Due to our four month hiatus in the States, we’ve had to accept the reality that we will be passing through many countries during an unfavorable time of year. In Peru, we’ll face rainy season in much of the highlands and by the time we reach Patagonia the summer days will be dwindling. So when we realized we’d be in Colombia within a few weeks of the perfect time of year for trekking in Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy, we were very excited. There are only three months of the year considered to have even reasonably good weather in this part of the Colombian Andes; outside those months, one can expect daily rain or snow and freezing temperatures.
The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy mountain range is relatively unknown outside of Colombia but contains some of its most stunning landscapes. With 15 of 21 peaks towering over 5000 m, it has been called the “best kept secret of the Americas” and the “lost corner of the Andes.” Until fairly recently, this region of the Andes was home to both guerilla and paramilitary fronts and therefore off-limits to travelers. Earlier this century, a broad military offensive by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe cleared the area of guerilla groups and the park has since been deemed safe for travelers.
PNN El Cocuy is the main attraction of the Sierra Nevada range, covering 1,181 square miles of diverse paramo ecosystem. Despite awe-inspiring altitudes, the mountains of PNN El Cocuy are relatively compact and thus ideal for trekking. When we pulled into the tiny mountain village of El Cocuy, it was late Thursday night after three full days of driving. Our plan was to acclimate in the village, which sits at 10,000 feet, for two nights before setting out. We had our sights set on a seven day circuit from Guican to El Cocuy that covered 50 miles and included 9 mountain passes, the highest reaching over 15,000 ft. Perhaps we were in over our heads; this certainly crossed our minds at the time. But we were far too excited about the trek, one that would bring us deeper into the wild than either of us had ever been, to even consider changing our plans.
When we woke that first morning it was before dawn: we had to catch the lechero, or milk truck, which would bring us thousands of feet higher and several miles closer to our starting point just outside the park. We were told the lechero would leave the town square promptly at 6:00 am and, despite the early hour, the friendly ranger we had met the day before promised to be there to be sure we caught the right one. As we finally pulled away at 7 am, we realized that “promptly” has a different meaning in Colombia. It was a long, cold ride during which we stopped at no fewer than 50 small family farms to collect that morning’s fresh milk. We watched in awe each time the still-steaming milk was poured into huge vats on the truck. By the end of our nearly 4 hour journey, we had collected more than 1500 liters! In addition to collecting the region’s milk for processing in town, the lechero also serves as a transportation and delivery service for the locals. Along the way we dropped people off, picked people up, delivered cheese, lumber, beer, massive bags of fresh potatoes and a even a sheep to various families in the hills.
From where we left the lechero, we had only a few miles to hike that day before we reached our first camping spot. It’s a good thing too, because each and every step soon became laborious. We pulled huge quantities of air into our lungs through long, slow breaths but no matter how deeply we breathed we still felt as though we could not catch up. The air at this altitude is thin. Very thin. Perhaps we had underestimated its effect. We collapsed in our tents by 1 that afternoon and immediately fell into a very deep sleep. We didn’t wake up until it was time for dinner and by then our headaches had subsided a bit, though not by much.
An additional night at 13,000 ft didn’t do much to help our altitude sickness and the next day followed a pattern similar to the first. During our two big passes that day, we found ourselves stopping every 30 steps to catch our breath. When we reached our campsite that afternoon, my headache was stronger than ever and nausea had now kicked in as well. I had read that the only cure for altitude sickness is to retreat to lower elevations as quickly as possible. If we didn’t see improvement the next day, we were going to have to start discussing our options.
Luckily the next day brought not only improvements to our endurance but the first sunshine we had seen since we started. The surrounding peaks, which the day before had been enshrouded in fog and rain, were illuminated in a fiery-red glow. I could see for the first time why it’s worth waiting for the short dry season to do this hike. Rain and clouds not only make hiking here a cold, wet, and potentially miserable endeavor, but they hinder some of world’s most beautiful landscapes.
With altitude sickness and bad weather behind us, we were able to fall into our normal hiking rhythm. Each day we would wake up just before the sun would reach our tent (any earlier is unthinkable) and start the coffee in giddy anticipation. Every passing minute brought the sun further across the sky and closer to us, until we were finally enveloped in its life-giving rays. We took our time, allowing for the full thawing of our frost-bitten souls. By eight we had packed up camp and hit the trail and by nine the chill in the air was but a memory. At this point in the day our optimism was at its height, as we knew we had at least five hours of sunny, clear skies ahead. Each pass brought views more spectacular than the last – snow-capped peaks soaring at over 17,000 feet; lush, verdant valleys; plunging waterfalls; pristine moraine lakes of unfathomable blues and greens. During these hours of the day, we found ourselves higher than we’d ever been or even thought possible. Adding to this high was the fact that, despite huge increases in the number of visitors to the park each year, we didn’t see a single group of hikers until our last day. We had this vast wilderness to ourselves.
I paint a pretty picture don’t I?
The truth is our moods during this trek seemed to take cues from our physical position, following us up and down each pass – up and down, up and down. Our highs during the day were matched in intensity only by the lows we felt each night. As the sun sunk below the horizon, it dragged our optimism down with it and in its place a minor depression took hold. We knew we had 12 cold and restless hours ahead of us. We’d crawl into our tent at the first hint of darkness in an attempt to escape the cold. We huddled in our sleeping bags and tried to fill the time with stories, cards and writing, counting down the minutes until 9 o’clock, which we deemed a reasonable hour to go to bed.
It always amazes me the effect weather can have on one’s mood and outlook. As long as the sun was shining, we stared in awe at the magic around us and felt happy to be alive. When the sun retreated and darkness set in, the cold air seemed to fill every crevice, snaking its way through our bodies until even the most remote chambers of our hearts felt as though they might freeze over.
It’s easy to romanticize a trek like this, especially in the days or weeks after the fact – once you’ve fully recovered and have only stunning pictures to spark your memory. I don’t want to do that though. I want to remember each high and every low, because the whole spectrum of emotion is essential to the experience. Remembering only the highs would gloss over the hard work it took to make it through and all that we accomplished.
In the end, we survived and returned to the village of El Cocuy to properly celebrate. When we went to bed that first night it was with huge grins on our faces, as we knew this trek would forever stand out as a highlight of the trip. But don’t just take our word for it. Add PNN El Cocuy to your life list – it just might be the hardest, most rewarding trek you’ll ever do.