El Cocuy National Park is a high elevation gem tucked away in eastern Colombia. Although it is a stunning location, there aren’t too many tourists here. Access to the park is time consuming and it requires a bit of planning and money to organize the permits required to enter the park. In addition access to the park for tourists has been limited or completely blocked during the last 4 years. The popular 5 day trek through the park is completely closed and now only 3 day hikes are available. The day hikes are tough and scenic all day events, gaining 1000m or more and up to elevations of 4800m or more. The other catch keeping some people out is the requirement to have a guide, which costs around $40 (USD) a day on top of the entrance fee.
The roads to the park are long and winding, taking you up and down and around mountains with beautiful views into valleys, through quaint villages and through other worldly landscapes. The drive time is many many hours when coming from any other major destination, so we split the journey from Barichara up into two days. We caravanned with Tyler and Meghan since we planned to share a guide in El Cocuy with them. We made a lot of stops on the way to enjoy views and poke around towns. It was so beautiful that the drive alone to us was worth the detour! We spent a night at a hostel in the village La Uvita and, were given a very traditional breakfast – cup of coffee, soup with beans and tripe, and hot chocolate with cheese. Who knew chocolate and cheese was such an amazing pair?!
We arranged the guide and permits at the National Park office in the town Güicán. We decided on two hikes: Ritacuba Blanco and Laguna Grande. Then we headed up to camp near the trailhead of Ritacuba Blanco and were greeted by pouring rain! Oh boy, did we just drop a bunch of cash on permits and guides to walk around in the freezing rain for two days?! We were camped in the parking lot of Hacienda Peñas Blances, owned by a lovely family that made us feel warmly welcomed in spite of the freezing cold rain.
The first night we all had headaches from the sudden change in elevation – We came from 1500, spent one night at 2500, and had settled in at 3750m. After lots of water, some coffee and standing in the very welcome morning sun we felt a lot better. The Hacienda owner suggested a short hike to a small lake outside the National Park boundaries to help us acclimate. It was only 2 hours of hiking and great views to the mountains and glaciers. For travelers interested in seeing El Cocuy but aren’t ready to take on the strenuous and high altitude hikes or just can’t be bothered with the permits, this is a great way to see El Cocuy.
The next morning we were up before the sun and ready to hike! The trailhead of Ritacuba Blanco is at 3950m and only goes up from there. We hiked past fields of Frailejones, a shrubby plant unique to the Paramos of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. The Paramos are the high alpine tundra of the Andes. There were beautiful views to the valley below and up hills and more hills… and the hills just seemed to get harder as we got higher. Not long after we finally caught view of the glacier around 4600m, the altitude got the better of Rachel. There is really not much oxygen up there! Turns out, if you start getting symptoms of altitude sickness at 4300m, they’re only going to get worse as you continue up. It was another 250m to the top, and absolutely no way could we continue on… but still, it is really, really hard to accept defeat and turn around.
We had luckily planned a day off in between the hikes to give a chance to recoup after Ritacuba Blanco. We took it easy, explored some viewpoints by car and took the long way via El Cocuy village to our campsite for the next night. We stayed outside Hacienda La Esperanza, which conveniently is located right at the trailhead for Laguna Grande
Hike number two started us at a slightly lower elevation of 3700m. The first two hours took us over gentle hills and past beautiful landscapes in the Valle de las Frailejones. Then we came to the first steep climb of the hike up to just above 4000m. Even though free of altitude sickness at this point, Rachel was feeling the same as two days prior and knew getting to the top was unlikely. Instead of cutting Ben’s hike short again to accompany the dizzy hiker down, Rachel turned around at this point – again, really REALLY hard to admit defeat, even though it was 100% the right decision. The group continued on to Laguna Grande, which was thick in the clouds when they arrived. They got back to the cars just minutes before the heavy rain set in. After 9 hours of hiking, Ben had a quick dinner, changed into pajamas and went right to bed.
We spent a total of 6 days in this remote and slightly off the beaten path location. In spite of the difficulties with the elevation, it was totally worth the visit. We lucked out with the weather and had a lot of sunshine for the time of year.