About a month ago, I went hiking with a group of friends and my cousin, Carlos, in Los Nevados National Park. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week) so we had a week off teaching to relax and travel! We thus decided to do a four-day trek through the nearby national park.
Where is Los Nevados?
Los Nevados is located in the Central Mountain Range of the Colombian Andes (the highest range out of 3 branches of the Andes). It is pretty close to Manizales, where I’m living, and as you may have read in previous posts, I can usually see it from my bedroom window, like here:
The park features many volcanoes, mostly dormant, and three of which still have their glaciers: the Ruiz, the Santa Isabel, and the Tolima. The highest one, the Ruiz, is closest to Manizales and is still active– Manizaleños can often see it smoking on a clear day.
A relatively recent eruption in 1985 caused Colombia’s worst-ever natural disaster. The lahar (residue/debris that races down a volcano) erased a small town called Armero in its path – leaving only a quarter of its 28,700 residents alive.
The Ruiz, then, is a truly sublime force – it’s beautiful to look at it, but it also inspires fear and reverence at the powerful force of nature.
Not just that, but it also serves as evidence of the incredible diversity on this planet. May I remind you that I am currently in Colombia – a country very close to the equator known for its hot temperatures and beautiful beaches and jungles in many parts of the country. But somehow in spite of all this, there is a park with glaciers in it!? That’s right. Colombia is AWESOME.
OK – let’s hike this thing.
Our decision to go on the trek was ultimately pretty last-minute. We managed to get enough people on board just in time so the night before the trek, we all met at Juan Valdez (basically the Starbucks of Colombia) to discuss logistics and the game plan for the next day.
At 5AM the next morning, the final group of eight of us met our jeep driver with all our gear and giddily hopped into the jeep to start our journey.
Here’s a rough outline of our itinerary:
Day One: Hiking up to the Santa Isabel Glacier. 6km. Night at Potosí Finca
Day Two: Potosí Finca to Berlín Finca. ~17km. Highlights: Laguna del Otún, forests of frailéjones in the paramo.
Day Three: Berlín Finca to Primavera Finca. ~14km Highlights: more paramo, marshlands.
Day Four: Primavera Finca to Cocora Valley, and a jeep to Salento! ~15 km Highlights: slipping and sliding in the mud all day; getting to our final destination!
Day One: Reaching High Altitudes on the Santa Isabel Glacier
After our jeep picked us up in Manizales, we had a ride of about 2 hours ahead of us to get to the park. We had a few stops on the way though to start acclimatizing. The first was in the neighbouring town of Villamaria to pick up some of our equipment and to grab a quick coffee or coca tea.
We then stopped for breakfast at a beautiful countryside finca – hot chocolate with bread, arepas, and eggs. This was roughly the same breakfast we would eat every morning of the hike.
Our last stop before arriving at the park was a quick stop to admire this incredible waterfall:
The whole ride was breathtaking, really. Getting to the park entrance (below), we looked up at the heavy cloud cover, hoping it wouldn’t start to rain. Also feeling the cold nip at our skin when we got out of the jeep, I started hoping my cheap dollar store gloves would be enough to get me through the next four days!
Soon after arriving and doing a quick assessment of what we needed to bring up to the peak with us, we started on our way. The ‘paramo’ (a high-altitude tropical tundra climate) was amazing to see.
Nearing the top, a bit of altitude sickness started to hit. My head started to pound and my breathing was shallow. But step by step, we kept moving forward.
I was grateful for the numbers of layers I had brought up! Sweating one minute while the sun was out, and then shivering for the wind, they were definitely necessary.
Before we knew it, we had made it!
The glacier was incredible – rocky and barren, no more paramo plants in sight. We could also walk on it up to a certain point, but not too far for risk of falling through without the proper gear. It was especially cool to see where there were some cracks in the ice; you could look through to amazing crystal water. My cousin and I took advantage of the ice to make some ‘ice’ angels…. *brrr*
What’s sad is that the glacier probably won’t last much longer – ten years at most, according to scientists. It’s been receding rapidly over the past few years. There’s even a marker on a rock that says “2003,” marking where the glacier went up to 14 years ago, and it’s shockingly far back from where the glacier starts now.
It was awesome, though, to be able to take in this sight knowing that it won’t be like this much longer. Oh the ephemerality of it all!
The hike, though pretty short at just 6km total, drained us completely. Once we got to the finca, the owners gave us some agua de panela and lunch, and then we went straight to bed – at about 3 p.m!
Despite our sleeping bags and the cozy blankets that the owners gave us, many of us were freezing. I tried to stay absolutely still because moving just a bit made me feel cold. Around 7, they called us for dinner, but I could hardly muster the energy to get up and eat. Only the idea of a warm soup finally lured me out from under the covers.
It was crazy to see how the day’s climb and the altitude had exhausted us so much physically and mentally. While some didn’t seem too affected by it, most of us had headaches, or felt nauseous, or were just really tired. It felt like nature’s hangover. Only one thing to do – sleep it off. We went to bed super early to be fresh for the next day.
Day Two: We have to walk up THAT?
Day two was a LONG day. We started bright and early after having a quick and yummy breakfast at the finca. The Nevado del Ruiz was amazingly clear that morning, and we were able to see it smoking impressively as we started on our way.
It was then roughly a 7km gradual uphill walk to get to the Laguna del Otun – a big beautiful lake in the middle of the park. We were fortunate to have the sun peeking out of the clouds just in time when we got there. My cousin and I couldn’t resist the perfect moment for a photo.
We then descended into a green and pretty canyon, where we caught our first glimpses of frailejón forests in this well-maintained one called “Bosque de Eden” (Forest of Eden). The mountains in the distance made for a beautiful backdrop.
Around this time, I also successfully miscalculated the depth of a mud puddle and got one leg well stuck. Thankfully my cousin was nearby and was able to help pull me out!
Shortly after, it started to hail a bit, and there was thunder and lightning. Still far off from our destination, we all picked up the pace to try and avoid getting stuck in a storm.
As soon as we made it to a finca where we were going to have a break, it started to rain really hard. Just in time! We warmed up with some agua de panela, played with some baby chicks (aww) and then headed back out on our way – a few more kilometres to go.
The sun came out and we were able to take off our layers as we walked through the lush countryside. I said hola to every cow and every horse, of course.
Our guide then casually mentioned that we had to then climb up the mountain that was directly in front of us. I’m sorry, what!? Totally unexpected, this was going to be a challenge after already walking about 15km that day!
We started the climb, stopping frequently for a breather, and admiring the countryside view which got smaller and smaller as we climbed.
Alexis and I started invoking the name of inspirational women to get us through. For Oprah! For Emma Watson! For Ellen DeGeneres!
In the end, we all made it. Exhausted but in awe of the beautiful view.
There was then just about a kilometre more until we arrived at Berlín Finca, our home for the night. As there were no rooms available, we had to camp that night outside the house.
We set up our tents as soon as we arrived and then went to huddle around the stove in the kitchen where we stayed chatting and relaxing as the owner made us agua de panela, and then dinner. We were starving and ate as if we hadn’t eaten in ten days and soon after got into our tents to pass out.
Day Three: Wet and Wonderful
Day three was wet. Very wet. It started raining while we were taking down our tents and continued raining on and off the whole day. Those crappy dollar store gloves I mentioned earlier? Yeah, they weren’t much help this day. We got absolutely soaked.
But – the day was also wonderful! We passed through amazing dense paramo forests, filled with frailéjones.
Not just that, though. We also passed through an incredible marshy area that in Spanish is called a “pantano.” It’s basically a swamp with very strong, spongy green plants that you can step on. Trying to jump from one to the other and making sure to only step on the truly strong ones felt like a video game. It was so fun!
I was not always successful, though.
And, despite the rain, we were able to catch a foggy glimpse of the Paramillo of Quindío sitting near the marsh. (“Paramillo” is the term used for the volcanoes that no longer have their glaciers) Wonderful!
At Primavera finca that night, we strung out some rope all over our dorm room and hung everything on it with the naive hope that it would dry a bit. But, with the cold? No such luck. We had to suck it up and put on our wet boots and some wet clothes the next day, yum!
Day Four: Slipping and sliding down to the Cocora Valley
Our final day woke up beautiful, with a bright sun and a view of the Nevado of Tolima in the distance. It didn’t stay that way long though. As we started the last day’s hike, it got foggy and gloomy once more.
Luckily there was no rain, but the ground was still very wet from the downpour the day before. Nearly the whole day consisted of trudging in the mud on our descent into the Cocora Valley.
Most of us fell at least a few times. It was tricky but very, very amusing. Check out all that mud!
After a bit of walking, we got to an extremely windy ridge. The guide explained that it was where two winds from separate mountain chains meet, making it a perpetual windy crossroads.
At the top, we stopped to take pictures and revel in the wind! My hands started going numb… those damn gloves were still too wet to be any use. We didn’t stay up there too long, anyway. It was time to descend down into the valley!
Getting into the valley, it warmed up a lot, and we were greeted by beautiful rolling hills all around us.
After a lot of walking and trying not to fall that day, we reached a section of the path with lots of river crossings. The majority of the bridges were pretty dodgy, some missing parts or looking pretty worn out, but hey we survived!
Soon after, we arrived at our destination: Cocora Valley! The sun was shining bright and hot, so all the lush green hills around looked incredible. The tall waxy palm trees soon came into sight as well – they are some of the tallest in the world!
It was an amazing end to an amazing hike.
From the valley, we took a jeep into the nearby town of Salento. There were more of us than could fit sitting so I and three others hung onto the back! It was such a cool feeling to have the wind blow in our hair and to be driving after having walked so long.
Some in our group headed back to Manizales right away but Carlos, Alexis, and I stayed in Salento for the night. It’s a beautiful, colourful town and since we were there during Easter, it was packed! That’s for another post though! Keep your eyes out for it. 🙂