The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy trek in eastern Colombia is an exceptional trek and one that should be near the top of your hiking list if you love world-class hikes. The trek wasn’t what John and I had in mind when we bought our airline tickets on points. But after considerable research, a six day trek looked like a great way to see this little known part of Colombia.
Back in 1988 when the Lonely Planet published its first guide book on Colombia, the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy mountain range was identified by Christophe Didinsky as being the most beautiful in all of the South American Andes.
I’d already trekked through the Cordillera Blanca in Peru – and thought them to be spectacular – so I was intrigued by what we might see.
The description in the Michelin Guide to Colombia goes like this: This region of extreme beauty, with waterfalls and clear blue glacier-fed lakes is still relatively unknown.
Here’s a look at how our six day trek in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy unfolded
Don’t expect to see a lot of people. According to one of our porters a few years ago only about 500 people per year do the full six-day circuit. Those numbers are starting to climb as more people hear about the hike.
Useful information for the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy trek
John and I spent six days in total hiking the Sierra Nevada circuit starting in the small town of Guican – accessed via a horrific 14 hour bus ride from Bogota. Fortunately that was the only nasty part of the trip.
The hike itself is difficult. On average we hiked about six hours a day, not excessive by any standards, but this hike is at altitude. Guican is the low point of the hike – sitting at 2,750 m (9,022 feet). The high point is Boqueron de la Sierra Pass at 4,650 m (15,256 feet).
But the real issue is that you’re sleeping at an altitude of between 4,000 and 4,350 m for five nights. We took Diamox to mitigate the effects of altitude since we didn’t have a lot of time to acclimatize.
Count on lots of tent time
Also its cold the minute the sun goes down so there’s a lot of tent time involved. And the weather is unpredictable. We were lucky. It rained for 20 minutes at the end of the first day, just as we approached the hostel we were to sleep in that night.
We had chilling fogs on a few occasions too but our luck overall with the weather was excellent. We compared our experience to that of two Canadians we met at the top of the first pass on the second day. They had woken to snow on three occasions and the only clear day with a view was on the day we met them. How disappointing not to see these mountains in all their glory!
If you think you’d like to go to this region, plan to hike during Colombia’s summer season. In winter the weather is even more unpredictable.
The trail is in great shape
In total we climbed and descended six passes. Generally the trails were in excellent shape and the only tough section I found was climbing through an extra-large boulder field – the ones where you step on a boulder, it moves – and a limb gets stuck.
Nothing untoward happened to either John or I except for one blister apiece. That’s not to say I wasn’t gasping for air like a fish out of water on every pass we climbed. I was but after a short rest I’d be good to go again.
We never knew how far we hiked every day. Distances were measured in numbers of hiking hours required and not kilometres. And although we could have figured out how many metres we climbed every day, we concentrated on how many passes there were, and not how high they were.
We used a guide – who is no longer running tours
We had hired a guide – Rodrigo who runs Colombia Treks. I’d found him on an online forum and had got a reference from an American who had done our proposed trip. Still I wasn’t entirely sure how it would all work out until we got there.
It turned out to be just fine. Rodrigo was a knowledgeable mountain guide and spoke English which was a bonus for me. We also hired an extra porter so we didn’t have to lug our full packs on two of the days. That was worth every penny.
Rodrigo and one of the porters also acted as cooks – and that along with the fact they put up our tent for us were really the luxuries we enjoyed on the trip.
Clockwise or counter-clockwise?
We hiked the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy in a counterclockwise direction beginning in Guican. Our guide Rodrigo explained to us that he preferred going in this direction for two main reasons.
The sun is at your back and not in your eyes, a huge plus in my mind and on the last day it’s easy to get back to Guican by early afternoon in order to catch a bus or private transportation onto where ever your next destination happens to be.
Don’t forget to take a map and a compass as well as a GPS with you. The GPS led the Canadians astray to the tune of three extra hours of hiking. And years ago according to Rodrigo, a group of four Colombian students got lost for 45 days – despite a massive search party for them. Somehow three of the four survived.
Day One: Trekking from Guican to Cabana Sisuma
Our first day of hiking started on the outskirts of Guican – located quite literally at the end of the road accessible via the God-awful 14 hour bus ride from Bogota (or about a nine hour drive in a private car).
We had been given the option of a 4 X 4 ride into Sierra Nevada del Cocuy National Park or we could spend the better part of six hours hiking. Both John and I opted for hiking, especially because we’d sat on the bus for fourteen hours the day before.
The first part of the hike takes you through the countryside where people farm and carry on much as they have for hundreds of years. There are lots of cows around and we ran into several people on horseback. The land was lush, green and full of flowers and exotic birds.
By the time we reached our lunch spot, three hours into the hike, I was already winded. Really all I wanted to do was sleep, but that would have to wait for a few hours yet.
We reached a rendezvous point at the four hour mark and got a lift into the actual park. Fortunately the last part of the hike just involved 90 minutes of walking up a road – with little in the way of elevation gain – and as a bonus lots of interesting and new vegetation.
We also got lucky on our first night. Instead of tenting in the rain we stayed in a hostel – Cabana Sisuma – and although cold – see your breath at dinner and in your bedroom cold – it was still lovely.
I don’t know the history the hostel but I’m sure it’s got some stories to tell – especially since much of this country was off limits years ago during the drug wars. We spent an interesting night there as there were two doctors – one an American and one a Colombian – who gave us lots of insight into the country.
I did go to bed wondering how I would make out at higher altitudes, especially if it stayed cold and wet. Though I didn’t know it at the time, our timing was good and on most of the following days we trekked under sunny skies.
Day 2: Trekking to Laguna de la Plaza at an elevation of 3900 m
There was a lot of heavy breathing happening on my part for most of the five to six hours it took me to hike to our campsite at the edge of Laguna de la Plaza, the largest lake on the six day trek.
In fact on the way up to both passes I would mentally count out ten steps at a time and on the 50th step I would sit for another count of ten. I think by day three I had acclimatized and the breathing wasn’t so much of an issue.
The scenery as you can see in the photos is very beautiful. There was a moodiness to both passes with fog swirling up – probably from the jungles of Venezuela.
Day three: Hiking to Laguno del Pañuelo
We were met with dazzling mountain scenes from the moment we opened the tent flap. Considering the fog had rolled in by 4 PM the afternoon before, we really had no idea of the beauty that lay waiting for us once we peeled back that flap.
The sky was that deep inky blue that you only see at high altitude. The lakes were breathtaking in their beauty. And around this camp there was plenty of bird life and vegetation I’d not seen anywhere else on the planet.
Some trekkers come to this camp and spend a few nights hiking in the area. That in itself would be very worthwhile. Our plan though was to continue over Balcones Pass at 4,350 m (13,920 feet) to a camp beside Laguno del Pañuelo at an altitude of 4,300 m (13,674 feet).
Although we were up just after 6 AM we really didn’t get going till close to 9 AM. We were waiting for the sun to dry the tents and since this was such a stunning landscape I was in no rush to get going either.
The hike took us around the lake – with infinity pool like views into the Colombian jungle. Then we had thirty minutes of Moab slickrock like hiking – which was easy and fun. As it turns out that was to be some of the easiest hiking all day.
For about an hour we hiked along benches and eskers. The hiking required your concentration as this was not a place you wanted to turn an ankle or worse – break a leg. The hiking through huge boulders after lunch required even more careful foot placement as some of the big boulders moved with any weight on them. I breathed a huge sigh of relief once we were through them. All told we hiked about six hours. Breathing felt easier on the climb than it did the day before.
Another reward for our efforts and sleeping at altitude were the phenomenal night skies. They were just packed with stars so those 4 AM trips out of the tent were actually quite pleasant. I think most of us forget what a sight a starry night is to behold.
Day 4 – Trekking in the Sierra Nevada from Laguna del Panuelo to Valle de Los Cojines
Our fourth day four of trekking took us up one pass, then steeply down to a lake, followed by a long traverse of a big valley filled with all sorts of strange vegetation. It was the easiest hiking day so far – partially because we were acclimatized but also because we only had one pass to climb and we dispatched with it early in the day.
Day 5 on trek in Colombia
On our second to last day of trekking we hiked up and over two passes to arrive at Laguna Grande de los Verdess.
We had lucked out again with sunshine for most of the day though the temperatures were all over the map. It seemed as though we were either removing clothes or putting them back on every 15 minutes. Fortunately it wasn’t until we arrived in camp that the fog rolled in.
The day ended up being one of my favourites. A quick look at the pictures will show you why. From the moment we left camp the scenery was outstanding. I’d give the day a 10/10.
The trekking was steady, especially with two passes to climb including the 4,550 m (14,469 feet) Boqueron de la Sierra but it passed all too quickly. There were places I wanted time to stand still so I could etch the views in memory forever.
All told we hiked about six hours. Our final campsite didn’t have the remote feel of the others. In fact nearby was a family who owned the land and looked after an assortment of sheep and horses.
But it was still very beautiful; you just didn’t get the wilderness feeling or the sense of isolation that we’d had over the past four days.
Day 6 – Last day on an amazing trek
It was a bittersweet end to our sixth and last day of a trek in the Sierra Nevada range.
Not all trips you take stay with you but this is one that will endure. Standout mountain scenery, incredible blue mountain lakes and exquisite vegetation from the day we left Guican was the hallmark of the trek. Going forward I can see that I will be comparing future treks to this one.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t looking forward to some creature comforts after six days.
I longed for a soft bed (my hips were unbelievably sore from a too thin thermarest) and a hot shower but even now – five weeks later I am sorry the trek flew by so quickly.
The last day of trekking was an easier one – either that or we were just in such amazing shape – which I don’t think was the case. The climb to our one and only pass of the day wasn’t nearly as arduous as it had been on the other days. We were down to our pickup location within four hours – tops.
And from there we got a ride and descended thousands of feet to return to Guican. It was close to culture shock being back in civilization, and that after only six days out.
Here’s a look at what the final day of trekking looked like.
While it’s a long haul from Bogota to get to the start of the trek, I think its incredibly worthwhile and after decades of hiking it still ranks as one of my all-time favourites.