El Cocuy – The Town
The town of El Cocuy is where we prepped for our visit to El Cocuy National Park. There is more to this town than first meets the eye. When we first showed up, our main focus was checking in at the hotel, getting secure parking sorted out, and walking for more than 5 minutes without being out of breath. We were essentially arriving from being at sea level (we were at the coast two days earlier), and El Cocuy is situated at 9,000 feet, which became painfully obvious when everything we did resulted in being out of breath.
Before you can enter the national park, you must first pay the entrance fee ($52,000 pesos per person). In order to pay the entrance fee you must first obtain rescue insurance (approximately $7,000 pesos per day per person). We were outfitted with brightly coloured wristbands (think all-inclusive resort, but without the sun, beaches, alcohol, or pools) containing our insurance policy number in case we got lost or tumbled off the mountainside. Safety first! Our moms were much happier knowing that we’d be easy to ID if anybody found us. After the safety meeting we stocked up on fresh produce from the local market, located across the street from the National Park Office. They had some of the best produce we’ve seen in Colombia so far, and the people were some of the friendliest you can meet.
At first we found it difficult to find food in El Cocuy, but hit the jackpot after a few rounds. You can purchase teeny coffees at most of the convenience stores or bakeries around town. We picked up our daily dose of café tinto sin azucar (black coffee without sugar) at many of these spots. Eventually we also found a lady making empanadas, hot dogs, pizza, and papas rellenos (stuffed deep-fried potato concoction from heaven) near the main square. This spot was quite busy during the halftime Copa America futbal break, with locals hand-bombing the delicious deep fried treats. One of the best lunches we had was off the main street, where we had rotisserie chicken, boiled potatoes, and salsa. It was so good that we picked up an extra chicken for our time in the park.
The view from our hotel (Posada Del Molino) had us itching to get deeper into the mountains. They have secure parking here for anything that will fit in a shipping container.
Trailhead/Camping Spot #1: Cabanas Kanwara
The following morning we headed to our next destination, and first camping spot in the park, Cabanas Kanwara. Here we spent the better part of a day prepping food for the upcoming days and getting acclimatized to the elevation gain.
The owner, Hernando, at Cabanas Kanwara is super friendly and speaks clear Spanish very slowly. It was a treat to be able to understand Spanish again after being confused by the rapid coastal Spanish we encountered upon arriving in Colombia . This campsite was probably one of our favourites of the trip so far, complete with rainbows, snowy mountain peaks popping out from behind the clouds, and countryside all around. I’m not going to lie, we were still in our acclimatization period at this point so we were feeling less than fabulous, but the scenery sure helped improve our mood!
Hike 1: Laguna Grande de los Verdes
We drove to the “trailhead,” which we discovered was really just the end of the road past the Cabanas Kanwara. The hike took around 5 hours to get to a point where we had a good view of the lake.
An hour or so into the hike we came upon an icy cold river where there was no choice but to strip off our hiking boots and wade across. As I splashed my way across the rock-filled water with my boots tied to my backpack, I arrived at the other side with numb red feet and suddenly burst into tears. What the heck!? Something about the glacier-cold water had triggered some kind of emotional floodgate that took about ten minutes to get out! Richard rubbed my feet and I sipped on some hot chocolate we had in a thermos before lacing back up and continuing on with our hike. Luckily we made it across on the way back without any meltdowns.
We saw hundreds of sheep, a couple of ranchers riding their horses, and epic green valleys. What we didn’t see on this hike were tourists. Back home in the Pacific Northwest we would have run into about 5000 people on a similar trail so it was a treat to soak up the views without anybody else around.
Hike 2: Ritacuba Blanco
The trailhead starts very close to the Cabanas Kanwara (just across the road). This was our favourite hike in the park. It took us almost 7 hours to get to the snowline of Ritacuba Blanco (16,000ft) and back. We utilized every piece of clothing during this hike. We started off sweating in the sun and stripping our layers. By the time we made it to the top we were fully bundled up due to wind and snow.
By this time we had made it very close to the top, but the wind and snow were tiring us out a bit. Here Richard takes a quick rest. Maybe his mountain man “beard” was weighing him down too much.Rested and ready to continue to the snowline! It looks like someone rallied for a selfie!Check out the enthusiasm for making it to the top!
Trailhead/Camping Spot #2: Hacienda La Esperanza
After two days of fairly intense hiking, we drove our wind-burnt faces to the lovely spot at Hacienda La Esperanza for a much needed rest day. Here we met Guillermo. He fed us three great meals, shared his experiences away from the hacienda, and gave us plenty of tips for our next hike in El Cocuy. You can see him hanging out the window in the photo below.
Guillermo’s father hooked us up with some sweet hats and ponchos for a photo-op. Legit!The Hacienda also marks the trailhead for the Laguna Grande de la Sierra hike. We did not attempt this hike but it is very popular. We did go on about a 30 minute walk through the countryside nearby, which was quite beautiful. Again, nobody out here except us and a handful of sheep.
Trailhead/Camping Spot #3: Cabanas Herrera
We learned pretty quickly that you can’t actually drive to Cabanas Sisuma. This was the original plan until the cliff-lined road was blocked by a giant boulder right before it narrowed into a walking path. Our GPS is usually pretty good, but sometimes it has an optimistic idea of what is considered a road. We reversed the truck and made our way back to Cabanas Herrera.
Hike 3: Pan de Azucar/El Pulpito del Diablo
Cabanas Herrera would be our new trailhead for hiking Pan de Azucar. What we really wanted to see was El Pulpito del Diablo. The prominent rock formation can be seen from Ritacuba Blanco and we wanted a closer look.
Spoiler alert, unfortunately we couldn’t make it to the top. The howling wind trying to blow us off the mountain combined with the clouds rolling in quickly made the decision for us to high-tail it back to camp. There are a couple of steep scrambles and we wanted to get down those before the clouds/fog inhibited our sight of the trail. There was a huge military presence on this side of the mountain since a guide had recently gone missing. We decided that was a good sign to play it safe and head back to camp early.
The hike took us 8 hours round-trip. We expect that in good weather it still would have been at least another 30-60 minutes to make it to the top. The walk from Cabanas Herrera was an hour and fifteen minutes one-way to the trailhead, so in theory you could also park your vehicle at Cabanas Herrera, walk to Cabanas Sisuma and stay there overnight, and start the trek from the trailhead. This would have been the smarter move to make it to the top before the afternoon clouds set in.
All in all, El Cocuy met and exceeded our expectations. We didn’t get altitude sickness and we didn’t have to use our mountain rescue insurance. What did happen was that we were able to see epic peaks and completely different landscapes on each of the hikes we did. To us, this magical place contained some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve ever encountered, some of the toughest hikes, and the most challenging weather. It left us wanting more, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
We used the PNN El Cocuy website to plan our hikes. This website gives a good description of the various camping spots and their proximity to the trailheads.
Map: Hiking El Cocuy National Park
- Driving route