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El Cocuy [English]

(La versión en español aquí.)

Arriving to El Cocuy National Park is no easy task. After three buses and a duration of 21 hours I made it to the small town of El Cocuy which sits below the park. The pueblo is painted a very pleasing shade of seafoam green and the streets are filled with farmers wearing their typical ruanas (wool ponchos).

A campesino in his ruana. (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

A campesino in his ruana. (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

I met up with my dear friends from Denver, Tyler and Lindsey, who had arrived the day before. Our first matter of business was a trip to the hospital. A few weeks earlier I had cut my foot on a coral reef while snorkeling in Chocó and some sand parasite crawled in through the wound. It manifested itself as the outline of a worm right under my skin. I had gotten some anti-parasite medicine in Bucaramanga right before I left, but my little buddy grew nearly a full inch during the bus ride to El Cocuy and made me a bit nervous. My worry was for naught because the next day the drugs kicked in and the little guy started disappearing.

My pals Tyler and Lindsay.

My pals Tyler and Lindsay.

The main church of El Cocuy.

The main church of El Cocuy.

We spent a full day in El Cocuy where we had to stock up on food and register for the park entrance. In order to acclimate a bit we hiked up to a monument in a grassy meadow that overlooks the town.

The monument. (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

The monument. (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

Looking down on El Cocuy.

Looking down on El Cocuy.

The next morning we caught a ride on the lechero up to the national park. The lechero is the truck that makes a loop through the mountains each morning collecting milk from all the farmers. It also brings eggs, gas tanks and any other thing that the farmers need to buy from town. The ride took us up through the hills as the early morning sun cast a dreamy glow on picturesque country landscapes.

On the lechero with Lindsay! (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

Bundled up on the lechero with Lindsay! (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

We got dropped off on the side of the road and had a short walk to get to the cabins where I was going to spend my first night – Los Herrera.

A view of Ritakuba Blanco on our hike to the cabins. It's the highest peak in the park with an elevation of 5,410 m (17,749 ft). (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

A view of Ritakuba Blanco on our hike to the cabins. It’s the highest peak in the park with an elevation of 5,410 m (17,749 ft). (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

After setting our things down we went on a short hike up from the cabin through a valley full of frailejones –the emblematic plant of the páramo ecosystem that makes up most of the park. The páramo is an ecosystem that resembles a moor, but is found in tropical climates. It exists in only 4 countries and Colombia contains the majority of the worlds’ páramos.

Frailejones!! (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

Frailejones!! (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

The view of Valle de Lagunillas. (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

The view of Valle de Lagunillas. (Photo by Tyler Broeren)

I felt awesome on the hike and was even exclaiming that I was ready to go to a higher elevation to camp! The moment we got back to the cabin and sat down, though, altitude sickness reared its head and left me feeling terrible. I downed several cups of coca tea, a supposed cure for altitude sickness, but continued getting worse. As I wasn’t sure if I would recover up at about 12,900 feet, I paid $40 for a car to take me back down to the pueblo and bid a hasty farewell to Lindsay and Tyler who were going to continue on in the park. With no way to contact each other I told them we’d see each other back in Bucaramanga. As soon as I got back down to El Cocuy I felt way better and the next morning I was ready for another go at high altitude. I took the lechero to Hacienda La Esperanza – another lodging located further into the park.

My fellow passengers on the second lechero ride. A local family on their way to town and the boy who collected all the milk.

My fellow passengers on the second lechero ride. A local family on their way to town and the boy who collected all the milk.

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La Esperanza is a beautiful working farm that’s been around for several generations. I lounged around the old farmhouse in the morning and went on a short hike in the afternoon. Having conquered my altitude sickness I decided to spend a few more days up there.

The inside of La Esperanza.

The inside of La Esperanza.

Sheep competition trophies. La Esperanza couldn't be any more charming.

Livestock competition trophies. La Esperanza couldn’t be any more charming.

The view from La Esperanza.

The view from La Esperanza.

The next day I went on a grueling hike to Laguna Grande. I will definitively say that it was the hardest hike I’ve ever done in my life.

A view along the hike of Pan de Azucar (left) and El Pulpito (right).

A view along the hike of Pan de Azucar (left) and El Pulpito (right).

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It took 4 hours to get to the lagoon and I gained almost 3,000 feet to arrive at a final elevation of 15,180 feet. From the lagoon there was a lovely panoramic view of many glaciers and snowy peaks.

LagunaGrande

I was totally exhausted on my return to La Esperanza, but got a second wind when I saw Lindsay and Tyler hanging out in their tent! They had heard from another backpacker that I had gone back up to the park and decided to come to La Esperanza where they thought they would probably find me. We hung around playing cards and I splurged ($6!) on an amazing dinner prepared by Guillermo. Guillermo is the son of the owner of the farm and the resident chef. His family, the Valderramas, have a long history in the area. The farm originally belonged to his great-grandparents. His father stayed at the farm during the 80s and 90s while Guillermo and his siblings went to Bogota with their mother. During this period El Cocuy was incredibly dangerous due to a large guerrilla presence in the area. In 2000 the area had become safer and tourists started visiting El Cocuy. By 2008 tourism had picked up a lot and Guillermo’s family first opened their farm for tourists. Additionally, Guillermo’s grandfather was the first to bring cinema to El Cocuy in the 1940s. During our stay at La Esperanza we became dear friends with Guillermo and were treated to lots of homemade arequipe and the best hot chocolate I’ve had in Colombia. Lindsay couldn’t take the extreme cold of camping so we shared a bed and kept warm under 7 heavy blankets.

For my last full day at La Esperanza I went with a family from Bogota who had arranged a hike up to Ritakuba Blanco. An advantage I’ve experienced of traveling solo is that it’s easy to tag along with other groups of travelers who have already gone to the trouble of planning day trips, arranging transportation and everything else. We planned to go up to the snowline on Ritakuba Blanco, but clouds rolled in and we went back down.

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After getting to know the owners of La Esperanza so well it felt like we had been there for weeks and it was difficult to leave. Guillermo gave us a ride down to El Cocuy on our last day. He and his boyfriend had just gotten a house together in El Cocuy so we helped them unpack a bit and then hung out in the pueblo for the day.

Hanging out with our friends from La Esperanza.

Hanging out with our friends from La Esperanza.

We took a trip to the cemetery which was particularly beautiful with its view of the mountains and fields of purple flowers.

Photo by Tyler Broeren.

Photo by Tyler Broeren.

Photo by Tyler Broeren.

Photo by Tyler Broeren.

Photo by Tyler Broeren.

Photo by Tyler Broeren.

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We took a different route back to Bucaramanga than the one I had taken to arrive, thinking it would be easier. Unfortunately it turns out that there is no easy way to or from El Cocuy and we had to endure a 16-hour bus ride to get back.

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