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Hiking in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy Range, Colombia

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I’m just back from hiking in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy range of mountains in eastern Colombia.

"The view of Laguna de la Plaza outside my tent on the morning of Day 3 "

The view of Laguna de la Plaza outside my tent on the morning of Day 3

I don’t think hiking in high mountains is the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Colombia

It certainly wasn’t what John and I originally planned to do when we bought our airline tickets. But after considerable research a six day trek looked like a great way to see this little known part of the country. Back in 1988 when the Lonely Planet published its first guide book on Colombia, the El 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.

"About four hours into the hike on Day One - outside of the small town of Guican"

About four hours into the hike on Day One – outside of the small town of Guican

It turns out – at least according to one of our porters – that only about 500 people per year do the six day circuit. Those numbers are starting to climb as more and more people hear about the hike.

"Our first encounter with frailejones - endemic mainly to Colombia, Venezuela & Ecuador"

Our first encounter with frailejones – a plant endemic mainly to Colombia, Venezuela & Ecuador

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 was 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 2750 meters (9022 feet). The high point is Boqueron de la Sierra Pass at 4650 meters (15,256 feet). But the real issue is that you’re sleeping at an altitude of between 4000 and 4350 meters for five nights. We took Diamox to mitigate the effects of altitude since we didn’t have a lot of time to acclimatize.

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!

"Beautiful reflection in a small lake on Day 2 of the hike"

Beautiful reflection in a small lake on Day 2 of the hike

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.

"View of the Valle de los Cojjines on Day 4"

View of the Valle de los Cojjines on Day 4

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 is a knowledgeable mountain guide and he speaks 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 only luxuries we enjoyed on the trip.

"The view from the Boqueron de la Sierra Pass at 4650 meters (15,256 feet)"

The view from the Boqueron de la Sierra Pass at 4650 meters (15,256 feet)

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.

"Hiking up to the last pass of the trip"

Hiking up to the last pass of the trip

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a day by day account of the hike – mostly because each day was so different – and so very beautiful.

Have you ever been hiking in the Sierra Nevada range in Colombia? Would you want to go?

For more travel inspiration check out the photos of other travel bloggers on Nancie’s Budget Travelers Sandbox website.

Leigh McAdam

HikeBikeTravel
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Author Hike Bike Travel

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion 56 Comments

  • I stay in pretty good condition — daily workouts, skiing & other sports– but I’m sure that this would be a challenge, especially with the altitude. Is it a challenge I’d like to take? After seeing you photos — yes! What an incredible experience you and John had.

  • Jennifer says:

    Wow, incredibly beautiful scenery! I can’t wait to read your day-by-day account. I’ll show my husband and he’ll be planning our trip to Colombia in no time. ;-)

  • Jenna says:

    Wow, what beautiful scenery with bright colors and interesting textures. Thanks for introducing me to this part of South America…I had no idea this part of Colombia was so beautiful!

    • @Jenna Although its a cliche I really think it is one of Colombia’s undiscovered gems – partly because the last 140 kms of roads wind through steep mountain valleys – prone to landslides. It took us 4 hours to cover 140 kms in a private car. Add an extra two hours for the bus,

  • Wow. So want to hike Colombia now. Have trekked a lot in the Canary Islands, so now ready to step it up a level.

  • Rafa says:

    Yes!
    I’ve been there 3 times; however the last was more than 15 years ago.
    I moved out of Colombia and in addition the terrorist groups were in the area and wasn’t safe to go.
    I understand this has changed, and that’s why people are able to go there again.

    It is one of my favorite places on earth. The time I have sepnt there has always been special; surreal.

    Would love to go back one day with my family!

    Looking forward to the rest of the pictures.

  • budget jan says:

    The views of the mountains and lakes are superb. How amazing to have the lake view just outside your tent. I do not think I would be fit enough to do this hike at altitude, but I am glad that this will restrict the numbers and keep the area as it is – it would be awful to not have good weather. So glad you did.

  • This looks so stunning. I love the colors and vegetation. Looks a bit greener than the Andes in Peru I think. Can’t wait to read a more detailed account. Will get me hyped for my upcoming Everest Basecamp Climb. ;-)

  • Grace says:

    woow, it’s just so beautiful.. the colors of nature are utterly vivid and they combine so well, kudos to the One who created such breathtaking beauty..

  • Muza-chan says:

    That reflection is breathtaking! :)

  • Doing this trek is one of my dreams! Now I want to do it even more :) Gorgeous fotos, thanks for sharing!

  • Jackie Smith says:

    You knocked it out of the ball park on this post! Beautiful scenes and what a tale, what an adventure!

  • What an exciting trip. I’ll have to admit that I’m glad it was you and not me, but that 5th photo alone is enough to convince a hiker that this is the place to be. What a postcard! Like others, I’m looking forward to the day by day (step by step?) lookback at your trip.

  • I think this is a trek I will live vicariously through you! Wow just doesn’t seem to cut it on this one. The very first picture is amazing as is the “View of the Valle de los Cojjines on Day 4”. Thanks for taking me along this adventure :)

  • Sophie says:

    I would never have considered Colombia for a hiking destination, but this sounds fantastic. And that lake is so impossibly beautifully blue.

  • What a gorgeous region, Leigh! I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that hike, especially with altitude but just looking at your photos makes me want to get in shape to do it. You’re really making me want to take up hiking, Leigh! Thanks.

  • Looks amazing. Can’t wait for the day-by-day account. I guess every hidden gem has a price and a the bus ride is it for this trip. Nice thing about those travails is they weed out the masses.

  • WOW! This hike looked spectacular. I’m not a camping type person but if I woke up to that view in the first photo I may just do it. What a great adventure and something I never would have expected from Colombia. Looking forward to seeing all the other posts and spectacular photos.

  • Agness says:

    This stunning scenery is definitely worth every minute of exhausting hiking! Amazing!

  • Wow, the lakes look so blue in the picture where you’re looking down on them. It sounds like a very challenging hike. I have horrible problems with altitude sickness and didn’t realize there was medication for it.

    • @Malaysian Meanders Whenever I go to altitude (>10,000′ for sleeping) and I’m planning to be at altitude for days I bring along Diamox. It’s a prescription drug that acts as a diuretic and gets rid of those horrible altitude headaches. It also leaves you with a tingling in your extremities but that side effect is worth it in my mind.

  • Laurel says:

    This looks like such an incredible hiking trip. I never would have thought about hiking in Colombia before reading this.

  • Linda says:

    Beautiful and fascinating…..and utterly making me want to get up and go. Could the hike be spread over more time to allow time to acclimatize more?

    • @Linda Ideally that’s what you want to do. We did have three days in Bogota – at almost 9000′, a night in Guican at almost 10,000′ and a night in a hostel at around 11,000 feet. We never got sick in teh mountains but once you’re up there it still take some time to acclimatize.

  • Ohhh, what beautiful green and verdant countryside. Love hiking and being out in the open miles from anywhere. Can’t wait for your next installment. Thanks too for commenting on my blog the other day :)

  • Hi Leigh, what an incredible trek! I have trekked the Andes in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, but I have not even thought about of Andean part of Columbia. It looks spectacular. That view from you tent on day 3 is just breathtaking. I’m sure it made all the aches and pains worth it. Gorgeous photos.

  • Hi Leigh, what an incredible trek! I have trekked the Andes in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, but I have not even thought about of Andean part of Columbia. It looks spectacular. That view from you tent on day 3 is just breathtaking. I’m sure it made all the aches and pains worth it. Gorgeous photos.

  • kelbert says:

    hey, great site!
    i was wondering, do you think its posible to do this trekking without any guides?

    thanks!

    • @Kelbert Absolutely. We met several people doing it on their own but you will have to schlep a lot of gear. Get a good map and don’t just rely on a GPS. Bring a compass and know how do use it. Navigation is mostly not a problem UNLESS it gets really foggy and then it could be a real pain. You can also just hire porters which is what some people do.

      • kelbert says:

        thanks for sharing, i think im going with just a map and a compass on my own

        im going in the dry season according to the lonely planet so i think fog shouldnt be a problem.

        Did you went to los nevados too?

        other treks suggestions in Colombia?

        Thanks for the tips!

      • @Kelbert Dry season is in our North American winter. July & August tend to be wet!! And even in dry season you can get intense fogs. Trust me.

        The only other trek suggestion I have is The Lost City in the north. Good luck. It is a glorious area.

      • kelbert says:

        yeah i know, im going in february

        thanks for everything

  • Dagmar says:

    I’d like to go solo in winter 2014 and hire a guide. Do you have any suggestion whom to hire ?

  • Beautiful photos! I’m glad the hike was worth the 14 hour bus ride! I definitely want to add hiking in Columbia on my to-do list now- thanks for sharing!

  • trekking in nepal says:

    Lovely images and thoughts to go with them..Each is worth thinking about..Thanks!

  • Josh Arthur says:

    A friend and I will be heading to Colombia in March and plan on spending some time in El Cocuy and as an ultra marathoner I am interested in doing the circuit trek in one push. If not this trip, definitely during another. One thing I can’t find though is the actual stats on distance and total elevation gain. Would you happen to know those numbers? I’ve seen anything from 50 miles to 120k (estimates) and with 9 passes I would assume its somewhere around 25,000′ vert? Any beta that you can offer would be much appreciated. Thanks, Josh

    • @Josh I hope you’re acclimatized to altitude before you go.It’s going to depend on where you actually start and end. We started right from Guican and hiked about 10 kms to a road and then took a car ride into the park per se. Once in the park we probably walked 14 kms/day X 5 days as a rough guestimate. If the weather craps out on you, routefinding can be an issue. I have written five other posts so you can read through those starting with Day 1. You could also email our guide Rodrigo for detailed info and perhaps he can help -arias_rodrigo@hotmail.com

  • Cindy says:

    Thinking about Colombia for next winter and would love to see this part of the country but, as you know, I’m not much of a hiker. Is any of it accessible without hiking?

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