After learning that our original plan (Sierra Nevada del Cucuy) was closed, we set our sights on trekking in Parque Nacional Los Nevados, an 8 hour bus ride south of Medellin. Our intention was to climb Nevado Tolima, the highest volcano in the park. We reached out to Crested Outdoors and although Diego (the owner) couldn’t do Tolima, he had already planned a 5 day exploratory mission for a new route and invited us along. Gotta give a big shout out for Crested Outdoors. Diego is amazing, and is one of the friendlies and most ecologically and scientifically informed guides I've ever met. Highly recommend.
How do you get to Los Nevados National Park?
I'd recommend staying in Salento, which is a nice colonial town and the gateway to the famous Cocora Valley. Most tours and treks will pick you up from your hotel or hostel in Salento and drive to an entry point closer to the park. There is no public transportation directly to the park, so you'll need to arrange transport via a tour or guide. There are frequent Jeep shuttles from Salento to Valle de Cocora, which is one of the more popular hikes.
Where can you hike in Los Nevados National Park?
Los Nevados is quite large, nearly 225 square miles, with trails in all parts of the park. Some of the more popular destinations in the park include Valle de Cocora, Nevado Tolima, Laguna del Otún, and Nevado Santa Isabel.
Our Trek in Los Nevados
Day 1 - El Cedral to Finca Berlin
After being picked up at our hostel in Salento around 6:30, we drove to the start of our hike at El Cedral. While the first two hours of hiking was clear, we were soon made familiar with the rain. Lots and lots of rain. All thoughts of staying dry were quickly dashed as we crossed a knee deep stream, and continued upwards on trails that were more like rivers. After reaching fincha El Jordan, we headed ever upwards into less traveled areas of the park on trails of ankle deep mud, finally finishing our day in Berlin (for some reason areas of the park are named after cities).
Day 2 - Finca Berlin to Finca Africa
After a rather dreary first day, we were concerned that we might never see the landscapes of Los Nevados. Luckily, as we took a rather circuitous, off-trail route over another pass towards Africa, the weather cleared up a bit and we were treated to swirling clouds amongst the paramo. Our views were of endless plains broken by rugged mountains and volcanoes.
The paramo is an unique ecosytem only found in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. The vegetation primarily consists of shrubs and grasses, and most prominently, the frailejon. This family of plants (called Espeletia), is essential to the paramo's in water supply. The plants capture water vapor from passing clouds in their spongy trunks and release it through the roots into the soil, creating underground water deposits. However, the frailejon are endangered, as is the paramo, due to potato farming and other destructive agricultural practices.
Day 3 - Finca Africa to Laguan Otun
We woke early, hoping to eat breakfast and head out before the rain hit…but nope. We delayed an hour, waiting out an early morning torrential downpour. Luckily, as we left the rain dissipated a bit and we climbed through the mist over the pass to Laguna Otun. The Laguna is impressive, surrounded by mountains, with a huge waterfall pouring into the far side. This was our shortest day by far, and we spent time at the Laguna talking with the ranger about the park and the challenges they face. Only 6 rangers patrol an area that's easily the size of Yosemite! This is mostly due to a lack of funding (most money went towards the military), but now that there is a peace in place he hopes that more spending can be directed towards conservation.
Day 4 - Summit of Santa Isabel
We left camp at 3am, heading around the lake towards Santa Isabel. After days of cloudy skies it was a welcome sight when we climbed above the fog to see a perfectly clear night sky above us. The sunrise swept over Laguna Otun and lit up a spectacular view of Santa Isabel, Tolima, and Quindido.
We continued up the slopes of Santa Isabel, navigated through some sketchy rock sections covered in verglas. After passing this section, we continued upward, where we eventally reached snow. We brought crampons with us, but these turned out to be surprisingly unnecesseary. Diego was shocked at how far the glacier had receded -- another casualty of global warming. We crested the ridge and made our way to the summit at 16,240 ft, the highest summit yet for both of us. We got lucky with incredible weather.
Day 5 - Laguna Otun to Santa Rosa
Our last day. The hike out to Santa Rosa wasn’t difficult, but after several taxing days in the backcountry, we were grateful to get back to town. From Periera we jumped on a bus back to Salento, where we grabbed some food and subsequently collapsed in exhaustion.
Wow. Colombia is amazing. While we had some wild weather, this was one of the most enjoyable five days of our entire trip. The landscapes here are incredible, and we saw almost no one the entire time we were trekking. I'm not sure what you have in your head when you think of Colombia, but for me, it sure wasn't this. I highly recommend a visit.
And if you do, be sure to hit up Diego at http://crestedoutdoors.com/ (and tell him Kyle sent you, he'll get a kick out of that)!