El Cocuy National Park, Colombia
The road connecting Tunja and El Cocuy can be easily be described as the worst night bus ride on the planet. Typically, night buses are a great budget way to travel. You can curb the cost of an extra night’s accommodations and get where you want to be with the same ticket. This path, however, only offered only one of those perks. We arrived in Tunja at 8PM and amused ourselves in the terminal until the 10PM departure for El Cocuy. We were the only tourists on the bus, which I had assumed was a direct line. After settling in and getting as comfortable as possible, we slowly drifted off into the desired state of dreamland with omnipresent Colombian music playing throughout the bus (probably to keep the driver awake). I remember waking up to a bump where the pavement stopped abruptly, and the bus began lurching back and forth around zig-zaggy switchbacks as we entered into the mountains. This, along with about 2 dozen stops (every light in the bus gets turned on while passengers exit at each stop) at every small town we passed through kept us wide awake throughout the night. The sun started to show it’s colors below the horizon and illuminated the jagged landscape just before we arrived.
In this part of Colombia the small villages and towns are very isolated from the high traffic zones near the highways that link larger cities together. The description of this destination promised some of the world’s best hiking and breathtaking scenery but was no where near as popular and congested as the infamous Patagonia. The word on the wind was that El Cocuy was just as (if not more) beautiful than the trails that thousands of tourists walk on every year down the Chilean and Argentinian borders. The mountain range that draws mountaineers from all over the world and also allowed FARC guerillas to set up camps hidden and sheltered by the rugged landscape and uncompromising weather. It was an ideal place to abscond, and a gorgeous one at that.
El Cocuy felt as if it had been left standing still in the past and it was visibly apparent at 6AM on this September morning. The town was quietly populated with Colombian farmers donning full wool ponchos and leather hats, walking down old cobblestone roads towards destinations uknown. We stumbled out of the bus and looked inside a small shop turned-saloon to notice that some farmer’s hit the sauce early (I counted 6 empty bottles of Aguila in front of one elderly man, which both impressed and bothered me a little). This part of Colombia was known for consuming the most beer per capita for some odd reason. It could be the isolation, or it could be the dry air that makes them thirsty. It was very crisp at this altitude (roughly 9,000 feet), and I found myself needing more water more than usual. Our first order of business was as normal, and we immediately sought out a hostel to unload our gear. There was a milk truck full of passengers hitching a ride back up into their homesteads in the center of town, which was the same truck we would be using to get into the park the following day. There was only 1 main road up and around the park, and the milk truck was the physical link between the town and high altitude farms for most inhabitants up here. After securing our room in a family run hostel, we wandered around find some breakfast and take in the small town scene. A large church sat prominently at the center of town and was picture perfectly painted in every detail of it’s outer shell. Each house in town was painted white with the same green trim and accent walls. It gave a unifying sense of pride and preservation, and was extremely unique in it’s conformity. We eventually gave in to a long nap to recuperate from the sleepless night.
Our next mission was to find out how the system worked in this town. We came to go hiking up into the park, and needed some guidance on hikes, how to get to them, and where to sleep. We stumbled into a small shop where the owner was a young man who touted himself as an expert guide. Everyone in this town seemed to be a “Guia” of some sort, but we picked one with a family cabin and went with that. He pointed out different hikes that could be done from his cabin, and offered a kitchen to both cook and have food prepared by him too. Feeling like we had a grasp on an itinerary, we returned back to our hostel and ate a hearty meal prepared by the ladies that ran the place. It was the cheapest hostel we had found in Colombia, and cost about 6 dollars a night for the both of us. It also had the best home cooked meals, each served with a plate of food, a soup, and freshly prepared juice, which was just what we needed to fuel up at this height. Each bed came stacked with about 7 layers of blankets, which was a necessity in the poorly insulated buildings that were basically exposed to the cold mountain air that blew in and out of the valley. It was the way of life up here, and it’s something everybody who lived there shared together. Heat was an unnecessary expense, and it truly wasn’t cold enough to warrant the need.
At 6 AM the milk truck began packing in farmers and a few fellow hikers. A huge 1,000 Liter tank took up some real estate in the covered bed and was lined with about a dozen 55 gallon drums and metal milk cans. The bed was filled with passengers in almost every possible spot before taking off up into the hills. The scenery was stunning. The small road we were using cut through the mountainside, and wound around ridges and valleys as we ascended towards the clouds. Occasionally, the truck would stop and the milk man would hop down, grab some plastic or metal containers left by the road, and empty warm milk into the large tank. Debris was filtered out with a metal panning screen that was held in place while pouring the warm, raw milk into the containers. Farmers milked their free range cows by hand and would leave their share out by the road every morning this way, and the pick up truck would keep track of who yielded what amounts in a notebook. This happened several times before we were dropped off at the road that lead to our cabin. The young man that we arranged the night’s stay with was waiting for us when we arrived.
He quickly showed us to his family’s hand made cabin that sat in a gorgeous valley at about 3500 meters up. It was absurdly beautiful to say the least. A stunning backdrop of bedrock stuck out of the dramatic hillside with a perfectly placed pond bouncing it’s reflection in the panoramic scene. We made friends with some fellow hikers from Bogota who shared their mate tea with us and stories about what they did in Bogota and what their plans were here. After breakfast, Elissa and I decided to acclimate to the altitude with an “easy” hike through the valley. Each step felt extra taxing up here, and it quickly became apparent that we were not dealing with normal oxygen levels. Short slopes were taunting our every effort to get up and over their crests. My breath became omnipresent, echoing in my head with every step forward past the strange plants and breathtaking landscape.
The view at the entrance to the park was a perfect welcome to what was ahead. Sweeping landscapes held green pastures, the occasional farm, stables, and comfortably worn down houses. My eyes felt like they were morphing the words from the lost pages of a J R R Tolkien novel into the raw valleys rich with details I’ll never forget. Large slabs of solid earth broke through the fertile vegetation, reflecting sunlight that scattered clouds prohibited passage through. The scenery was a pristine natural environment functioning in a harmonious fashion. It looked as if the rain was perfect for the land, and the air held all the necessary components for life to teem. We marched along a narrow, slightly inclined path taking in the surroundings. It was hard not to stop and take pictures every 10 seconds, and this had a very noticeable impact on our average speed that day.
It was within this park that we discovered Frailejones. These bulky, thick, and almost martian-like plants looked like they came from the pages of a Dr. Suess book. The trunk resembled a mutated palm tree while the top sprouted long thin leaves and a flower-like top. Frailejones are only found above certain altitudes in this part of the world, and they surely have infamy among the Colombians that call this place home. It was truly surreal. We were at the bend of a long U-shaped valley full of larger than life mushroom shaped plants harbored by raw bedrock walls reaching high into the clouded sky, and the geology nerd in me couldn’t stop reeling.
Cows grazed in the lush green grass around all of these stout plants while a stream cut through the purely organic mountain soil. The water was a teal green that only fresh, unspoiled mountains can produce. We eventually reached the first of many lagoons and were treated to freezing rain while we tried to eat tuna fish and crackers sheltered by our ponchos. As unpleasant as it felt, we knew it was just a taste of the harsh weather that this area had in store. The hike back to the cabin was noticeably shorter than on the way out. This tends to happen when you take the same way back, probably because everything you see is now familiar and you aren’t stopping to take pictures every 10 steps.
The following morning we woke up very cold and sore. After making a hearty breakfast, we caught the milk truck to our next hacienda, a true cow and sheep farm nestled up even higher in the mountains. It was a family run operation, and they were undoubtedly up far before the sun rose and hours before we showed up at 8:30AM. When we pulled in they had 4 large containers of fresh milk to contribute to the collection service. They brought us into the courtyard of their colonial home (which all true spanish colonial homes have) which was inhabited by lively flowers and birds fluttering around. There were several dozen awards for their prized farm animals, both cows and sheep, in the dining room for the guests. Our room was decorated with pictures from the 70’s of the mountains attractions with noticeably more snow in the mountains. The glaciers have been receding for years and the photos to support this notion were very compelling. Our new hostel mom whipped us up some delicious breakfast with farm fresh eggs, bread, coffee, and, at my request, a huge glass of raw milk. Sweet Jesus, I was in heaven. We took a day of rest because of the big hike we had planned for the following day, and spent most of it wandering around the fields and looking for streams to sit by.
Our big day started with a 5AM alarm before sunrise. The 6” thick layer of blankets almost made it impossible to get up, and our temperature of our shower was “tepid” at best. After breakfast we set off and up, through fields of wheat with mountains creating a tunnel vision effect of the valley. Our family’s dogs decided they would accompany us in our journey and would take off for long spells only to reappear without warning. Several spoiled horses roamed around with this backdrop waiting for the fresh sunshine to warm their bodies. We kept a swift pace because we knew the 6-7 hour round trip our hostel’s mother was telling us was a bit of a fabrication from what guides were saying. A huge waterfall was one of the first beautiful landmarks we encountered and was accompanied by golden mountaintops blanketed in snow. There was beautiful geology all around, and I was nothing but completely content. We did our best to not stall too long with photos but when we entered the “Valle de los Frailejones” we fell victim to our tendencies to capture. Entering this valley did exactly what world traveling is supposed to do; it literally took my breath away. The valley was covered in the martian-like plants that were bathed in high altitude sunlight. Thick, white illuminated clouds rolled around the layer cake mountains that rose straight up from the earth and into the abyss. We saw glimpses of “Pulpito del diablo” in the far distance when clouds thinned out enough for it to show it’s rugged skin. Even though there was not a soul in sight, cows were roaming around the valley looking for green grass. I did my best to burn the imagery into my memory because I did not want to lose this sight. We were no where near our destination but already we were spoiled with breathtaking beauty.
Once the valley ended we said goodbye to easy hiking and stared ahead at the set of ridges that rose into the sky and disappeared into the clouds. The incline could be described as steep and unrelenting. It seemed like every time we thought we were coming up to the the top of the ascent on our cartoon map (which makes hiking seem effortless and happy) the trail would keep going up into nothingness. Our fearless dogs disappeared over one of the ridges and we figured that was the last we’d see them. We ascended for hours, and the weather turned from warm sun in the valley to hail, wind, and rain on the ridge. We poncho-ed up and threw on gloves and hats and pressed breathlessly onwards. Our goal was a glacial lagoon at the trailhead leading up into the glaciers. It felt like we would never make it. Up and up we went, with each crest holding the promise of a lake on the other side. The landscape shifted from plants, shrubs, and flowers to just plain boulders and gravel. Looking back down into the valley felt like we were miles from where we started (probably true). The clouds soon made everything disappear and gave us the true feeling of being out there. At high noon we found what we had been looking for, and after about 6 hours of hiking at high altitude we were standing at the shore of a teal blue glacial lake at 4600 meters. The raw earth was kept warm in blue colored glacier blankets with glimpses of the infamous land marks poking out through the clouds. It was truly a sight to see in person, but it was even more rewarding because of the efforts to get there.
Clouds felt like they were being produced right in front of our eyes and rose from below in a swirling motion upwards. After about 20 minutes and a brief lunch we both began feeling altitude sickness. Pounding headaches accompanied our queasy stomachs and nudged us to start heading back. The ascent was far less tasking, but the weight of our gear took it’s toll on our backs. The descent was about ½ of the time it took to climb up, and the weather was just as foul. Hail greeted us again, and was joined by a steady freezing rain until we got back to the valley. Our doggy guides also joined us back in the valley without warning and followed us all the way back to the farm. That night’s dinner tasted better than anything I’ve ever had, which may or may not have been because of the hike. Nothing beats a farm fresh meal with a hearty soup and freshly squeezed juice.
The next day we packed up, payed up, and rode the milk truck all the way back into town. In the truck was a professional guide from Bogota with several of his friends from the US who were glacier bound that day. He was very knowledgeable of this park and stated that it was the best hiking in the world, which he has hiked most of. It was on this leg of the milk truck ride that we saw just how much milk was gathered every day. While we were riding cliffside (in one of the most beautiful settings we’ve seen) the massive 1,000 Liter tank filled up completely! After that it had zero capacity for more milk, the milkman began to fill up every 55 gallon drum, every metal milk container, and every plastic jug in the truck to the brim. It was a sight to be seen and one of the most interesting forms of transportation we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. When the truck rolled into town, we said farewell and greeted the comforts of a small mountain town with open arms. We filled these open arms with baked goods, fruit, and cheese and had a delicious lunch before hopping on a bus back to El Cocuy.
Instead of taking another night bus, we decided to spend the night and hop on an early morning bus instead. This location comes with a top notch, world class A traveling stamp from yours truly. Before it gets completely discovered (not that it already isn’t enough) take at least 5 days minimum out of your itinerary (include at least 2 days of travel to and from) and go explore something you won’t forget.