One look over the snow-capped peaks, soft river flows, impressive lagoons and mystic páramo landscape of El Cocuy National Park and you will fall in love with this place. There is something about these mountains that will send shivers down your spine.
The protected mountain range belongs to the most beautiful destinations in Colombia and is a must visit for any passionate hiker. Due to the high altitude, the hikes are a bit more challenging than other hikes around the country but with a bit of preparation and the necessary information, it’s feasible for just about anybody. Keep on reading if you’re interested in discovering this fascinating place!
Why you should visit El Cocuy
The natural setting at El Cocuy National Natural Park is a unique and captivating scenery that has attracted many nature lovers in the past. It holds the biggest glacier mass in Colombia and hosts several different climate settings. From the cloud forest over the páramo and snowed mountain peaks the landscapes at this place will take your breath away.
One of the most common and most important sights at the park is the páramo landscape which can be found between 3,000 and 4,000 m.a.s.l. This particular environment exists only in a handful of countries and a large part of it is located in Colombia. Its position between the forest and the snowline accounts for difficult conditions. This has caused the plants growing in this territory to adapt and develop beautiful, mysterious forms and exceptional capabilities.
The snowline marks the end of the páramo landscape
A good example of this are frailejones. Their particular shape and anatomy allow them to collect water from low hanging clouds and transport it into the ground through their roots. A really close look at one of those beauties will let you see the water drops hanging in its leaves. Another great trick they have is that they don’t drop their leaves. The stem is covered in their old, dry leaves which keeps the plant warm in the high mountain climate.
A fraijelon in El Cocuy National Park
Apart from the famous páramo, you’ll also be able to spot river flows and several lagoons. The most popular one is the Laguna Grande de la Sierra. Its water has a deep blue color and is surrounded by some of the snow-capped peaks in the park. The water of this lagoon is so clean that you can even drink it.
Filling up water bottles at the Laguna Grande
Going up a little further you will reach the snow line. The view of the endless white peaks is incredible. However, hiking in the snow is prohibited as this territory is sacred ground for the local indigenous tribe called U’wa. But this doesn’t set an end to the beauty of these hiking tracks. The background story makes this place even more mystical and worthwhile to have a look at from the distance.
Hiking routes in El Cocuy
There are three main hiking tracks at El Cocuy National Park. All of them can be done within one day. A few years back, there was also a hiking track that let you cross the whole park but it is nowadays closed, in respect to the indigenous people and to conserve the land.
The easiest of the three hiking tracks is the one to Laguna Grande. Here you will reach a maximum altitude of 4,400 m a.s.l. You can pass through the Valle de Los Frailejones on your way to the lagoon and once you get there you will also have a great view of the nearby peaks. The total length of this hike is 21 km (13 miles).
El Valle de los frailejones
The second track that you can follow leads you to El Pulpito del diablo. This is a rock formation right at the snowline of the Pan de Azúcar peak. You will reach an altitude of 5,100 m.a.s.l. here which can cause some difficulties with the height. But don’t worry - as soon as you turn around and get to lower altitudes it will get easier. More tips on how to deal with the height in our designated blog post
. This hike is 26 km (16 miles) long to go and come back and has a total duration of approximately 10 hours. El Pulpito del diablo, or translated the devil’s pulpit, was named this way because it never carries snow. People say that the devil always takes care of keeping its rock clean.
El Pulpito del diablo in front of the Pan de Azúcar peak
A little further away in the northwest of the park, you can follow another hiking trail to the Ritacuba peak. This hike is steeper than the others which makes it more challenging and reaches an altitude of 4,600 m.a.s.l. The total length of the hike is 14 km (8 miles) and you will be rewarded with a view of the impressive mountain peak that is the highest one in the park.Extra Tip: For some relaxation, after a few days of hiking you can pass through Guican on your way out and enjoy a day at the hot springs.
How to get to El Cocuy
You can start from either of the small towns of El Cocuy and Guican to visit the park. It is relatively easy to get there by bus from Bogotá or Bucaramanga. The ride will be about 8 to 10 hours long so it’s a good idea to book an overnight bus. The price of the buses ranges from US$ 40 to US$ 70 depending on the route you are going to take.
Both El Cocuy and Guican are close to the eastern side of the park but the latter is more toward the north. Depending on the hiking tracks you plan to follow it might be smarter to start from one or the other. The trail to the Ritacuba peak is closer to Guican but El Cocuy is closer to the Laguna Grande and El Pulpito hike. El Cocuy also has a larger offer of cafés and restaurants if you are planning to stay a few days to get acclimatized.
Once you arrive at the village of your choice, you have to proceed to the registration office. There you will have to buy insurance for the days you will spend at the park (about COP 70,000, US$ 23) and pay the entrance fee (about COP 55.000/ US$ 18). It is also recommended to hire a guide to enter the park. They know the routes really well and are experienced in dealing with the height. Of course, the advantage of going with a guide is also that he or she will be able to let you in about some interesting stories about the park and its flora and fauna.
From either of the small towns, you then have to get transportation to the park for the day of your hike. You can pay a private driver if it is not already included in your tour or you can catch the lechero
. This is a truck that drives along the main road through El Cocuy and Guican to collect milk from the farmers. For a small fee (about COP 10,000/ US$ 3) it will leave you close to the park at the road. The lechero
leaves from the main square in El Cocuy between 5 am and 6 am in the morning.
Reaching the park entrance, you can leave your luggage at one of the little guesthouses if you’re planning to stay for more than one day. And then it’s finally time for your hike. For people that are not used to the altitude or have previously experienced problems, it is advisable to do a small acclimatization hike on the first day before following one of the more challenging hiking tracks.
A part of the guesthouse Hacienda La Esperanza at the park entrance
When is the best time to visit El Cocuy?
The best time to visit El Cocuy National Park is from December to February. This is the high season in Colombia and the climate will be dry. An alternative is the months from June to August. The weather might be a little unpredictable (which it is almost always in the mountains) but it is also mainly dry. During the rest of the year, it can be pretty rainy.
What should I bring?
This is a real trekking adventure so come prepared: several layers of warm clothing, an impermeable snow jacket, impermeable hiking boots, a refillable water bottle, and sunscreen should be on your packing list. That equipment can serve you for other destinations in Colombia like Los Nevados as well ;)
Is El Cocuy only a destination for experienced hikers?
The hiking tracks at El Cocuy National Park are more challenging due to the high altitude. You can refer to the information above to choose a hiking track that suits you. For crossing the amazing landscape at this park you should be in good shape but it is not necessary to have a lot of hiking experience. Anyhow, inexperienced visitors should definitely go with a guide to avoid the risk of getting lost or ill from the height.
El Cocuy has already been mentioned in several of our blog post (check Most beautiful Hiking Tracks
, National Park Overview
) - and this is for a good reason. It is one of the most fascinating and challenging places to hike through the breathtaking nature of Colombia.