One thing you should do while in El Cocuy is to visit National Park headquarters. Even if you are not going to the park, they have a lot of information about it. Don't expect a true visitor center with a lot of displays. It's a small operation but the people who run it are very helpful. You will need some Spanish skills as they do not speak much if...more
El Cocuy is not a big town and there are no particular attractions aside from the magnificent countryside. That said, the buildings that comprise this charming little town are quite pretty and photogenic. For a small town, it is very well-maintained with every building very freshly painted in white with a nice green trim. Though very uniform, it...more
Of course, the few who venture to El Cocuy are coming to visit its namesake National Park and to see stunning displays of nature but the town itself is a pretty place to stop if even briefly. As with all throwbacks to the Colonial age, the main square is always the star attraction and El Cocuy is no different. Lined on three sides with pretty white...more
There were a few other places to eat in town but they were all pretty empty which to me is not a good sign so on the few occasions we didn't eat at Villa Real we ate vendor food in the main square. This mostly consisted of deep fried items like empanadas and arepas which were quite good. They were very busy and walking into one was a bit daunting...more
It just so happens that the best budget accommodation option is also the best place to eat in town as can be seen by the hordes of locals who eat here. Ok, there isn't much competition unless you want to eat empanadas and kebabs every night. The food is not exactly gourmet fare but it is filling and economical. It's also a great place to see the...more
We kept a pretty low profile at night. Not that El Cocuy is a dangerous place but there's just not all that much to do. Locals tend to hand in the square, mostly snacking around at the various food vendors but there are a few small pubs where you can get a beer too. These are mostly frequented by men and since I was with my wife I didn't even think of going into them. They certainly looked like a good enough time but with a ratio of at least 10 to 1 I like to keep the one I have to myself. ;)
Dress Code: Compesino wear looked popular.
While getting to El Cocuy is not particularly difficult it is time-consuming and for those with little affection for long winding bus rides, perhaps not the most pleasant endeavor. Eleven hours is not an insanely long trip, not by Colombian standards. This is after all one very big country and if you take into account the mountainous nature of its terrain, it's even bigger. This very topography also makes for a very winding trip that can get even those with strong stomachs feeling a bit queasy at points.
We took a very comfortable Concordia bus from Bogota for 45000 COP (around $22) each. We opted for the day bus which left at around 7 AM to avoid even the slightest chance of bandits on this once dangerous route. This was probably overcautious but coming all this way primarily to do this trek and not accomplishing it was something I did not want to take the even remote chance of. It was supposed to take 11 hours but it stretched to about 14 due to one of the mountain passes being closed due to a landslide. This was obviously not the most pleasant situation and more importantly brought us to town very late without a room, in the dark. Suddenly, the night bus was looking a lot better. I think if I was to do this again, I would definitely take the night bus to arrive early in the morning which would make getting a room much easier.
Buses leave from Bogota's main bus terminal which is a $10 taxi ride from La Candelaria. You could get there via the TransMilenio but at that time of the morning and carrying a full pack of gear, you'd have to be very broke or brave to do so. Arriving in El Cocuy is much simpler as the town is quite small and you are let off in the main square, close to the few places in which to stay.
We took a bus with a similar company to Tunja for 30,000 COP ($15) each which took about 8 hours. Tickets are sold in various shops along the main square but although they all advertise the buses, it seems not all of them actually sell all of the tickets so you'll have to go into each one and ask.
Luggage and bags:
A backpack is your best choice when traveling around Colombia in general but in an area noted for trekking, you'll be especially glad you have one!
Clothing/Shoes/Weather Gear: At nearly 2800 m, El Cocuy is a fairly high altitude mountain town which is good for acclimatizing to the even greater heights you will experience in the nearby namesake National Park. The weather can be changeable and is noted for cold and often gray weather but when we were there it was unusually sunny and warm. That said, evenings and early mornings can be quite chilly so you'll need a jacket and even a hat at times. Of course, if you are heading into the park you would have these things anyway but even those just making a cursory visit here should come ready for cooler temperatures than you find in much of Colombia. Hint: dress in layers.
Toiletries and Medical Supplies: Sun screen is a true essential at high altitude as the sun is even more intense.
Photo Equipment: A wide angle lens is great for photos of architecture and a polarizer a must if you shoot midday when sunny. Of course, you'll go out early morning to avoid this, right? ;)
Camping/Beach/Outdoor Gear: You might not need your camping hear in town but hopefully you're headed into the National Park for some trekking. You WILL need it there and it's not available ANYWHERE locally.
Miscellaneous: Muchas, muchas gracias to my lovely wife D for training for and doing this incredible trek with me!
While it is true that El Cocuy itself is very much off the beaten path, the nearby National Park is even more so. This remote and massive mountain range is nearly all over 4000 meters and was the domain of guerrillas until the early part of this decade. Getting there involves hiring a private car and driver, walking, or taking some unusual "mass transportation," but the rewards are great. It was THE reason for my wanting to go to Colombia for seven years. The fairy tale finally came true.
There isn't much to actually do in El Cocuy but if you are doing a trek in the nearby National Park, that just may suit you. It's a charming town to just stroll around with gorgeous white and green trimmed Colonial buildings that will keep your camera busy.
Fondest memory: The gateway town of El Cocuy was an authentic South American wonder. Nestled in the remote northeast corner of Colombia, it is surely not used to seeing many gringos and certainly not one like my lovely tall blonde wife who got many stares. The people at our hotel, at first indifferent, grew to like us and one of my fondest memories was while eating breakfast there. A grizzled old campesino came up and began speaking with us, no doubt looking for some business. Perhaps we were looking for a guide or a horse for the circuit. I explained in my meager Spanish that we had already done it, all on our own. He sized us up, our big packs sitting visibly in the corner and said we were “muy fuerte” to do it alone. I could not disagree and just smiled. We went back to eating and he told an old Colombian couple at the next table about our exploits and the woman kept looking over. When they were done with their meal, they came over, introduced themselves and shook our hands. They had come a long way (11 hours by bus from Bogota, there are no planes) to see the famous big mountains of Colombia, El Cocuy. Little known outside Colombia, countrymen are rightly awed by their incredible power and stature. They knew well, gringos or not, it was the rare person that got as close as we did. Few backpackers do this remote trek. Even fewer foreigners and generally only with the aide of a guide and horses. Their handshakes and words were warm, welcoming and honest. Nothing out of the ordinary in Colombia, a country misunderstood from afar by those who have never been but cherished by those who have.