Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy

Top choice national park in Sierra Nevada del Cocuy

One of Colombia's most spectacular national parks, PNN El Cocuy is mostly made up of a diverse ecosystem known as the páramo. This glacially formed, neotropical system of valleys, plains and mountain lakes includes the largest glacier zone in South America north of the equator. The park has 15 peaks that are at least 5000m, the highest being Ritacuba Blanco at 5330m, and is an outdoor playground popular for trekking, mountaineering, camping and climbing, although many activities are currently restricted.

Established in 1977, the park covers 306,000 hectares. The western boundary begins at the 4000m elevation line; the eastern half of the park drops to just 600m elevation to the Colombian llanos (plains).

Among the park's most famous features is an unusual rock formation called the Púlpito del Diablo (5120m; Devil's Pulpit), but it's just one of many spectacular peaks. Sadly, the park's glacier fields are rapidly melting due to climate change. Park officials believe that if melting continues at the present rate, the glaciers will be gone within 20 to 30 years.

Despite the harsh environment, PNN El Cocuy is home to diverse species of flora and fauna. Animals you might encounter include the spectacled bear (also called the Andean bear), deer, eagles, condors, mountain tapirs, chinchillas and the beautiful spotted ocelot. The mountaintop plains are covered in a variety of shrubbery, the best known being the yellow-flowered frailejón that's native to the area.

PNN El Cocuy was occupied by ELN guerrillas from 1985 until early this century, when the Colombian army moved in. Today the park is once again safe for visitors (though the little-used eastern-plains area in Arauca and Casanare is still risky). Colombian soldiers have a base in the mountains and regularly patrol the trails. This peace quickly brought visitors back to the peaks: in 2003 fewer than 100 people climbed PNN El Cocuy; that figure jumped to an estimated 9000 in 2010 and a whopping 14,147 in 2013, according to park officials.

However, the park's popularity has proved problematic. In 2013 the main attraction, the Güicán–El Cocuy Circuit Trek, was closed by authorities. Depending on whom you ask, the reason was that park officials didn't like dealing with the added workload that tourism brought; the U'wa people along the route became fed up with tourists trekking through their land; or the popularity of the trek and all the associated infrastructure were doing too much damage to the park, its trails and the surrounding environment. The reality is likely a combination of the three, but, whatever the reason, at research time in mid-2018 the circuit was indefinitely closed.

In 2016 the park was totally closed to visitors while the government negotiated territorial boundaries with local indigenous communities. It was eventually reopened to visitors in early 2017, but with even more restrictions. It's no longer possible to touch any of the glaciers in the park, making climbing the peaks impossible, and overnight stays within the boundaries are no longer permitted.

These restrictions will be reviewed in the near future and could be lifted or made even tougher. Check before your journey to see if the situation has changed by the time you visit.

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