“Yeah, I want to go to El Cocuy”
“Oh cool! I’ve never been, but you have to take a guide, it’s very dangerous!”
“Na, it’ll be right”
“No you really have to! Last year a group of tourists went without a guide and got lost. They weren’t seen for a month, and one of them never came back!”
“Yeah, I’ll be right. It’ll be fun!”
*Cue wide eyed stare*
All semester I’d been chewing peoples ears off like this about going to El Cocuy and how I was going to do the six day circuit through the Colombian Andes without a guide, reveling in the fearful expressions this provoked. You know, like a dick. But at the moment of truth – back in Bogota and sweaty and exhausted after five days in the Amazon – it was Robbie, my friend who’d never really trekked before, who convinced me to actually go. It was a week or so before Christmas, and I was all for hightailing it to the coast for beaches, waves and beers. Somehow, Robbie managed to convince me that 5-6 days freezing our little buns off between 3900 and 4800 metres above sea level, slogging up snowy mountain passes with wet tents, wet sleeping bags, a few wet clothes and all our food on our backs was a far better idea for a holiday. Not to mention the boiled eggs and canned tuna. Neither of us even like boiled eggs or tuna, less still after eating it for almost a week straight. Lord knows why we took them in the first place (*cough*Quintens idea*cough*). Better still, if we did the trek one day faster than all the guides said was possible, and without spending a day at altitude to acclimatise, we might just make it to the coast in time to meet some good friends for Christmas.
So we frantically bought a stove and gas bottles and rushed out to the terminal for an overnight bus, arriving in the sleepy village of El Cocuy the next morning. El Cocuy is in the heart of the department of Boyaca, a highland region where you’ll find the kind of traditional, agricultural lifestyle so heavily romanticised back in Bogota. Old men appear in El Cocuy’s main square at dawn for a big day of sitting, dressed in the requisite brown suit, soiled poncho and battered hat, and a question as to the whereabouts of a supermarket turns into a half hour conversation, after which you know the location of every corner store between here and Tunja. Oh and no, there isn’t a supermarket in El Cocuy. More than anywhere else I’ve been, the men of El Cocuy seem to come completely full circle from birth to death. Between twenty-five and thirty, working on your dads farm, you abandon your cap for a full blown cowboy hat. As you approach the age of fifty, your belly, hat and moustache all swell while your teeth drop out in proportion to your increasing age. Then suddenly you’re fifty-five and your hat becomes smaller, you shrink within yourself (becoming impossibly cute in the process) and leave the hard work of the farm to take up drinking aguardiente in the square from sun-up to sundown.
Our day in the village was spent gathering supplies and trawling through the blogs of former trekkers, nervous as we heard more and more horror stories. We registered with the National Parks Office, so they knew to send someone after us if we didn’t come back in time, and were sternly told that “it is highly recommended that you take a guide. It’s quite dangerous to go alone”. We had breakfast with a squad of marines, machine guns resting on the restaurant tables, before they headed into the mountains on patrol. Around ten years ago El Cocuy National Park was almost entirely controlled by leftist guerrillas, and they’re still tucked away in isolated pockets. The extent of my trekking experience was limited to a nine day guided walk through the Papuan jungle and climbing the wrong mountain in Morocco’s High Atlas. Robbie was even greener than me. I was feeling a little out of my depth.
El Cocuy is a long way off Colombia’s main north-south highways, and the functions of daily life take priority over any convenience for tourists. This sort of thing is common in most of Colombia, and refreshing compared to other places I’ve travelled, where the opposite is often true. But after four hours rattling around in the back of a milk truck you stop caring about people’s milk and start worrying you won’t make it to your first camp by nightfall. Once we were finally dropped off (a half hour’s walk from the actual start of the track) a young Bogotano couple pointed out a shortcut that would cut hours off our day’s walk – straight up and over that black Mordor-esque mountain range of death over there. Once over the range of death and down the other side, a poncho clad farmer on horseback told us we were “only a couple of hours” from camp. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves.
Nature has a way of slapping you in the face when you get too confident in her domain. It began to rain, and that farmer had obviously failed to see that we, unlike him, were not on horseback. Our campsite that night was supposed to be Laguna de Los Verdes (Lake of the Greens? I don’t understand Spanish sometimes) and as fog reduced visibility to around fifty metres and night closed in, we abandoned any hope of finding the track, splashing frantically along the banks of a creek, following the advice from ‘Man vs Wild’ of following water downhill to find civilisation – or a lake, in our case. We looked to Bear Grylls for guidance. That’s how bad it got. In the very last daylight we spotted the lake, then a few tents. We pitched a wet tent, climbed out of wet pants and boots into wet sleeping bags a passed a night in a shivery, miserable excuse for sleep.
There’s only one way to describe El Cocuy, and that’s EPIC! Not epic, but EPIC! – you have to shout it. What kind of forces create a mountain range that reaches up to 5300 metres, carves out cliffs so impossibly high and steep the idea off jumping off starts to sound poetic, and scoops out valleys so huge they take three hours to walk across, even though from the top of that pass you were on it looked like you could toss your last can of tuna across it? Some pretty awesome ones, that’s what. El Cocuy’s crazy scenery is shy, however, as the condensation factory that is Los Llanos (swamps that begin on the eastern side of the Andes and stretch away into Venezuela and towards the Amazon) is constantly sending up drifts of cloud that obscure parts of the mountains and valleys. As a result, trekkers often have to construct an image of the magnificence before them from the fragments they see at different times.
One of the more epic sections of the track presented itself on day two, hugging a muddy, icy track as wind whipped through Boquerón de la Sierra pass, throwing snow into our faces and threatening to send us tumbling down into Laguna de la Isla, a lake nestled in the valley far below. Cliffs towered to the right and a smattering of glaciers disinterestedly watched our progress. We camped in a cave that turned out to be the wrong cave, and wondered how the two people who were commemorated on a plaque in said cave had died. Valle de los Cojines almost had us following waterfalls down the wrong valley, towards the swamps of Los Llanos and into local folklore as “those dead/lost gringos”. Instead, we felt like frogs navigating the swampy floor of the valley by jumping across the cojines – weird, spongy pods of bright green plant matter, kind of like a moss.
We got lost on moraines and in fog, and were lucky that a lovely English lady and her guide, the moustachioed Don Gilberto were never too far behind – we could always wait and see where they went when they overtook us. Life was good at Laguna de la Plaza, the sun shining on what a nearby sign boasted was “The most beautiful lake in South America”. “It’s weird to be around other humans again,” commented Robbie. On the last day “The Balconies,” giant rock shelves rising to the east before dropping off into nothingness with the swamps invisible beyond, gave an impression of being on the very edge of the world. After one last windy pass, we were out of the national park and on the road, looking for a ride back to town, anxious for decent food, sun, beaches and beer.
We got there eventually, after hitching a ride with a park ranger and having a devastatingly cold shower in the hospedaje we’d left our stuff in – while the gremlin-like women who worked there looked on, giggling and stroking their moustaches. We spent two nights in buses, including sleeping on the floor on the way to Bucaramanga, but we made the coast with twenty-four hours to spare before Christmas.
People are going to tell you that El Cocuy is dangerous and you shouldn’t do it without a guide. This is possibly true, as the risks are real and at times we would have found it easy to get lost if the weather had fogged us in. That said, maximise your chances – go between early December and late February, when the weather is best and do some heavy research beforehand. We found this particular blog very useful (in Spanish), it’s full of photos of the landscapes you’ll encounter plus handy drawings of the track drawn in. We didn’t acclimatise, but we live in Bogota so we’d already spent six months halfway up – it’s probably a good idea to spend a night at one of the Cabañas beforehand.
To avoid getting lost, the main advice is – don’t follow waterfalls in or near Valle de Los Cojines and stay high when passing Los Balcones, don’t descend. Follow the rock piles – people have gone a bit over the top in places and built veritable rock towers. Get a map and register yourself at the National Parks Office beforehand in either Guican or El Cocuy (and pay them), make sure your sleeping bag and tent are of a decent quality (for example, not from the Exito supermarket), you have a good rain jacket, warm clothes and enough food for up to 6-7 days. Once you get out of the farming land, you can drink the water from the streams that come off the mountains. If you think you can handle that, you probably don’t need a guide. Have fun! We did.