring all this stuff with us?
    Does any of you did this trek in November? I only saw that the best season is between December and February, is November yet ok?
    Is it a good choice for people with limited trekking experience?
    Thanks,
    Kris

    • I don’t know for sure but I am writing this just to let you know my experience. I was in Colombia March and April of this year and I was going to do this trek but I ended up not being able to, not only because the trail is closed, but because the local indigenous people and farmers have blocked the entrances and have protests going to not let tourists or trekkers into the park. I am not sure if the park is officially closed but I do follow the Colombian park service on facebook and instagram and the posts don’t seem promising in terms of people having access to the park. It’s a bummer but if you would like to see some high mountains in Colombia and see the paramo environment I can recommend going to Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados. I did a trek up to the base of Nevado del Tolima in that park and it was amazing. I started from Juntas, right outside of Ibague. There are a few different entrances to the park and I would say another good one is also entering from Valle de Cocora in Salento so you can see the iconic wax palms, they are the tallest palm trees in the world and the national tree. Enjoy your trip wherever you end up going!

      • Hey Alex, thanks for your recommendation of Los Nevados.
        How many days did your trek take? Did you bring your tent or is it possible to rent? Is Salento the best place to get a guide?

        We want to see Valle de Cocora, Laguna del Otun and hike up to one of the vulcanos. Is Nevado del Tolima less frequented than the other two?

        Many thanks,
        Johanna

        • Hello, my trek was 4 nights long but at a fairly easy pace as I went with my cousin and we are both photographers. I did bring my own tent and since the entrance I used was not an official park entrance, there was no place to get a map or anything else you may need. Salento is a much more organized town to start from because there are many backpackers that go there to hike in Cocora. I’m sure you can find a guide in that town and on the way up to Los Nevados from Cocora I believe there are huts you can buy cook meals from and stay in for small fees. Next time I go to Colombia that is the route I want to take, the wax palms are incredible. As the Valle de Cocora trail is a loop, if you head straight up to Los Nevados from the start of it you will not see many wax palms. The palms are on the other side of the loop so you can either see them on the way down or just go to them first and then go back to the trailhead and do it as you normally would. Bring some cash on the hike, through Cocora I believe you may have to pay a small fee to go up to Los Nevados because you go through a hummingbird “sanctuary”, but the fee small, around 5000 pesos if I remember correctly. Many of the hostels in Salento can give you more info on hiring guides. I stayed at the Plantation House and would definitely recommend it. You can also take a tour there about coffee, the way they do it is using old methods and no heavy machinery, just hand powered tools. It’s easy to get to Cocora from Salento, every morning jeeps take people out there from the main plaza.

          • Oh and yes, I believe Nevado del Tolima is the one less frequented by tourists. There are mountain guides that will take you to the summit. I know of some guides who you can find on Facebook called Montañas Colombianas. Make sure to bring a swim suit so you can swim in the thermal pools up in the mountains!

  9. Hi there,

    Just as lot you guys I really wanted to do the 6 day trek in El Cocuy. Howevr, now that I arrived in Bogota I found out that the park is closed so I´ve decided, mainly based on your posts above, to go to Los Nevados.

    I´m looking for a nice multiday hike where I can experience multiple environments following the altitudes. Also, climbing the summit of a volcano would be great as well. I just brought the basic supplies (sleeping bag & warm clothes) but now camping gear. What I can tell from the posts above it is best to start in Salento. However, any suggestions or alternatives are well appreciated.

    Best regards,

    Jos

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