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Hiking in Colombia | Trekking to glacier Santa Isabel in Los Nevados

by Sabine
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It seems like we are on a roller coaster. Just a little more intense. The car drives on a muddy road full of rocks and potholes. For about 2 hours we are shaken up. My stomach almost turns around. We have already passed the 3,500-meter altitude and below us in the valley white clouds hang among the green mountains. When the car occasionally stops I am relieved. A moment of rest. We haven’t even started the trek and it’s already pretty heavy. As we keep rising on the mountain, the temperature drops. Time to finally put on my purple hat again. Getting out of the car also requires gloves. We are suddenly at an altitude of 4,100 meters, but I don’t notice much of it yet. Until we start walking… Already after 100 meters I feel exhausted. I pause for a moment and look around me. Wow! Where in Colombia have I seen something so beautiful before? I peer into the distance and see the trail only rising. But I don’t care anymore. I want to see that end point, the glacier. Snow in Colombia, Los Nevados. I decide to walk slowly and enjoy this wondrous volcanic landscape. I do reach that top. I can do this! | Read all about hiking in Los Nevados, Colombia.

Parque Nacional Los Nevados Colombia

In Cordillera Central, one of the foothills of Colombia’s high Andes, lies Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados. This high volcanic landscape spreads across 4 departments: Risaralda, Caldas, Quindío and Tolima. The park and ecosystems, such as páramo, provide water for 38 surrounding municipalities in Colombia’s coffee region.

Los Nevados begins at an elevation of 2,600 meters and ends at 5,321 meters. There you will find the famous volcano Nevado del Ruiz, which you can see from Manizales. This volcano still shows activity and is therefore mostly inaccessible. The most recent major eruption was on Nov. 13, 1985, when the town of Armero and some 21,000 people were completely buried under the rubble and lava.


Hiking to Nevado de Santa Isabel

In Parque Los Nevados you can do several (multi-day) hikes. There are also some opportunities to visit the park on a day trip. One of them is the trek to Nevado de Santa Isabel. Santa Isabel is a dormant volcano with its summit at 4,750 meters above sea level. The volcano is covered by a glacier. This glacier is the smallest and lowest in Parque Los Nevados.

Unfortunately, the Santa Isabel is one of the last tropical glaciers in the world, and has already shrunk for miles(!) in recent years due to global warming. Climbing the mountain is relatively easy and requires no technical experience. However, the altitude does make it a challenge and an experience to remember.


From 4,100 meters to 4,750 meters in altitude: a tough trek in Colombia

While I stand panting like I just ran the marathon, others in the group run past me like it’s nothing. Fortunately, I have my walking stick and lots of chocolate and cookies to help me struggle up the volcano. It is only 3.6 kilometers of hiking, but at such an altitude and with an ascent of 650 meters, it is quite tough. But even though I’m freezing cold, my legs barely want to move forward and I’m running out of air, I push on.

Every 50 meters I stand still, literally taking some air. As do many with me, by the way, because I am not the only one who is struggling. I intensely enjoy what I see. It is a kind of moonscape full of páramo, high peaks, lakes and beautiful views. Every now and then we make a stop with the guide and I can eat the chocolate and cookies I brought with me. Really: this has never been more delicious. We also always drink small bits of water, the best way to avoid headaches and nausea due to altitude.


Glacier Santa Isabel: I did it!

After 2.5 hours of walking, we see the first glimpse of snow in the distance. How weird is that: snow in Colombia. I really love it and this sight strengthens me to persevere.

Meanwhile, the weather changes and it starts raining and blowing heavily. I am immensely grateful for the clothes and shoes I have on and my bag with rain cover. As a result, I can handle this weather situation.

We get closer and closer to the snow; the ice of the glacier is melting and this causes small waterfalls. Another 45 minutes later and I am standing in the snow! When we walk a little more and enjoy the glacier for a moment, I suddenly realize: I am really standing at 4,750 meters altitude in the Colombian snow. I am thoroughly enjoying this miracle. Even though we seriously have no view at all because of the clouds around us. Unfortunately, because in nice weather it looks like this.


The way back: down from the glacier

It is freezing cold at the top, but I am so excited that I barely feel it. The rain clatters against my hood and I manage to take some pictures during a dry moment.

Going back down is a lot less exhausting than going up, but because the weather has completely changed, the rain has turned the trail into a mud bath. So once again I am very happy with the walking stick that prevents me from sliding down through the mud over the slippery stones.

Along the way we make a few stops to rest and suddenly it begins to snow. Yes, snowing. It didn’t last long, but still. Never did I think I would ever be able to say that it snows in Colombia. When we arrive at the car about 2 hours later, we are satisfied and so happy. We did it!


An unforgettable trek through Los Nevados Colombia

Back to the hotel, which sounds easier than it is. If anything, the bizarrely bad road has been made worse by the rain, so this time we get stuck in the mud. Another car has to pull us out.

The ride takes about 2.5 hours, and although we don’t have to drive ourselves, it is particularly tough. There are seven of us in the car trying not to vomit. My body is so shaken that it makes my back and stomach ache.

Once we arrived we immediately fell asleep. It was a fantastic and tough day at the same time. Something we would never have wanted to miss. Santa Isabel Colombia: a trek you’ll never forget!


Practical information: hiking in Colombia to the Santa Isabel glacier

If you also want to do a hike to glacier Santa Isabel or some other mountain in Los Nevados, prepare well.

How do you arrange a trek to Santa Isabel?

Although there are several points where you can enter Parque Los Nevados, there are only two options for the Santa Isabel glacier. Namely, via Santa Rosa de Cabal and via Parque Otún.

You do this trekking with a guide, which you can book around Los Nevados, in Manizales or Pereira, for example. It is important that you pick an organization that is well organized and has good guides. Why? A trek to 4,750 meters altitude is not like a hike at the beach. Especially if you are not used to the altitude, there is a risk of altitude sickness. Therefore, guides who know about this and can advise/reflect you are a must. Besides, you don’t want to get lost.

I arranged the trek through Eco Global Expeditions. It turned out that this organization is very well organized. In fact, I have never experienced anything so well organized in Colombia. Well in advance we were given all the information about the altitude, what to bring and what to wear. We were picked up at our hotel and on the route were about 6 experienced guides. Several guides contacted us in advance to make sure we were well prepared. We were also both given a walking stick and a bag of food for on the road.

You can book the tour at Eco Global Expeditions any day of the year and easily pay in advance. They also have a very clear website where you can find a lot of information. Eco Global seriously surprised me and I really recommend it. And no, this is not a collaboration but a sincere recommendation!

Where are you staying?

To be picked up at the hotel, we had two choices: stay in Pereira or Santa Rosa de Cabal. I chose Pereira because we only stayed for a short time. If you stay longer, Santa Rosa de Cabal is probably more fun. From there you can also take a day trip to the famous Termales San Vicente. So we stayed in Pereira in the center, at Hotel Zandú. A very nice little hotel with everything nearby, a nice room, hot water and very friendly staff.

Should you wish to stay in Armenia or Manizales, for example, at least Eco Global Expeditions cannot pick you up and you will have to travel to Pereira or Santa Rosa de Cabal yourself in the very early morning.


How much does it cost?

The cost will depend on the organization you book with. At Eco Global Expeditions, it costs 392,000 pesos per person. An amount I find very cheap compared to what we all got. Foreigners without resident visas pay 20,000 pesos more for entrance to Parque Los Nevados. The price includes:

  • Be picked up at the hotel and they also bring you back (if you are staying in Pereira or Santa Rosa, that is);
  • Entrance to Los Nevados;
  • Insurance;
  • Breakfast and lunch;
  • A bag with food for on the road;
  • A walking stick;
  • A rain poncho;
  • Guides and thus guidance for during the hike;
  • A very cool day that runs from 3:30AM to 8PM.

How do you prepare properly?

At Eco Global Expeditions, we were given lots of information beforehand for the day itself. Even if you don’t get it from the organization you book with, proper preparation is very important. Consider:

  • If you are not used to the altitude spend at least 1 or 2 days at higher altitude (e.g. Bogotá or Pereira);
  • Sleep well the nights beforehand;
  • At least from 1 day before, do not drink alcohol;
  • Make sure you have all the supplies with you for the trek (see below);
  • Bring a positive attitude and perseverance.

Who is the trek not suitable for?

If you suffer from heart and/or lung problems or conditions such as asthma or diabetes, it is better not to do the trek. If in doubt because of your health, consult a doctor first. Eco Global also advises against the trek for children under 8 years old, the elderly over 65 and pregnant women. If you don’t fall within these groups, but you have poor mobility, for example, or know that the altitude will give you a lot of complaints, then it is better not to do the trek.

The road to the starting point is very bad and difficult. If you get carsick easily or have back problems, for example, then it may not be a good idea to do the trek either. At least not through this route. Everyone suffered from this route, especially on the way back when we were all tired.

What clothes do you wear?

To have the best experience possible, it is important to dress appropriately. You walk through different ecosystems and the climate can change within seconds. This is recommended to wear:

  • Good walking shoes that reach above the ankle;
  • Thick, warm socks, preferably wool to combat cold feet;
  • Gloves that somewhat block rain and wind (this is really necessary: I had warm gloves and still icy cold fingers);
  • Comfy pants that dry quickly;
  • An extra pair of pants underneath, such as thermal pants;
  • A thermal shirt;
  • Over that, a warm sweater;
  • Over that, a water and windproof jacket;
  • A scarf and hat.

Check out Bever.co.uk, where you can put together your entire kit in one go. Or buy your hiking gear at Decathlon.

Are you thinking now: but that’s way too hot, isn’t it? No, it really isn’t. It is very cold and even with 3 layers and walking up, I never really felt warm for a moment. A fellow hiker had not prepared very well in terms of clothing and she was shivering the entire route. Of course, it may be that you have sunshine the whole trek and it is therefore a little warmer, but you never know that in advance.

What do you take with you on the trek?

You put this in your bag during the trek:

  • Rain pants;
  • Your camera;
  • Two bottles of water;
  • Toilet paper (obviously there are no toilets, so everything has to be in nature) and bags to keep this in;
  • Food. Think chocolate bars, granola bars, bocadillos (ask for these in a supermarket in Colombia), cookies. Food with a lot of calories and carbohydrates. Take enough with you: you will need it;
  • Your sunglasses;
  • Sunscreen (including for your lips) of at least 50 spf;
  • Plastic bags to put trash in and to protect your belongings from the rain, if your backpack does not have a rain cover;
  • A small first aid kit;
  • Medications for headaches, such as Paracetamol;
  • Possibly an extra sweater in case you do get cold.

What do you leave in a separate bag in the car?

Just in case you’re soaking wet when you finish your hike, it’s handy to have something dry and warm with you. Therefore, leave an extra pair of pants, socks, shoes and a sweater in a separate bag so you can change. With us this was not necessary, as our clothes totally protected us, but in case you go in jeans, for example (not recommended), it can be useful.

Weather conditions

In the mountains at such an altitude, the weather can completely change in seconds. Whether it is rainy or dry season, you can expect anything. Don’t go hiking thinking you’ll have blue skies and the best views when you get to the top. You can, of course, but don’t be disappointed if all you have is rain. It’s all about the experience of climbing a high mountain and being one with nature, the views are just an extra.

Best travel time

You can do the trekking year-round. In the dry season you are more likely to have nice weather, in the rainy season more likely to have rain, but in both seasons all weather conditions can occur. The area is not very touristy, but there are times when it is busier. For example, we went during a puente, and then there are more Colombian tourists. As in other vacation seasons. It’s not very crowded, but if you want the area to yourself, go on a weekday outside the high season (then it’s a little more expensive).

Some things to consider

The altitude

This trek goes to 4,750 meters in altitude, which is reason to prepare well. Don’t think too easily about this and make sure you know the signs of altitude sickness. On the walk, stop every 10 to 15 minutes to breathe and drink small bits of water each time. Walk at your own pace and indicate to the guide when it is no longer possible for you going on. You can always go back down. During our trek, a few people had to go back and someone also threw up.


It should be obvious that all the waste you make you also take back with you to throw away in your hotel. Everything you take with you must also be returned. You are in a special ecosystem with unique fauna and flora, which is also very important for the water supply. So be kind to nature.

In a remote area

You enter a vastly remote area where is nothing. No food, no drink, no toilet, nothing. No phone coverage and certainly no Internet. Be aware of this.


A trek in Los Nevados is one to remember. Are you in the neighborhood? Then this day trip is ideal to get to know Los Nevados and enjoy one of the most beautiful nature in Colombia!

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