Exploring the National Parks of Colombia

Hiking in Iguaque.

With close to 300 million people set to visit our national parks each year, how can you still experience pristine natural beauty away from all the crowds? Easy. Head to Colombia.

As of 2013, there were 58 nationally protected areas in Colombia, covering more than 11% of the country’s area. While visiting Colombia last week with Columbia Sportswear, we had the opportunity to explore three of the country’s national parks–Iguaque, Lake Guatavita, and Chingaza.

Located northwest of Villa de Leyva (one of my favorite colonial pueblos) in the department of Boyacá, Lake Iguaque holds huge sacred importance in the lives of the Muisca, an indigenous community of Colombia. According to Muisca legend, mankind originated from Lake Iguaque when the goddess Bachué came out from the lake with a boy in her arms. As the boy grew old, the pair populated the earth before finally disappearing back into the lake in the form of snakes.

The roughly 9 mile roundtrip hike up to the lake is steep and rugged, starting at around 9,000 feet and taking you to an elevation over 12,000 feet. You will find no switchbacks here–just climb straight up. And up. As you ascend, you pass through three distinct landscapes, starting with thick Andean forest, before breaking out of the trees into the sub-páramo, and finally reaching the páramo, a type of alpine tundra.

Lake Iguaque
Overlooking Lake Iguaque.

Found only at higher elevations around the equator, the páramo landscape is punctuated with frailejón, ferns, lichens, and spiky puyas, with an average temperature around 12°C. Called “soldiers of the lake” as hundreds stand guard over this ancient site, the cactus-like frailejón grow just 1 cm per year–you frequently pass by tall, wise, plants that are some 200 years old.

Along the hike, our guide, Carlos, pointed out different species of plants that can be used to survive if caught out–including the canelo leaf, an extremely (!) peppery tasting plant that supposedly gives you a little boost of energy as you chew on it. In folk medicine, the leaves serve as a treatment for gastrointestinal ailments–helpful if you mistakenly took ice in your aguardiente the night prior.

We found ourselves alone for quite some time at the lake. Gregg Bleakney, videographer and American expat living in Bogota, explained that most Colombians don’t know about the national parks and it was only recently that they felt safe enough to freely travel out in the countryside, let alone hike remote trails. This is quickly beginning to change, however.

Lake Guatavita.

Photo By: Juan Pablo Gaviria Muñoz

On the road back to Bogota, we stopped to explore Lake Guatavita–another of the sacred lakes of the Muisca. It is here that the legend of El Dorado or “the golden one” began. Upon emerging from a cave after nine years of solitary confinement and importantly not showing any interest towards naked dancing women, the Zipa or leader was covered in gold dust, paddled out into the water on a ceremonial raft to await the morning sun, before diving into the waters, washing off the gold. Afterward, trinkets, jewelry, and other precious offerings were placed into the waters by worshipers. A beautiful spot that reminds me much of Crater Lake.

Perhaps thanks to Juan Pablo’s rain dance (don’t worry, he is much better at salsa), Chingaza National Park proved to be the perfect testing ground for Columbia’s new OutDry Extreme apparel. With torrential rain and mud up to our knees, we all had our Jack and Joan moments, minus El Corazon (apologies to those of you younger than 30 who may not get this reference).

Established in 1977, Chingaza National Park is located in the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes, in the northeast corner of Bogota. The elevation within the park ranges from 800 meters to 4,020 meters, with temperatures dipping as low as 4 °C and rising up to a balmy 21.5 °C at the lower elevations.

Rainy and muddy Chingaza.

A major “water factory” for Bogota, Chingaza house eight species of peat moss, which can absorb up to 40 times their weight in water. Endemic species, such as frailejóns, also create huge water networks that are used as reservoirs for the city. It’s difficult to describe the landscape apart from a mix of Alaskan tundra, Irish bog, and Amazonian jungle all wrapped into one, with steep mountains towering over you on every side.

“Vamos! Vamos!” Our guide kept yelling at us to keep moving as we all struggled to stay on two feet and giddy like small children playing in puddles after the rain. As I dug a shoe out of the calf-deep mud, I was reminded of this Gabriel Garcia Márquez quote — “Age isn’t how you old you are but how old you feel.” Perhaps Ponce de León just needed to head further south.

The Gear

OutDry Extreme
Columbia OutDry Extreme: Bomber waterproofing and incredibly breathable thanks to a unique construction that ditches the face fabric and places the membrane on the outside of the garment–you will find no better apparel for rainy hiking conditions. Covered in mud? Just hose yourself down when you get back and your outerwear is as good as new. No need to enlist the help of your washing machine.

Titan Ice Short Sleeve Shirt: For drier and warmer hiking conditions, Columbia updated their Omni-Freeze Zero collection by adding small perforations strategically placed in the fabric to aid evaporation and therefore the cooling process. A Spring ‘16 product.

Titan Peak Pant: Ladies take note for next spring, these are some great fitting and great looking hiking pants. Also Spring ’16.

Conspiracy III

Conspiracy III OutDry ($125): In conditions such as Chingaza, you need to resign yourself to SOAKED feet unless you go native and wear high rubber boots. But fear not, the best part about the Conspiracy III is that with OutDry, no water, dirt, mud, or other gunk can get trapped between the membrane and the upper. So when you get back, simply rinse your shoes off, dry, and you are good to go.

Trail Elite Pack

Trail Elite 22L Pack: Hydration compatible, the roomy main compartment makes the perfect size pack for day hikes. A trampoline mesh back panel cuts down on the sweat factor, while stretchy side pockets are angled so you can easily grab your water bottle on the go. The integrated rain cover is easy to deploy when you hit the rainforest. Two zippered hipbelt pockets provide plenty of storage for your phone, camera, and those extra canelo leaves.

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