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Adventure Travel

Everything You Know About Hiking in Colombia is Wrong

After decades of conflict, it’s finally the right time to backpack in the Colombian Andes.

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The rider appears in the moorlands as quietly as a ghost. He’s on horseback and wearing a wool poncho the same muted tone as the world all around. Just as quietly, he vanishes.

Perhaps we’re primed to see things through a supernatural lens. We were told the Páramo de Ocetá is a place of spirits and myths—it even derives its name from a ill-fated princess. In the middle of the 16th century, during the full brutality of the Spanish conquest of Colombia, the local Muisca people fought back. Among the warriors was one Peñagos, whose lover, Ocetá, was a princess from a nearby tribe.

The Church of Our Lady in Monguí in Colombia
The Church of Our Lady in MonguíPhoto by Gregg Bleakney

According to legend, Peñagos and his companions fought valiantly, but their knives and arrows were no match for Spanish gunpowder and horses. The hero died in battle. On hearing this, Ocetá fled her village for the wetlands above to sit on a mountaintop and wait to be carried away by angels, which is how the Muisca thought of condors. During her vigil, Ocetá shed the tears that filled the lakes and rivers and saturated the ground we’re standing on.

Regardless of origin, water is everywhere. The meadows hold it with such efficiency that hiking here is like walking on a sponge. We cross hundreds of little streams where the terrain funnels rainwater into lakes. Every step is guessing game as to which tussocks will bear weight. Our guides, accustomed to the wet, stomp along in rubber boots.

Endemic wildflowers (lupine and aster) color the landscape in Colombia
Endemic wildflowers (lupine and aster) color the landscape.Photo by Gregg Bleakney

The abundant water nourishes vegetation that exists here and nowhere else. The ground is such a patchwork of greens that it looks like camouflage. With these garden slopes perched at 12,000 feet, in a nature reserve that sees few visitors, the Páramo de Ocetá feels like a secret that’s maybe too well kept.

But slowly, locals and outsiders like us are venturing into the fringes. Call it a side effect of peace.

For decades, Colombia’s wild areas were a no-go zone because of guerilla fighters and narcos, who occupied and fortified rural areas across the country. To venture beyond the city limits was to risk being kidnapped and held for ransom, a lucrative scheme the outlaws called miracle fishing.

Beginning around 2000, the government started negotiating peace deals with the armed rebels, all but putting an end to the practice. In 2016, Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia, brokered a peace deal with FARC, the main guerilla group, and earned the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, Colombia’s once empty backcountry is seeing its first pioneering backpackers, with areas like the Páramo de Ocetá poised to become epicenters for adventure travel.

A ranger on patrol in Colombia
A ranger on patrolPhoto by Gregg Bleakney

Our five-day trek is a test piece for that idea. From Las Cintas to Monguí, our 30-mile point-to-point crosses the páramo off-trail or on spidering cow paths. We pass through a clutch of high-altitude grasslands, forests, and lakes. In mid-fall, a soft drizzle dominates the days, but occasional beams of sunshine spotlight meadows filled with purple and yellow wildflowers.

The trail leads us from ridge to ridge, then down to a small lake that looks like a mirror set on the grass. As we approach, mist skims its surface and pools there before sucking the entire landscape back into grayness and, finally, dusk.

Páramos are unique places—the biome exists only in the eastern Andes, and Colombia has more of them than any other country. Páramo de Ocetá is considered by Colombians to be the most beautiful, with sweeping views, craggy ridges, rushing creeks, and endless stands of frailejónes.

The páramo sky hangs low with moisture in Colombia
The páramo sky hangs low with moisture.Photo by Gregg Bleakney

The plant, a member of the sunflower family, grows—an inch per year—only in the páramo and looks like a palm tree trunk topped with a crown of silver-green swords. There are thousands of them, appearing out of the mist like figures standing watch.

The weather finally breaks on our last full day revealing a a vast sweep of land with the ice-topped Cordillera Oriental (Eastern Mountains) in the distance. We camp beside a waterfall and walk a high loop around the ridges to the Ciudad de Piedra—City of Rock. Blocky canyon walls reach 60 feet overhead in a slot no wider than 30 feet. The effect resembles a building-lined street that terminates in an endless view.

The descent to Monguí, a colonial town established in 1601, takes us past barbed wire fences that keep the cows from grazing the páramo. We pass a monolith called Caja del Rey (The King’s Box), where the chief, Sanoha, hid his treasure and guarded it with magic.

Above, we watch the mist close back in, engulfing the mountains in mystery once again. But we now know what Páramo de Ocetá holds: legends and landscapes ready for the wider world.

Protect your passport
The U.S. requires that all damaged passports, including ones with simple water damage, be replaced. Save yourself the time and frustration of going to the U.S. embassy or consulate in a foreign country. Use a plastic zip-top bag or a waterproof document case to protect your passport and other papers.

Trip Planner

Getting there Fly to Bogotá. Hire a shuttle to Las Cintas to replicate this route, or bus to Monguí and hike a DIY loop. Season Dry months are December, January, July, and August. Guide $480 for a 5-day trek for up to five people, BYO supplies Total cost $1,050 (flight from Miami, ground transportation, lodging, and guides)

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