Explore Colombia’s “paramo,” a high-altitude grassland in the coffee region whose flora and fauna look like something out of a sci-fi novel.
Colombia is home to about 60% of the world’s paramo, but the one which kindles the fires of adventure each time I visit is located in the heart of the country, in what’s said to be one of its most scenic national parks. To get there, head towards the shores of Lake Otun in national park Los Nevados, a trek of around 25km. My starting point is the village of La Suiza, in eastern Risaralda, one of the five departments that make up El Eje Cafetero or “Coffee Zone” in the center of the country.
After disembarking the 7AM “chiva” from Transporte La Florida in Pereira one is immediately confronted by thick, sub-Andean cloud forest which covers the mountains and valleys. A little onward from the village the visitors’ center and entrance of the Sanctuary of Flora and Fauna, Otun-Quimbaya appears.
Otun-Quimbaya to Ucumari
Created in 1996 and covering 489 hectares, the park is small in comparison to other national parks, though its high level of biodiversity more than makes up for its size. Home to the Venezuelan red howler monkey and over 300 species of the 400 or so bird types which are found in this region of the Andes, the park is a must for any bird lover or wildlife enthusiast. You have to be pretty unlucky not to see one of the spectacular bird species that inhabit the park. The main success story of the park is the Cauca Guan. A relative of the turkey, the Cauca Guan was on the verge of extinction around the time when the park was created, with the largest population located in the park. Thanks to a vigilant conservation scheme, the bird’s numbers have recovered and are thought to total around 1,000 individuals.
Chances are that whilst walking through the park you’ll hear the guttural howl of the red howler monkey or maybe even bump into a group, and should one be weary, there are species all around, hidden in the trees.
The trek continues on this dirt road past bromeliad-clad walls of green at either side of the road and past Otun-Quimbaya’s outer-limits into PRN (Regional Natural Park) Ucumari. Ucumari (Quechuan for spectacled bear) was formed in 1984 and covers 3986 hectares of pristine sub-Andean cloud forest ranging from 1850 – 2600 meters above sea level. The drop in temperature is obvious (not a problem for us Europeans but for Colombians were heading for “tierra fria”!) as you walk from the 1840 meter-high La Suiza to the 2099 meter-high El Cedral.
Ucumari – El Cedral to La Pastora
El Cedral is where the real trekking begins. Thick vegetation looms all around, dotted with “Palma de Cera” or wax palm, Colombia’s national tree (another endangered species), which can grow in excess of 70 meters in height and can be found as far as the town of Salento in the department of Quindio, in its most famous habitat – the Cocora valley. This valley is one of the many that form a network linking back to Los Nevados.
The road ends here, with a small building where tourists and trekkers can rent a horse for the journey up. If you’re thinking about doing this trek make sure that you bring sturdy boots or shoes to tackle the rocks and boulders, or your feet will take a battering on the way up – be warned! The route continues up along the River Otun, ever smaller, ever wilder, through thick cloud forest and over woodland streams towards the first campsite – La Pastora. Along the way the bird sighting opportunities will be many, if anything Ucumari exceeds Otun-Quimbaya for its diversity and sheer number of birds. When the forest opens up to the Ceilan Valley with its steep walls and cloud-topped slopes, you see an illustration of a cloud forest in its purest sense. In the two hours or so that it takes to get from El Cedral to La Pastora the altitude rises 380 meters and rain is almost a definite.
Ucumari – La Pastora
La Pastora, located at 5.8km from El Cedral and 12.4km from La Suiza, is my first campsite. Sandwiched between forest and steep valley walls, it looms like a beacon of civilization with its red walls and manicured gardens. From here a happy camper can walk the 1.5km to some ice-cold waterfalls named Los Chorros. Unfortunately the large fall that can be seen from the main building – La Veira – is off-limits.
With capacity for over 30 people in the main building’s various cabins and for over 50 people in its camping zone, La Pastora provides a welcome resting place before the main climb the next day. Make the most of the trip up – bring a camera and binoculars if possible and if birding is your hobby, the site provides a perfect base for jaunts into the surrounding undergrowth to see the many species including the green jay, sickle-winged guan, woodcreepers, humming birds, tanagers. To reserve cabins, hire a guide or order food for when you get there, visit the Fecomar website (Spanish only). Make sure that you pack batteries for the camera, there is no electricity here.
The site has no electricity, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view. The only light to be found during the night – apart from the flash-light of a toilet-searching camper – are in the two communal rooms, one inside the main building and one located in a kiosk in the camping area. A central fireplace, where many a tale can be heard, warms the surrounding lodgers and campers alike.
Ucumari – La Pastora to Peñas Blancas
The next day is an early start and there’s no point in denying that this section of the trek is by far the toughest. The early morning will not only give you the best opportunity to see some birds, but will give ample time to tackle the climb ahead. WARNING: If you are aiming to do this trek without help, i.e. a horse, then you need to be in a good physical condition. The route is rated at a “high” difficulty level and takes more than hours. Whilst it covers only 8km horizontally, the vertical rise is around 1.2km. It’s not easy, and if in doubt then it is recommended that you hire a horse to take your backpack though this needs to be done at El Cedral.
For all the day’s hardship, it is fitting that the landscape like that of El Paramo is accessed with great difficulty, to make the traveler appreciate its remote and pristine qualities even more.
Leaving La Pastora the climb continues in PRN Ucumari through a tight gorge which echoes with the sound of the ever-present River Otun below. There are known to be pumas, Andean spectacled bears, and mountain tapirs in the park, so keep your eyes peeled. There have been no bear sightings for years though evidence of their presence has been found. Tapir sightings are common.
Both are endangered species and form part of the conservation strategies within the park.
The first real landmark of significance is “Peña Bonita” or “Nice Rock” – a large flat rock next to a bridge which crosses the river. This is where Ucumarí finishes at an altitude of 2600 meters. The winding path continues upwards through the last remnants of the sub-Andean forest which cloaks the slopes. After reaching 2800 meters you find yourself in high Andean forest, the trees are smaller and the vegetation isn’t so thick but the birds are ever-present. These act as a reminder to the visitor that as remote as this is, you are now in Los Nevados, a park full of endemic species that can only be found within its borders.
The route continues upwards relentlessly within this immense river basin. At 3,000 meters, with the temperature considerably colder, a grass clearing marks “Peñas Blancas” or “White Rocks.” Weather permitting, large white granite rock faces can be seen where the incline is too steep for plants to grow. Clouds envelop the uppermost reaches where the various waterfalls cascade their pure spring water down these volcanic walls.
The region’s glacial history can be seen and park signage, though weathered, describes in detail the formation of these “Peñas.” It’s in this region that the River Otun proper is formed.
Los Nevados – Peñas Blancas to El Bosque
Hopefully enough energy has been conserved for the last and hardest part of the climb. The next 650 meters is punishing, as the effects of the first part of the climb start to take toll on the legs and the altitude is really felt for the first time. It is wise to rest in Peñas Blancas and eat something.
It’s here that one begins to realize that the aim for the day is to reach the tops of these granite towers which get forever smaller as the climb continues. Without realizing the visitor walks through the village of El Jordan and after a short while more, the first house of El Bosque village comes into sight. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the climb is almost over but there’s still over an hour to go. People here travel on horse-back.
All around the altitude-induced metamorphosis continues. The trees are not so tall and the undergrowth thinner, which allows pastures to grow. Finally entering the realms of El Paramo, it is easy to be seduced by its beauty but once the boulder stairs are vanquished and the tear-jerking sight of the small, blue, white and yellow building that is El Bosque’s school comes into sight, the clouds will most surely roll in, sapping any heat from the climber’s body. Respect is demanded by the climate – an average temperature of about 7°C will soon have you grabbing jumper, jacket and trousers.
Los Nevados – El Bosque
The granite valley-tops are covered in patches of green and small trees and shrubs. The thin air doesn’t allow for anything to grow very high. The people of El Bosque grow potatoes here, a staple crop of the Andes suited to the cold and altitude. It’s here where you feel the true remoteness and vulnerability of where you are. Be careful whilst walking. If something happens to you here, like a careless trip or turning of the knee on one of the paths, the closest hospital is over seven hours away. It’s a sobering thought, which should magnify your appreciation of such a beautiful place.
El Bosque school is not a campsite and one has to ask permission to camp from the ever-present teacher Fredy. He doesn’t ask for money and will tend to your every need – be it a warm fire to dry clothes or a room to pitch your tent and protect you from the cold night.
Donations should be given, so be generous as this is a good man with a big heart.
Los Nevados – El Bosque to Lake Otun
From El Bosque it’s a climb through an almost fairytale landscape, with small elf-like trees lining the path – one to watch out for is the reddish “siete-cueros” or “seven-skins,” so named for its multiple layers of bark. One is soon confronted with a sign saying “Lake Otun” at the start of a path marked by barbed wire painted fluorescent orange.
The path climbs upwards towards a brown gate. You should take care here. The correct route to take is immediately to the left over the rocks, NOT the well-trodden path to the right. Once past a second gate, green this time, there are a number of different paths. The correct one is to the left and winds upwards to the right. Here you begin to see the paramo proper, the high altitude grassland that defines this fragile ecosystem.
There are frequent stories about trekkers picking the wrong path here and getting lost for days. This is a real possibility so keeping your wits is paramount. Even if the clouds don’t let you see where you are, don’t panic!
Here the standard-bearer plant for the Colombian paramos can be seen for the first time – a species of Espeletia called “Frailejon,” named after the Spanish word for friar – “fraile” due to its brown trunk and human head-like flower. These plants are as fragile as they are spectacular, and are an endangered species.
The path reduces down to a thin mud track that winds and turns through the various species of paramo flora. In the distance, above the folds in the land, the Nevado
de Santa Isabel can be seen for the first time – “nevado” meaning “perpetual snow.”
In Los Nevados there are five main peaks, three of which are still ‘nevados’ though their glaciers are in a constant retreat due to global warming. The most famous and highest is El Ruiz, which can be reached on this same route 50km away. It’s about two to three hours from El Bosque to the lake, rising from 3650 meters up to around 4000 meters.
On the way, to add to the stunning scenery you’ll pass the Paramillo de Santa Rosa, one of the park’s main peaks – a collapsed volcanic structure to the left. Around the same time, a small lake comes into view called El Mosquito. Just half an hour away is the Lake Otun. Nevado de Santa Isabel is to the left and to the right is another Paramillo, this time del Quindio with its orange sands.
Los Nevados – Lake Otun
Lake Otun is the birthplace of the river by the same name. A volcanic lake set at an altitude of 3950 meters above sea level, it provides fresh water for Pereira and Dosquebradas, a total of around 500,000 people.
The whole area is of great hydrographical importance, not only in Colombia but in the world – it was recently added to the RAMSAR List of Wetlands of International Importance Page – a UNESCO-like entity which protects the world’s most important wetland regions.
A devastating fire in 2006 caused by visitor carelessness affected much of the area surrounding the lake, but the area has recuperated remarkably. If I was in awe the first time I visited, then my feeling on my recent trip was one of amazement.
The lake measures 2km in length by 1km wide and has a depth of over 50 meters. Eagles and Brazilian ducks can be seen in and around the lake at any time, looking for a bite to eat. Rainbow trout are the lake’s main inhabitants; an introduced species that is protected by the park’s no fishing laws. By the lake’s edge is the campsite and guard’s house and it’s free to camp. From here a five hour circuit of the Poleka Kasue trail (about 11km) takes the visitor up to Santa Isabel’s glacial edge to “tocar nieve” or “touch snow,” a unique experience here in the tropics.
So, after three days and 25 kilometers or so, the paramo has been reached. A highly important, remote, but altogether astounding eco-system – a land of cloud, water, Frailejones and volcanoes, nestled high up in the Colombian Andes, all wrapped together by the thin, fragile air. Continue northwards toward El Ruiz and you’ll be confronted by a desert-like volcanic landscape – or super-paramo due to its elevation – a collection of almost pink rocks and shrubs both burnt by the sulfuric air, solar rays and sub-zero temperatures.
No doubt once you’re back down, relaxing and thinking about the trip over a hot cup of coffee or chocolate and a plate of food, busily trying to recuperate the lost calories, there’ll be a nagging question at the back of your mind – ”when can I go again?”
So if you decide to embark on this trip remember to respect the place that you’re visiting and know that every step leaves a mark. Make sure yours is a clean one.