Colombia ~ Trekking

Trekking Sierra Nevada National Parc Boyaca / Ritacuba Blanco Summit 5400m

The first part of our visit to Colombia was a trekking in the El Cocuy National Parc. We had booked the "vuelta", the big circuit hike around some of the highest peaks of the country including a hike to Colombias number two Ritacuba Blanco at 5400m altitude.

The national park was established in 1977 and covers an area of 306.000 hectares. During the 80ies and 90ies parts of it weren't recommendable to visit as it was FARC territory. However, since a couple of years there is no danger at all to visit this area. While the Ritacuba Blanco is not the highest peak of Colombia, it is the highest summit that can be climbed. The number one, Pico Cristobal Colon in northern Colombia is restricted area and not accessible.

We had left our diving equipment at the hotel in Bogota and planned on taking the night bus to Güican, a small town in the Andes mountains, a trip which takes usually around twelve hours. So after having had dinner at the hotel we took the taxi to the Bogota bus terminal (huge!) and tried to find our bus. Of course, welcome to Latin America! - the bus wasn't there and our ticket didn't include the bus number and if that wasn't already challenge enough, the number of the bus had changed in between. But after all we made it to the correct coach and tried to get some sleep which wasn't very easy since the bus had to cross the Andes in countless turns.

23 December 2012

Our bus arrived in Güican in the morning and we met our tour guide after a bit of walking around the main square. He first took us to the Brisas del Nevado hotel in town to get some breakfast, have the last shower for the next couple of days and to give us the briefing of the trekking. Then we went to the tour operator's office to check equipment and get what else we need. There we had to learn that contrary to what we thought we had booked luggage transportation (i.e. horses) during the trek was not possible on part of the trail, and for 2 days we would have to carry all luggage by ourselves. So say goodbye to the "day pack" idea and welcome to the 20kg+ backpack stuffed with tent, sleeping bag, mat etc.

 

The start of the hike                                  Welcome to Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) El Cocuy

An offroad car then took us into the mountains to the starting point of the trekking. Weather looked cloudy but we were optimistic. However, our guide Gilberto put on his rain pants which we still ignored at that point. Soon after we had learned our lesson: Gilberto doesn't talk that much but watch him and you will be fine or at least protected from rain. While our big backpacks were carried on horses we walked up the Valle de Frailejones and after a few hours reached the Cabañas at Laguna Pintada (3890m) where we would spend the first night. Interestingly enough the hut was colder inside than outside - and outside it was around 5°C... Therefore dinner dresscode included down jackets and caps. A bit exhausted from the altitude we soon went to bed.

24 December 2012

After breakfast (Porridge and Agua Panela, a hot sugar cane drink) we stepped outside into the sunlight and started to hike towards the first mountain pass Alto de Cusiri (4411m). Unfortunately, as the pass neared the weather became cloudy and soon we had to put on our rain clothes (lesson learned!). After a steep descent we found ourselves in a nice valley with lots of frailejones and other plants before we had to climb up again to the Alto de Patio Bloas (4380m). Our camp site at the Laguna Grande de la Plaza (4314m) was said to have a nice scenic view but weather put a spoke in our wheel.

 

The Cabañas at Laguna Pintada                                        Laguna del Corazon (the name we gave this lake)

 

On the way to the Cusiri pass                                           The weather changed

 

Our campsite at ...                                                          ... Laguna de la Plaza

  

Alto de Patio Bloas                                      Frailejones detail                                       Frailejones in flowering

25 December 2012

When we woke up in the morning we could hear the sound of rain drops falling on our tent and on the first part of the trek it was quite a challenge to climb over slippery rocks with our heavy bags. Melanie didn't feel very well (she already had a heavy cough when we we flew to Bogota and it seemed to not get better). The first pass to climb was the Alto con Mojon (4280m) and later the Alto los Balcones (4475m) to reach the camp site at Laguna del Pañuelo (which literally means the handkerchief lake).

 

Day 3 - it's wet                                                             Mystical Frailejones landscape

 

Crossing an ice-cold creek                                                Some rays of sunlight

 

Campsite, improvised to not step directly in the mud            Alto del Castillo

 

26 December 2012

Our first pass today was Alto el Castillo (4574m) which was hard work to climb with all the luggage on our backs before we would descend to the Laguna el Rincon (4374m) and later the Valle de los Cojines at around 4200m. This is a valley which holds a lot of humidity on the ground and is covered with cushions of moss. Walking there is more like jumping from cushion to cushion or alternatively walk in the river bed. For an hour or two even the sun did shine and allowed a first view to the spectacular mountains left and right. Our camp site Cueva Larga (4285m) was under a wall of rock and the first place in days to be really dry.

Today was Dominiks birthday and Melanie did surprise him with a small cake and a candle drawn on paper. Also a beer which was carried in our backpacks since days found its way into our stomaches. An old mountaineer's rule: The beer/wine you carry by yourself has the best taste ever!

 

Alto del Castllo                                                               View down to the valley

 

Mela & Do in front of the north face of Ritacuba Blanco           Beautiful Valle de Cojines

27 December 2012

By now the Melanie's cough has gotten worse and she had started antibiotics, to prevent getting worse or risking in the ever-wet climate a pulmonia. Weakened by the meds we were looking forward for this day as from now on horses could carry the luggage again and she was promised to get a horse to ride on. Also, as if the cough wasn't enough to deal with, Dominik had severe tooth pain and needed to go to the doctor. This made us decide to do the distance of two days in one in order to be able to descend to Güican that evening. Without heavy luggage and Melanie on the horse this looked like hard work but possible.

But the horses weren't there yet, we would meet them during the morning on the way, so first we had to hike to Laguna Avellanal (4435m) where we could see the nearly vertical east wall of the Ritacuba Blanco. Unfortunately, it was covered in clouds (surprise?!). The guy with the horses arrived soon after which was a big relief for Melanie as the next pass Alto de la Sierra had an altitude of 4676m. This is higher than the highest peak in Switzerland: Dufourspitze 4634m.

 

Ascent towards ....                                                        ..Alto de los Frailes & view to Laguna Grande de los Verdes

The descend to Laguna de la Isla and Cueva de los Frailes offered nice views and a landscape which changed from beeing rocky and deserted as common in the high mountains to grassy and covered with frailejones. Also from time to time the sun peeked through the clouds and made climbing the Alto de los Frailes (4210m) more comfortable. On the other side of the pass we looked forward to see the Laguna Grande de los Verdes (4070m) but once again everything was covered in clouds and fog. By now we were used to it!

 

Crossing the last passes the weather got immediately better

At the camp site we had a short lunch break before climbing the last of the passes, the Alto de Cardenillo (4360m) which led us back to the west side of the mountain chain and where weather immediately became much nicer. From this pass it was about 1.5 hours to the point where we would end the trek and get into the car which would bring us down to Güican. We got there when it was already dark, and like could admire the illumination for Christmas. Colombians seem to be crazy and cover almost everything with LED lights so to us coming down from the mountains it looked like Disneyland or an extraterrestrial base.

 

 

Hotel Brisas del Nevado                                                  Trying to get equipment dry

We checked in at Hotel Brisas del Nevado and got a nice room in the garden house. In our room we unpacked our bags and spread out everthing across the room to dry. A shower with electrc heating was available with electric heating and the water was a little bit warmer than the one up in the mountains. Nevertheless it felt good to take a shower after the last days.

28 December 2012

Having had a great sleep we walked to the local hospital to visit the dentist. Luckily nothing serious was wrong with Dominik's tooth, "just" an inflammation but a shot of Ibuprofen worked magic and all the pain suddenly was gone.

 

29 December 2012

The whole day we spent hanging around before we met Gilberto in the late afternoon to bring us to Cabañas Kanwara (approx. 3900m). The car we drove decided to break during the ride and we luckily found another one - only that it was half the size of the first one which caused some problems to fit us and the luggage in.

 

Happy after tooth pain is gone                                          A pimped car isn't preventing machine failure

30 December 2012

Initially it was planned to do the Ritacuba Blanco in two days starting at Cabañas Kanwara and doing a bivouac half way. However, due to our health problems we had to redefine our program. Melanie was still on antibiotics and feeling too weak for a climb so we decided that Dominik and Gilberto would try to reach the summit in one day instead of two. They scheduled to start their approach for Ritacuba Blanco at 02:00 in the night so we went to bed early to get some hours of sleep. The hut had a fireplace in the living room, but unfortunately, the chimney in the hut apparently did not function properly and transport the carbodioxide out, so we woke up with a short breath and gasping oxygen. We felt like beeing at an altitude of 7000m and only opening the big front door helped and solved the problem.

31 December 2012

To reach Ritacuba Blanco the path leads up a valley called Atajo, to a rocky ridge which leads to Divino Nino (4933m), the place where the glacier currently ends. It was around 5 o'clock in the morning and sunrise was still more than an hour away. The wind was howling and it was freezingly cold which made putting on the crampons a difficult task. Walking on the glacier was technically not challenging but at 5000m+ every step feels like two.

A few meters from the summit is a steep wall (30-35°, 15m) which basically is an easy task for any experienced mountaineer. Everyone else might feel a bit uncomfortable. Having climbed the wall there's challenge number two: the crevasse below the summit. It's a couple of meters deep and to the left and to the right you would fall for several hundred meters before you plunge into Laguna Avellanal. A small bridge of frozen snow leads over the crevasse, but you have to make sure to return from the summit before noon as then it would become too unstable in the sun.

Weather was beautiful on summit day so Dominik could take a lot of pictures of the amazing landscape:

  

Sunrise over Colombia's peaks                                          The long way on the glacier to the peak

 

Ritacuba Negro                                                              Crevasse

 

The last steep ascent                                                      Beautful views

 

View to the valley we had seen with only rain & fog              Congratulations Dominik!

View to Ritacuba Blanco 

The descent was done in 'race style': We hike down the glacier to the camp site called Playitas and then just ran in good mountain runners' style back to Cabañas Kanware which we reached shortly after 9 o'clock. Most probably the fastest climb of Ritacuba Blanco ever :-)

After having lunch we were taken back down to Güican and took the night bus back to Bogota. This is quite a crazy story which involves a crazy driver, narrow mountain roads and the desperate try to get some sleep whilst the driver was doing his private Formula One race. We arrived two hours earlier in Bogota than scheduled which says it all...

Finally, some tips and recommendations for fellow travelers interested in visiting this area: 

To get to Cocuy or Güican get on a bus at the terminal in Bogota. They typically run twice a day, with a day and a night bus, the trip takes 10-12 hours. The two companies we used were Concorde and Libertadores. In high season (like Christmas and NY) definitely buy the ticket ahead of time.

We had booked the hike with Rodrigo Arias, whom we had read about in a NY Times travel article, and who also seemed the one with most experience: www.colombiatrek.com, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He speaks english and spanish, he also has one or two guides working with him however they only speak spanish. Depending on how much equipment you need and how many people you are in your group, prices start at 1200 USD approx. 

We had only found one alternative online (www.thecolombianway.com), but they did not convince us: We found the suggested itinerary a bit weird (it probably had some mistake regarding from where to do the summit) and they did not include the horses, but they would have been quite a bit cheaper. 

Mentioned in the Lonely Planet is Ecoturismo Comunitario Sisuma (www.elcocuyboyaca.com), and we met a group guided by them at the Cabañas at Laguna Pintada (the cold one). They actually also run the cabaña. 

Experienced hikers who know what to look for to "see" a trail can do the circuit without guides, which of course means to carry the whole equipment and food for 5-7 days. We met two or three couples who were by themselves. For a bit more comfort and ease a guided tour is definitely better. Mountaineers who aspire to reach the summit of Ritacuba Blanco should definitely get a guide, as anything more detailed than the map of the national park administration is not available. There is no cell phone reception once the Cusiri pass is crossed, until you get out of the valley again at the Cardenillo pass.

Map National Park

To get to the park boundaries one has to hire a ride from Güican or El Cocuy (about 100.000 COP), and have previously paid the admission fee at the park administration (situated at the main plaza in Güican and probably same in Cocuy). 

In case you want to stay a night or two in Güican the best choice is probably the hotel Brisas del Nevado, run by a family from Bogota and only open during high seasons. It offers more or less warm water, clean rooms with private baths and decent food (although don't expect too much variety). 

Take enough cash, there is no ATM in Güican and apparently only one in Cocuy (which is an hour from Güican). 

Helpful links:

http://www.nevados.org/mapserver/sierra-nevada-cocuy.htm

http://www.pnncocuy.com/mapfolder/trail_map_1.png

http://www.pnncocuy.com/maps.html

http://www.tourensuche.eu/orte/249192/Ritacuba_Blanco

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