The main reason for visiting El Cocuy is to go on a trek through the beautiful valleys and mountains of the Eastern Range of the Colombian Andes. Sadly, the incredible 5-day hiking circuit has been closed for years now due to environmental concerns, but the recently reopened park now offers three unique hiking routes for a variety of different fitness levels. So lace up those hiking boots – you will need hiking boots! – and get trekking!
One of the three reopened trails in El Cocuy, the Ritacuba Trail is also known as “La Ruta Norte” and is probably second in terms of difficulty (read on to see which one is toughest): the length is a relatively easy 13.8 km, but as the majority of it is very steep and climbs to an altitude of 4,600 m.a.s.l., the chances are that you will find parts of it hard-going. However, it also takes you to the edge of the Ritacuba Glacier, and the views make the sore legs worthwhile.
Probably the easiest of the three routes (although it is still considered medium difficulty: none of the routes in El Cocuy should be undertaken lightly as they are all high-altitude with difficult sections), the El Pulpito Trail (also called “La Ruta Sur” or Lagunillas) takes hikers to the snowline of El Pulpito del Diablo, one of the park’s most beautiful snow-capped peaks. The trail is 7.8 km each way, and the views over the southern section of the park are breathtaking.
One of El Cocuy’s huge glacial lakes, Laguna de la Sierra is the furthest point that you can hike to nowadays in El Cocuy, and the trek to get there is easily the hardest of the three trails. It’s colloquially known as the “long trail,” and lives up to its name with a total length of over 21 km! It can easily take up to 12 hours depending on your fitness, but the route takes in some of El Cocuy’s most iconic panoramas, and the lake itself is simply gorgeous.
El Cocuy National Park is one of the last redoubts of the endangered Andean Condor, the National Bird of Colombia. There are fewer than 100 condors left in Colombia – habitat loss and illegal trapping are causing their numbers to fall. El Cocuy remains one of the best places in the country to witness one of these majestic birds, soaring above the snow-capped peaks on one of the greatest wingspans in all of Colombia.
There’s more to El Cocuy than just the National Park, and although El Cocuy the town barely gets mentioned on lists of Colombia’s prettiest small towns, it could easily command a high spot on any such list. Nestled in the foothills of the park, the town’s buildings are almost all painted white and fringed with a lovely shade of green, giving the place a really authentic, local feel. Throw in a pretty church and some of the friendliest folk in Colombia and you’ve got a place definitely worth idling around for a day or two.
One of Colombia’s weirdest and most wonderful plants are the surreal and alien frailejones, giant perennial subshrubs which are part of the sunflower family. Native only to the northern Andes of South America, they are known as frailejones – ‘Friars’ – due to their resemblance to monks when you see them through the thick mist (which you do a lot at this altitude!). The plants grow just a few inches per year, so the giant ones you can wander among in El Cocuy are hundreds of years old!
What with all the breathless, high-altitude hiking on offer in El Cocuy, you might sometimes forget to stop huffing and puffing and just look up and enjoy the truly magisterial panoramas to be seen at almost every turn. All three of the trails you can hike feature some of Colombia’s most beautiful views, and you may find yourself in need of a spare memory card to capture all the photos you’ll want to take.
There are several different options for accommodation in El Cocuy (technically “around” El Cocuy, as you are no longer allowed to spend the night in the park itself), but probably the most beautiful option is Cabañas Kanwara, a lovely little cabin with a pointed roof, roaring open fire – it’s very necessary! – and comfortable beds. Located near the start of the Ritacuba Trail, the cabins are a magical little place to spend a night, with incredible views of snow-capped peaks on a clear day.
One of the easiest ways to get from El Cocuy town up to the trailheads of the National Park is to take a local mode of transport called El Lechero, which basically translates as ‘The Milk Truck.’ It’s basically exactly what it says on the tin: the local milk truck which plies the route from the park through all the local towns picking up milk from farmers. It takes double the time of a shared taxi (it is obviously cheaper) but it’s the chance to experience a different side of Andean life, and surely half the fun of travelling is enjoying unique modes of transport!