The department of Boyaca is home to one of Colombia’s most pristine mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy. With an elevation of over 5,000 meters and counting more than 25 snow-covered peaks, these solitary slopes are every mountaineer’s dream.
From Bogota, it is a bumpy twelve-hour bus ride over largely unpaved roads to the sleepy colonial town of El Cocuy. Here, or in Güican one hour away, is where most people begin their hikes. Both villages offer modest accomodation, guiding services, equipment rental and transport uphill.
After registering and paying an entrance fee at the national park’s office in El Cocuy, we load our backpacks on the roof of a minivan that takes us higher up the mountain, all the way to the farmhouse of Alejandro Herrera. The dirt road stops there. To reach the place where we are to spend the night requires another one and a half hour’s walk.
Hiking the national park is as hard as you want it to be. The options vary from staying at modest cabañas with food provided and doing day trips, to hardcore six day treks, camping out in the wild and carrying all you need in your own backpack. Accompanied by our guide Javier, we decide to set up our basecamp in the Valley of the Lagunillas, at the foot of the majestic
Pan de Azúcar (5,120 meters)
Here, at a height of almost 4,000 meters, we get used to the altitude while enjoying the luxury of a refuge close by. We are warmly welcomed by the staff of community-based ecotourism association ASEGÜICOC that recently started running the guesthouse. For the following three days, we would pamper our bodies with the meals, hot coffee and agua de panela provided.
Tourism to the national park is still relatively underdeveloped, as the area was a battleground between guerrilla, army and paramilitary groups until only a few years ago. With the park now safe to visit, tourists are now arriving in Cocuy, but still in small numbers.
Temperatures are dropping fast by the end of the afternoon, as grey rain clouds spill over the top of the mountain ridge into the valley. Returning to the tent later that evening, ice has already covered its surface. It’s going to be a cold night. To stay warm I put on woolen socks and gather all the fleece and thermal underwear I have lying around.
The low temperature is not the only inconvenience. The height also claims its victims, provoking altitude sickness with potentially fatal consequences. On the hike up to El Alto de Cusiri (4,410 meters), a single day of acclimatization proves to be insufficient for one member of our group who usually lives at sealevel; nausea and a severe headache leave him unable to enjoy the moraine lake-dotted landscape.
On the third day of our hiking trip we get up at five in the morning. The snow-capped Pan de Azucar and the Pulpito del Diablo (where, according to local legend, the devil appears on New Year’s Eve) are waiting in the distance, contrasting with the bright blue sky. While the sun chases away the morning cold, we walk up through flowering fields of Frailejones, stumbling over rocks and crossing crystal-clear streams. A few hours later and nearly out of breath, we reach our goal; touching the glistering “tropical” snow of the rapidly receding glacier, which might disappear completely by 2030.
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