HERE IS A QUICK GUIDE ON EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BACKPACKING SOLO (WITHOUT A GUIDE) IN THE STUNNING LOS NEVADOS NATIONAL PARK IN CENTRAL COLOMBIA.
We believe there are few things in life better than setting off on an adventure in a place you really don’t know much about. The excitement of pure exploration is completely palpable. That is why we were super excited to explore the magical Los Nevados National Park in central Colombia.
Home to mammoth mountains, crazy flora, and some of the last tropical glaciers in the world, Los Nevados National Park (also known as Los Nevados National Natural Park) is just teeming with incredible adventures. So if you are curious to learn more about how to explore the park on your own (aka without a guide), then you have come to the right place.
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SOLO TREKKING IN LOS NEVADOS NP
\\ Where is Los Nevados National Park
Los Nevados National Park or Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados covers 583 square kilometers and is divided between four different districts of Colombia: Quindio, Risaralda, Caldas and Tolima. Because of its size, there are numerous entrances to the park; including, from the famous Cocora Valley near Salento, El Cedral near Pereira, Juntas near Ibague and the Brisas Sector near Manizales.
But the Brisas Sector, which is located in the northern section of the park, is currently only open until the Valle de las Tumbas area due to Nevado del Ruiz's high volcanic activity (the Servicio Geológico Colombiano has declared it at Yellow Alert Level or Level III).
Otherwise, from the other main entrances to the park, you have the ability to hike in as far as you want.
\\ How to Get to Los Nevados National Park
The most common way to reach the park, especially if you are looking to hike by yourself and/or are not looking to explore Nevado del Ruiz, is to start in either Cocora Valley near Salento or at El Cedral near Pereira.
To start, take a Willy from the square in Salento, which costs 4000 COP per person for one-way (just tell them you are only going one way at the ticket booth), once in Cocora Valley you will likely have to check in with the National Park rangers. After that, simply make your way up the dirt road, past the second entrance to Cocora Valley until you reach the river.
When you get to the river, go to the right down a little trail (about 5 meters) until you find a wooden bridge about. You will know you are at the right spot when you see a large national park sign across the water.
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Start by hopping on a chiva (a large colorful wooden bus) from downtown Pereira. The main stop is here (the stop is right across from a large Exito supermarket).
The chiva will take you up to the trailhead at El Cedral. It will cost 5500 COP per person and take about 1-1.5 hours. At the trailhead (here), there is a small café selling food, a store, and a hostel. There is also a national park building - though there was no one there when we arrived.
💬 INSIDER TIP: the chiva leaves at 11:30 AM and 3:30 PM from the trailhead at El Cedral.
Another option - though one that is way less common - is to enter from the town of Juntas near Ibague. We have personally never made it to this entrance, but we have done a fair amount of research on it for it is one of the closest entrances to reach Nevado el Tolima (the closest volcano to Salento) as well as Termales de Canon, a beautiful natural hot spring at the base of Tolima.
\\ Why Visit Los Nevados National Park
Los Nevados is not only a beautiful national park, but also one that is incredibly important to Colombia and the rest of the world.
Within the park, glaciers occupy 4% of the area and belong to the three main volcanoes: Nevado del Ruiz (the highly active one), Nevado de Santa Isabel and Nevado del Tolima. The waters from these glaciers feed the rivers that originate within the park. In total, there are 10 basins and 19 streams of different sizes and characteristics. Of the ten basins, six flow into the large Magdalena River watershed and the remaining four flow into the Cauca River watershed.
The park's rivers supply water for 2 million inhabitants in the region, including coffee, rice and cotton crops in the surrounding departments.
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Similarly, the Otún wetland system, found near the central area of the park, was declared an internationally important wetland by the Ramsar Convention in 2008.
Now that is just the importance of the glaciers and water within the park. Similarly, within Los Nevados you can also find many unique and often endemic plants and animals. Including plants such as, the highly popular wax palm, which is found at lower altitudes (especially in Cocora Valley), and the frailejones, a somewhat comedic-looking plant that grows in the páramo biome (see photo below).
In terms of animals, you might also have the opportunity to see yellow-eared parrots, Fuertes's parrots, rufous-fronted parakeets, Andean condors, mountain tapirs, spectacled bears, northern pudús (the world’s smallest deer), cougars and white-eared opossums. And if you are really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a buffy helmet-crest hummingbird, which can only be found in the páramo region of the park.
Finally, and this should really go without saying, the park is 100% worth exploring because it is just drop-dead beautiful. For much of the trek, you will likely be entirely alone out in the wide expanses of the páramo, a biome that feels like an alien planet, or making your way through the dense, vibrant green jungle that radiates with the sound of birds. To adventure within Los Nevados National Park is like exploring a real life Garden of Eden. It's magical, colorful and awe-inspiring.
Seriously, if you are looking to head out on a crazy natural adventure within Colombia, then hiking in Los Nevados National Park is definitely worth doing.
\\ Guide or No Guide
By far one of the most common questions about hiking and trekking in Los Nevados National Park is whether you can do it with or without a guide. Well, to be honest, even after hiking in the park without a guide and talking to other people - including national park representatives - we still are not entirely sure.
DO YOU LEGALLY NEED A GUIDE?
When we first started planning our trip to Los Nevados, this was the first thing we had to figure out. And even now that we have finished our trek, we still don’t know 100% whether you legally need a guide.
What we did learn is that you can enter the park at Cocora Valley without a guide, though you do need to check in with the national park staff that are stationed there. The park rangers will ask you a couple of questions (see below), have you sign a form and then let you go on your way. And, even though we read you had to pay a fee, the rangers never asked for payment.
QUESTIONS THE PARK RANGERS WILL ASK
Where are you going/what is your route?
How many days will you be in the park?
Do you have all the gear you need?
Do you have a map? If digital, is it downloaded?
Emergency contact information.
Personal information (nationality, passport #, occupation, etc.)
We suggest having all of this information prepared ahead of time. For in our experience, when you act confident and like you know what you are doing, the less likely they will question you further.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we didn’t have to pay an entrance fee, and they didn’t say anything about us not having a guide. BUT we emailed the national park itself and they said that you would need a guide and would need to pay 47500 COP per person. So be prepared for it to go either way (sorry not super helpful).
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It also seems like you can enter El Cedral (near Pereira) without a guide We finished our trek there and didn’t see any park rangers guarding or monitoring the entrance. We have also read on other blogs that you can enter the park here and not have a guide or pay an entrance fee.
Finally, we actually met a group that had a guide along the hike and the guide didn’t mention anything about the legality of hiking sans guide. So in the end, we believe that if you enter the park at Cocora Valley or El Cedral, you shouldn’t have an issue going guide-less. It is likely guides are only necessary for the more “dangerous” parts of the park (most notably near Nevado del Ruiz).
BUT IS A GUIDE A GOOD IDEA?
We decided to trek in the national park without a guide because we knew we had the skills and the experience to finish the trek without any problems. But for some people that might not be the case. So if you are thinking of trekking in Los Nevados and are wondering whether you need a guide or not, ask yourself these questions.
Do you have the proper gear? Including maps, boots, bags, sleeping bags, etc.
Do you have backpacking experience? We both have years of experience backpacking in the mountains of Colorado and California, but if you have never backpacked before we definitely suggest booking a guide.
Are you confident in route finding? This is a huge factor in needing a guide or not. Even with a map, there are often places where a trail just doesn’t exist. Do you know how to find your way without a clear trail? And are you good at orienting yourself in the mountains?
Are you good at route/trip planning? This is another key thing to think about. There are many things to plan when doing a multi-day trek in the mountains, including transportation, food, lodging, etc.
Even though we finished our 4-day trek without any problems, there were definitely moments when we thought it would be nice to have a guide. A couple of big ones were when we had to communicate with local finca owners (we only speak okay Spanish), when it came to actual preparation (including acquiring gear), and finally, when we had to figure out transportation at the end of the hike. These are all things to consider when deciding whether to trek solo or not. In the end, we loved doing the hike by ourselves. But we also definitely felt more stress planning this trek than any other trek we've done previously.
One guiding service that we recommend if you don't want to trek alone is Paramo Trek. When doing our research on trekking in Los Nevados we actually reached out to them to inquire about guiding services. They were quick to respond and super helpful. We also met one of their guides while trekking and he was super friendly, intelligent, fun and very environmentally conscious. Highly recommend them if you are thinking of trekking with a guide.
\\ The Best Trekking Routes in Los Nevados National Park
There are numerous trails that crisscross through the park. All of them will have their perks: great views, interesting biomes, opportunities to see wildlife, etc. So you really cannot go wrong. But if you are looking to get an idea on some of the more "popular" routes within the park, then here are a few good ones to check out.
FROM COCORA VALLEY
COCORA - TERMALES - JUNTAS: 3-4 days, 31.2 miles
This hike includes visiting the Termales de Canon, a group of natural hot springs near the base of Nevado del Tolima. You also have the opportunity to stay at a finca (most commonly Finca Primavera) and to camp at the hot springs. You finish the hike in the town of Juntas, which is close to Ibague.
COCORA - FINCA BERLIN - EL CEDRAL: 3 days, 21 miles
This is a great hike if you want to explore the jungle and páramo ecosystems and learn more about finca life in the park. You also get to stay at fincas along the way, including Finca Argentina and Finca El Jordan.
COCORA - FINCA ARGENTINA/BUENOS AIRES - COCORA: 2 days, 12 miles to Argentina
This is a great out and back hike that takes you through the thick jungle and out onto the edge of the páramo ecosystem. You will likely want to stay at Finca Argentina for the night, though we believe you can also camp at Finca Buenos Aires. Just know that the hike up to either finca is quite steep (but beautiful).
COCORA - FINCA PRIMAVERA - COCORA: 2 days, 17 miles
Similar to the two day hike above, this is a great option if you are looking to explore the area surrounding Cocora Valley but don't want to camp. The hike up to the finca is quite steep, especially the section after Estrella de Agua (about the halfway point). One big plus of this route (over the one above) is that you do actually get to explore the páramo ecosystem. In fact, a good hour or two is spent hiking through this alien-like landscape.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you have the time, we recommend adding on an extra day to this route and heading out to Laguna Encanto, a beautiful mountain lake in the middle of the paramo. It is roughly 7 kilometers (4.35 miles) from Finca Primavera, meaning it would be a 14 kilometer (8.7 mile) round-trip hike.
COCORA - LAGUNA OTUN - EL CEDRAL: 4 days, 31 miles
You can reach Laguna Otun, the largest lake in the park, either by going over the Paramo del Quindio like we did or by staying in the páramo and hitting Finca Berlin instead. Either way, you will get to experience the jungle and paramo ecosystems, as well as hike through the beautiful valley between El Cedral and Laguna Otun.
COCORA - PARAMILLO DEL QUINDIO - EL CEDRAL: 4 days, 29 miles
This is the trek we did and we loved it! It took us four days to complete and by the end we were pretty darn tired. But if you are looking for an incredible adventure we highly recommend taking on this route. Why? Because you get to explore so many different biomes, including the jungle, the páramo and the super-páramo ecosystems, which looks a lot like a colorful Mars. You also get to stay at two fincas (Argentina and El Jordan - our favorite), see many different animals (including wild parakeets and tapirs) and just totally lose yourself (metaphorically) in the incredible landscape. 10/10 recommend.
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FROM EL CEDRAL
EL CEDRAL - LAGUNA OTUN - EL CEDRAL: 3 days, 25.1 miles
This is a pretty common route for hikers looking to explore the park. It includes the opportunity to see Laguna Otun and stay at local fincas along the way, including one of our favorites Finca El Jordan (you could even just hike to El Jordan and back). Plus, the entire hike is through a stunning mountain valley. Definitely recommend adventuring in this area if only to see the waterfalls and scenery.
EL CEDRAL - PARAMILLO DEL QUINDIO - COCORA: 4 days, 29 miles
This is the clockwise version of our loop and also includes stops at the famous Paramillo del Quindio and Laguna La Leona.
EL CEDRAL - SANTA ISABELLE GLACIER: 4 days, 28 miles
It is more likely that if you are looking to hike to the Santa Isabelle Glacier you will start on the northern side of the park (near Potosi and Manizales) and go with a guide.
When planning your route in the park, we highly recommend checking out Komoot, an app focused on outdoor adventure routes. You can also download your specific trekking route beforehand for free.
\\ Lodging Within the Park
Because it is a national park, you do have the option to camp almost everywhere. But if you are not into roughing it in a tent, there is also the option to stay at some of the various fincas (farms) that dot the park.