A return to the mountains of Colombia, with a volcanic twist

Eight years ago I travelled to Colombia to visit the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy region, an area that my Lonely Planet guidebook had enthused about:

This gorgeous slice of heaven on Earth has some of Colombia’s most dramatic landscapes, from snow-capped mountains and raging waterfalls to icy glaciers and crystal-clear blue lakes. Lonely Planet Guide to Colombia

Gushing as this may be, it proved to be accurate enough. The Cocuy Circuit was only a five-day trek, but it was one of the most enjoyable treks that I’ve completed, skirting the north side of a mountain chain, then following its eastern side over a series of high passes beneath sheer cliffs. The passes were barren and rocky, but down below the scenery was very different. There were many lakes and unusual plant life among paramo grasslands.

At one point we crossed a swamp by jumping onto rock-hard cojines cushion plants, and on another day we crossed a large area of totally smooth slabs criss-crossed by runnels of water in an eerie mist.

Leaping across the swamp from cojines to cojines
Leaping across the swamp from cojines to cojines

The trekking was magnificent, but the climbing – if I’m honest – was something of a disappointment. Once glaciated, Colombia’s permanent ice is not so permanent and melting fast. I guessed that it would all be gone in 20-30 years, and we are now eight years later. The slabs that we crossed were interesting, but they were that way for a reason: the glacier that covered them has only recently melted and flora has not yet had time to gain a foothold.

We crossed a pass, Bellavista, that we were told would be glaciated, but it was mostly rock. Today I expect it is all rock. We climbed the range’s highest peak, Ritacuba Blanco (5,410m), by ascending 500m of glacier, but it was pretty straightforward and boring.

When I returned, I described these experiences in a series of three blog posts. The first post was a standard trip report of the Cocuy Circuit, the second described its interesting greenery, while the third discussed climate change in the region.

If you study a map of Colombia, you will see that the Andes splits into three parallel mountain chains. The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy is located at the northern end of the eastern chain, the Cordillera Oriental, which also contains Colombia’s capital Bogotá. The city of Medellin lies on the central chain, the Cordillera Central, while a west chain, the Cordillera Occidental runs parallel to the Pacific Coast. Meanwhile, Colombia’s two highest mountains lie in a tiny isolated range, the Santa Marta, rising above the Caribbean coast to the north. These two mountains, Picos Colon and Bolivar are estimated at 5,775m, but in truth nobody really knows either their heights or which is higher because the range is out of bounds.

Over the Christmas period I will be returning to Colombia with UK mountaineering company Jagged Globe, this time to trek and climb in Los Nevados region of the Cordillera Central.

Nevado del Tolima, Colombia (Photo: Pablo Andrés Ortega Chávez / Wikimedia Commons)
Nevado del Tolima, Colombia (Photo: Pablo Andrés Ortega Chávez / Wikimedia Commons)

I’m hoping the trekking will be similar: alternating paramo grasslands with frailejones plants and rocky passes speckled with shining lakes. The mountains may be little different though. The peaks of Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados are volcanic.

The highest, Nevado del Ruiz (5,325m) is still active and experienced a deadly eruption as recently as 1985. A single explosion on November 13 melted a large section of the volcano’s glacier, producing a flood of ice, rocks and mud which destroyed the town of Armero, burying it beneath hundreds of metres of mud and killing over 20,000 people. The volcano is known locally as the ‘sleeping lion of Manizales’ (Manizales being the nearest big city).

We won’t be climbing that one, but instead we’ll be attempting the second highest, Nevado del Tolima (5,274m or thereabouts). This one’s last major eruption was 3,600 years ago, but there were a couple of small ones in 1943. It’s regarded as the prettiest of Colombia’s volcanoes because of its symmetrical shape. We will also be climbing a couple of smaller peaks, including Nevado de Santa Isabel (4,985m).

I will be off the grid for a couple of weeks, but I’m looking forward to it.

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