This week we completed a six day hike around the mountains of El Cocuy National Park in Eastern Colombia. This turned out to be a very educational experience for us, with some of the major lessons being:
- Driving through Central America eating Pringles and Fajitas does not prepare you for hiking at 4000+ metres.
- Just because we drive our van Ginger to high altitudes does not prepare us for hiking at high altitudes.
- If everyone on the truck says this is your stop, make sure to check with the driver before getting off.
- Cold temperatures are even colder after months of sweating through Central America.
- A sleeping bag rated for -10C is not actually bearable at this temperature.
- Night buses suck! Day buses aren’t much better. Gravol certainly helps to prevent barfing and is a great sleeping aid!
- Nights in a tent are VERY long when they start at 6pm.
- You should not feed the crazy Peruvian man, as “he needs to be forced back into the real world” (according to our new British friend Phil)
We started our adventure to El Cocuy National Park with a long overnight bus trip which dropped us into the town of Cocuy at 6am. We managed a few hours sleep in a hotel then finished off our preparations with a few last minute items, buying our park pass, etc… The next morning we hopped onto the Lechero (milk truck/local transport) after confirming with the driver that we wanted to go to the Northern end of the trail where we would check into a nice Cabana for the night while acclimatising to the altitude. However, we got off at the wrong end of the trail because we listened to our fellow truck mates who assured us it was correct. Oh well!
We quickly changed gears and plans and knew that the real fun had begun with a half day of hiking and the start of 5 nights in our tent.
We got to the lake campsite around 2pm and set up for the evening, and a long evening it was. Each day it got dark around 5:30pm and then the real cold set in. Every night we ran into the tent to get some warmth at around 6pm and stayed there, cocooned, for 12+ hours. Let’s say they were looonng nights, and sadly not a heck of a lot of sleeping due to the effects of the altitude and cold.
Our mornings usually started around 7am when, if we were lucky, we’d get a bit of sun on our tent. A quick breakfast of oatmeal and then we were on our way. Each day we had at least 2 mountain passes to get up and through, usually between a 300 to 500 metre climb for each one. And at this altitude most activities are much more difficult, your legs feel really heavy and catching your breath is even difficult. Plus we had heavy backpacks and at least 2 litres of water each to carry. Sometimes a bit of a nagging headache too, which is one of the first signs of altitude sickness. Nothing that a bit of ibuprofen couldn’t get rid of luckily!
For the first few days of our hike we had great weather, with the sun making appearances throughout the day. This was super but the first day because we weren’t prepared for a long hike we got blasted by the sun and the intense UV up there. We learned to try and keep covered (hence Christine’s gloves, hood, etc…) and to reapply our sunscreen regularly. The great weather sadly didn’t keep up and on our fourth night we woke to the sound of rain on the tent. Cold rain! Unfortunately the rain and cloud set in for the next 48+ hours, which saw us hiking, cooking and sleeping in a constant light, did I mention cold, rain. The ever present clouds also blocked out the views and often made finding the trail difficult.
In short the trail was very tough, especially because of the altitude. Right up until the half way mark we had repeated conversations about turning back, normally while trudging up towards the next pass and stopping every 10metres to catch our breath. After the half way point we knew we were committed to finishing.
Now that we are finished, and have had a couple of recovery days we are both very glad that we chose, and finished, this amazing and remote trail, in an area that sees very little tourism. Until 2005 the park was occupied by FARC and ELN guerrillas and saw no tourism until recently. It is also predicted that within 10-15 years all of the glaciers in the park will have disappeared (based on recent glacial recession rates), so we are happy to have seen it when we did. It’s difficult to show the grandeur and magnitude of the mountains and landscape but I hope our pictures at least give you a taste of what we experienced!