El Cocuy National Park

Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy is a beautiful part of Colombia that most people never see. Part of the reason for this is that it’s not easy to get to. And the other reason is because there’s nothing much to do except to go hiking. There are no airports in the area so the only way to get to the town of El Cocuy is by road. But because of the mountainous terrain, landslides, and the poor condition of the road it takes at least 9 hours on a bus from Bogota. Although it usually takes much longer. From town, you then take el lechero (the daily truck that collects milk from the farms around the park) or a 4×4 taxi on an unpaved bumpy road. So if you exclusively travel on comfortable modes of transport, only take hot water showers, and demand indoor heating then I’m sorry but El Cocuy is just not for you.

Colombia - El Cocuy - Laguna de la Plaza

Laguna de la Plaza

Other than www.pnncocuy.com (which I found invaluable) there is very little information about the park on the internet. The pictures that I found on the web and on pnncocuy.com inspired me to endure the long journey from Santa Marta to the National Park. I hope that my photos (and maybe my experience too!) of the park will inspire you as well.

The Journey – Santa Marta to El Cocuy

View Journey to El Cocuy in a larger map

It started with a taxi from my hostel to the Santa Marta bus terminal in the Mamatoco suburb, followed by an overnight bus to Bucaramanga. The bus departed at 20h and arrived at around 05:45. Rather than take yet another overnight bus I opted to go straight to San Gil to rest for a day so I hopped onto the next bus and about 2 hours later I was in San Gil. The next day, I took a taxi to the San Gil bus terminal to catch the hourly bus to Tunja (5 hours away). Unfortunately, the 18:30 overnight bus from Tunja to El Cocuy either wasn’t available or doesn’t exist anymore so I had to wait 5 hours to catch the 22:30 bus. When the time finally arrived I hopped onto the bus and took a seat right next to the door thinking that the bus would be empty all the way.

Colombia - El Cocuy - El Lechero

El Lechero

Not only did it get full but my seat turned out to be probably the worst seat on the bus. The bus route exists for a reason and that reason is not for tourism. Never assume it’s going to be empty! I arrived in El Cocuy at around 07:30, too late to catch el lechero which departs at around 06h daily. But I got lucky and was able to share a taxi for 20000 COP (el lechero costs half that). After paying the park fee and a 1.5 hour drive later, I finally arrived at Cabana Herrera inside the national park! The combined time riding in taxis and buses comes out to about 28 hours.

The Mistake

Santa Marta is at or near sea level. San Gil where I spent one night is at 1127 metres above sea level (MASL). The towns of Tunja and El Cocuy are at 2810 and 2750 MASL respectively. Cabana Herrera in the national park is at 3800 MASL. Even though I did nothing but sleep, eat, and read when I arrived at the cabana I got hit overnight with altitude sickness and had to return to town the following morning. Not an auspicious start. And without the help of a fellow Lithuanian / Dutch backpacker I don’t think I would’ve been able to hike back to the main road in time to catch el lechero.

The Recovery

Colombia - El Cucoy - JukeboxOn the return trip to town, el lechero stops at just about every single farm to pick up milk. So while the journey up takes about 1.5 hours, the return trip takes over 3 hours as we found out the hard way. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable journey and we got to see a side of Colombian life in the Andes that few people get to see. Back in town, we had a hearty lunch at Hotel Casa Munoz, followed by a quick sightseeing walk (the town is tiny!), and then found a local tienda where we had some Saturday afternoon beers with the locals and watched some porn on the softcore jukebox. That evening I had another great meal at Casa Munoz, planned my return to the park, and slept like a baby.

El Pulpito del Diablo

Colombia - El Cocuy - Feeling Good!I got a ride with el lechero up to the park entrance and started hiking at 07:15. Unlike yesterday morning, I was feeling great! After 2 hours I got to Cabana Sisuma where I planned to stay the night. From here the trail is level for a bit before rising sharply from about 3800 metres to 5130 metres. I crossed paths with a few other Colombian tourists who were on their way down from the top. They warned me of high wind and poor visibility, but in the mountains things change quickly so I optimistically pressed on. I lost the path a few times on a large steep boulder field but thankfully there were some footprints and cairns to follow. And I was very thankful that the boulders were firmly in place. A landslide would’ve ruined my day.

The weather did change, but for the worst. The wind really picked up and a cold steady rain lashed down on me near the top. It was so cold that I lost nearly all feeling in my hands. Even taking a photo became a challenge cause I couldn’t feel the shutter button. As the clouds drifted across peaks I was able to numbly snap a few photos but as the conditions worsened I decided to head down rather than risk my life getting to the completely shrouded mountain peak.

Colombia - El Cocuy - Pulpito del Diablo

Pulpito del Diablo

While I slowly navigated my way down through the boulder field the sun came out and restored feeling in my hands. It just goes to show how quickly conditions do change in the mountains. I reached Cabana Sisuma around 14h, took a very fast ice cold shower, then warmed up with a cup of tea. The meals there were excellent and worth the premium (meals at Sisuma are 3x more than at Herrera).

Laguna de la Plaza

The staff at Sisuma was nice enough to have breakfast and a takeaway lunch ready for me at 05:30. By 06:15 I was on my way to Las Lagunillas. I got lucky with a beautiful clear morning and almost no wind. The lakes were near perfectly still which allowed for fantastic mirror images of the surrounding crags. At the top of the first pass a thick fog rolled in and wouldn’t dissipate till I reached the lake.

After 4 hours I turned the last corner and caught my first glimpse of the lake. It was literally out of this world. “Wow!” was the only thing that came to mind.

Colombia - El Cocuy - Laguna de la Plaza

My first glimpse of Laguna de la Plaza

At 4300m, it was freezing so I ate my now-cold lunch quickly while taking in the view. The clouds drifted by carelessly in the late morning breeze. A bit of sun and blue sky greeted me after I finished eating and I returned the salutation with my camera clicks.

Colombia - El Cocuy - Lunch at Laguna de la Plaza

A nice place to stop for lunch.

But alas, weather does change quickly in the mountains. On the way back the thick fog rolled back in, reducing my visibility to about 5 metres. Then a light drizzle stopped in as I made my way over the second pass. And as I trudged my way up the never ending series of steep switchbacks to the first pass the sky opened up on me. Heavy rain mixed with hail. The hike to the top probably took about 1 hour but felt like 10 hours.

Colombia - El Cocuy - Hail

Doesn’t look like much but you feel it when it’s pelting you from all sides.

The sight of the stick (flagpole?) at the summit brought a wave of relief over me. The path up had turned into a muddy little stream. The way back to Sisuma was no different in the mud aspect but at least there were no more passes to climb. I quickly dropped off the metal fork they gave me with my takeaway lunch then walked on for another hour to spend the night at Herrera so that I could catch el lechero early the next morning. It’s about a 1 hour hike from Herrera to the main road where el lechero stops. From Sisuma, it took me 4.5 hours to reach Laguna de la Plaza and 4 hours to return.

Exit to Bogota

The ride back to town on el lechero took about 3.5 hours. It was a bit more interesting than last time but I’ll get into it another time. I spent the day in town eating, resting, and organizing my belongings which I stored at Casa Munoz. That evening I rode the bus departing from El Cocuy at 20h to Bogota, arriving in the city around 05h. And other than a idiotic middle aged woman who kept kicking the back of my chair despite the repeated requests for her to stop from me and the people sitting next to me the journey was smooth and surprisingly fast.

Have you been to PNN El Cocuy? Which hike(s) did you do?

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