A Guide To Hiking El Cocuy National Park in Colombia

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After spending 9 months traveling through Central America’s hot jungle in our self-converted campervan that we built just for the trip, we were craving some mountain adventures so immediately upon arriving in Colombia we ventured into El Cocuy National Park for an incredible week of hiking and camping.

Colombia’s El Cocuy National Park is one of the best places to visit in the Andes mountain range for hiking and breathtaking outdoors activities.

Also known as the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, it’s one of the last places in Colombia where visitors can witness snow or glaciers and go on incredible treks in the high alpine mountains.

 

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Before our trip to El Cocuy, we heard that the park might be closed but we couldn’t find any good information online confirming it so we best decided to just head out to El Cocuy National Park and find out for ourselves.

Thankfully upon our arrival, we found out that as of 2017 the park is now open again so for anyone considering a visit to El Cocuy National Park, here is all the latest information you need to know for trekking and visiting one of the best things to see in Colombia.

 

A Guide To Hiking El Cocuy National Park In Colombia:

Open Trails At El Cocuy National Park
Requirements For Hiking El Cocuy National Park
Getting Around El Cocuy
Where To Stay For The Hikes
Hiking Laguna Grande Trail
What To Wear On The Hikes
What To Bring On The Hikes

 

Open Trails At El Cocuy National Park

Currently, as of 2018, El Cocuy National Park has 3 open hikes:

  • Ritacuba
  • Laguna Grande
  • Pulpito

All three hikes are challenging at around 12 miles long and take around 8-10 hours to complete.

No overnight camping is allowed anywhere within the park, and visitors must start the hikes before 9 am and be out of the trail before 4 pm.

The park used to have a 6-day trek option before that would take you through some amazing scenery but that part, along with any mountaineering or summit hikes, have all been closed.

Each of the three open treks reach an altitude between 4600-4800 meters (around 15,000 feet) so there is quite a lot of elevation gain. Some people can get really sick from the altitude change so it’s highly recommended to take it easy for the first few days upon arriving at El Cocuy to adjust to the altitude.

Most people that come to Sierra Nevada del Cocuy National Park opt to do the Laguna Grande hike because it has the most diverse terrain and it leads to a viewpoint of gorgeous blue glacier lakes.

 

Laguna Grande Hike El Cocuy National Park Colombia

 

After taking a day or two in between for rest, many hikers also do the Pulpito del Diablo trek that leads to a viewpoint of the El Pulpito rock formation.

Most hikers don’t do the Ritacuba hike because it’s the most technical hike and the other two hikes have better views at the top.

On our trip to El Cocuy, we decided to do the Laguna Grande hike and after a combination of soreness and bad weather kicked in, we decided one hike was enough.

 

Requirements For Hiking El Cocuy National Park

In order to hike one of the three open treks at El Cocuy, there are a few requirements you will need to get done upon arrival:

  • Get a park entrance permit – it costs 61,000 Colombian pesos per person ($20 USD)  and is the same cost whether you do one hike or all three
  • Get life insurance – it costs 7,000 Colombian pesos per person ($2.30 USD) and is required for each day you plan to hike, you won’t be given a hiking permit without it
  • Arrange a local guide – it costs 130,000 Colombian pesos for a group up to 6 people ($43 USD) and is required for each trek, again this needs to be arranged before you can get the permit

All three things need to be arranged in downtown El Cocuy or Guican which are located at the base of the mountain.

Getting caught without a permit can lead to some serious trouble like getting arrested or having your travel visa revoked and from speaking to the rangers it seems they take it pretty seriously. The ranger at El Cocuy told us that if you get caught, you’ll be detained until your embassy comes to get you.

There are also park ranger booths before the hikes that check for these requirements and won’t let you pass unless you can show proof of all three.

 

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All together El Cocuy is one of the most expensive National Parks I’ve ever visited and most of it is due to the strict requirements set by the local landowners and different groups that live in this area.

Unfortunately, the strict requirements and lack of information prevent most people from visiting El Cocuy National Park, but on the upside, the trails are completely empty and you can count on being the only hiker out there unless you go during their busy season in December or January.

 

Getting Around El Cocuy

If you don’t have a car, getting around El Cocuy can be quite the challenge.

To get up the mountain to the trailhead most people catch a ride with the milk truck from downtown El Cocuy or Guican. The milk truck leaves once a day, super early around 5-6 am and costs 10,000 Colombian pesos per person ($3.30 USD). It’s a rocky ride that takes over 2 hours but is the cheapest option.

Unfortunately, if you’re taking the milk truck, it gets to the trailhead too late and most guides won’t let you start the hike past 7 am because you won’t be able to finish in time.

So if you’re taking the milk truck, you have to spend the night before your hikes in a cabin by the trailheads.

Motorcycle rides and taxi rides can also be arranged from downtown El Cocuy or Guican but cost a lot more (50,000 COP or 100,000 COP, respectively). The good thing is they travel much faster than the milk truck so if you take one of these you can hike up the same morning.

 

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The guides will meet you at your cabin or at the trailhead to start the hikes at 6:00 am and take around 8-10 hours to complete. One of the main reasons why most people don’t finish the hikes is because they start too late and have to turn around before reaching the destination.

The best thing to do is to arrange a ride up the mountain the day before and stay at one of the cabins near the trailhead or you’ll miss the hiking window.

 

Where To Stay For The Hikes

Most people stay at one of the downtown El Cocuy hotels for a day or two while they arrange all the requirements and permits before heading up into the mountain.

To search for the best hostels and hotels in downtown El Cocuy, click here

Once you have everything arranged, you will need to head up into the mountain and stay at one of the cabins there to adjusts to the altitude and to be closer to the trailhead.

While you’re in El Cocuy or Guican, make sure to also arrange all your meals for your stay at the cabins because once you’re at the cabins, there’s no food options. Everything, including the meals, has to be arranged in town.

Where To Stay For the Laguna Grande Hike

The trailhead for the Laguna Grande hike starts right behind the La Esperanza cabins so most people doing this trek stay at the La Esperanza the night before.

The beds at the cabin cost around 30,000 Colombian pesos per person ($10 USD) without food and around 60,000 Colombian pesos per person ($20 USD) including dinner the night before the hike and breakfast the day of the hike.

 

a guide to el cocuy national park in colombia

 

Before heading up to La Esperanza hostel you will need to contact the cabin owner Sergio and book the room directly with him.  If you don’t do this ahead of time, you will be turned away by the cabins if the owner is not there. His contact information is listed on the La Esperanza Facebook page here.

If you want food to be included with your room, you will need to let Sergio know ahead of time so he can arrange for the food to be brought from downtown El Cocuy. The mountain hostels don’t have any food up there so everything needs to be brought from downtown El Cocuy in the milk truck the day before.

Since we camped in our van we brought our own food and cooked in our van which was super easy for us. But if you’re backpacking, you will need to arrange your room, food, and transportation ahead of time.

 

Where to Stay For the Pulpito Hike

If you’re doing the Pulpito hike, the best place to stay is at the Cabanas Guaicany near the Pulpito hike trailhead.

The rooms at Cabanas Guaicany cost around 30,000 Colombian pesos per person ($10 USD) without food and 60,000-90,000 Colombian pesos ($20-$30 USD) if you want breakfast and dinner included.

 

Sierra Nevada del Cocuy National park Colombia

 

This was our favorite place to stay because the owner was super welcoming, made us a nice fireplace at night, let us use his cabin style kitchen for cooking and even made us complimentary coffee in the morning.

On the downside, Cabanas Guaicany is 0.7 miles away from the El Pulpito trailhead and it’s all uphill so you’ll need to hike that extra distance in the morning to the start of the trailhead. Unfortunately, there aren’t any closer cabins to the Pulpito trail.

 

Hiking Laguna Grande

On our visit to El Cocuy National Park, we hiked the Laguna Grande trail. Besides the time when we hiked the 16-mile long Lake O’Hara trail in Canada, this was one of the toughest hikes I have ever done.

The change in altitude along with the high elevation gain and rough terrain made the Laguna Grande hike a challenge, but the views were worth it along the way.

 

el cocuy national park trekking in colombia

 

To hike the Laguna Grande trail we met our guide Martha at 6 am outside La Esperanza where the trailhead starts. Martha’s family has been in mountaineering and hiking business for generations and she also owns the top-rated and cozy hostel El Caminante in downtown Cocuy.

She was knowledgeable about this area and kept a great pace throughout our hike ensuring we made it to the lakes and back in time.

Once we met up with our guide we started hiking up through local farms passing cows, goats, and sheep along the way.

At first, the terrain reminded us of scenes from The Sound Of Music movie with endless rolling green hills everywhere we looked. As we hiked on and kept climbing, the views changed to a section of pine trees and a waterfall rushing down the mountain.

Other sections reminded us of the mossy, rocky landscape we saw on our trip to Iceland last year.

 

places to visit in colombia el cocuy national park

 

The last section of the hike was the most challenging due to the high altitude, rocky terrain, and cold winds. But we pushed through and after hiking 6 miles we reached the gorgeous blue lakes and it all felt worth it.

 

Laguna Grande Hike El Cocuy National Park in Colombia

 

The hike ends at the Laguna Grande lake but hikers can also hike a bit further up to the snow line. Although now it’s illegal to touch the snow or hike past it due to local regulations, hikers can still go up to it.

El Cocuy National Park is one of the last places to see snow and glaciers in Colombia so it’s a real treat to see it up close.

 

What To Wear On The Hikes

The weather at El Cocuy National Park can change pretty drastically so it’s best to layer up and pack warm rainproof clothing.

 

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Here’s a list of essentials that I highly recommend to bring along to ensure your hiking experience is comfortable:

  • Waterproof hiking boots. The terrain gets pretty muddy and cold so you’ll want to wear a good pair of hiking boots. My favorite are these boots by Vasque because they are comfy, lightweight and waterproof.
  • Warm wool socks. The last portion of the hike gets super cold and our toes felt it first. Thankfully these wool socks kept my toes warm during our hike.
  • Make sure to pack a rain jacket in case it starts raining during the hike. Each hike is 12 miles long so you don’t want to get caught on the trail in the cold rain without a waterproof jacket. My favorite rain jacket is this one by Northface. It’s super cozy and comes in a variety of fun colors.
  • Thermal shirt (or two). I ended up layering two thermal shirts because it was super cold at the top.
  • T-shirt or tank top. A portion of the hike was sunny and hot so you’ll want to wear a light t-shirt or tank top underneath.
  • A pair of leggings or waterproof hiking pants. I have been using these Glyder leggings for a year now and I love them.
  • A beanie and gloves to keep you warm from the wind.

 

What To Bring On The Hikes

Besides wearing comfortable clothing, here are some other things that I highly recommend to bring along on your hikes at El Cocuy:

  • Refillable water bottle like this Hydroflask one. There aren’t any animals that live up this high in the mountains so water can be refilled directly from creeks along the hike without filtering it.
  • Lunch and snacks. The hike is around 8-10 hours long so you’ll want to bring along plenty of snacks like nuts and fruits and something to eat for lunch like sandwiches.
  • The early portion of the hike is very sunny so pack along sunscreen that you can reapply during the hike.
  • Most of us got runny noses from the wind so pack along a small thing of tissues.
  • Emergency items such as a first aid kit, foldable knife, and a headlamp.

I also brought along my trusty Sony camera to capture photos on this hike. I love my camera because it’s super small so it doesn’t add too much weight and it’s one of the cheapest around which is why after years of use and abuse, it’s still the camera I use and the one I always recommend to everyone starting out in photography.

 

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Sierra Nevada Del Cocuy National Park is one of the most diverse and beautiful parks in all of Colombia.

Although the constant changes in park rules and strict requirements don’t make it easy for tourists to visit this park, its stunning landscape make it a worthwhile detour.

On the upside, the community that runs this park is pretty small and tight-knit so once you make your way to El Cocuy or Guican, there will be plenty of friendly locals that will help you figure out exactly what you need to know to do these hikes.

The Colombians in this area are some of the nicest folks we’ve met on our trip and made our visit at El Cocuy National Park enjoyable and fun.

 

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Ready for an adventure in El Cocuy? Check out these awesome hotel options in El Cocuy:

  • Hostal El Caminante – our favorite hostel in downtown Cocuy owned by our guide Martha. It’s also the highest rated on Booking.com.
  • Pinares Del Carrizalito – this hostel offers beautiful views overlooking downtown Cocuy and is also rated as the best value hotel in the area.
  • Cabana Hotel Eco Turistico El EDEN – known for its relaxed vibe and great service this hotel is a guest favorite.

Any questions on El Cocuy or hiking this area? Leave us a comment below!

 

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