And so began the great adventure, the trip into the wild. Fortunately we had learnt from the mistakes of Christopher McCandless and knew that as well as happiness only truly existing when shared, it was also a lot safer to wander off into the mountains with an accomplice. My partner in crime for this trip was Peter Lykkegaard, a great Dane, a Viking of a man if they were to still exist today. I had met Peter on the Ciudad Perdida trek and in a brief conversation we had discussed exploring a mountainous region in Colombia. Over the last few weeks we had conversed online from various places in Colombia until we reconvened in Medellin. The past 2-3 days had been spent exploring Medellin and Guatape and in a few spare moments we had formulated a plan. It looked a little like this:
1 – Go to Parque Nacional El Cocuy
2 – Walk up a mountain or two
3 – Camp
As you can see, a lot of time and effort had gone into it. When we arrived back from Guatape we said our goodbyes to Mauro and Tanya and went to find out exactly how to get to El Cocuy. Being a town high up in the mountains, it wasn’t possible to take a direct bus there, little did we know just how long it was going to take. Neither of the tourist information places could help us much but we knew that Bucaramanga was generally in the right direction. For that reason, we booked ourselves on to a night bus and went off to find some food. We toasted the start of our adventure and ate a hearty meal before boarding the bus to Bucaramanga.
Around 8 hours later and at about 4am we arrived in the bus terminal in Bucaramanga. I don’t know much about the place but I do know that at 4am on a Sunday there isn’t a great deal to do so we found ourselves a couple of benches in the terminal and got some more sleep. Once it got light and places started to open up we headed to a local supermarket to buy supplies. Again, our organisation was second to none, we had prepared a shopping list that looked a little like this:
– Roll mat
Once we had selected all of the necessary items (Peter didn’t manage to find any waterproofs but 2 out of 3 was still pretty good) we made our way back to the bus station to get our next bus to a place called Capitanejo. Unfortunately that bus wasn’t available but we were able to find another one which took us to Malaga, not an exotic Spanish destination but not too far away from where we were trying to get to. Another 7-8 hour bus was on the cards and once again we settled in for the long journey. We left Bucaramanga and made our way into the countryside, we began to climb higher into the hills and enjoyed some great views in between naps. The further we travelled the harder it became to sleep as the tarmac road narrowed then became a mix of sand and pebbles. The turns became sharper and the edge steeper. We stopped once for a police checkpoint where all the men were searched but unlike in Venezuela the police were friendly and welcoming.
The next time we stopped we were in a beautiful small mountain town. We had been on the bus for six hours so thought we were close to arriving in Malaga. To our surprise the bus driver informed us we were still three hours away. Unfortunately, the next three hours became five or six when the bus began to break down on a regular basis. Neither Peter or I really cared and we took the opportunity of a stationary bus to get some well needed sleep. Finally we arrived in Malaga, we were almost at the National Park and all was good, or so we thought. It was late though and arriving in El Cocuy would have to wait until tomorrow. In the meantime we found a hotel, got a twin room for half the price of a dormitory in any of the larger cities and cooked up the majority of our supplies. One of the items which we hadn’t managed to find was a stove so we were expecting cold meals for the next week or so.
The next morning we were itching to get to El Cocuy but again our hopes were dashed slightly when we discovered first we had to go to Capitanejo, where we had wanted to go the day before. This was just a 1-hour trip in a collective taxi. The roads around here were awful, there must have been heavy rain as there were remnants of landslides all over the place. Luckily, the sun was shining without a cloud in the sky when we made the trip. Finally, we arrived in Capitanejo, we had made it. Our first stop was the tourist office here but typically it was closed. A helpful resident pipped the horn on his motorbike and the doors opened. Carlos, the owner welcomed us gleefully and before long, not only were we getting all the information we could need, but we were sat in his kitchen as he cooked us lunch. We ate a delicious meal with Carlos and his wife and daughter. I still never cease to be amazed at the friendliness and generosity of almost all of the Colombian people I have met so far.
After several hours of eating, chatting and dancing to everything from reggaeton to salsa we left, but not before they had given us both a small Colombian flag as a gift for our rucksacks. While we talked with Carlos we were a little distraught to find out that we were actually still several hours from the town of El Cocuy. Our next stop on this ridiculous yet strangely enjoyable journey was Soata, one hour further into the mountains. A simple bus and we arrived to find the bus we needed had just left. We jumped into a taxi with six other people, I was sat on Peter’s knee and the driver chased down the bus. He drove at hair raising speeds and would have given Sebastian Vettel a run for his money on these roads. We caught the bus in no time and fortunately it stopped for us to get aboard. We were now, finally, on the bus to El Cocuy. Granted, we were still four hours away but that didn’t matter. As evening set in we arrived into this small, quaint town complete with grand church and beautifully maintained square.
In total the journey took two or three days with over 24hours on buses. Having said that, I wouldn’t have changed a thing, it was full of great experiences, interesting people and signified a perfect start to our adventure. We found a hostel for the night and of course, we then discovered that the entrance to the national park was still 25km away. There was a lechero (milk truck) that left every morning at 06:30 and was the only ‘public’ method of transport to get there. However, because we had arrived in the evening we had to get a permit to enter the park and the office in El Cocuy didn’t open until 07:00. We decided the 25km walk, all uphill and between 3000m and 4000m above sea level would be a good acclimatisation hike. So it was, the following morning we packed up and set off on the final leg to arrive at the park. After two hours we were both in good spirits and the altitude hadn’t seemed too much of a strain.
As we sat and ate lunch and admired the already impressive views a truck came past. It was the perfect hitchhiking vehicle and luckily it stopped for us and we hopped in the back. No point in using any more energy than we needed to. They were a group of electricians checking the lighting in the area around the park and after a couple of stops we were at the entrance. They had coordinated their work with a fishing trip and were actually driving a short way in so we stayed in the truck and for the first time since we set off from Medellin our transport came through for us and we got further than we had planned! After a brisk 1hour walk in the park we arrived at a grand cabana where we pitched the tent, reheated our rich rice and lentils dish and settled down for the night.
The following morning we awoke in the early hours and set off at 5am. The first hour was done with torches before the sun came up. We were attempting to summit a 5000m+ double peaked mountain. The higher of the two was Pan de Azucar with Pulpito del Diablo slightly lower but just as spectacular, a rock outcrop shooting straight into the clouds. For the first 2-3 hours it was hard going, a steady incline throughout. We had opted to take one rucksack between us which was great if it wasn’t your turn to carry the bag but a bit of a nightmare if it was. Now the air was noticeably thinner and we dragged our already tiring bodies up the hills.
After the steady incline we took a sharp turn onto a boulder field. It was steep, with a path that kept disappearing and various remnants of previous landslides which were tricky to say the least. It took another couple of hours to get through the boulder field and when we made it to the top we were relieved to see that although it was still uphill we had reached a plateau. Now the views were incredible, I’ve never seen so many mountains from one place, plus turquoise and red lagoons and hills ranging in colour from lush green to black. When you throw in the glaciers and the snow capped peaks it has to be one of the best views I’ve ever seen.
Unbelievably the plateau seemed even harder than the boulder field. The strong head wind plus thin air was exhausting and our progress over the next hour was very slow. Eventually however, we made it to the snow line. Luckily, we had managed to hire crampons from the cabana we had stopped at. Unluckily (or due to poor planning) they didn’t fit our boots very well. Nonetheless we strapped them on and complete with ice axes started making our way across the glacier. We soon passed Pulpito del Diablo and as the path got steeper, the wind picked up and we had the summit of Pan de Azucar in our sights.
It was at this point, after several stops to refit my crampons I began to question the safety of what we were undertaking. We had only met one other group and it was slightly concerning to see that they were roped together with a local guide, wearing crampons, carrying ice axes and in professional climbing boots. It didn’t help matters that they said ‘it’s a bit hairy on the ridge at the top, the wind is really strong’. The statement stuck with me, particularly as it felt like we were already in hurricane like conditions. As we approached the ridge and completed the final steep part of the ascent I made the decision not to go any further. I was a few metres from the official summit and for me that was good enough, maybe it was a mature decision or maybe I’m a big wimp. Either way the views were spectacular, the experience unforgettable and I don’t regret my choice. Peter on the other hand trekked on and conquered the ridge in true Viking style. As I waited for Peter to return, hoping not to see him drop off the side of the mountain, it did mean I could get some more awe-inspiring photos.
We made our way back down the mountain and reached solid ground again. It was now that exhaustion began to set in. We had been walking more or less nonstop for 8-9 hours, all uphill and at high altitude. The sun had come out and we were out of water, it was surprisingly difficult to find a stream at this point. There was not a lot to do except keep plodding on, at least it was downhill but the conversation and enthusiasm had definitely dwindled. We crossed the plateau and drifted back down the boulder field, eventually we came across a stream and drank freezing cold, pure water, some of the best I’ve ever had! Two more hours of exhausted walking and we made it to the tent. It was a 12-14 hour day of solid walking and up there as one of the toughest physical challenges I’ve done.
We rewarded ourselves with more rice and lentils that night and spent the following day recovering. Although it would have been nice to stay in El Cocuy for a few more days I was on a pretty strict timescale. One of the things I had realised while spending time with Peter is how much more you can get out of travelling in South America if you’re fluent in the language. For that reason I made the decision to head to Bogota and take another week of classes before the final stretch south in Colombia. It was hard to leave such a beautiful place but we packed up the tent, said goodbye to the friendly kid and her slightly grumpy mother and started the trek out of the park. We had the same plan, start walking and hitchhike if possible but it was the weekend and we barely saw another vehicle. By the time we arrived back in El Cocuy we had walked over 30km. We celebrated the end of our adventure with a few beers and a hamburger before we boarded the bus early evening.
We slept like babies on the bus and I only woke to say bye to Peter as he got off somewhere at 4am to change buses. He was heading to San Gil whilst I continued to Bogota. My buddy, Ed arrived into Quito on the 25th and I wanted to get to Otavalo to meet up with him and another very good friend, Rob. Parque Nacional El Cocuy is definitely one of the highlights of my trip so far and I’d like to see how much higher above sea level I can go, there’s plenty of opportunity to test myself with the Andes stretching down through the majority of countries I’m due to visit. This was a great introduction to mountaineering and an experience I won’t forget.