When I chose Colombia as the base for my traveling fellowship, I expected there to be natural beauty. My image before arriving was of lush, monkey-filled jungles, wide Amazonian rivers, and Caribbean beaches. But I have learned that the landscape throughout this country is far more varied and spectacular than the hazy exotic images conjured by these buzzwords. After all, Colombia is the second most biodiverse country and has the largest variety of species of flora and fauna in the world in relation to its size; it has record-reaking numbers of species of birds, frogs, reptiles, and orchids, just to give a sense of its relative significance in the natural world.
Now that the country is officially moving ahead with the implementation of peace accords, I am hopeful that environmental topics will get increasing attention. The sensational success of the documentary Colombia Magia Salvaje released last year bodes well for the trend towards environmentalism and education which will, in turn, promote conservation efforts. And that a large corporation (Grupo Éxito) funded the project and that key politicians, including President Juan Manuel Santos promoted the film–Santos even presented a screening at the UN Headquarters in New York–could point towards a new set of values surrounding environmental issues in Colombia.
In September I heard President Santos speak at the Gran Foro de Biodiversidad in Bogotá, where he bemoaned the environmental impact of the war and the narco industry and assuredly declared his commitment to make sustainable development and conservation key priorities during the transition to peace. If Santos is able to keep this promise and prioritize biodiversity throughout the transitional period, this will boost awareness and appreciation of the ecosystems and has potential to usher in a culture of outdoor activities to enable Colombians to experience these settings for themselves.
* * *
As I’ve written before, one of the biggest perks of living in Bogotá for me, is the ease of access to so many hikes and the popularity of groups that organize day-trips to these parks. One of my first trips after arriving in Bogotá was to Salento, a trip motivated by a need to escape pollution and city chaos and recenter with the Valle de Cocora hike. The hike itself was as magical as I expected–especially walking among towering wax palms that are over centuries old–but the other fantastic outcome of the trip was my introduction to páramos; as I was researching places several hours from Bogotá for an outdoorsy escape, I also read about hikes through the páramos at Parque Natural Nacional Chingaza and Sumapaz. (For curious travelers: there are also options near Salento to hike to páramos, so budget plenty of time in Salento if you want to explore the páramo).
Learning about páramos has been a game-changer for my conception of natural beauty in Latin America. When I was living in Peru in 2014, I did a trek in the Cordillera Blanca that brought me to stunning glacier peaks and bright blue lakes. At the time, it was the most incredible outdoor experience I had had, a combination of extreme physical rigor and rewarding vistas that brought serenity. But the scenery was familiar, fulfilling expectations of natural wonders in Latin America I had developed from seeing photos of Patagonia.
Páramos, by contrast, do not fit in the popular conception of Latin American natural beauty. Páramos don’t normally have the vibrant color palette of bright blue glacier lakes, rather the palette is more muted and misty. When describing páramos to people who have never heard of them, I explain that they have an unparalleled mystical beauty, where you will probably walk through thick fog and rain and see plants unlike any you have seen before (I’ll explain more about what makes páramos special soon, don’t worry!). Like the majestic glaciers of Huaraz, Peru, the páramos also are a key source of fresh water and this utility makes consciousness about these ecosystems and their conservation an even higher priority.
Why don’t Colombians have a strong culture of outdoors activities?
Unlike other countries in Latin America I have visited with a strong culture of outdoor activity and celebration of natural wonders as a source of national pride, many Colombians are not aware of the variety of environments in the country, let alone the unusual páramos. This is primarily because for many years rural areas were justly regarded as unsafe because of the civil war. The lack of consciousness about the natural beauty has been particularly surprising for me since, living in Bogotá, we are less than an hour from a frequently photographed páramo (Chingaza) and an hour and a half away from the biggest páramo in the world (Sumapaz), which together provide more than 85% of the drinking water to Bogotá. But this is unknown to many locals; though Bogotá is renowned for the cleanliness of its water, if you ask bogotanos where their water comes from, unfortunately, many won’t have a good answer. And this is just one small example of the lack of knowledge about the biodiversity, range of environments, and natural resources of the country.
The biggest reason for the lack of outdoor culture is that guerrilla groups, like the FARC, occupied so much rural territory for the last several decades, which rendered travel and outdoor activities too risky. For much of the last 50 years, even rural areas a few hours from Bogotá were impossible to access. As fighting between paramilitary groups, guerrilla groups, and the government escalated and kidnappings became a more frightening prospect, wealthy bogotanos stopped visiting their countryside fincas for fear of guerrilla activity nicknamed la pesca milagrosa by Colombian newspapers: guerrillas posted on major highways awaiting wealthy passersby who they could hold hostage for ransom. Guerrilla groups even occupied territory in the páramo of Sumapaz, basing a center of operations there until around ten years ago. In the years since 1977 when the area was declared a national park of Colombia, the government has had difficulty determining boundaries and negotiating with farmers in the zone who were sympathizers of the guerrilla movement. For these reasons, the park has been officially closed and very few Colombians have visited the páramo.
Mainly from fears of encountering guerrilla groups or other shady characters, hiking and even simply traveling beyond major cities has been viewed not as adventurous or a worthwhile escape from the city, but rather as imprudent, even reckless. Although the massive military aid program Plan Colombia provided resources to push back the FARC significantly, opening up former no-go zones by the early 2000s, the culture has slow been to change.
Whenever I mention to Colombians of my parents’ generation how much I love hiking around Bogotá and visiting páramos or describe my travels via bus to previously FARC-occupied regions, they express their concern that such travel and hiking is unsafe. Even after I explain that I go with well-known hiking groups and take security precautions, many Colombians do not understand why I would be so determined to visit the outskirts. I’ve met countless Colombians who have traveled to other Latin American countries or even the US and Europe to hike, yet have never hiked in their own country. Hopefully, throughout this transition, groups focused on various aspects of the outdoors–sustainable development, conservation, research, education, and eco-tourism–will mobilize and collaborate to teach and show Colombians the wonders that are in their backyards.
So what’s the deal with páramos?
There are numerous types of ecosystems in the country, some known and many still unexplored, but I’m going to focus on páramos. I haven’t yet explained what páramos are and what makes them unique. I’ll start with the basics:
Páramos are high-altitude wetlands that are mainly in equatorial zones and found at altitudes of 3,100 to 4,000m. These rich high-mountain environments are termed “strategic biodiversity hotspots” since they house over 700 species found only in such ecosystems, they provide fresh water supply for many cities, and they function to mitigate global warming through the trapping of carbon dioxide. Colombia contains over 60% of the world’s páramos, and the páramo ecosystem makes up around 2% of Colombia’s territory. But of the 36 distinct páramos in the country, only a third of páramo territory is found within boundaries of national parks and protected by the government agencies. (Source)
There are many challenges facing efforts to preserve páramos, including threats from corporate industry, like large-scale mining, but also the agriculture industry, which includes small farmers living near páramos, who want to use the land for agriculture and cattle raising. While the growing mining and agriculture industries are boosting Colombia’s economy, the cost-benefit analysis of using the territory of páramos for such activity reveals that there is much more to be gained from protecting the páramos.
The role of páramos as a key water supply is particularly important, so let me explain a bit about how this works. The ecosystem as a whole functions like a sponge, holding water which feeds aqueducts that serve as the main water source for the country. Of the many plants you will observe in a páramo, most are specially designed to trap water. Frailejones, the most iconic páramo plant, have small downy hairs on their thick leaves which hold water and also protect the leaves from harsh sun. Most plants in páramos have thick root systems which hold wet soil and allow for eventual release of this water into aqueducts. All of the plants that flourish in páramos have qualities that enable them to withstand opposing extremes of heavy sun and cold with plenty of rain.
Another intriguing quality about páramos that adds to their magic is that they contain life that is extremely old; so old that the flora of páramos are often referred to as “ancient plants.” Puya plants are considered primitive relatives of bromelias. There are also species of mosses (lycopsids) and lichens found in páramos that are thought to date back to the times of dinosaurs. Frailejones grow on average 1cm a year, so the towering frailejones found at Chingaza indicate that these plants have been growing in the area for hundreds of years.
Depending on the season, you may also see flowering orchids of all sizes and colors. Some are very small, as small as the size of your thumb, so have your eyes peeled. Other flowers frequently spotted in páramos include the flowers of frailejones and the flowers of puya plants, which are found stemming off the trunk. Violet-colored lupinus bogotensis plants are also common.
As for animal life, I have yet to see critters in these wetlands, but there are deers (particularly in Chingaza) and spectacled bears, though the latter are in dire risk of extinction and very rarely spotted even by individuals who work in the park on a daily basis.
Want to visit a páramo?
There are páramos located in many regions of Colombia, but I have mainly visited páramos near Bogotá. Various tour agencies and hiking groups offer trips to PNN Chingaza to do the Lagunas de Siecha hike, which culminates in a rewarding vista of several lakes. This hike takes around 3-4 hours and is highly recommended. It is not necessary to visit with a guide but recommended for foreigners since registration to enter the park is required and transportation is difficult without your own vehicle. It is slightly more difficult to visit Sumapaz, and the two main hikes are more rigorous, talking 4-6 hours. Visiting Sumapaz must be done with a guide, but luckily there are many Bogotá-based groups of hikers that organize outings (more specifics below). In Sumapaz, the two main hikes are one that leads to a viewpoint to see las Cuchillas de Bocagrande and another hike that brings you to 3 smaller lagunas.
North and east of Bogotá: Several hours from Bogotá in Boyacá is the páramo Oceta, considered to be the most beautiful páramo. Also in Boyacá is PNN Cocuy which has plenty of páramo territory. The Laguna of Iguague is yet another páramo area in Boyaca.
West and south of Bogotá: Near Popayán is PNN Puracé which has gigantic volcanoes and páramo hikes. Puracé is also known for being a reserve for condors, one of the few places you are likely to see the enormous birds. If you are traveling to the south of Colombia or border crossing to Ecuador at Ipiales, the páramo hike to Volcan Azufral or Laguna Verde is spectacular. And as I mentioned, in the eje cafetero near Salento is a páramo in PNN Los Nevados.
For hikes near Bogotá, I would recommend the groups Caminantes del Retorno, Corporación UAIA and Eco Hills. Day-hikes include a transport and guide but hikers must bring their own packed lunch. Prices are around $50.000-$60.000 COP ($15-20 USD). If you don’t speak Spanish or want to schedule a hike according to your availability rather than the programs of the above groups, I recommend going with a tourism company such as Bogotá & Beyond or Andes Eco Tours. Prices for hikes with these groups are closer to $200.000-300.000 COP ($70-100 USD), and include more comprehensive information about páramos and personalized attention.
Still want to know more?
For a thorough economic assessment which explains the necessity of robust páramo protection efforts, read this Copenhagen Consensus White Paper Report, a key resource I have consulted to learn about páramos. If you read Spanish, the most thorough research on everything related to páramos is in this report by the Humboldt Institute, the renowned institute for scientific and environmental research in Colombia. To see where the páramos are located throughout the country, check out this handy interactive map resource. For more on the flora of páramos, this fantastic book collects key information and many photos of the plant life found in Chingaza. I also highly recommend the documentary Colombia Magia Salvaje, which shows landscapes from all over the country.