When staying at the Cabanas Laguna Pintada, I noticed lots of people hiking up into the bowl of a nearby peak. Under normal circumstances, I would have had to go up to check it out but after such a long trek, I was too exhausted to even think about it. D was thinking more about a shower, albeit an icy one. I would like to go back to this area and do some day hiking. It was gorgeous.
El Pulpito or the Devil's Pulpit is one of the standout features in El Cocuy National Park. It is visible from the Cabanas Kanwara. I had not really heard of the area prior to arriving in the park but soon found myself playing with the idea of a second trek. It would have only been about four or five hours up into the area from Hacienda La Esperanza and we would have just camped by Laguna Granda de la Sierra for a couple nights. It is surely a gorgeous spot with nice day hiking opportunities sans backpacks. We rested up a couple nights in El Cocuy and even went to Guican for a night, ready to do the trek the next morning. Unfortunately, the owner of the Hotel El Eden purposely misinformed us about where to get el lechero and had one of his friends try to sell us an inflated ride. They nearly died when we just left town, never to be seen again. Maybe one trek was best but if I go back, it won't be to Hotel El Eden.
The Cusiri Pass was a relatively easy one even though it topped out at 4500m. It was a very gradual incline and though a hot sunny day, it seemed to pass easily enough. I'm sure it was in part due to the fact we knew the end was near and the trail was certainly the most distinct of the whole trip. Yes, we knew for sure we would make it and this spurred us on. Looking down at Lagunillas was a very welcome site indeed. Oddly enough, we passed right by them, deciding instead to forego one last night of camping and heading to a refugio for a some much needed creature comforts.
I guess there were no more heartwarming sights on the entire trek than when we first laid eyes on Laguna de la Plaza. Not just because it was just as beautiful as proclaimed but because we knew that we would surely make it around the trek without getting lost. As most accounts put it, there was a very distinct trail from there back to civilization. Of course, we didn't realize just how hard it would be to get from our first view of the great lake to where this trail and presumably the campground was. It was quite a physical feat and we even one of our few navigational problems on what should have been very straightforward. Perhaps, we were just exhausted and that played a factor in our making one bad route choice. Let's just say the land around this massive lake is not exactly flat and you'll understand why we just about collapsed after arriving in what we deemed the campground!
Laguna Hoja Larga was a surprisingly pretty little lake and one I am sure we would have liked to camp at if we had been hiking from Laguna del Rincon rather than Laguna del Panuelo. Even with the closer start, it was around 3 PM when we got to this little jewel and it would have been easy to take another easier day but with our food supply dwindling, it was not even remotely an option.
The hike to Laguna Hoja Larga was one of the nicer parts of the whole trek. First off, it was one of the easiest and secondly, it went through a nice strand of frailejons that also happened to be home to a few hummingbirds that made for a joyful stroll. Though we never got any photos of the elusive birds, we saw quite a few and heard even more.
Coming down off the 4800m Castillo Pass, Laguna del Panuelo was one pretty sight. Though the water might have been questionable for drinking, its reddish muddy color made for great contrast against the predominantly blue sky that once again graced us with its presence. No, staying at Laguna del Rincon had not come back to haunt us and as mentioned previously, we were sure glad we'd done exactly as we had. Since we got there around noon, it was nice to finally set up our tent in the glorious sun, cook a well-deserved lunch and basically take it easy the rest of the afternoon. I guess if you could do this every day and still make it around the circuit in a doable amount of time, it would be paradise. As it was, it was the one day of the whole trek where we really got to relax and enjoy ourselves.
This is a trek of many passes and every one them is over 4000m. There were many hard ones but the Castillo Pass was by far the hardest. Not because it was the longest or most arduous in a stamina sense but because there had been a landslide of sorts that left it very much a rock scramble. Huge boulders had to be navigated and it was mentally challenging too. We had to re-route a few times before successfully making our way down. Luckily, our ranger friend had warned us of its current state as our guidebook was woefully inaccurate in its description. Going up was straightforward enough but coming down was not only time-consuming but also tiring. This again might have been fun without a pack but with one seemed unending. We were very happy we did not follow the guide's recommendation of going over the pass on the third day. Even in the best of conditions it would have likely been too long a day for us but in this case, it would have been downright dangerous. As it was, we decided to camp at the very next lake after the pass even though we had only been hiking for about four and a half hours!
Laguna del Rincon is just reward after navigating your way through the Valle de los Cojines. This was originally one of our planned stops but the national park ranger we spoke to said it was a very nice place to camp, much better than the next lake up in the chain. He seemed to know what he was talking about and even though it was clear when we arrived it was too late to even think about climbing the pass behind it. It was clear and very tempting to do but we were glad we took his advice when we did it the next morning. It was a shame it was so late when we arrived to truly enjoy Rincon but it we did get some decent shots in the morning though we were on the trail long before the sun really was on the lake.
Valle de los Cojines is one of the more interesting and surely different parts of the trek. This green mossy valley is very much in contrast to its often dry surroundings. It was particularly standout when we did the trek as it was a very arid time in the park. It is a very long stretch of rounded patches that can be slippery. They are surrounded by water which is surely more formidable in more normal moisture conditions. It's a bit of a maze hopping from one to the next if you want to cross the cojines themselves. We did not even intend to do this but we could not seem to make our way to the right of the terrain very easily. It seemed a pretty resilient terrain and with so few trekkers coming through here, I guess it's not super endangered. That said, it is protected and one should take care in crossing it and perhaps make your way off of it as soon as you can find your way! It would surely be a lot more fun if you were not wearing a full pack as we were and it gets tiresome hopping with a load on your back after a while.
Laguna del Avellanal was the jewel of the whole hike for us and helped us feel better about how hard it was for us to get there. Crossing two passes, one the nearly 4900m Sierra Pass, to get here from Laguna Grande de los Verdes, it took us around nine hours to reach Laguna del Avellanal. We were so exhausted on arrival, there was little time to enjoy it but did grab a spectacular campsite at which we quickly set up the tent and prepared a much deserved and needed meal before collapsing in slumber. Going to sleep so early turned out to be a real blessing as in the morning, the sun came up over the surrounding peaks to cask a glowing read amber on the back rocky side of Ritacuba Blanco which we mistook to be Ritacuba Negra until re-investigating the map and realizing it was obviously not “black” on the other side not facing us. This was about 6:30 AM so very cold.
This lake is also a bit unfairly possible to reach by horse. In fact, many people who do the trek have their gear carried here which does allow for more time to linger in an obvious paradise. There were many climbers set up here for excursions into the surroundings. We did debate on doing just that but with the park closing, we were a bit rushed and uncertain if they would rent us the horses when going into the park's deeper interior was technically not allowed. I would have to say if I ever was to do this circuit again I would do exactly that.
Laguna de la Isla is another gorgeous lake on the El Cocuy circuit but one without any chance of camping due to the rocky nature of its surrounding terrain. It would however be a very nice day hike from Laguna Grande de los Verdes though it is a considerable climb even though the pass to get there is only 4200m. This is because the lake is further up from the pass en route to the much higher Sierra Pass that nears 4900m. So, be prepared for a longish day hike or be thankful you are closer to the pass than you had originally anticipated if you are continuing on around the circuit. We could not believe how long it took us to get here, five hours plus when the whole day's hike to the next lake was supposed to be only seven hours total!
The hike to Laguna Grande de los Verdes (the big green lake) is not meant to be a day hike though I guess a super fit and very well-acclimatized hiker could do it if traveling light. It's more likely it would be done as a horse trip though even that would seem like a crazy long day without the highlight of spending the night there. It is a very pretty lake, fringed by jagged peaks and worth crossing the two 4000m plus passes to get there but without a sleep over I would give it a pass myself. This is the prefered first night if doing the trek clock-wise which is less popular than in the opposite direction. For those not looking to do the entire trek, it would a nice destination in itself for a night or two, allowing you to do some very strenuous day hikes further into the trek while staying on fairly easy to follow trails. You could certainly hire horses for it if not up to the considerable exertion. It took us about six or seven hours from Cabanas Kanwara to our eventual camp at the lake.
We only got to do one acclimatization hike prior to doing the circuit around El Cocuy but it was not only a good one for readying ourselves but also gave us confidence in navigating around the massif. While the suggested start of the trek is along the park road, many take a short but very steep climb to a portion of the road a bit higher up. This does save some time but it cuts out very little of the road and still puts you on a less than ideal hiking route. A ranger told us about the “real” hike onto the trek and suggested we do it as a acclimatization hike to see if we were truly ready. It starts on the same trail as the one to Ritacuba Blanco but veers off to the left fairly early on. It's not marked as anything special but it sure is. It leads into a wide and empty valley full of frailejons that gently but very steadily climbs up to a pass. The end of the trail peters out quite a bit but it's not so hard to figure out where you need to go. Once on top of the pass, you can look down and see where you need to go to meet up with the road that the park sends everyone on. It cuts out quite a bit of what is surely a tedious trek and it's hard to imagine it's more scenic than the valley he suggested. We made very good time on it and on telling the ranger about it, he said we shouldn't have any problems doing the trek which made us feel a lot better.
Of course, it was a lot rougher going the next day since we were carrying our packs and we had just done it the day before so our legs were tired. Add to that, it was only one of the two passes we would have to do that day and we started to question our sanity for doing the trek!
With such an incredible terrain, it should come as no surprise that hiking is one of the top activities here though many of those who visit the park are more likely to do something atop a horse than to make the effort themselves. Quite naturally for those readying themselves to do the trek around the El Cocuy massif, there are many trails to help you acclimatize. One of the most popular is the hike to the top of Ritacuba Blanco, the park's highest peak at a whopping 5330m. This five hour ascent should be done very early in the morning as the top can get very cloudy as early as noon. This was to be our second acclimatization hike before tackling the circuit but with the eminent close of the park due to wild fires, we had to forgo not only it but also any other hikes in preparation. A ranger said we were not missing much scenery-wise as he felt it had been ruined by the park's allowing horses virtually to the glacier's edge. We were on the trail that splits to the noted peak and it was full of horse manure and there seemed to be a steady stream of horses on it. While I'm not entirely against horses, I feel there are places they should be kept to a minimum and a high altitude hike such as this in a remote area of wilderness is not the place for them.