Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy is tucked away high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It is at high elevation and has the largest expanse of glacier fields in northern South America. The mountainous area around El Cocuy used to be a hot bed for FARC activity and there are still some areas beyond the park that we were advised not to drive to. However, the main roads into El Cocuy felt very safe and all we saw were friendly dairy farmers and highland villagers wearing ponchos and cowboy hats. We met many European overlanders who did not visit El Cocuy because their guide books warned them against it. My advice is to not “trust” the guide books which often have outdated information and instead ask the locals, military and police about what areas are not safe for travel. Also, make sure to ask people within the region you are traveling. We found that often if we asked people in Bogota if it was safe to travel to San Augustin, they would tell us the roads were not safe. But as we got closer and asked people they would tell different information with much more detail about the actual safety of the local area.
The drive to El Cocuy from San Gil took two days but was one of the most beautiful drives of our trip. The road was very curvy and we would gain and lose thousands of feet in elevation as we went over one mountain pass after another. Our favorite part of the drive was the road from Guican to the park and then to El Cocuy the town. This road is called the Ruta de Leche because the road meanders through highland dairy farms that made us feel like we were in the Swiss alps.
El Penon de los Muertos de la Gloria
We stopped to hike out to La Gloria, a dramatic cliff with a sad history and epic views. The story is that the indigenous Llwas people decided to jump off the cliff instead of surrendering to the Spanish conquistadors. Hundreds of people died and there is a small church at the top in their honor.
We chose to enter the park at Hacienda La Esperanza (one of three entry points into the park). We camped in front of the traditional Colombian hospedaje and used this as our base for our hike into the park.
Many people who hike into the park bring a tent and camp overnight at the lake and then hike back out. We do not have a tent so we decided we would do the 14 mile hike to 15,000 feet in one day. We are crazy like that. The day started out sunny and clear. the first few hours of the hike the weather was perfect. As we gained altitude it began to get colder and colder. When we arrived at the lake it was freezing and as we stopped to eat lunch it began to snow. Hard. It was a full white out blizzard at 15,000 feet and we had no choice but to hike back down in the snow. We were very lucky we brought lots of layers so we could stay warm because it was VERY cold.
The hike was stunning and challenging and I highly recommend it. Just go prepared for cold weather and high altitude.
The day after the hike (which happened to be my birthday) I got severe altitude sickness. I think I over exerted myself on the hike. I could not sleep when we returned from the hike and in the morning I started throwing up and did not stop until we finally broke camp and descended to 9000 feet. Just going down about 3000 feet made a world of difference and I felt fine the next day, but a little apprehensive about how I was going to handle altitude throughout the Andes.