El Cocuy: This is Poncho Country

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December 18th 2014
Published: April 4th 2015
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One of the problems with a 5:10 am bus is the getting up at 4 am part. We managed it, and even though we had a short night, we're still pretty fresh at the start of our trip. This certainly won't be our only early morning and long bus ride of the trip, so we might as well get started. We'd invited Corey to join us, but he must have reconsidered the 4am wake up time, or his plans just changed. Maybe we'll run into him later in our trip.

The second problem with 5:10am buses is... sometimes they don't actually exist. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the terminal (and Bogota has a big bus terminal, so it was good he dropped us off in the right spot) and we found the bus company window. Our hostel had looked up the bus times on the internet, but the bus company told us there was no bus that day until 6pm.

Well that's some bullshit. We got up at 4am, so the morning was shot. And we already checked out of the hostel, so it's not like we can just go back and go to sleep. So we were pretty resolved to get on a bus and go somewhere.

An Ecuadorian woman with a baby was also at the same bus counter buying a ticket, and told us that if we took the bus to Duitama, we could catch a bus to El Cocuy later that morning from there. Sounded pretty straightforward. And also pretty remarkable that the bus company didn't suggest this...

We didn't really know where Duitama was, but it was somewhere, and at 5am that's all we needed. So we bought a ticket and got on the bus. Then we checked the map and confirmed that Duitama was on the road to El Cocuy, so we were in good shape. So we were even moving in the right direction.

It took a while for the bus to get out of Bogota, and we stopped on hte edge of town for some time to pick up more passengers to fill the bus. Finally, when we were on our way northeast of Bogota, and the scenery slowly emerged from the foggy morning, and it was pretty spectacular.

Low rolling green hills and pasture land were a stunning backdrop for our bus trip... when I was awake. Mostly I slept. It was a pretty comfortable bus and I was pretty exhausted and running on only 4 hours of sleep, so I needed to top it up.

In Duitama, the Ecuadorian woman who helped us with our first bus, also took us over to the bus company desk that had buses to El Cocuy, even though she was going somewhere else! Fantastically helpful! The bus to El Cocuy wasn't leaving until 11:30am, so we had a bit of time to eat brunch, have coffee, and use the bathroom. It's not a bad thing to break up a 12 hour bus journey anyway.

On the second bus, the mountains kept getting bigger and bigger as the bus went higher up the winding mountain road. If Francois ever gets his motorbike, he's going to enjoy this ride.

I tried to sleep a bit more, but all the curves started to make me feel a bit nauseous and I had to wake up for a while. The bus stopped for a dinner break which gave us time to go to the bathroom and buy some water.

Continuing on the road, it turned to gravel, hugging the mountainside on the edge of cliff face with a sheer drop into the river below. They are not shy about their road building here. I was thinking that I was glad to be travelling this road in the daylight. Duitama was more than half the distance to El Cocuy, so I was naievly optimistic we would get there before dark.

Then it got dark.

We stopped in a few small towns along the way with extravagant Christmas lights strung across the road and flashing on all the buildings. I didn't realise there were so many towns, so I had to ask another passenger to kindly let us know which one was El Cocuy.

It was at least another hour before we got dropped off in El Cocuy, and we set out looking for a hotel. We checked out a couple, but without knowing what the going rate was for a decent room, we weren't sure we'd be getting a good deal.

And we were pretty hungry, having skipped dinner when the bus stopped earlier. We popped into a fast food cafe to eat some hamburgers, and we met a British family. The son lives in Bogota, and he was travelling around with his parents to show them around Colombia and go to some new places together. They told us about their hotel, which was right on the square where the big festival was happening.

Apparently they party for eight consecutive days before Christmas, and every night they have a party in the square with extremely loud music and fireworks. After eating, we went to check out their hotel, but given how loud it was (the PA system was amazingly loud) and how little sleep we were running on, we went back to the main square (not the one with the festival) and elected to pay for the most expensive hotel in town for a night, just for the peace and quiet.

And the most expensive hotel in all of El Cocuy during the festive Christmas season was a grand total of 40,000 pesos, or about $20. We could live with that...

Instead of taking in the festival, we went straight to bed. The party in the square went on until 2:30am and you could faintly hear the music from our room. But you could definitely hear the explosion of fireworks that they concluded the evenings festivities with. It was loud.

And they did it again at about 5:30am for some reason. And it was loud again. First light? It's quite the festival I guess. We figured we should probably investigate it more while we were here... after a good night's sleep. So we went back to sleep for a few more hours.

We finally dragged ourselves out of bed at 10am and went for a shot walk around town before grabbing some empanadas for breakfast. We were going to make some arrangements to get into the mountain park, but before we even went to the guide office, we were approached by a guide while we were sitting on a bench in the town square.

He introduced himself as Gustavo, but everyone calls him Radio because he's always talking. He's from Venezuela and speaks very little English, so we mostly talked in Spanish. He showed us on a 3D relief map in the square where we could go in the park. Ritacuba Blanco is the highest peak in the park at around 5300m. This is what I originally thought we would try and do before we came here. Might as well do the biggest one right?

And to put that into perspective (or rather our perspective), the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies is mount Robson at 3953 m. We've hiked to mount Robson, but not up it. Most mountains in the Canadian Rokies top out at around 3000m, and that's as high as we'd ever hiked before coming to Colombia. That's about as high as you can get in a day hike before it turns into mountaineering. Here, the town of El Cocuy is at 2750m, and the hiking STARTS at around 3000m. So it's, uh, it's pretty high.

But Radio pointed out a different peak called Pan de Azucar. It's a bit smaller at around 5100m, but the area has more varied scenery and the hike up is more interesting. And since his price (300,000 pesos per person) included all the gear, food and everything for the three day and two night stay in the park. He even offered to let us stay at his place the next night while we got ready to leave early the following morning.

So we agreed, and made plans to meet him the next morning at 7am at a cafe next to our hotel, and we'd take the bus to Guican together where he lives, which is just another half hour up the road. During the day we'd go for a hike and register our itinerary at the park office.

Well that was pretty easy. So we had the rest of the day to explore El Cocuy. We grabbed lunch at our hotel and set out on a hike.

We were told two sets of directions for this hike. One was to follow the road up, and the other was to follow the path that roughly follows the power lines. Since neither option was very clearly the correct one, we sort of combined them. The trail was a horse trail, and it wasn't much fun to hike up. Hundreds of years of horse traffic had worn a path deep into the side of the mountain, and sometimes the walls beside us on the path were taller than we are.

After we got ourselves a little more than half way to the top and crossed the road again, we decided to give up. We were running out of water, and there was no shade on the trail we saw that appeared to lead to the top, and we weren't really too sure if that trail lead anywhere with a better view or just to some farm houses.

So we turned and headed down the road and enjoyed the beautiful valley views that we could see. And we would have missed some of it had we gone straight to the top.

On our way down we had to stand to the side of the gravel road when some of the light evening traffic passed by us. One jeep pulled up beside us and stopped. The driver asked “Are you guys gringos?” We paused to think about what other answer he might be expecting other than “Yes,” so that's what we responded with.

“You look like you need a ride.” Yep, sure. And without hesitating we jumped in the back of the jeep and rode down the mountain. The driver was a Colombian guide and the other two passengers were also gringos, but from Belgium. They had just been in the park and done some hiking for the day.

We thanked them for the ride, and then shortly after found out that the Belgians were our next door neighbours at the hotel. Small town.

In the evening we headed over to the festival. We walked back some police officers busy tying balloons to their motorcycles with very serious looks on their faces. That was pretty amusing. In the square there were more police officers, and I'm not sure if they were military or military police, but they had very big guns. They were also very friendly, and chatted freely with the locals, and especially the children.

This is poncho country. All the men wear ponchos. I'm not 100% sure if that's just at this time of the year, but I suspect that they just wear ponchos because they're warm and awesome. It's neat seeing a bunch of old Colombian men with moustaches wearing ponchos and cowboy hats standing around and drinking beer. I'm counting this as a cultural experience...

For dinner we had food from the many vendors in the square. We ate several very delicious paletas and drank some beer while we sat and took in the festivities.

It started with a parade, lead by the police with balloons on their motorcycles. A float on the back of a truck carried the king and queen of the festival, and they were followed by the town brass marching band. It's pretty nuts that a town this small has a marching band.

This was followed by a bunch of talking by the king and queen from the stage, and then another guy did a bunch of talking, and then there were some dangerous fireworks set off in the square about 30 feet away from us. But it was ok since there was a huge crowd of people between us and the fireworks, so they were like our human shields. I should also mention that there were random daytime fireworks all day. Shades of the Philippines.

Then there were some dance troupes on stage, and a bunch more talking, and we decided to call it quits pretty early, knowing that we had to get up early in the morning to meet our guide and begin our mountain adventure.

But of course, we were woken up in the night by the fireworks at around 2:30am, and again at around 5:30am. These guys know how to party. I'm not sure when they sleep...

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