Hiking the Los Nevados in Colombia
Altitude Hiking Adventures
We lived in the town of Manizales for 5 weeks, which was a lovely experience onto it self, but most tourists come to Manizales not for the city, but to use as a base for treks into the Los Nevados National Natural Park.
Miro and I are not mountain trekkers but we do love hiking in the nature. We knew we too, would take advantage of the beautiful mountains, not far from the city and started our research. We learned that the Los Nevados National Park is located in the central area of Colombian Andes. In this park are located many places of interest, like the snow mountains Ruiz, Tolima, St. Isabel, Swann and Quindio. Also, Otún Lake and Green Lake, are popular attractions and there were multiple natural thermals (or hot springs) running through the region.
Los Nevados National Park reaches altitudes well over 4,500 meters above sea level, being one of the highest mountain ranges in Colombia. In fact, this mountain range is the only place where you can see snow in all of Colombia. The snow peaks of Quindío, Santa Isabel, El Cisne, El Ruiz, and Tolima all surpass 4,800 meters. The park is the home to unique bird species including the snow parakeet and the páramo humming bird.Los Navados landscapes are complex including forest, páramo, super-páramo, and snow ecosystems, and crosses moraines that resemble moonscapes. There are a large variety of high mountain recreational and sports activities are possible in the park, among them trekking, mountain biking, rock and ice climbing, and sports fishing.
With all that information, we jumped on the chance of taking a hike into the mountains.
As we began to investigate the possibilities, it struck us how expensive the tours were. We are on a tight budget and necessity provided the reason to take a closer look at why the options were so expensive. We learned from several people in Manizales about some of the realities regarding the Los Nevados National Park. We do not have proof or evidence but are simply sharing here, what we’ve been told. Apparently the Los Nevados National Park regions are rumored to be rented and controlled by some of Colombia’s wealthiest families forming a powerful consortium. In other words, the government has given a lease to the this wealthy powerful group and the park itself is not ran by a the national government.
The cost to enter the park is 53,000 COP (or roughly $30) for foreigners, 33,000 COP for Colombians. Tours offered by tourist office range from 120’000 COP - 180000 COP including entrance fees, breakfast and transportation. For us, that translated to close to $180 dollars for both Miro and myself, certainly not a doable budget for us for a 1 day excursion.
What we did find out is that these tour are not actually even hiking tours, and merely provide a van up to the entrance of the park, permission to explore the perimeter for about 45 minutes and transportation back down.
(To be fair, all the tours we looked into did provide breakfast and a trip to a hotel on the way down so that visitors can take a dip in the resorts’ pools filled with the natural surfer water that was piped in from the mountains above. Not exactly my preference)
Upon a little more investigation, we came across a tour company who offered a guided hike around the perimeter of the Los Nevados National Park, avoiding the need to pay the entrance fee for the park therefore lowering the cost considerably, making the cost much more reasonable for Miro and myself. Our tour included a packed lunch, our tour guide, and transpiration to and from the mountains. Our tour also included a trip to the thermals, or the natural sulfur hot springs which was not located in a hotel, and we had to hike to get to them. This was the main selling point in my book.
So, Miro and I signed up!This was our second Sunday in Manizales already and we were excited about the trip! However, we weren’t excited about our 4:30 am wake up call, but we endured the early morning in perfect zombie-like fashion.
The group of 7 hikers, including Miro and myself, our guide, two Canadians and a British / American couple, gathered at the front of the hostel and loaded our sleepy selves into two taxis which transported us into the heart of Manizales. This is where we met our driver, for the 2 ½ hour drive up the mountains. We were surprised when we discovered our driver was transporting us via a milk truck along with large metal containers that needed to head up the mountains to be dropped off at the dairy farms along the way.
We left before the sun rose and the temperature was freezing, but Miro and snuggled under our borrowed coats, hats and scarfs.
When we finally reached the point where our hike was to start, we saw snow in the distance and we seemed to be in the middle of a cloud. We felt the air as being thin and we understood what our tour guide told us the night before about the need to acclimatize before the hike began. Miro and I had been in Manizales for 2 weeks prior so we were sure we’d be ok.
But let me tell you…
We were not.
Thankfully, neither Miro nor myself suffered from altitude sickness like one of the guys on our tour did, but we did experience the effects of the attitude, which I’ll get into in just a bit…
But first, we start out, hiking along the road, and we witnessed the clouds burning off, little by little revealing the beautiful moon like landscapes promised to us. We saw waterfalls, amazing plants, birds, mountain ranges in the distance and streams. The view was magical and both Miro and I were so excited to be there.
Back to the altitude. I ask you to imagine what a bag of chips looks like. Now imagine what that bag of chips looks like when you are on an airplane. The bag somehow seems to have more air in it than it should physically be holding and with the slightest touch, it seems as if it’s going to pop. Well, that’s how I felt. Only this ‘air’ that was filling up my middle section was actually gas. In fact, I had such bad gas that it seemed every step I took, I needed to fart. In fact, not only did I need to fart, I DID FART!
Yes, I said it.
Not so graceful, but the truth.
Near the beginning of our hike, Miro and I stayed back from the others in the group so I could privately ‘fart’ and not offend any of the other hikers. The funny thing though, the more I farted, Miro started farting. We became the two in the back, gas-powered musical duo, filled with gas and laughs every step of the way. We later became less modest and farted as we walked as it seems the altitude was effect other in our group as well. Others had to pee all the time, and one in our group had trouble breathing. That was the most serious but we all seemed to understand the physical effects the altitude had on us and just took is as par for the course.
We ended up hiking for just over three hours to get to the ridge of the decline, a 1000 foot drop in altitude, including a steep trail with sharp switchbacks leading us to the thermals. The hike down took a good hour. As we approached, our nose could tell us that the sulfur hot springs were near (and no longer a repulsive smell after all our flatulence).
Finally, we came across a beautiful stream which we followed for a few hundred feet.
Then we saw it, the place where the river, which was once snow from the mountains above, flowed into a large pool filled with steaming water. The natural thermals were located just below this pool, heating the water above. You could see the water was so hot in places it was actually bubbling, definitely too hot to get into. However, the cool mountain water mixed so gracefully causing the perfect temperature flowing into the pools below. And we did enjoy the wonderful hot springs, perfecting our adventure into the Los Navados.
The Grand Finale
I wanted to end the story there, on a wonderful high note, but the most difficult part for Miro and I was yet to come.
The hike back up, through the windy switchbacks and the steep incline was extremely difficult for both of us. Both Miro and I felt the effect of the altitude in our chests as we hiked back up to the top. We took about 4 or 5 steps, then both of us needed to rest as our hearts raced. The altitude was like wearing an additional 200 pounds on our bodies and after the hour of basking in the sulfur hot baths, our energy was drained. Finally, with that last step, we felt a surge of accomplishment. Both Miro and I were the last to reach the top where our transpiration back to Manizales was waiting for us along with our group who greeted us with applause. Neither of us is terribly out of shape, but hiking at 15,000 feet altitude does create a special set of circumstances.
All in all, we’d do it again in a heartbeat. The only change we would make:
Not have eaten lentils for dinner the night before.
- The park covers an area of 58,300 hectares.
- It is located on the highest part of the central mountain range of the Colombian Andes.
- The following snow peaks are located in the area: Quindío at 4,750 meters above sea level, Santa Isabel at 4,950, El Cisne, at 4,700, and El Ruiz at 5,400.
- The volcanic chain is crowned by the Tolima peak at 5,200 meters.
- Temperatures range from 14º C to –3º C.
- The season of heavy rains goes from April to May.
- Light rains occur in October.
- The dry seasons go from January to February and from July to August.
- Andean forests grow in the valleys and slopes of the lower part of the park.
- The wax palm, Colombia’s natural tree stands out.
- The fauna is varied:
- Tapirs, spectacled bears, 20 species of bats and many species of frogs.
- The middle portion of the central mountain range was inhabited since Pre-Hispanic times by the Quimbaya Indians, famous for their gold work, considered one of the most elaborate in pre-Colombian America, and for their ceramics.
The official web site for the Los Navados Park is here.