El Cocuy. A Colombian national park that we’d never heard of wasn’t exactly on our bucket list but from the moment we were shown pictures of this little known treasure, we decided that it was worth a visit.
Julian our fantastic host from Bucaramanga wanted to see the park too and so having spent a week cycling away from him, a two hour bus journey took us back to his house. Plans gradually came together for a five day walking trip and with the bikes safely stowed away, we embarked on an epic 18 hour bus journey from Bucaramanga to the village of El Cocuy, gateway to the park itself.
From here the journey got a bit tougher as the park is tucked away in the mountains and access isn’t easy….by the time we hopped off the truck ready to start hiking, our journey had taken three days and we hoped it would be worth it. Little did we know we’d be trekking back down to El Cocuy in less than 24 hours.
Arriving late in El Cocuy we decided to take the next day to acclimatise, have a look around town, and prepare for our journey into the park. The external walls of every building in town are painted the same colour; whitewashed walls with blocks of sea-green. In the early mountain light it gives the town a welcoming, peaceful feel.
With a bit of time to spare, we hit the surrounding hills for a brief walk. It was some sort of feeble attempt at a warm up, knowing full well that the climbs and altitude in the park waiting for us were much more serious.
We made time to indugle in a heavy lunch (as always, any excuse to load up on calories) in the dining room of this pretty colonial house. In true Colombian style, it was high in carb content, came with fresh fruit juice, and was a bargain - we were all stuffed for about $2.50 each.
In the early evening, there was a wander around the town square, soaking up the refreshing mountain air alongside men in hats and ruanas (warm ponchos)...
...and then back to the guesthouse for a typical mountain supper which in these parts is fresh bread, bananas, hot chocolate made with fresh milk and mountain cheese wrapped in leaves.
We were up before the roosters on the day of departure to the park but the lady of the house was up even earlier, making us "caldo de papas", potato soup with poached eggs. A hearty breakfast to prepare us for some serious walking.
Walking through the sleepy streets, with fully laden rucksacks in place of heavily loaded bikes, we headed for the town square...
...with many others who were up at the same hour, huddled in their ruanas, wiping the sleep from their eyes too.
Our early start was to make sure we didn't miss "El Lechero", Colombia's answer to the milk float. Not quite the battery powered runaround us Brits remember, this truck is one of the only heavy duty vehicles that goes as far as the park boundaries and so we get a lift with the churns....
...and other folk headed for the hills.
Like us, a few of the locals were enjoying the early morning sunshine...
...while El Lechero himself caught up on a bit of accounting, balancing his books during the ride.
The ride on El Lechero took over an hour as we wound our way through the mountains, climbing from 2700m to 4000m. For two people from the flatlands of East Anglia, we couldn't help feeling on top of a very beautiful world. Julian had never seen snow before and so he was suitably impressed by it all too.
Adjusting our rucksacks and pulling on gloves, we set off into the thin air.
Just a few minutes in and James and Julian feel compelled to pose for the obligatory outdoor catalogue shot complete with spectacular backdrop.
And then we were off again, breathing heavily and crisping slightly in the bright sun. We'd felt breathless walking up hill in El Cocuy at 2700m but this was a whole new level. At 4000m and with fierce sunshine added in, the few hours walking to the first camping ground was not steep or particularly technical but it was tough in other ways.
We emerge into an alien landscape of spongy marshlands, and spiky frajilón plants.
James gets up close to investigate...
...as Julian and I stomp through the mud...
...around corners that reveal more stunning views.
We stop a local to check we were heading the right way and he assures us we're just twenty minutes away...
...from this. Our first campground certainly doesn't disappoint.
Suddenly the bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds disappear and the tent is up just in time, before the rains come. Weary from the early start and our first high altitude hike, we take the opportunity to snuggle into sleeping bags and get cosy.
Nothing to do but snooze as the rain turns to hail and batters our little tent.
How plants like these survive such harsh weather changes is a mystery to me; they seem so delicate.
The skies are clear for long enough for us to escape the tent for an hour and explore some of the nearby lagoons. The landscape, even under cold grey skies, is stunning; like nothing we've seen before. We look forward to more climbing and hiking tomorrow.
But our enthusiasm is not matched by our capacity. The quick ascent in the milk truck to 4000m proves too much for former fen-dwellers James and I and through the night we suffer from altitude sickness: nausea, headaches and fatigue. We're definitely not up to further hiking at greater altitude and the next morning we make the difficult decision to return to El Cocuy, three days earlier than planned. We pack up the tent.
We were obviously gutted to cut our trip to such a beautiful place short but the sheer height had literally knocked the wind out of our sails and the only way to deal with it was to descend and let our bodies recover. These hardy mountain ponies don't seem to suffer from the same problem.
It's a long walk back to El Cocuy but the air gets thicker and tastier as we descend. Although the trip was far shorter than planned, we're glad at least to have seen the stunning snow line of the national park, and to have had our breath taken away in more ways than one.