With over 300 million people set to visit our national parks this year, it can be difficult to find solitude. So where can you still experience pristine natural beauty away from all the crowds? Easy. Head to Colombia.
There are 58 protected areas in Colombia’s National Parks System, equivalent to about 11 percent of the country’s territory — 29 of these parks are easily accessible for those looking for a respite in nature.
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 why you may find yourself hiking for days without seeing another person.
Colombia has a wide variety of flora, fauna, and landscapes. There are jungles, humid forests, and dry tropical destinations; arid areas, beaches, mangroves, and marine areas — just pick your adventure. For those interested in archaeology and history, there are many protected areas within the National Parks System where you will find museums, archaeological remains, and cave paintings that date back to pre-Columbian times.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Nature Park
We sent our Directors of Toughness to visit one of these national parks — the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Nature Park — home to the Tairona civilization and to 30,000 indigenous people of Kogi, Arhuaco, Kankuamo, and Wiwa ethnicities. This protected area is also home to the two highest mountains in Colombia, the snowy peaks of Colón and Bolívar (3.5 and 3.4 miles above sea level, respectively).
Another one of our favorite national parks is Lake Iguaque, located northwest of the colonial pueblo town of Villa de Leyva 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.
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.
Chingaza National Park
A few hours east of the capital Bogotá lies Chingaza National Park. 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.
Deer, tapirs, and spectacled bears are some of the residents of the park, which produces 80 percent of the water consumed in the capital. There are at least 383 species of plants here, including the special frailejones.
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. With all the rain and resulting mud, you can recreate your own Romancing The Stone scene here.