Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy
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Hiking in PNN El Cocuy is what most people come here for. Beautiful glaciers, mountains topping 17,400 feet (5,300 meters), wildlife, and friendly local Colombians make the trip certainly worthwhile.

You've got two basic options for trekking in PNN El Cocuy: day hikes and the 6 day trek. The park is very well set up for day hiking; there are a number of cabanas littered around the boundary of the park. From these cabanas you can literally wake up, step out the front door and you're on the trail. And you don't need any special equipment, just warm clothes and a poncho in case of rain. For the 6 day hike you can easily find guides in either El Cocuy or Guican, who will provide all the food, gear, and handle the planning of your trek.

Don't forget, no matter what you choose to do in the park, you must check in and pay an entrance fee at the park headquarters in either El Cocuy or Guican before you head off. You'll need to give them your plan for how long and where you're going to be in the park; if you don't return on time, they'll send search and rescue.


Day Hikes

If you don't feel like spending 6 days camping in the remote stretches of the park and hiking 5-7 hours a day, or just don't have the time, there are a number of great day hikes you can do from the comfort of cabanas that line the park (or your tent, if you want). There are four main starting points for day hikes in the park, which I'll describe in a minute. First, you have to get to those starting points from the cities of either El Cocuy or Guican.

Getting To The Cabanas From El Cocuy/Guican
The best way to do one or more day hikes is to start in El Cocuy, rather than Guican. The reason for this is that el lechero (the milk truck) leaves from El Cocuy in the morning (between 5 and 6am) and takes the main road counterclockwise around to Guican. So the general plan is to hop on el lechero the first morning in the El Cocuy plaza, hop off at one of the four day hike starting points, spend a day or two hiking from the cabanas, then when you want to move on to another one of the four starting points catch el lechero along the main road and take it to the next hike starting point/cabanas (or all the way to Guican if you're ready to go back).

The milk truck is around COP 10,000 as of fall 2010; it's very important to note that it only goes along the main road, and you'll have to hike up from the main road to the cabanas or your camping spot from there. But it is probably the most popular option; el lechero is one of those real Colombian experiences I wouldn't miss. You also have the option of taking more expensive private transportation. Private transportation is offered by many of the cabanas, you should give them a call and see what their offer is (see Where To Stay for more info). Finally, you can just ask around your hotel and with the park rangers in El Cocuy or Guican and you should have no problem finding private transportation to where you want to go; private transport ranges from 20,000 (if you get a good deal from the cabanas you're staying with) to 80,000 or more for a private car.

The cheapest option for getting to the cabanas from El Cocuy or Guican is of course hiking, but from Guican to Posada Sierra Nevada/Cabanas Kanwara it'll take you maybe 5 hours, and from El Cocuy to where the main road splits off to head up to Cabanas Herrera and Laguna Pintada it's maybe 4 hours, and from that split in the road another 2 hours to get all the way up to the cabanas at Laguna Pintada. If you really need to save the $ and are planning to hike from El Cocuy or Guican to the cabanas, make sure you talk to the someone and know which turns to make, and have a map; the "main" road has quite a few offshoots which can lead you astray.

The Hikes
Now...where to go hiking? I'd suggest downloading the best map of the park I have (Map #1 on the Maps page), it'll help you figure out where everything is. There are four main starting points for doing day hikes in the park, which I'm going to list counterclockwise along the main road from El Cocuy to Guican, ie the way el lechero goes:

Starting Point #1: The first is from road that breaks off from the main road and heads up past a ranger station (Vivero del PNN on the map), Miguel and Alejandro Herrera's cabanas, along Rio Lagunillas, and up to Laguna Pintada with a last cabana (simply marked Cabana on the map, which is actually very nice, more of a hotel than cabanas) next to Lag. Pintada.
Starting Point #2: The second is the road that breaks off of the main road in the tiny town of La Capilla and heads up to Hacienda La Esperanza.
Starting Point #3: The third (and fourth) are along the road that breaks off the main road near Hacienda Ritacuba and passes Hacienda Pena Blanca. Cabanas Kanwara and Posada Sierra Nevada (which is not marked on this map, but is right next to Cabanas Kanwara) make up the third starting point for day hikes.
Starting Point #4: The final starting point is Parada de Romero, which is a little further down the road from Cabanas Kanwara and Posada Sierra Nevada.

Most people spend the night at the various cabanas, which all serve food, that dot these four starting points. If you have a tent and camping gear, you can also camp; the cabanas will probably even let you camp on their grounds for a small fee, and you could eat breakfast/lunch/dinner in the cabanas if you wanted to. Now for some descriptions of the actual hikes:

From Starting Point #1: There are two main hikes; the first is to Laguna de la Plaza, which takes about 10 hours round trip if you're in decent shape and you're leaving from the cabanas at Laguna Pintada. You head up two passes marked A (Cusiri) and B (Patio Bolas) on the map; these are the most difficult parts of the trail; obviously you have to go up and down each pass twice, once on the way to the lake and once on the way back. The second hike you can do is up Pulpito del Diablo, which takes about 3 hours up and 2.5 down from the cabanas at Laguna Pintada. It's uphill most of the way, but you get a beautiful view at the top.
From Starting Point #2: You also have two hikes, but both follow the same trail much of the way. As a first choice you can hike to Laguna Grande de la Sierra, which takes about 8 hours round trip; if you had time, you could even continue up to the pass marked I on the map (Bella Vista), for a great view. Your second option is to take the trail that leads up to Concavo/Concavito, depending on how far you go this could add 1 or 2 hours to your hike.
From Starting Point #3: Ritacuba Blanco is your goal, the highest mountain in the range at 5,330 meters. For the average hiker it takes about 3 hours up and 2.5 down. From this starting point you can also do the hike to Laguna Grande de Los Verdes, which is about 9 hours round trip.
From Starting Point #4: From Parada de Romero you can hike to Laguna de Los Verdes, about a 6 hour round trip. If you hike to Los Verdes from here rather than starting point #3 you'll have more time to take pictures, or even hike further into the park before having to return.

So there you have it, four starting points and 6 or 7 great day hikes into a beautiful mountain range. Don't expect to do more than one of these hikes in a day; even if you're in really good shape, the "shortest" hike round trip of 5.5 hours to Ritacuba Blanco will still get you plenty tired and wanting one of the deliciously hot meals at the cabanas. And finally, remember these are just the main hikes; there are tons of smaller offshoot trails which are great for exploring. Take some time and talk to the park rangers, guides, and other hikers and you'll probably find some great hikes I don't mention here.

As far as guides go for these day trips, it's your decision. The trails are well marked, either by the worn down path of other hikers or cairns (piles of rocks). Please, please remember though that this is high altitude hiking, not your typical stroll in the park. Weather can change extremely quickly, and you can get yourself in serious trouble if you don't know what you're doing. Unless you have good experience in the mountains, a map, compass, high quality cold weather gear, etc, I'd highly suggest hiring a guide. You can find them easily in El Cocuy or Guican, but all of the cabanas can set you up with guides once you're up there too.


6 Day Trek

The flagship calling of PNN El Cocuy is the 6 day hike, usually starting in Guican and ending in El Cocuy (although it does go the other way, especially in the high season of December/January). Most people choose to go with a guide for this trek; unless you're fully equipped to carry all your food and gear and have a good map and a lot of mountain experience, I wouldn't even think about doing it alone. Don't worry about finding a guiding outfit in Bogota or Bucaramanga; it's actually easier to hook up with guides in El Cocuy or Guican, and probably cheaper. If you're going in December there will be plenty of other travelers going on the trek which the guides will group you together with, lowering costs.

This trek is amazing, passing glaciers, snowcapped mountains, crystal clear streams...it's not to be missed if you have the time and money. You'll need your own clothing and hiking shoes, but everything else can be provided by your guides. Don't forget rain gear, it's essential in the mountains where rain, sleet, and snow are common occurrences.