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The Peaks and Valleys of El Cocuy

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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.

Our drive to El Cocuy brought us by the beautiful Chicamocha Canyon, where we camped for the night
Our campsite on the canyon rim
We spent a full day driving on roads like this, snaking through the Colombian countryside
A particularly remote section of the drive
Luckily our tire waited until we hit pavement to do this!
Not the worst place to be broken down
Some very friendly locals helped us out with a jack and manpower, then fed us afterwards!  The hospitality in this country is remarkable
the central square in El Cocuy, Colombia
A 3D replica of PNN El Cocuy in the central square
The small village is surrounded by fog laced mountains
The cemetery in El Cocuy
Villagers chatting on a bench, a common sight in El Cocuy.  I love small mountain towns
Zach in the lechero, which brought us far into the mountains
Milk is collected from the farms surrounding El Cocuy in the old-fashioned way
By the end of our ride, nearly every vat on the truck was filled with fresh milk
A sheep joined us for the ride.
We actually got stuck in a ditch during one particularly bad stretch of road.  When the driver revved the engine to get it out, I thought the whole truck was going to go over the cliff, sheep and all.
Our campsite on night 1, just outside the park
After hiking on the road for 5 miles, we finally enter the National Park
Lago Grande de los Verdes, where we'd be camping on night 2
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We picked a spot by the rushing stream so we could hear the water throughout the night
Temperatures on this night dipped below freezing.  We woke up with frost covering the tent.
Feeling good on our first pass of day 3
Lago Grande de los verdes from the top of the pass
Our first glimpse of the snow-capped peaks that would follow us the rest of the trek
We could see our next pass from the top of the first.  Little did we know it would take all day to reach it
Sadly, the glaciers in this park are retreating at record levels.  Climatologists predict all the snow and ice in these mountains will be gone within two decades.
Zach climbing up our highest pass of the trek at more than 15,000 feet
This was our favorite pass of the trek.  Incredible highs and unbelievable views
That towering giant on the right is Ritacuba Blanca, the highest mountain in the park at  17,486 ft
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Many of the valleys consisted of swampy bogs
Often times the easiest way to cross  was to hop on these patches of thick, green moss.  Watch your step!
We cocooned ourselves up every night to stay warm.  The air was too cold to leave any skin exposed!
Our campsite on night 3, in the shadows of Ritacuba Blanca
The next morning we descended into one of many beautiful Valles de los Frailejones
They are strange Dr. Suess-esque plants, named due to an apparent resemblance to hooded monks
Looking out towards our pass on day 4
We took a small detour into this valley to see a waterfall
Una cascada bonita
This valley was so swampy and we couldn't find the trail, so we strapped on our river sandals and walked up the river
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Lunch break just before another pass
When the fog comes, it comes fast!
Filtering some water.  The fog is still moving in fast
By the time we found a campsite on night 4, the fog was so thick we had trouble spotting each other
By the next morning, crystal clear blue skies!
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First pass of day 5
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Looking out into the valley where we'd be hiking most of the day
These cairns were lifesavers on more than one occasion
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Crystal clear water.  I would have taken a swim if not for hypothermia
On night five, we camped on some slickrock above the largest lake of the trek, laguna de la plaza
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Panorama of Laguna de la Plaza
Laguna de la Plaza
Laguna de la Plaza
If you look across the valley, you can see the dozens of switchbacks of one of our toughest passes of the trek
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Las Lagunillas
Taking a siesta in the sun on our last full day
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Our first meal after returning on day 7.  Maybe the best food we'd ever tasted.
All smiles after a hot shower and some beer
Sunset from our hotel in El cocuy
A perfect way to end our time here
Looking back on El Cocuy as we drove away.  We loved it here!
By the way, I said yes :)

About Anywhere That's Wild

Jill and Zach met as undergrads in 2003 and have been living in an amazing intentional community in Worcester, MA for the last several years. During this time, Zach worked as an engineer while Jill finished her graduate degree studying environmental policy and social entrepreneurship. When life afforded the perfect opportunity to leave their bondage days behind, they took it.This journey is a time to reconnect with nature and each other; to discover together the beauty of the natural world and its many cultures. We look forward to sharing our stories and photos with you.

Trip Start: 2013-06-30 Trip End: 2011-06-01 .

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