This post is written as a story and a guide. The story comes first, so if you prefer, skip to the “Hard Facts” section at the bottom for details on hiking this section of PNN Los Nevados. Enjoy!
Let’s Climb a Mountain
Who’s up for climbing el Nevado de Tolima? Our friends Josh and Jenna asked.
Naturally, we were. Pretty much all I’ve wanted to do since arriving in Colombia has been to get up into the mountains and el Nevado de Tolima looked ideal. A high, glaciated peak in the Colombian páramo, it appealed on a primal level. Along with our travel companions Josh and Jenna, and Ernesto and Taisa, we set to planning a trek.
After a bit of research, the price tag for a guide proved steeper than the mountain. We deemed $450 per person excessive for a mountain that doesn’t require roped climbing and looked into DIY hikes.
Hiking on one’s own in Colombia’s national parks is as easy as hiking in any other national park, but finding information on trails and park conditions is a challenge. Colombian guides are less scrupulous than narcotraffickers when it comes to getting business. Rather than advertising their services and building reputations through good customer interactions and social media, they rely on aggressive behavior and a bit of lying to drive traffic their way. I know this sounds bitter, but I assure you that it is true.
Prior to our departure, guides approached us in our campsite to offer their services. When we declined and mentioned hiking on our own, they replied that hiking without a guide is illegal in los Nevados. This is not true. I called the park rangers about hiking in los Nevados and they gave me useful information like “don’t climb Nevado el Ruiz right now because it’s active” and “you can enter the park without a guide”. Other people we met on the trail had similar stories of borderline bullying by guides, such as being asked “oh, so you think you know what you’re doing out there”, when services were refused.
We found a blog post and designed a 4-day trek around its advice. I had looked for contour maps of the park prior to setting out, but found none. These maps do exist, but are hard to come by. They are not sold in tourist shops, hostels, guide company offices or anywhere else noticeable. I personally suspect that the guides themselves have something to do with this.
We decided not to attempt el Nevado de Tolima on our own, as the weather was rather poor and summiting involves navigating a crevasse field, for which our group was not well prepared. No great loss, since simply being in the páramo is a gift in the world of hiking and mountaineering.
The plan was simple:
Day 1: Hike 14km, starting at 2,300m and ending at a working farm/hostel called Finca la Primavera at 3,800m. Break for lunch at a Estrella el Agua, small finca at the 9km mark. At la Primavera, rest & assess people’s comfort at altitude.
Day2: Hike 15km over a total of 100m elevation gain to Termales Cañon, a thermal spring. Camp there and soak weary muscles in volcano-fed water.
Day3: Hike back to Finca la Primavera.
Day4: Hike back down, drive to Salento, eat everything in sight.
The distances were long, but we deemed them doable. I may have played an outsize hand in that, on account of a) doing most of the research and b) never having been bothered by altitude, leading me to underestimate the relative length (that perceived by the hiker) of high altitude trails.
No Plan Survives Contact With The Enemy.
-Old Military Saying
The execution of our plan:
Why did the trail makers not use switchbacks? Trail literally goes straight up the mountain. Then down. Then more down! Then straight up. Cumulative elevation gain feels like 42km.
Despite starting the trail an hour later than one guide had recommended (9am, rather than 8am), we made it to our lunch stop, Estrella el Agua, in good time. Just five more kilometers to go, high fives and smiles all around.
We soon find a sign pointing back the way we came, claiming 2.5km to Estrella el Agua. More smiles and general good cheer.
After what has certainly been another 2.5km, the group shows concern, but retains a sense of humor. We joke that this stretch is the longest less-than-a-mile ever. Signs with ‘Finca la Primavera’ periodically point the way, but give no indication of distance remaining. I find myself wondering whether the writers of the blog post we used as a guide actually hiked this trail themselves or used second-hand information.
Sun sets. No finca in sight. A cold and heavy fog settles over the páramo, limiting the effectiveness of our headlights.
We move slowly and swing our lights from side to side, guiding ourselves from one reflective “Finca la Primavera this way!” sign to the next. Concerns and complaints are no longer confined to one’s thoughts. Half an hour of this half-blind trail-finding later, we arrive at an intersection with a more helpful, yet still frustrating sign.
Arriving first, I call back to the others. We finally know the remaining distance, I yell. How close is it, asks Josh, with a desperate hope evident in his voice. I wish I could say this in a way that makes it easier, but we still have 1.3km to go.
Groans. Epithets. F word.
We arrive at Finca la Primavera approximately an hour after sunset, 19km into our first day’s 14km hike. We all but fall into the warm kitchen and high-pitched exclamations of Doña Mave (mah-vay), who runs the finca and who I had called the day before to forecast our arrival.
Alejandro, she yells at me, I thought that you had deserted me with all this food prepared!
I am Alejandro. I am also sometimes Javier. As people have struggled to both say and spell ‘Forest’, I have taken the path of least resistance and adopted more Latin names. One person correctly spelled my name, looked at it for a second and exclaimed, “Oh, Paul!”
We devour Doña Mave’s hearty dinner and collapse into our beds. Except for Jordan, who struggles heroically but unsuccessfully against a sudden onset of altitude sickness and falls asleep after a vigorous vomiting session.
We assemble in Doña Mave’s kitchen for breakfast and a planning session. Jordan and I rule the hot springs out, owing to a moment of exemplar preparedness, in which I left the tent poles in the car.
The 15km separating us from the hot springs and a group that had just returned from them rules them out for the others. The 100m of elevation gain between the finca and the hot springs fails to account for a not insignificant amount of cumulative (up-down-up-down) gain. I further doubt the quality of our bog post-cum-guide.
The group decides to hike to the Laguna el Encanto, roughly halfway to the hot springs. There, the others camp and Jordan and I turn back to la Primavera.
Although the clouds only allow the occasional glimpse of the glaciers near el Tolima’s summit, the rain holds off and we revel in wide views of the páramo’s alien landscape.
Exhausted and still not feeling great about the altitude, Jordan opts for a rest day. While the rest of the group explores the area around the laguna, I go for a solo hike along the ridges overlooking la Primavera.
The long slog down. We luck out on the rain, as the previous dry days allowed the hoof-trodden mud of the trail to dry. A little. Despite its sun exposure, the trail remains a muddy wreck, into which we all take turns slipping and falling.
The rain gives us a hearty send-off as we trek out through el Valle de Cocora, in sight of its iconic mountain palm trees. We drive to Brunch, an American-style burger joint in Salento, where they make their portion sizes too big (“American-style”) and eat like tomorrow might not come.
The Hard Facts
PNN los Nevados is a beautiful place to hike and more than worth the effort expended in reaching the páramo. Here’s some advice:
- As mentioned before, you don’t need to hire a guide to go hiking in the park. Unless you are an experienced mountaineer, however, I recommend hiring one if you intend to summit glaciated peaks. Summiting these peaks involves navigating crevasse fields and the possibility of a glacier rescue, should things go terribly wrong.
- A guy near the gate in Cocora will charge you 2,000 pesos (as of March 2017) to access the park. This is ostensibly for ecological upkeep, which the trail needs. Heavy horse traffic has turned the trail into a mud bath of deep hoof ruts, which leads hikers to bushwhack around the trail through the fragile terrain of the cloud forest.
- Doña Mave’s son is an experienced mountaineer and if you hike yourself to Finca la Primavera, he offers professional guiding services at MUCH better rates the guides based in Salento. We were quoted US$100 from Finca la Primavera, although this may vary by group size and experience. You can reach him at: +57 312 211 7677 or +57 310 832 7879. Doña Mave is likely to answer that phone. She speaks only Spanish.
- Many trails in the páramo of PNN los Nevados are not marked. Some travelers have reported seeing guides removing signs. I don’t know if this is true and if true, if the guides were conducting repairs. Given other interactions with guides, however, consider yourself warned…
- The distance from the green gate at the entrance of the park in the Cocora Valley to Finca la Primavera is NINETEEN KILOMETERS, not fourteen. Five unexpected kilometers in the dark make for some very long kilometers.
- From the green gate, the trail to the páramo only forks once. The páramo is to the right. The trail to the left will lead you on a pleasant loop of the Cocora Valley and cost you one day of hiking if your goal was the páramo.
- Start your hike before 9am.
- Call ahead to Finca la Primavera. They get pretty booked during holidays and the high season. If they are booked, Finca La Playa (+57 321 284 7975) is a 20 minute walk further down the trail.
- If you do get a late start, you can camp at Estrella el Agua. They have a bathroom and a water source (best to filter here), but you’ll need a tent.
- No need to filter water at the fincas.
- If you find out where to buy a contour map of the park, please mention it in the comments, so that I can add it to this post.
- Many hikers will feel tempted to explore views not seen from the trail. Have fun and be safe, but PLEASE make an effort to avoid harming the frailejones. These plants are endemic to the páramos (they exist nowhere else), many species are endangered and they hold the key to available drinking water for at least 70% of Colombia’s population. That last point is not an exaggeration. Frailejones are what is called a “keystone species”, one without which a certain ecosystem cannot survive. Even the Colombian army is currently involved in stemming their loss, as they view the health of frailejones as a matter of national security. Tourism is picking up in the páramo and being a responsible tourist will help keep these amazing regions open for others.