Colombia’s Cocuy National Park is not easily accessible. But for the intrepid, the park offers a surrealist high-alpine dreamscape combined with a chance to climb the country’s tallest accessible peak: Ritacuba Blanco.
Located in the state of Boyaca, near the middle section of the eastern border with Venezuela, Ritacuba Blanco (17,749ft) is the tallest mountain in the Cordillera Oriental, and the second highest peak in Colombia.
While Pico Cristobal Colon (18,950ft), located in the Caribbean state of La Guajira, is the tallest mountain in Colombia, the peak has been reportedly inaccessible for years due to local indigenous groups who consider the mountain sacred and reported paramilitary activity.
Cocuy National Park and Ritacuba Blanco up until ten years ago was also inaccessible to foreigners as the area was a FARC guerrilla stronghold. However, much has changed in Colombia over the past 10 years, and today the mountain can be climbed.
Here is a trip account from an adventure I took with my father on our journey to the top of Ritacuba Blanco.
Getting to Guican
The best access to Ritacuba Blanco is through the town of Guican in the state of Boyaca.
From Bogota there are at least three daily buses with direct service to Guican. The first bus leaves at 8 am. Under optimal conditions, the trip lasts 12 hours and will pass through the town of El Cocuy before ending at Guican.
Upon our arrival in Guican, we were greeted on the bus by locals who gave me and my dad shots of arguadiente (fire water) as our arrival coincided with a weekend celebration of the town’s patron saint.
In the town, we found a highly recommended hotel called Cabaña Hotel El Eden. The hotel had very clean rooms with charming wood paneling and excellent views of the mountain hamlet. Tinto (black coffee) was provided as room service, while breakfast, lunch and dinner were also available at additional charge. Our gracious hostess Rosa also offered guests full laundry service.
She also provided us with a number to Posada Sierra Nevada at the border of the park so that we could make reservation for the following nights.
In the morning we made our way to the Cocuy National park office to pay the mandatory entrance fee, which ran at around $25/person for foreigners.
Getting to Cocuy National Park
From here we made our way to the park located down a rural country road. While there was a shuttle service, it costs $40 and we decided it would make more sense to walk. The leisurely walk, made slightly less leisurely by our backpacks, took about 5 hours and led us through some beautiful mountain countryside – the rural scenery is reminiscent of the Switz or French Alps.
There was another option to catch a ride catch a ride on an early morning milk truck which leaves at 5 am and costs $5, but it left before the park office opened. With patron saint celebration Rosa told us all the rooms were reserved for the night leaving us no option but to set out along the road.
Although we got lost a couple times, the walk was scenic and meditative.
At 2 pm we walked into the park, showed our visitors’ passes and made our way to the Posada Sierra Nevada. We were shown a room, which was rustic, clean but not in the least bit modern, and cost $20/night for a two-person room. There were also hearty country breakfast, lunch and dinner options available for $3/person in the communal dining space.
Staying directly on the trailhead to Ritacuba Blanco, in our stay at Posada, we enjoyed socializing with the constant stream of Colombian hikers making their way up the glacier.
The only down side to the Posada was a lack of heating compounded by adobe walls and no natural lighting in the room. Consequently, we spent most of our day while acclimatizing out on the deck or meandering the mountain roads.
Getting to the summit of Ritacuba Blanco
For the most part, the approach to the summit of Ritacuba Blanco is no more than a long walk. However, the glacier for the last 1,000 ft up to the summit does include crevasse exposure and a handful of minor technical sections requiring mountaineering equipment and preferably a guide.
While at the Posada we made arrangements to hire our guide, although if we were on a tighter schedule, we might have done it sooner as we had to wait a day for him to become available. Our guide, Hilberto, provided strap-on crampons, ice axes, with ropes and harness along with his guiding service. The guiding cost $50/person and the rental equipment another $30/person.
Our expedition left the trailhead at 4 am and the hike up the steep slope was guided by flashlight until dawn splashed color onto the mountain ridges at around 6 am. Near 14,800 ft we reached the edge of the glacier, where we stopped to strap on our crampons and rope up before heading up the final stretch to the summit.
After more than an hour of slogging up the long glacier, with two minor technical terrain features, we reached the summit. From the top we could see the peaks of Pan de Azucar and Ritacuba Blanco’s gnarly twin peak Ritacuba Negro.
While the guide provided the technical gear, I was happy my dad insisted I bring an extra warm layer on the trek up to the summit. The low-oxygen air presented a challenge, but the most difficult aspect for me was the dawn’s icy temperature that left my fingers numb.
On the top we took a minute to snap a few photos and catch our breath before heading back down the mountain as the sun turned the glacier snow into mush.
Aftter exting the glacier, the trail down illuminated by the morning sun reminded me of a rugged version of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, with the park’s signature shrubby fraijelones standing in for the Truffula trees.
By 1:30 pm we returned to the Posada. After organizing our equipment, we decided to fork over the $40 and spare our legs the agony of walking back to town.
That night we stayed at our favorite Hotel El Eden, and after succumbing to involuntary sleep by 7 pm we passed a dreamless night, stirring not a muscle, until the sun’s golden light broke through our window early the next day.