Wednesday, March 14, 2012

2012, 1st - 12th March: El Cocuy, Colombia

2012, 1st – 12th March: El Cocuy, Colombia

El Cocuy was my first main stopping point after crossing into Colombia from Venezuela. The main theme of my time here was mountain walking in the El Cocuy National Park.

For a full set of photos, use the following link to the corresponding set in my Flickr account:

The Journey to El Cocuy: 1st March

The journey in Colombia from Pamplona to El Cocuy was worthy of note because it was an ´Andean adventure by coach´. When travelling by bus the day before from Cúcuta to Pamplona, I had an introduction to the ongoing battle between man´s desire for roadways and nature´s wish to level everything out into a mix of rocks and gravel. The Cúcuta to Pamplona route had numerous spots where the nearby river had eroded the earth below the road, leading to a partial collapse and the need for the bus to skirt around the big hole.

The six hour journey from Pamplona to Capitanejo (my connection point for El Cocuy) was made in a full size coach on Route 55, so one might expect such a vehicle to be used on tarmac-only routes – not so. The journey started off on a tarmac roadway with a seemingly unending succession of tight bends which the driver was intent on making small-fry of, so reading a book was not an option if the back of the head of the passenger in front was to escape a dousing of warm carrot chunks. As we made the long climb to the mountain pass, the incidence of collapsed road sections increased, with some so large that improvised road sections had been carved through the area giving one the impression that the coach was driving through a quarry. By the time the coach reached elevated altitudes there was no tarmac at all, just a gravel road barely wide enough for the coach and passing lorries to squeeze past each other. So why is a gravel mountain road worthy of note? Well it is when you make the journey on a 45 seater coach!

Narrow Passing Spaces for Coaches & Trucks on
Mountain Pass Section of Route 55

As well as marveling at the driver´s skill and perseverance at getting the coach over the high pass and through the numerous mountain valleys all on rough roadways, I enjoyed the impressive scenery in which the low (by Andean standards) mountains were used for farming.

On reaching Capitanejo I switched to a smaller local busetta (mini-coach). This made the two hour journey along an entirely gravel road up to the mountain towns. The driver took on all the en-route challenges without a flinch, such as tight squeezes alongside steep drop-offs to rivers below.

Gravel Mountain Road Between Capitanejo & El Cocuy

All in all, the twelve hour journey from Pamplona to El Cocuy was a memorable one. In an area where the Andes rule the landscape, no journey is going to be plain-sailing.

El Cocuy – The Town

The town of El Cocuy is located on the edge of the national park of the same name. My time spent in the town was most memorable for the friendliness and warmth of the people. They have left me with a very good first impression of the Colombian people.

The town is centred around a pleasant plaza. The town has gone to some effort to preserve its character, for example, all buildings are painted the same – white rendered walls with green paintwork and trim.

El Cocuy Street Scene

Chatting to a local revealed that things were very different just ten years ago. At that time guerillas / paramilitaries were present in the town and there was little or no police presence. Today´s situation is a world away from that; the town felt entirely safe to me and everyone was cheerful and approachable. The only evidence that organisations with other motives are still present in Colombia was the protection given to the one bank and cash machine in town. It is located next to the police station, but furthermore opposite the cash machine is a 24 hour army position – basically a wooden hut filled with sandbags with some gun-holes. Police with pistols and army with rifles are present. I would not want this one security measure to leave the reader with a negative impression though – as I said the town felt entirely safe to me.

The fact that this area has seen such an improvement in just ten years is a positive example of how a negative and dangerous situation in a turbulent country can be greatly improved in a relatively short amount of time. Hopefully other troubled countries in the world might be able to achieve something similar.

Laguna de la Plaza: 3rd – 6th March

The El Cocuy National Park is only given a brief entry in my guide book, but the mention of snow-capped high peaks as well as photos of its impressive scenery on the internet were enough for me to decide to make it my first place to spend some time in Colombia. The picturesque town of El Cocuy is a convenient entry point for the national park. With an altitude of 2750 m (9022 ft) a stay in the town gives one´s lungs the first step in getting used to the thin air that will be experienced on the peaks.

My first day was spent with Berni, a German guy I met in the town, getting to know all the options available for trekking in the mountains and connecting with a local mountain guide – Alfredo. Berni only had time for a two day visit to the mountains while I opted for a longer five trek which would take in the area around Laguna de la Plaza as well as an ascent of the Pan de Azúcar peak.

The national park is remote and the outer camp sites and the many of the mountain cabins (cabañas) can only be accessed by driving on a gravel road followed by a few hours walk along a track. The most common and economical way of making the journey on the gravel road is on one of the early morning camión lecheros (milk trucks). These leave town around 6am and make circuits around the many little farms and homesteads in the mountains collecting milk from cans left by the side of the road. As a passenger you sit in the back between the large milk cans. The two hour journey through the countryside with the local folk made for an entertaining start to my time in the mountains.

Sharing a Camión Lechero (Milk Truck) With the Locals

As I would be climbing to heights in the region of 5000 m (16,404 ft) it was a good idea to spend the first night camping in the grounds of the Sizuma cabaña (mountain cabin) which is at a height of 3980 m (13,058 ft) as an altitude stepping-point. Alas, the sleeping bag I hired which was supposedly rated for nighttime mountain temperatures of around zero celcius was anything but, and even with all my thermal clothes on a fitful shivering night ensued.

The next morning I set off with my guide for the Laguna de la Plaza trek – Ramiro. He is a very knowledgeable chap and gave plenty of insight into the mountain fauna, the most prominent of which is the frailejón shrub. This plant only exists at altitude in the northern parts of the Andes. I first encountered it in the mountains around Mérida in Venezuela, but in the El Cocuy national park it was far more prevalent. It flowers at its top each year, with the flowered section from the previous year helping to feed the new top section. It grows extremely slowly (1 cm per year), so many of the larger plants I saw were over 100 years old. Its long slender ´trunk´ and its flowered top gives the plant a sculptured look. As a result, some areas of the mountain valleys almost look like the manicured garden of the stately home of an eccentric gent, which is a strange sight when one is in some remote mountain valley.


The first days walking took us over Paso Cusiri at 4410 m (14,469 ft), down to Rio Calichal at 4105 m, over Paso Patio Bolos at 4350 m and on to Laguna de la Plaza at 4300 m (14108 ft). At the top of Paso Cusiri I had my first taste of the typical mountain-cloud vistas common in that part of the national park. To the east of the mountainous area are the flat wetlands of Los Llanos (the Colombian part of the same area as I visited in Venezuela). When the clouds formed over this wet region reach the mountains of El Cocuy you typically enjoy one of two phenomena - one pleasant, the other less so. In the early and mid morning the clouds swirl around the lower mountains and if you are at a high point, such as a mountain pass, you are presented with a beautiful visual mix of rocky ridges wrapped by white blooming clouds. Later in the day (lunchtime onwards), the clouds have typically advanced further and even on the peaks things become rather misty and rainy. Indeed on the approach to our planned camping spot at the edge of Laguna de la Plaza, the advancing clouds starting dumping rain on us. Luckily Ramiro knew a cliff overhang that served as a great sheltered spot that was large enough for us to fit our tents under. As the rain did not let up we decided to stay put and make camp there as it was only 15 minutes walk short of the lake.

Mountain & Cloud Mix as Viewed from Paso Cusiri

The next day was spent exploring the beautiful area around Laguna de la Plaza and since we would return to the same camp spot we could leave all the heavy gear behind. An early start meant that we could enjoy all the beautiful vistas in the sunlight before the mists rolled in during the early afternoon. We ascended the peak Pico Blanco (4900 m (16,076 ft)). This not only gave wonderful westward views of the lake with Pan de Azúcar behind it, but also the chance to be above the vast white cloudscape sitting above Los Llanos the east. Further westward vistas were of the peaks of Toti, Portales, Concavo and Concavito as well as El Costillo to the north. After that visual feast we descended via one of Colombia´s tiny glaciars between Pico Blanco and Pico Negro. The return to camp was made via the other shore of the lake, towards the end of which the afternoon mists rolled in – justifying our early start which allowed us to see the wonderful views before they became obscured. Another misty, damp and cold late afternoon, evening and night was spent in our sheltered spot.

Tim on Summit of Pico Blanco with Picos Concavo & Concavito Behind

Tim on Summit of Pico Blanco with Cloud-Covered
Los Llanos Region of Colombia Behind 

Laguna de la Plaza with (left to right) Picos Diamente, Pan de Azúcar & Toti Behind

Characteristically, the dawn presented some pleasant yellow hues on the nearby mountains, with the sun soon managing to burn off the moisture for the bright start to another day. We returned to the cabaña at Sizuma via the Patio Bolos and Cusiri mountain passes. As I needed to make sure my energy was up for the next day´s ascent and being tired from three fitful and cold night´s sleep I treated myself to a night sleeping in the cabaña.

Pan de Azúcar: 7th March

This day saw an early start at 5:15am with a different guide – Alfredo. Starting the ascent of Pan de Azúcar (5100 m (16,372 ft))  just as the first light was breaking over the mountain tops was favoured because the snow in the upper sections would still be firm from the cold night and the summit could be enjoyed before the daily mists arrived.

During the upward trek the yellow hues of the early morning sun were spread out across the mountains to the west and there was a clear view of Ritacuba Blanco (the highest peak in the area) to the north. Upon reaching the snowline, I reveled in two visual treats – El Pulpito de Diablo and the snow and ice covered peak of Pan de Azúcar. El Pulpito is a very distinctive feature as it is a huge section of rock, which is as geometrically close to a rectangle as one can expect a mountain to be. It´s brown and red rock was a striking form rising out of the pure white snow against a clear blue sky.

El Pulpito del Diablo

We donned crampons and got out our ice axes and started the final part of the ascent past one side of El Pulpito, before turning up the ridge towards Pan de Azúcar. Once close to the summit I could see that it was a like a large ice sculpture atop a rocky slab. On occasion during the steep ascent up the ridge to the summit, the effects of the high altitude showed. With the hard exertion of climbing the steep snow-covered slope it was sometimes difficult to extract enough oxygen from the rarified air and my breathing became too rapid. This was easily resolved by simply stopping for 20 seconds or so until my blood was sufficiently re-oxygenated before setting off again.

Alfredo During Approach to Summit of Pan de Azúcar

The final approach to the summit was very exciting as it involved carefully advancing along a thin ice-ridge which had a section that was sufficiently flat to stand on that was barely a metre wide. During that section I made sure I had my ice axe well positioned so that I could use it quickly to arrest my slide if I was to slip off the thin ridge. The grip afforded by crampons was very welcome. At the summit, I soaked up the incredible views of mountains, lakes and cloudscapes below – all mist free, celebrating it with a cup of tea – how very British of me! What with all the snow and ice during the climb I had to remind myself that I was in Colombia and not Patagonia - of course, that is due to the cool high altitude temperatures that exist even in the hotter parts of the world.

Narrow Ice Ridge Approach to Summit of Pan de Azúcar

Tim on Summit of Pan de Azúcar

Alfredo treated me to a descent from the summit via one of the vertical sides by setting up a rappel. Just below the summit, the mists rolled in and I appreciated the early start and the fast pace we set during the climb so that the visual treat of the summit views could be enjoyed un-obscured by clouds. 

Tim Starting Rappel Descent from Summit of Pan de Azúcar

Ritacuba Blanco: 9th – 10th March

Ritacuba Blanco at 5330 metres (17,487 feet) is the highest peak in the national park. After a long ride on one of the local leicheros I spent one night in a cambaña near the start of the approach valley to help re-acclimatise. The first sign that this climb may not go to plan occurred the night before in the cabaña. I foolishly walked down the painted wooden stairs in just socked-feet. With no grip on a rather dangerous design of stairs with no handrail I slipped and landed on my back hard. I´m still in pain a number of days later, so some heavy bruising must have occurred. This made carrying the rucksack the next day rather painful and did not aid easy breathing in the rarified air.

My guide Ramiro and I set off at 4:30 am. Shortly into the long climb up the approach valley I knew there was something amiss with my energy levels. I was either feeling the altitude or I was just run-down / overly tired after some days over the previous week at altitudes I´m not used to. My pace was not terrible – just down at average rather than my usual above average. Once we got to the snow line, it was snowing and the visibility was awful at around 10 metres. Much of the time it was a near white-out. When we got to around 5150 metres altitude (about an hour from the summit) we stopped to consider the options – the visibility was very poor, I was really struggling for energy, we heard a small avalanche in the distance from the direction of the summit and the snow was getting deeper which made the final section to the summit (an ice ridge) a potentially risky proposition. Reluctantly, we decided to turn back. In hindsight a good move as with my low energy levels, getting back to the cabaña was a real slog and test of my will power.

Tim & Ice Form During Ritacuba Blanco Ascent Attempt

My low energy levels during the climb (likely due to the altitude) were a reminder to me that at 5000 metres where the air pressure is only around 540 mbar (normal atmospheric at sea level is 1013 mbar) one cannot expect the body to perform perfectly all the time – i.e. with only around half the air pressure. My guide said that similar things happen to other climbers who are fine one day, but then feel awful at the same altitude another day. In fact, even guides are not immune to having days where the altitude affects them out of the blue. If I am to reach higher altitudes later in my South American adventures I will have to be patient at times and maybe even give myself more than one chance to successfully climb some of the higher peaks.

After all the physical excursion of the past eight days, I spent a couple of days back in the town of El Cocuy resting before catching a night bus to Bogota.

The Night Bus from El Cocuy to Bogotá

Just like the journey to El Cocuy, my trip out through the Andes on Route 55 and down to Bogotá was never going to be drama-free, what with Mother Nature trying to brush aside man´s attempts at road building - no, the driver has not got lost and turned into a quarry again, that´s just another section of road that´s fallen prey to a small landslide…

Now imagine this, you are on a full size coach and on numerous occasions, a collapsed or in-repair section of road is encountered. The driver then has to inch along with seemingly no clearance on either side through mud and rocks. Sometimes the conductor has to get out with a torch to look under the wheels to see if all is ok and on occasion find rocks and branches of trees to put under the back wheels of the coach to help it regain traction and get out of the mud - quite amazing really.

Each time tarmac was encountered again, the driver was seemingly liberated by the freedom of passage and made up time by throwing the coach around the unending series of tight bends before slamming on the brakes to navigate past more potholes or to start the next ´Bus Driver´s World Series Skill Test´ to get through the next mud-rock-steep-drop challenge. Suffice to say; with all that happening with great regularity until will finally left the Andes behind trying to sleep was near impossible.

One has to admire the resilience of the driver, making such a journey each night – a touch more challenging that cruising along a nice smooth British motorway.