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.
Distance: 59 miles (95 km approx.)
Time: 5 Days
Start: El Cocuy (town)
Finish: Cabanas Kanwara / Guican (town)
- 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).
- 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.
- 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…………
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.
- 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”).
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.
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.
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. 😉