El Cocuy National Park (Parque El Cocuy) is a world class, off track wilderness reserve in the Colombian Andes. With the influx of tourism being relatively recent, some of the most incredible destinations do not attract many visitors, meaning that now is the perfect time for your trip. This park is far away from everything, which is what makes it so wonderful. This is the only complete guide to hiking in El Cocuy National Park available.
We personally explored Parque El Cocuy in depth in July 2018 and researched all of the relevant information needed to plan your trip. Also known as Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, Cocuy National Park, and PNN El Cocuy, the park is located in the Andes Mountain Range in the eastern part of central Colombia, close to the border with Venezuela. The area is known for mountains, glaciers, blue lakes and other worldly plants such as the unique frailejones.
As of our July 2018 visit, there were three trails within the park which were accessible to hikers, although there have been more in the past including a multi day trek. Environmental concerns and disputes with indigenous landowners have caused the closing of remaining trails during the completion of impact studies, which has been the case for well over a year. It is rumored that this week long trek may re-open later this year.
First, we want to clear up a couple of confusing items. El Cocuy is both the name of the National Park and the name of a nearby town which serves as an entry point for the park. Güicán town is the second starting hub and not to be confused with Güicány (other spelling Güicáni) which is the name of a cabaña near the park entrance.
Table of Contents:
1.) Hiking Trails in El Cocuy
1.1) La Laguna Grande
1.2) El Pulpito del Diablo
2.) Hiking Requirements for Parque National El Cocuy
3.) How to Get To and From El Cocuy Town
3.2) Medellin, Bucaramanga and Others
4.) How to Get from El Cocuy Town and Güicán to the Park
5.) Where to Stay in El Cocuy Town
6.) Where to Stay in the National Park
6.1) Near El Pulpito del Diablo
6.2) Near La Laguna Grande
6.3) Near Ritacuba
7.) Food Inside the Park
8.) Drinking Stream Water
9.) What to Pack
10.) Hiking Outside of El Cocuy Park Boundaries
11.) Cost of a Hiking Trip
1.) Hiking Trails in El Cocuy National Park
There are currently three out and back day hiking trails open for use within the national park. Several websites and even the park office, guides, and locals in El Cocuy offer conflicting information about the length, altitude and difficulty of these hikes:
1.1) La Laguna Grande:
This trail winds to a series of glacial lakes surrounded by mountains and glaciers. The first half is in a flat-ish and often muddy valley filled with many native plants and wildflowers.
When the trail reaches the base of the mountains, it begins a relatively steep climb up a rocky slope where it culminates by the sparklingly blue Laguna Grande and other smaller lagoons.
If the valley is clear, you can see the towering El Pulpito del Diablo rock on the mountain range above. This hike is moderately difficult, taking us over 7 hours including a lunch stop and time for lots of pictures. The total round trip distance is 22 kilometers, with a starting elevation of 3,600m and a peak of 4,400m. It is very cold and windy at the top.
1.2) El Pulpito del Diablo:
This hike leads to the strikingly unique rock formation for which the trail is named. The rock sits atop a high mountain and is flanked by glaciers with wide valleys below. The trail starts out relatively easy before beginning a climb above the glacial valley.
From here, it takes a long and steep path up a boulder covered slope to the mountain pass. From the top then begins another long but less steep climb to the glacier across a wide rock face.
The altitude, grade and distance make this a very difficult hike, but the views from the top (weather permitting) are impressive. The weather on our trek quickly turned while we were on the final portion of the climb and we ended up in a heavy wet snow storm. The rock face quickly became a wide river of rain and melting snow which added a lot to the difficulty. Needless to say, it was extremely cold at the top.
The hike took us 8.5 hours with a lunch stop. The total distance is 22 kilometers with a starting elevation of 3,900m and a peak of 4,800m. The trail is often listed with a shorter distance, but the route in has been closed to traffic so there is now a long section of dirt road which must be walked to reach the trailhead.
This is the shortest of the three hikes in El Cocuy Park, but also the steepest. It starts in farmland before climbing into the protected area. As with all hikes in the park, the valley is filled with wildflowers and frailejones plants. Before long, the the trail quickly turns into a steep rocky climb as it heads for the summit, past crystal ponds and jagged rock outcroppings. The summit sits above the Ritacuba Glacier, offering sweeping views of the ice and surrounding peaks.
This is the only hike we did not do on our trip. After 44 kilometers in two days and getting soaked through with icy water on our previous climb, we opted to forgo the third hike. The total round trip is under 16 kilometers and takes 6-8 hours. Elevation varies widely depending on who you ask, but the consensus is a starting elevation of 3,950m with a peak of 4,850.
2.) Hiking Requirements for Parque Nacional El Cocuy
Gaining access for hiking in El Cocuy National Park is somewhat difficult and disorganized. There are a list of pre-departure requirements that must be arranged before setting out in the park. This is what we did before beginning our hikes, listed in the required order:
- You are required to have a guide to hike inside the park boundaries. You must secure one prior to purchasing your park pass. There is a guide service office on the west side of town just north of the church, plus the Park Office (Officina del Parque) has a very long list of names/numbers on their wall. Either should be able to help you obtain a guide. In addition, most hotels and just about anyone walking down the street know a few spare guides and would be more than pleased to get you in touch. Each guide can be shared with up to six hikers, which can help with the cost.
- You are required to purchase emergency insurance for you and your guide from the Seguro Officina (Insurance Office) for each day you will be hiking. This office is located on the east side of the main road, Carrera 5, south of the City Park. You are NOT exempt if you already have emergency medical and evacuation coverage. The office requires that you supply your passport and the name of your guide before selling you insurance. The cost is 7,000 pesos per person per day. They will supply a wristband and receipt which must be shown to enter the park.
- You need to obtain a park pass, which has to be purchased at the Oficina Parque Nacional (Park Office) in the southern portion of town. The office is incorrectly located on maps.me, although Google Maps shows it correctly in the middle of Calle 5. Anyone in town can point the way. The Park Pass costs 61,000 pesos per person. You have to provide your passport, guide information, and insurance receipt to be allowed to purchase your pass.
Theoretically you could arrange a guide prior to arrival, but the insurance and park pass must be obtained in person prior to park entry.
You will also have to secure transportation to the park, between hikes, and back to town following your trip. There are a handful of Cabañas in the park, some very close to certain hikes and some more centrally located. If you are doing multiple hikes, you will need transport between the various areas. This is discussed in detail in sections 4 and 6.
We worked with the guide service office who helped us put this all together. They arranged our cabaña and all transport between the hikes and back to town afterwards. They also booked our guide along with breakfast and dinner for each day in the park. We were originally quoted 860,000 for two nights in the park, two days of hiking with all transport, two people, including breakfasts and dinners. We balked at the price and got them down to 600,000 pesos. This price does not include the insurance or park pass.
Of note, almost no one in El Cocuy town speaks English including just about all of the guides. This would have been very difficult if we had not been able to communicate in Spanish, which was essential to set this all up (although Google Translate can help in a pinch).
3.) How to Get To and From El Cocuy Town
The park is most easily accessible from the nearby towns of El Cocuy and Güicán. We chose to base out of El Cocuy town due to the availability of La Lechero transport (discussed in section 4). Otherwise, staying in either town would be similar, although Güicán is said to be more scenic.
3.1) To/From Bogotá
The most efficient way to get to El Cocuy town is via coach bus, which leaves from Terminal Salitre in western Bogotá. We had a very difficult and confusing time finding information on this route, including misinformation given to our Airbnb host over the phone and to us when inquiring at the terminal tourist info office. This office did give us the terminal website, which is supposed to have info on bus routes, although we cannot verify its accuracy. From our discussions with various locals, buying tickets online is not very reliable from any source.
Terminal Salitre in Bogotá has decent free WiFi and several food stalls (at least one with a real espresso machine). There is no terminal in El Cocuy town, but simply a spot by the park where the buses pick up with a couple of small cafes selling snacks. This route is very curvy as it wraps the mountain cliffs north of Tunja. If you suffer from motion sickness, having pills for the trip is essential. These can be bought cheaply from any farmecia/drogueria in Colombia.
There are two companies which drive this route directly. Here is the most accurate information which we uncovered for our July 2018 trip. We rode with both and much preferred our ride with Libertadores:
- Coflonorte / Libertadores: We rode to El Cocuy town with Libertadores, owned by the parent company Coflonorte. The buses have daily departure times at 5:00am, 6:00am, and 2:00pm. Tickets are 60,000 pesos and can be bought in advance or the day of, depending on availability, cash only. You need to show your passport or a picture of it when buying the ticket. The ticket booth, window 149, is located in Section 3 of Terminal Salitre in Bogotá. The buses are clean, professionally run, fairly nice and include a bathroom, USB plugs, reclining seats and WiFi (although ours didn’t work). You will need to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The bus stops occasionally for quick breaks where you can buy snacks and drinks. Our beautiful but curvy trip lasted slightly less than 12 hours.
- Expreso Paz Del Rio: We returned to Bogotá with the bus company Expreso Paz Del Rio. They have an office across the street from the park, labeled Gacela, and have daily departures direct to Bogotá at 4:00am, 6:30am, 11:00am, 6:00pm, 7:30pm, and 8:30pm. Tickets are 60,000 and can be paid with cash or card. The 6:30am trip was in a minivan instead of large modern charter bus and took 10 hours. The bus drops off at Terminal Salitre in Bogotá. Our minibus had very bald tires (one of which blew en route), no seat belts and the driver operated daringly in the rain. In addition, road water came through the floor and soaked our bags , which then got coated with dirt from inside the trunk.
3.2) To From Other Cities
Direct buses operate from other cities including Tunja and Capitanejo. Most other cities including Medellin and Bucaramanga will require a transfer, so check with the local bus terminal and your hotel beforehand to determine the route. The trip from Medellin, for instance, is more difficult with at least one required transfer and we hear the roads are more treacherous during the rainy season. Bogotá is currently the only major city with direct buses servicing El Cocuy town.
4.) How to Get to Parque El Cocuy From the Town of El Cocuy
There is only one way to access the park other than with private transport, which is via La Lechero (milk truck). This option runs from the town of El Cocuy, but does not service nearby Güicán. The cost is 10,000 pesos per person, and people in town will tell you times for departure anywhere from 5:30am to 7:00am. There are actually many La Lecheros. Roughly at 6:00am on our travel day, nearly ten milk trucks began arriving at the town square to pick up supplies and gather farm workers. None of the trucks called out looking for riders, so we had to ask around to find a truck that was going towards our cabaña and hop on. This made for a very confusing 30 minutes.
These are not converted trucks that transport hikers to the park but functioning milk collection trucks. The ride is in the back of an open side truck with a tarp roof which is freezing, so dress accordingly. The truck made several stops along the way to pick up pails of fresh milk. We got to talk to the working farmhands as we skirted the edge of the gorgeous panoramic valley below, which was an unforgettable experience. There is no way to get back from the park other than with a privately arranged vehicle.
Other than La Lechero, private vehicles can be arranged for the trip up at any time. The quoted cost of our several necessary trips between cabañas, hikes and back to town over two days was 180,000 pesos. This did not include our initial trip up in La Lechero. If you are coming from Güicán, private transport will be required.
5.) Where to Stay in El Cocuy Town
We stayed in three hotels while in town, rank ordered below:
- Hostal del Caminante: A small local run hotel which is only listed on Airbnb (and the only one in El Cocuy currently on Airbnb). Unfortunately we found this one last after our hikes, but it was by far the best experience. The owners are extremely hospitable, accommodating and welcoming in typical homestay fashion. The wifi and shower were also the best we had during our trip in El Cocuy, and the 2nd floor rooms have very nice mountain views. The price of a private room with bath was 25,000 pesos per person. A nice filling breakfast is available for 8,000 pesos/person. One of the owners, Marta, is also a mountain guide and speaks decent English. Her phone number is +57 311 511 7363. The hotel is located at Carrera 4, number 7-30.
- Hotel San Gabriel: This is a nice hotel with acceptable wifi, although it lacks a welcoming family feel. They do not have a restaurant and can provide only a simple breakfast, which costs 7,000 pesos. Rooms with bath are 40,000 pesos per person at the walk in rate.
- Casa Museo la Posada del Molino: This hotel with restaurant was good although the wifi didn’t work at all which prompted us to change. Basic meals (corrientes) are 8,000 pesos each and were pretty good. The room was decently comfortable and the owner and kitchen staff were very friendly. Rooms with bath are 40,000 pesos per person at the walk in rate but we noted it to be cheaper on Bookings.com. They were also very accommodating with check in and check out times.
6.) Accommodation in Parque El Cocuy
There are a series of accommodations located near the park entrance points, known as cabañas. These are located 40-60 minutes up the mountain from El Cocuy town and Güicán. If you plan on doing anything more than a day hike, these are where you will need to stay. There are around 8 cabañas located near the park entrances. You will pick your accommodation according to your hiking itinerary and proximity to trail entrances. There are private rooms, bunk rooms, and camping options available (most allow camping on the property for a reduced price). All are located at elevations between 3,600 and 3,950 meters.
Cabañas can be reserved by your guide, guide agency or hotel while setting up your trip, or you can call ahead to reserve a space on your own. It is rare that these fill up entirely, although it has been know to happen around weekends and national holidays.
If you are simply coming for one day hike, it is possible to ride up in the morning and return to town in the afternoon without staying in a cabaña. You could also stay at a cabaña the evening prior and get an earlier start.
If you are doing two or more hikes, you will have to stay near the park on the nights in between. It makes more sense to only stay near the trailheads for the nights between hikes and to return to town following your final hike. Accommodation near the park are rustic and amenities in town (wifi and hot showers) are better with cheaper prices.
- For better altitude acclimatization
- Stay in a cabaña the night before your hike to help acclimatize and get an early start to your first day hike.
- You could still take la lechero up the prior morning or take private transportation up at any time.
- If doing only one day hike, you can return back to town or choose to stay another 1 or 2 nights to do additional day hikes.
- For the most economical choice in the park
- Take la lechero truck up to a cabaña in the morning and start your hike.
- If doing only one day hike you can return back to town or choose to stay 1 or 2 nights to do additional day hikes.
- For budget travelers
- Hike strictly outside the park for the cheapest option or try a combination of inside and outside hikes.
- Keep in mind that once you pay the park fee of 61,000 pesos, it is good for any length of time in the park, however the insurance is per person per day.
- Accommodations and food are cheaper in town, but if you pack all your meals it will cut down on the price significantly.
- The guide cost can be split between up to six people which can further reduce this expense.
6.1) Accommodations Near the El Pulpito Del Diablo Hike:
The two closest cabañas to this trail head (Cabaña Lagunillas and EcoRefugio de Montaña Sisuma) were closed during our visit due to environmental contamination concerns. For those looking to stay nearest to this trail, the Cabaña El Pulpito and Cabaña Güicány are the two options available, which are centrally located between this trail and La Laguna Grande (5-10 minutes drive to El Pulpito and 20 to La Laguna).
6.2) Accommodations Near the La Laguna Grande Hike:
The closest cabaña to this trail is Hacienda La Esperanza. It is directly at the trailhead where the hike begins. While we did not stay here, we hear very good things about this accommodation and it seems to be the preference of many hikers. We did talk with the owner who is very nice and speaks fluent English. You can also stay at Cabaña El Pulpito or Cabaña Güicány, which are centrally located between this hike and El Pulpito (20 minute drive to these).
6.3) Accommodations Near the Ritacuba Hike:
The two accommodations located by this trailhead are Cabañas Peñas Blancas and Cabañas Kanwara. Ritacuba is the furthest removed hike, located almost 14 kilometers from the centrally located La Laguna Grande. If hiking here in conjunction with other trails, your guide can assist choosing the most efficient location.
We stayed at the centrally located Cabaña Güicány. The view from the accommodation is incredible, but we would hesitate to recommend this to other hikers. The owner was unhappy with the price that we paid, and reminded us of that several times during our stay. He seemed to be hinting that he wanted us to pay extra, despite us having mutually agreed and paid in advance. While the rest of the staff was extremely welcoming, we found him to be a little surly. In addition, there were only cold showers which were not ideal after long days hiking the frozen peaks.
7.) Food in El Cocuy National Park
There are no restaurants or stores near or in the park. All food is either provided by your cabaña or needs to be brought from town. The accommodations all provide breakfast and dinner, which is typically included in the price of the room. You can also opt for a cheaper room price and provide all of your own food. Lunch is not provided, and will need to be purchased ahead of time at a store in El Cocuy town of Güicán and brought along on the trail. We brought a bag of snacks, fruit, etc and packed a lunch for each hike.
8.) Drinking Stream Water in El Cocuy Park
All three hikes have water sources along the route. All guides say that the water is fine for drinking, but after a bout with giardia in Patagonia following a similar recommendation, we wouldn’t risk it without proper treatment. We carry a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, and used it to ensure that all of our stream water was pure.
9.) What to Pack
The weather in the park is prone to sudden shifts. The upper elevations tend to get cold, wet and windy, while the lower parts can be quite warm and sunny. Having quick dry layers which are easily added or removed is helpful when hiking. All cabañas have beds and blankets, so sleeping bags and tents are not necessary unless camping.
- Packable warm jacket
- Rain jacket or thin poncho
- Warm hat and gloves
- Brimmed hat
- Water bottle
- Hiking boots and wool socks
- T-shirt and long sleeved shirt
- Convertible pants/shorts
- Water filter or tablets
- Daypack/backpack with rain cover
- Hiking poles
- Camera, extra batteries, waterproof cover
10.) Hiking Outside of Parque El Cocuy
There are a number of day hikes nearby El Cocuy town that do not require entry to the National Park, meaning that guides and insurance are also not required. We did not do any ourselves, but many hotel owners will be able to direct you upon arrival. You can also talk with Marta at Hostal del Caminante, who was able to explain these options to us.
11.) Cost of an El Cocuy National Park Hiking Trip
The following is a rough list of costs for one person to do a two day hiking trip in El Cocuy Park. There is a working ATM in El Cocuy town which has a 780,000 peso withdrawal limit.
- Round trip from Bogotá: 120,000
- Night in El Cocuy town: Average 40,000
- Guide per day: 120,000-150,000 (240,000)
- Insurance: 14,000 per day including guide (28,000)
- La Lechero: 10,000
- Transport within the park: 180,000
- Night in a Cabaña with food: 90,000
Total: Around 700,000 pesos, or $240 USD
We hope that this complete guide to hiking El Cocuy National Park was helpful. Do you love hiking as much as us? We highly recommend that you take a look at some of our other hiking guides as well:
- 4.5 Epic Japanese Day Hikes: A Hiking Guide to Japan’s Wilderness
- Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
- Great Wall Trekking, Beijing and Beyond
Are you ready to quit your jobs and go travel? Get started planning your world trip before turning in your resignation letter. Oh and don’t be one of those people dragging around a 70L pack on the back and a second bag on the front…that’s just excessive. Travel in style with minimalist packing!