An account of my 3-Day 2-Night experience of trekking in Los Nevados National Park, Colombia. This 45-mile trek began in Cocora Valley accessed from Salento. If you’re looking for a guide to hiking in Los Nevados you can use my blog post here to get more details related to this hike.
After spending a relaxing day in the colonial town of Salento, I was eager to hit the trails come my second morning. My hostel, Viajero Hostel Salento was kind enough to safely store any belongings that would only serve as unnecessary weight during my excursion.
One last stop at the mercado for some additional nuts, candy, and crackers before I hit Bolivar Square with the line of Jeeps waiting to head to Cocora Valley.
In typical fashion our over-packed jeep had us hanging off the back and we sailed up fresh paved roads that made the Jeep a thing of novelty. After a 20-minute ride we were let out to see the wax palms that towered above.
These are the tallest palms in the world and quite unlike any palm tree or other tree for that matter; they mostly resemble Trufla Trees from the famous Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax.
I began hiking through the valley of palms which abruptly ends as the countryside turns to rainforest.
Entering rainforest is an immersive experience with the sounds of birds, insects, and flowing water that surround you from all over. With the entangled greenery, your vision becomes obstructed any further than the next bend in the path. Hiking on, the trail crisscrossed streams with wooden plank bridges and started to ascend.
Cocora Valley is at 8,000 feet and I would be staying at Finca La Playa at a cool 14,600 feet that night but not before a quick pit stop at The House of Hummingbirds. This hut has hummingbirds that swoosh around while you sip on a cup of tea resting the legs. A popular stop for people day hiking around the wax palms before returning to the valley.
Continuing on is when the real ascent began and the entrance of Los Nevados lay only a mile further ahead. I couldn’t believe how tough the trails were, deeply eroded and incredibly muddy made the hiking much more difficult than expected.
As quick as countryside turned to jungle, the jungle subsided to a Paramo ecosystem which is the higher altitude area between where the jungle ends and the glaciers start.
The most characteristic plant of the environment is the Espeletia (commonly known as ‘frailejones’) which vary in size but can grow upwards of 15 feet! They have a large trunk and a yellow bulbous flower on the top and are of the same genus as sunflowers.
I was met with dense fog rolling through the Espeletia covered mountains and a drizzle that was steady enough to stash away my camera in a dry bag. The muddy trails that I was not fond of already became a laughable nightmare. The entire trail was ripped up from livestock hooves and the falling rain made it impossible not to slip and slide even with driving in my trekking poles like a mad man.
The fun didn’t stop there as the hills turned to bog which was an area called Valle de los Perdidos (Valley of the Lost). The trail had already been so wet and muddy that walking through a bog hadn’t seemed like much had changed. But then a step went knee deep through the moss and I realized I was playing Russian Roulette every step…yikes!
Finally surpassed, and a few miles of normal hiking with plenty of muddy falls later, I was passing La Primavera hut and would be at Finca La Playa in a matter of 15 minutes.
With some light, but not ample to spare, I walked in and was greeted by the farm animals and mom and son in the kitchen. After not seeing any hikers in the few hours since the House of the Hummingbirds, there was no surprise that the hut was empty as well, however the accommodations were splendidly better than my tarp and ground cloth outside would have been.
It was a dusty farm house but to my surprise a working TV in the kitchen and dining area which was all of an indoor fireplace. I was too exhausted to stay up and only snacked on some snacks before crashing into my sleeping bag.
With a plan to hike out to see the glaciers on Nevado del Tolima up close and loop back to the same hut to spend the night I was well-equipped with just a day pack and some food. It would be about a 15-mile day.
The trail had dried out a little bit overnight and I was doing my best to avoid wet shoes from the get-go but by the time I reached Laguna El Encanto I had a couple missteps in some of the boggy grass surrounding the lake. There were actually a couple tents set up on the lake edge, the first sign of any other backpackers since entering Los Nevados.
The trail then shot upwards towards the glacier volcano summit and the air became thin and cold. I was working hard hiking uphill but kept my puffy jacket on feeling the breeze that was coming off the frosty summits. I arrived to just below base camp where the glacier was near but got socked in by the clouds so had disappointing up close views.
My next stop would be to see if the hot springs at Termales del Cañon would be worth a soak…sadly to say they were not but their hut had some cute baby cows to watch during my lunch break.
My hikes are often destination centric but with this landscape I really wanted to see as much as possible to complete my experience. Looping back towards Finca La Playa was an incredible valley full of livestock and some of the most curious cows I’ve come across. This area was a highlight – no mud and finally the clouds over Nevado del Tolima were starting to break and there were great views walking through.
When I got back to Finca La Playa, there were two hikers at the hut who turned out to be the owners of the tents I passed earlier in the morning. One of the men, Jacob, lives in Texas and owns a gear rental company for summit and backpacking expeditions in the park. He gave me the whole low down on the park and translated everything his good friend and guide had to say.
Whereas the hut was empty at the time, December was nearing and the park would become packed for the drier holiday season. The hut owner said she’s even had as many as 70 people staying and dining on the busiest of nights so I became pleased with this absolute lack of crowd.
Jacob and his friend had just gotten done with summiting Nevado del Tolima, the main peak that is open to guided climbing in the park and they were here to celebrate now. Me being acclimated and hiking out tomorrow didn’t refuse a few offerings of Jack Daniels and some green herb smoked out of an apple like some high school kids because neither of them thought to bring a pipe.
At night we dined on a meal of freshsheep, very fresh to say the least. The guys had stopped in for a night on their way to the summit and paid the nice price of 200k COP (60 USD) and participated in the slaughter of one of the three sheep on the farm.
The farm owners were so pleased to be able to sell one of their sheep after several weeks of recent cougar attacks stealing the sheep in the night. This way everybody got the best of the situation and that sheep would not end up being next weeks meal for the hungry cougar.
Hiker midnight was approaching and that was enough celebration for me with a big day of hiking out tomorrow. I hit my pad and quickly asleep to the sound of none other than a downpour of rain.
Pre-morning light somehow crept through the thick dark cloud layer that was cast over the stratosphere and I awoke. Only slightly thrilled to not hear the sound of rain, I needed to get a look and see what the trail conditions were looking like outside before my mood was determined.
Shhhhoooot I sighed the instant I looked out. The clouds were so high in the atmosphere all the summits were visible and I could see Paramillo del Quindo capped in snow. The glaciers on that summit melted years back and there was no sign of snow hiking in the other day so that was completely fresh.
Talking with Jacob and his guide I got some tips on hiking over before parting ways and thanking the hut owners for their hospitality.
If you get off the main highway trails in Los Nevados, it’s actually near impossible to follow the true trail for its entirety. Because of free grazing livestock, herd trails become more defined than the lightly used side trails and before you know it you realize that you’ve been off on a spur trail while the main trail had broken apart.
Using GPS was the only way to see this as the landscape looks impossibly identical in every aspect and finding a trail by sight from a distance is not a viable option. I was walking with GPS in hand most of the way over to Paramillo del Quindo due to the lack of well-built trails but this was no different from my day yesterday either.
When I got to the ridge that Paramillo del Quindo lay behind, I studied the GPS and the landscape together as one to try and see if I could follow the path to the summit with my eyes.
It started off well, the trail went down the backside of the ridge to the valley; okay trail was still there, let’s see, oh…nope that’s a lake? Or a bog? I don’t know but the trail can’t go through? I decide to stop there, head down and check it out up close to see where things go.
I get to the depressed flat and it is very much a bog with these massive green plumes of moss which has the trail walking on leading straight across the bog, of which is at least a quarter mile to cross.
The only place relatable that I’ve seen in my life is from Lord of the Rings when Frodo and Sam are headed to Mordor and have to cross the bog with bodies in it. Yeah…one could say eerie vibes were here.
It only took a matter of about twenty steps before the trail to fade out and I was left in a maze of hopping from green moss plumes to other green moss plumes. Becoming less frequent and having to backtrack there were a lot of questionable routes. How deep would it be if I had a misstep? Probably just waist-neck deep! The water itself was only a couple feet deep but driving in my trekking poles they didn’t hit bottom most places.
Absent of some terror, the place was one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen and without any detrimental mistakes I was at the glacier run off stream that washes the rock sediment down from the moraine.
I wandered left, right, and up trying to find the trails on my GPS and could bear no sign. Going further I began the climb up Paramillo del Quindo to hit the snow line and only saw one set of footprints before disappearing under the snow.
I would only go as far as I was comfortable which ended up being so very close to the top but with no trail, no snow equipment, and no views I decided 15,200 feet was as good as any to turn around. The next section I was looking at was also not advisable.
I took my funereal self down the same route I had struggled so hard to climb and only hope I get the chance to return with some better weather.
It would be about 10-miles of mostly downhill trekking to get back to Cocora this evening and for the first time on the trip I felt like I was making good time. As I got towards the bog again, I was able to find a trail along this shores edge that led away through a forest of Espeletia.
This trail rode the canyon top before dropping down a ridge and across some glacier streams where flocks of bright green parakeets sung.
The other night Jacob told me that many trekkers use this trail to get in and out of Los Nevados because of the Valley of the Lost bog that had given me issues. He calls it the Valley of the Lost Hiking Boots and Trekking Poles and laughed at my misfortune as he was inquisitive of how deep it was getting through.
This trail that goes by Finca Buenos Aires and Finca Argentina is definitely one of the coolest trails being dug into the canyon walls with incredible views but it still had its share of mud, erosion, livestock feces, and snappy dogs to raise the question is it really any better?
By this point, I didn’t care to be honest! I was making new friends with cute pups and cows and cruising on down with the only thoughts left of ‘hope I make it out before the jeeps stop running’, ‘I pray my hostel has a bed open’, and ‘cannot wait for a Poker beer in Cocora’.
As Paramo turned to jungle, and jungle faded to countryside, the sign I was on the look out for rose tall out of the ground ahead of me with the sun setting and glistening through misty clouds. It was a view of the wax palms that brought on levels of emotion and closed the chapter on my Los Nevados adventure.
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