Into the wild – Sierra Nevada del Cocuy

Visiting Sierra Nevada del Cocuy was not part of our original travel plans due to its remote location. It’s a national park situated in the Eastern Cordillera mountain range north east of Bogota.  We took the ten-hour night bus from Tunja to Cocuy town. The bus ride is not something I would want to repeat in the near future: fifty percent of the road is loose gravel and the hairpin bends seemed never ending. It took all my strength to keep my motion sickness under control. At one point near the end of the journey I actually thought we were on the wrong bus after looking out the window to see nothing but huge fifty foot cactus’s; it baffled me as I knew El Cocuy sat at an altitude of 2700m, where you don’t expect to see cactus’s, the diverse Colombian landscapes surprising me once again.

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Up until 4 years ago El Cocuy was a no go area a “red zone” due to a fighting guerrilla groups. However since President Alvaro Uribe came into power in 2002 the guerrilla and paramilitary activity in most of the region has been stamped out with force and kept under control although there is still a strong police presence in Cocuy town and the surrounding area.

The main reason to come to Cocuy is for the trekking and climbing opportunities that this high altitude wilderness offers. Within the climbing community its considered one of the last secret destination of the America’s.  We came with the intention to complete two days of trekking and if possible scale one of the two 5000m peaks. After obtaining our permit and additional information from the national park office in Cocuy, we decided to tackle the snow draped Pan de Azúcar 5200m it sits at the southern end of the park . This trek would also offer great views of the strange looking El Púlpito del Diablo – The Devils Pulpit sitting to the left of the peak it’s a perfect granite cube of rock.  We weren’t sure whether we would be able to scale the last 200m of the peak because ropes and crampons were needed, but we were adamant we could make it to the snow line.

Back at our hotel we met some Colombian tourists who were also planning to do the Pan de Azucar trek as well so we hooked up with them. One member of the group; Pedro Vargas, grew up in Cocuy and knew the area well and he was going to act as our unofficial guide. They also had a 4×4 car which was a real bonus as our alternative transport into the park was going to be the slow and uncomfortable “lechero “ a lorry which collects the milk from local farms.

It was early start leaving Cocuy before dawn and it was an hour drive into the park. First stop was the Cabanas del Pulpito we arrived just as the sun started to appear and give us our first glimpse of the snow capped peaks of the Andes. We were met by a friendly host; Marline who was supplying our breakfast and the ponies for our Colombian friends. Breakfast was a hot potato and meat broth, scrambled eggs, bread and hot chocolate, a superb start for a long days trekking.

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After dropping the car at Herrera, the Colombian couple mounted their ponies with Pedro, Marco and myself on foot. Pedro was leading the front ponies and started at a fast pace; we had difficulty keeping up, although we are both relatively fit the ponies were walking fast and we were already at an altitude of over 3000m. Already the landscape and solitude of the place was spectacular: first we crossed a flat plateau with huge granite mountains all around us. We encountered the strange flora and fauna some of which we saw in Santuario de Iguaque; one plant I recognized was the huge Frailejones.There are 700 endemic species of plants that have adapted to this high altitude wilderness. We followed a marked trail for two hours until we reached the point where we left the ponies and started our ascent to the Pan de Azucar.

From this point the scenery changed into the more usual rocky high altitude environment you would expect. We left Pedro and our Colombian friends behind as they were slower at adjusting to the altitude after being carried by the ponies.

We climbed quickly up the rocky trail to the first pass, which offered spectacular views of the southern part of the park and towards Guican. We had the trail and mountain to ourselves; it seems the solitude and peacefulness is what makes this place so special.

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After the first pass the landscape changed again into brown smooth flat rock with many big boulders dotting the landscape as well as small canyons, formed by the melting snow and glaciers. Due to leaving Pedro and co. behind we had to work out the route ourselves, but it was well marked with small piles of rocks showing the way. From the pass it took another hour and half to reach the snow line: it was slow going because although it wasn’t steep, the altitude slowed the pace. We had to take small meaningful steps and be careful not push ourselves otherwise we felt light headed and dizzy.

We reached the snow line just before noon and as if by magic the cloud lifted and gave us our first proper glimpse of both Pan de Azúcar and El Púlpito del Diablo: it was breath taking. We jumped in the snow excited to reach our destination and debated whether it was possible to reach the crest between Il Pulpito del Diablo and the Pan de Azúcar.  If were able to we knew from that point you would be able to look down on to Laguna Grande. However we decided against it, the risks were too high without crampons and an ice axe. Our time at the snow line was short as were keen not to linger too long; we could see fast moving clouds coming towards us. The weather conditions in the park are famous for being very unpredictable and could change drastically, especially as it was the end of the rainy season.

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As we made our descent we met Pedro and the Colombians: they had made good progress. However we decided to meet them back at the Herrera camp, as we needed more time to get back as we didn’t have ponies. Also we didn’t want to rush the journey back. Once we made back down to the plateau we lingered at many of the small streams that crisscrossed the trail, taking in all the little details of this spectacular wilderness.

It was getting dark as we arrived at the Herrera camp: we were a little concerned about our Colombian friends as they would be coming back on the ponies in the dark, but we knew they were in good hands with Pedro. While we waited we were treated to the usual Colombian hospitality with a hot cup of sweet tea from the family that ran Herrera camp. We then stayed with Marline at her Cabanas del Pulpito that evening and were excited to explore another part of the park the following day.

The Colombians made it back safe and sound in the dark!

Watch our short video of the trek; it captures the atmosphere and solitude of the area fantastically.

Recreate this trip

It is possible to do some of the treks in the park without a guide, the information below will help you organise them. However if you are in-experienced or wish to do any climbing we strongly advise you organise a guide either via the National Park office or private outfitter.

  1. Get your permit to enter the park from the National Park office in El Cocuy town. The cost is $16 the pass is valid for one year. It’s also possible to obtain permits in Guican.
  2. Transport into the park – take the “Lechero” (milk lorry) in El Cocuy town (on the main square) at about 6.30am. Double check the time  at the National Park Office
  3. If you decide to complete the El Púlpito del Diablo snow line trek,  get the milk lorry until Cabanas del Pulpito, then it is an one and half hour walk from there to Herrera camp which is the start of the trek. You must allow 7-8 hours to complete the trek. You can stay the night at Herrera Cabana but it is very basic and they don’t have electricity; the best option is the Cabanas del Pulpito.
  4. You can hire a pony from Cabanas del Pulpito (contact Marline) for $30 -40 for the day and a  guide costs an additional $15- 20 per day
  5. Basic accommodation at Cabanas del Pulpito costs $8 per room, breakfast $3.5 dinner $5.
  6. To get back to El Cocuy town you should get the milk lorry from the Cabanas del Pulpito which takes you to Guican town where you can get a public bus back to El Cocuy town (there is a public bus every hour and cost about $1.50)

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