Living in Medellín, Colombia means that sometimes I ache to escape the city life to spend time in wild, unspoiled nature. Two friends and I decided to take an extra-long weekend to leave Medellín for one of the most famous natural wonders of Colombia: El Cocuy National Park.
The park is nestled deep in the countryside of Boyacá north of Bogotá and is known for its high altitude glaciers, alien-like Frailejones plants, and otherworldly mountainscapes. We arrived at the park without plans, reservations… or any idea what to expect.
Our Photo Diary of Hiking El Cocuy
We set off in the morning with our guide Fidel. It was still sunny and mild at this point.
The gentle valley eventually turned into a rocky mountain slope dotted with Frailejones.
We eventually arrived at the edge of this glacier nearly 4800 meters above sea level. It looks close in this picture but was actually another hour hiking to get to the top.
As we approached the edge of the glacier, we found ourselves scrambling over misty boulders that seemed to never end, until we finally emerged to a cliff overlooking mountain peaks.
We spent just 30 short seconds admiring the view before the entire mountain was enveloped in fog and hidden forever.
On the way down the mountain, we faced lots of fog… then got hit by a surprise rainstorm.
We had a great time on the hike and would recommend it to anyone looking for a serious hike in nature.
Since there’s not so much information out there, we documented our trip to make a complete guide for exactly how to plan your trip to El Cocuy National Park. It includes where to stay, how to get there, and where to go hiking. If you have any questions about the trip, don’t hesitate to ask us in the comment section!
The History of El Cocuy National Park
El Cocuy park has undergone lots of changes in accessibility in the past years, largely due to environmental concerns and heated political debates.
Here’s a quick timeline of what’s been going on:
In 2014 the world famous 5-day trek was closed due to environmental concerns from the U’wa indigenous group and local farmers. In February 2016 the entire park was closed as part of the same debate, citing poor management of the park and environmental damage due to tourism.As of April 2017 the park has been re-opened with limited access and there is an environmental impact study going on to determine if and how the extensive hiking behind the lakes can continue. The study is scheduled to end by October 2017.
When we went in August 2017, there were three different day hikes open to the public, ranging from 15km to 22km.
Each leads up to a different glacier and offers breathtaking views at an altitude that will leave you gasping for air.
Even though there the 5-day loop is closed, you can still do 50km of serious hiking, with plenty of altitude gain to challenge you.
Step-by-Step guide to Hiking El Cocuy National Park
There are a few things you need to do before hitting the trails.
You’ll start in one of two towns, El Cocuy or Guican, choose which of the three hiking trails you want to do, hire a guide, go up the mountain and then stay in a cabin at the trailhead of your choosing. Let’s break it down:
Step 1: Get lodging in El Cocuy or Guican
El Cocuy is a weensy town in which there is nothing to do and all the buildings are painted this lovely blue.
El Cocuy and Guican are the two towns of 7,000 (combined) people that are located near the park. I recommend staying in one of them on your first night to take care of logistics before going up the mountain.
We decided to stay in El Cocuy since the bus driver suggested it had “more tourist things” available: specifically, two hotels and zero restaurants open at 6:30 pm when we arrived. Needless to say, it wasn’t overwhelming.
Hotel Casa Muñoz
The first thing we saw when we walked off the bus in El Cocuy’s main square was Hotel Casa Muñoz. We stayed here our first night and a room with two double beds and a private bathroom (with truly hot water!) cost 60.000COP. Not a bad split between three of us.
Address: Carrera 5 #7-28, El Cocuy, BoyacáCell: 321.242.7461Landline: (57)-098-789-0028 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Casa Museo la Posada del Molino
We stayed here our third night before leaving town. The hotel itself was full but the owner had a cozy cabin up the street for 30.000COP per person. It was clean and was perfectly private on the outskirts of town. The hotel also offers hearty dinners for 7.000COP, and a normal hotel room runs at about 54,000COP.
Address: Carrera 3 No. 7-51, Phone: 312.352. 9121
Step 2: Choose your Trail
You have three choices for which trail to hike, each located on a different part of the mountain.
Option #1: the Ritacuba Trail or “La Ruta Norte”
This trail starts at the northernmost part of the park and is 13.8km round trip to the edge of the Ritacuba Glacier and back. As it is very steep, reaching 4600m altitude, the route takes about 8 hours round trip and rewards you with views of Frailejones and the glacier along the way.
Option #2: Laguna Grande de la Sierra trail or “La Ruta Central”
The “big lake” trail goes through the Valle de Los Frailejones and then climbs to a beautiful mountain lake in the center of the park. At 21.2km round trip, this is a demanding 10 to 12-hour hike with some of the most famous views in the park.
Option #3: Lagunillas/ El Pulpito trail or “La Ruta Sur”
This is the southernmost trail in the “Lagunillas” area, climbing to a peak with mountain views, leading eventually to the La Pintada and el Pulpito del Diablo. The route is 7.8km each way and considered medium difficulty.
Step 3: Organize Transportation to the Mountain
We spotted the “El Lechero” transport option but were discouraged from using it.
El Cocuy and Guican are 1 to 2 hours away from the different trailheads, and you generally need to get up there with private transport. Our hotel connected us to a guide who drove us up for 120.000mil and offered an 80.000mil price for the downhill trip.
Other blogs talk about the “El Lechero” truck providing cheap transport, but the locals discouraged us from using it (probably because they wanted us to pay for private transportation). It is likely an option for those who are willing to organize their schedule around the 6 am departure time and 3 pm return time of the truck, which leaves from the main square.
Step 4: Register yourself
There are some pretty beat-up footbridges that made me glad I had my insurance…
Go to one of the two Registration Offices in the area for a short orientation and to hand over cash money to the parks department.
El Cocuy Registration Office:Calle 5 # 4-22. Monday – Sunday, 7am – 11:45am and 1pm – 4:45pm. Tel: (57 8) 789 0359Güicán Registration Office:Transversal 4a # 6-60. Monday – Sunday, 7am – 11:45am and 1pm – 4:45pm. Tel: (57 8) 789 7280
And then do the following:
Hire a Guide. There is a list of guides on the wall of the registration office, or your hotel can connect you to a guide. The cost is between 100mil -120mil pesos per day and each guide can take up to 6 people in their group.Register yourself with the park. This will get you an orange bracelet that will let you enter the park. The prices are as follows: Colombian Nationals over 25: 28.000COP, Foreigners: 55.500COP, Children, and students under 25: 13.500COP.Pay for insurance. Insurance costs 7.000COP daily per person. You’re expected to pay for your guide’s insurance as well.
Step 5: Stay in the cabins bordering El Cocuy National Park
We stayed at Cabañas Kanwara near the Ritacubas trailhead.
The living room was lovely, but got freezing at night!
The cabins had cozy rooms with double beds and bunk beds.
There are three different groups of cabins, one group at each trailhead. Here’s the complete list of where to stay at El Cocuy park:
We stayed here in a cute little pitched-roof cabin with a fireplace and sheepskin-covered rocking chairs. The hot and hearty meals kept us fueled for our long day of hiking, and the owners were friendly and accommodating. Recommended.Prices: The whole cabin sleeps 8 people, but we were charged 45.000COP per person and had the cabin to ourselves.Meals: Breakfast 15.000COP, lunch and dinner: 25.000COP. no kitchen availableContact: 311.231.6004Link to Google Photos
2. Peñas BlancasContact: 311.241.7115Link to Tripadvisor
3. La PosadaContact: 311.237.8619Link to Website
Laguna Grande Trailhead
1. Hacienda La EsperanzaThis seems to be one of the most popular options on the mountain as it’s located precisely at the trailhead for the Laguna Grande hike and has good food and a welcoming atmosphere.Contact: 320.3281674 OR 314.221.2573Link to Tripadvisor
2. La CapillaIt’s actually a teeny town on the dirt road a bit down the mountain from the trailhead. There is a small store and affordable rooms.Prices: 25.000COP per person.Meals: kitchen availableContact: 313.322.0593
Lagunillas/El Pulpito Trailhead
1. Cabañas El PulpitoPrices: 30.000COP per personMeals: Breakfast 8.000COP, Lunch and Dinner 10.000COPContact: 3133099734 – 313 459 2553Link to Tripadvisor
2. GuaicanyA big Chalet with bunk beds and room for 35 guests. Contact: 310 566 7554Email: email@example.comGuaicany Website
8 Pro tips for El Cocuy National Park
It might fill up. We got lucky showing up with no plan: there was only 1 room available on the whole mountain for our Saturday night there, so if you want to be safe, book your cabaña ahead of time.There’s camping available too. We didn’t look into this thoroughly, but there are a few camping spots in some of the trailhead areas. Check with the lodges and you should be able to set up your tent outside.Mute and Sopa de Pan are local specialties. One morning for breakfast I found myself with Mute, a local soup made of beans, corn, menudo, and cilantro. Yum. Our guide told us of another local dish called Sopa de Pan or “Bread Soup”, a 7-layer lasagna variant made with alternating layers of bread, cheese, and different kinds of meat. I never saw it but if you try it please let me know how it is!Speaking Spanish is essential. I’m not sure how it would have been possible to do this trip without Spanish. Never mind the somewhat complicated logistics of the trip (transport, guide, lodging), it’s just amazing to be able to connect with the locals and hear about their culture and perspectives. How do you think I learned about the park’s history or the existence of Sopa de Pan!?
Sunglasses are a must-have, especially due to the glare from the glaciers.
Pack waterproof boots. There will be mud, there may be rain, and you don’t, I repeat don’t want to be stuck in the cold mountains with wet feet. Remember your warm socks too!Sunscreen and sunglasses are musts. I walked up to the glacier without sunscreen or sunglasses and got burned to a crisp in 15 minutes and was also blinded by the reflection of the snow. Pack warm weather clothes. Did I mention it’s cold up in the mountains? Yeah. Get a warm jacket plus a waterproof jacket and long underwear. We’re talking 0 degrees Celsius with a wind chill.Take some mareo pills. Pills for “mareo” (motion sickness) are sold at many shops in the bus terminals. It turns out that they double as sleeping pills, cost only one thousand pesos, and are highly effective. Want to sleep on an overnight bus? Mareo pills are your BFF.
How to get to El Cocuy and Guican from Medellín
El Cocuy is far away from all major cities, so devote from 15 to 22 hours in transit from Medellín.
Route A: Medellin to Tunja, Tunja to El Cocuy
The most direct route appeared to be taking a bus from Medellín to Tunja, then Tunja to El Cocuy. We booked a 9 pm overnight bus from the Medellín’s Terminal del Norte (at Caribe Metro station) with the bus company Omega (tickets cost 80.000COP and we had to buy them directly in the Omega station in the Terminal).
Upon arriving at the Tunja Bus Terminal at 9:30 am, we were approached by a woman who herded us directly onto the bus we needed to El Cocuy. The bus from Tunja to El Cocuy left at 10 am and arrived in El Cocuy at 6:30 pm. It was a freaking long trip.
Route B (B is for better): Medellín to Bogotá, Bogotá to El Cocuy
In retrospect, a better alternative would have been to take an overnight bus to Bogotá. These take less time, leave more frequently, and cost as little as 63.000COP. Check out busbud.com for bus fares and times from Medellín to Bogotá.
Flying from Medellín to Bogotá is even more efficient and not so expensive. For the budget traveler, I recommend Viva Colombia for finding your flight (keep in mind it has all of the annoyances and hidden fees normally associated with budget airlines). Keep in mind you still have a 9-hour bus trip from Bogotá to El Cocuy.
Our Return Trip: El Cocuy to Bogotá to Medellín
We were so tired on our return trip that we took a direct bus from El Cocuy to Bogotá and then flew back to Medellín. We bought our bus ticket at the Gacela bus station in El Cocuy (very easy to find: it’s the only bus station in El Cocuy and facing the main square) and it cost 45.000COP to Bogotá or 35.000COP back to Tunja. The flight to Medellín with Viva Colombia cost us 110.000COP + hidden fees, purchased about 4 hours before the flight departed.
Tell us about your experience in El Cocuy!
Have you ever been to El Cocuy National Park? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below.
Want to keep reading? Learn more…
…ABOUT COLOMBIA IMMERSION
… ABOUT MEDELLÍN
… ABOUT LEARNING SPANISH