No Red Trail: Trekking in Los Nevados National Park Without a Guide

The long read…

We had a straightforward plan. The pictures of Los Nevados National Park made it look very pretty and we wanted to hike through it without a guide. We had the GPS tracks and maps downloaded on our ViewRanger app as we had done for the Huemul Trek and in Chapada Diamantina to much success. Experienced hikers through the park, including the park office, assured us that there was plenty of signage throughout the region and we would have no problem navigating. With these assurances, we prepared for a simple, but cold, walk in the park, with short distances each day to account for the approximately 4000m altitude we would be hiking at.

Our first task to realize this plan was to find a way to get to the remote entrance of the park where our hike began. After shopping around and Yon and his mom calling people on our behalf, we settled on Kumanday Tours (also a hostel) to bring us to Potosí, one of the park entrances accessible only by 4×4 or by horse. Since it was only about COP 5,000 more each than the cost of just the transport to Potosí to include a guided tour of Nevado Santa Isabel (total of COP 180,000 each including park entrance fee, breakfast and lunch), we decided to take the extra tour.

Early Tuesday morning, we boarded the 4×4 that bumped along the road to Hostel La Laguna. We had breakfast there with the 8 other hikers on our tour and continued along the way to the park entrance where we dutifully signed in. We continued along the road for a bit until we reached the trailhead of Santa Isabel, one of Colombia’s last snow covered volcanoes, located at 4100m. We walked through the mostly yellow páramo landscape which was covered with endless frailejones and grass. Since it was the rainy season, parts of the trail was flooded, and we had to either splash through the water or balance on the edges of the water. Given the yellow colour, the landscape had a peculiar semblance of a desert, despite the rain falling on us intermittently. Our guide explained to us the flora of the region and pointed out the natural plant producing the chemicals found in Valium.

Sponsored by Parks Canada?!

Endless fields of frailejon

Our guide showing us the ingredients of valium

As the quantity of frailejones diminished and the landscape turned black and gray, we entered in super páramo territory and snow began to appear. It got windier and colder as we ascended up to 4600m, and soon the diverse landscape gave way to a blinding wall of white. After briefly jumping on the glacier, we went back down towards the trail and said goodbye to our group as we split ways, with them returning to Manizales and us going to Potosí.

Moving into super páramo- frailejons not welcome

Just like a Vancouver winter with all the slush

Receding glacier behind us

An hour or so later, we arrived at Hostel Campo Alegre located at the Potosí park entrance. Although it was only 2pm, the next stretch of the trail was another 12km away, so we decided to check out the hostel. Given that it was foggy, wet and cold, we decided against pitching our tent (8000 COP pp) and stayed in the dorm (COP 50,000 for the both of us). Herman, the hostel manager and milk farmer, welcomed us enthusiastically with open arms. He let us huddle in the kitchen around the wood burning stove, drying our socks and shoes while he made a huge effort to have a conversation with us in our limited Spanish. We gratefully accepted warm agua de panela, a sweet coffee-coloured drink, and learned the basics of turning milk into cheese. After it got dark, we huddled under four thick blankets and went to bed.

Our warm refuge at Hostel Camp Alegre

Noms

Intro to cheese making

Since Laguna del Otún was located close by, we left a little later. Once we started, we briskly walked on the relatively flat road and took in more of the páramo landscape. Thankfully, the obscuring fog lifted by the time we got to the laguna, and we got a brilliant view of the waterfall and lake. We took the longer, but more scenic path around the lake in the direction of the Santa Isabel glaciar and arrived at a two storey ranger cabin. This path was also covered with signs and we had no problem reaching our destination.

Nice flat route to Laguna del Otún

Flat route to the right, scenic, hilly frailejon filled route to the left…of course we went left

Panoramic shot over the laguna

Truly excessive ranger cabin

A friendly ranger came greeted us as we arrived, offered us agua de panela and let us set up our tent in the equipment shed where at least the dirt had not completely turned into mud. We marvelled at the number of dead fish that was around the property that were going to feed some hungry rangers when they arrived. Cute brown rabbits hopped about, enjoying the abundance of fresh green grass located in front of the Dutch sponsored greenhouse. We spent the afternoon in the kitchen, drinking warm tea and eyeing hopefully at the unused fireplace (they never did use it, despite the rangers looking cold and bundled up in thick jackets inside). The apparent head ranger came in, asked us for our route, and said something like it would be very difficult to get to Laguna Leona, our next stop, without a guide. We gave him our assurances that we would be fine; after all, we had a GPS and the routes seemed to covered in signs. He seemed skeptical but didn’t push us further.  As it got dark, we went to bed in our very cozy tent to the sound of rain pattering on the corrugated steel roof.

Not for us

Our sheltered campsite

In the early morning, we set off in the direction of Laguna Leona. We decided to borrow a tarp and insulating material from the heaping piles of scrap in the equipment shed, just in case it rained as it did the night before. After passing white rocks where sulfur leaked out from the volcanic activity, we had to make a choice- to follow the red path drawn directly on the ViewRanger map, or to follow the black path, which was the GPS path of someone who did the trip before. We went with the red trail marked, convinced that the official trail would be an easy one with signage or we would be able to set out a new GPS trail for others wishing to follow our path.

Endless fields of frailejons

Within the first thousand or so steps, we knew something was a bit wonky. There was no semblance of a trail, and we realized that clearings in the brush that looked like trails must be just rabbit paths. In contrast to the signs located at every 50m or so before, there was none. We climbed up and down the brush filled hills, pushing past frailejones and the thick yellow grass, hoping to see a path. We balanced precariously on these grass covered rocks, often hiding vast gaps to certain injury below that lay in between. We prodded every step with our walking sticks, grabbed large fistfuls of grass when scaling the hills, and grumbled when passing the frailejones. (From a hiking perspective, these are utterly useless plants- they are weak and can collapse if you hold onto them; once fallen, they become rotten almost immediately, and any holes below that these trunks cover create precarious situations. Later, we appreciated that their leaves were great at cleaning out the crumbs left in our bowls, but until then, they posed a certain kind of hazard). Hills lay after hills, and soon we were exhausted from pushing through the thick grass that required extra effort to walk through. Sudden rock cliffs located at the edges of the hills, obscured by the fog, made the hike even more nervewracking as we had to be attentive at every moment.

Unmarked lake in the distance

 

Sometime during these scrambles and hikes, we realized that the red trail said “Valle Placer- L. Otún (approx.)” after it and there was absolutely not a trail. We were navigating with little more than the compass on the ViewRanger app that told us the direction of the lake and made our way there. After scaling down a less steep grassy rock face (the app would have preferred if we just floated down a cliff) into an uphill swamp (how is this even possible?), Emily broke down crying out of mental and physical exhaustion, and Laurent apologized like a Canadian. Eventually after a break in the rain and realizing that there was no way we would be able to reach Laguna Leona before nightfall, we decided to set up camp on one of the drier, flatter points on a hill. As the crow flies, we had walked 5km after 8 hours of walking up and down some very steep hills with hardly a break.

Laurent making room for our campsite by flattening the grass

View from our campsite, we had to descend just next to the waterfall

Our incredible temporary shelter

After recovering that evening, we set off early next morning to continue our hike. We began with another steep ascent, scrambling up rocks and grass, and continued along the ridges of the landscape, hoping to avoid more ups and downs. Eventually, we saw something that resembled more of a trail, then an actual trail, and soon arrived on the black path at Laguna Leona. We then noticed that the black path must have been a dry season path, since the co-ordinates led us straight into the lake. We filled our waterbottles with the heavy rain on our backs and found the alternate path forward, sometimes following an established trail and sometimes walking through swampy area. After a 300m ascent to the pass between Quindio Norte and Peñas de Caracoli, we had a much easier time following the rocky and muddy trail. It rained intermittently, and our crossings in streams helped to temporarily rinse our shoes of the heavy mud accumulating in it.

What a start for our morning hike…

Hiking from all the way down there in the morning

Pass between Quindio Norte and Peñas de Caracoli,

Eventually as the skies cleared up, we reached the final pass for the day. Over the ridge, we saw cows grazing on the abundant fields of grass glancing curiously at us. The frailejones disappeared, and in its place, clearings sparsely dotted with yellow grass and lots of cow dung. At this point we also found a candy wrapper stuck in the mud, the first sign that at least this part of the park had been conquered before by humans! What a relieve. It was a slow descent down to the valley where more cows and horses grazed, and we raced down. We stepped over some barbed wire keeping the cows in and up a muddy path well trodden by horses. It led up, and frailejones appeared again. Aware that the sun was setting soon, we set up camp on a piece of flat land, elaborately tying up the tarp to shield our gear and ourselves from the rain. Three curious cows looked on as we kicked away old cow dung from our campsite. Laurent made pasta with a tomato sauce and sausage, and given the many hills we climbed that day, we devoured it hungrily. After the sun set, it got cold very quickly, and we hurried quickly into the tent to rest for the night.

Still more frailejons

Second night campsite

Early the next day, we packed up camp. The rising sun cast a brilliant glow on Nevado Tolima and we were treated to a wonderful view. A white dog (we nicknamed it Sheep) watched the sunrise with us and Laurent treated it a piece of sausage, so it followed us as we walked off. With the ViewRanger app estimating only a 15km walk (as the crow flies) to Valle de Cocora, our end destination, we walked briskly onwards. We balanced on the sides of the trails to avoid getting a shoeful of mud, but before long, our efforts were fruitless as we trudged through the swampy landscape. The clear skies were soon cast over with grey clouds, and we had rain intermittently showering on us. Soon, we descended down steep slippery rocks, and we became immensely grateful for the walking sticks we borrowed from the tour company earlier.  Along the way, we met three French hikers with a guide, and they informed us the southern “Estrella de Agua” route was completely waterlogged. One of the hikers vividly described to us wading through chest-high levels of water and strongly recommended that we try the northern “El Bosque” route. This meant missing out on hiking through Reserva Acaime, the hummingbird sanctuary, that offered hot chocolate and cheese. We were a little disappointed by this turn of events, but the lived fear still evident in the hikers eyes convinced us that giving these two luxuries up would be worth it.

Beautiful sunrise over Nevado Tolima

Laurent feeding Sheep

So as we reached the fork in the road, we turned north to El Bosque. We climbed up and down some very sticky mud that threatened to eat our shoes if we spent longer than a second in the same area. Eventually, we passed by one of two open fincas, who offered to take our backpacks on a horse for COP 150,000 to Cocora. They informed us the routes were very bad and hiking with our backpacks through the mud would be miserable. We turned down the offer, since our backpacks were not the source of our grievance- walking on the sticky mud was. We continued onward. At first, there was a flat and dry route that seemed promising, but as we walked further towards El Bosque (the forest), the landscape changed. We approached a beautiful cloud covered lush green forest. While this was a feast for our eyes, this came with two caveats. Firstly, because of the wet nature of forests, the route became extremely slippery and muddy, and we descended very slowly to avoid slipping and breaking our necks. Secondly, the abundance of vegetation also meant the probability of nasty vegetation increased. Indeed, along the sides, very spiky plants claimed the dry routes and tore at our clothing as we walked by them.

Lies. There was no finca

Some tricky, very wet crossings

Mud in El Bosque

Walking in El Bosque

The Lonely Planet told us that the last 4×4 car from Cocora to Salento was at 5PM, and it was this deadline that we were trying desperately to make. By 2PM however, it became obvious that the actual route was more than 15km away, with sides appearing along the way that Cocora was actually another 15km from this point. We were mentally and physically exhausted from the tedious downward sloping mud trail, and by 4PM and at the 5km mark, looked for a place to spend the night since we knew we could not make it to the 4×4 in an hour and a half given the horrendous trail conditions. Our shoes were completely filled with mud and our pants were permanently wet. However, we decided that it was more important for us to have a hot shower by the day’s end, and we pushed forward.

The final stretch to Cocora

We ended up at Cocora at 6:15PM. We found out that there were actually no hostels in Cocora, but luckily for us, found a 4×4 waiting to take us to Salento in 15 minutes. Absolutely drained from the exhausting 11 hour hike, we were beyond grateful that the information in the Lonely Planet was wrong (it seems that the cars to Salento go back and forth whenever there is demand). We had planned to go price shopping for hostels when we arrived, but at the first hostel, Hostel Ciudad de Segorbe, the promise of an imminent shower was too tempting. After spending a considerable amount of time scrubbing off vigorously the mud that had taken our legs as a semi-permanent host, we went in search of a good burger as is our tradition. We went to Brunch, a gringo bar close by recommended by the receptionist, and enjoyed a very large and delicious burger.

Our 5 days in Los Nevados had both easy and extremely challenging days. In writing this days after the journey, we reflected that it was definitely a worthwhile experience, but one we would recommend sticking to an existing GPS trail. We have included our tracks if you want to experience a challenging third day (wrestling through the grass and climbing up and down some steep hills), which will bring you to your own private unmarked lake for the night.

Screenshot of our route