Popayán is a fantastic city where you can easily spend a few days. However, if you have the time, it is more than worthwhile to explore the department of Cauca. Consider a visit to Indian village Silvia, the Puracé National Park or archaeological wonder Tierradentro. We unfortunately had to skip the last two due to lack of time, but we did visit another special place. It turned out that the owner of our eco-hotel, together with a group of nature lovers, teaches children in villages in Cauca about the animals that live there and (care for) nature. We get to go on one of these trips to a small village, where we are dropped off in a nature reserve. While the team teaches the children, we enter a world of frailejones and we hike through a unique natural area. Enjoy a special walk through páramo with spectacular views!
Somewhere between Popayán to Tierradentro
The owner of our eco-hotel suggested that we get in the car with him and his colleagues, heading for a village called Gabriel Lopez, beyond Totoró in Cauca. We have no idea where we are going to end up and what exactly we are actually going to do. On to adventure, then. The road we drive on leads to Tierradentro, after San Agustín Colombia’s second most important archaeological destination. Hardly anyone drives on this beautiful route, and as we leave the inhabited world behind, nature only seems to get more beautiful. The areas we drive into are foothills of Puracé National Park, the place to spot Colombia’s national bird: the Condor.
Somewhere along the way is a little pink house where we stop. We are supposed to have a guide with us, but it goes the Colombian way: there is no guide in sight. Going out on our own is not recommended, but with good instructions and a time when the owner will pick us up again, we accept the challenge.
The Valley of the Frailejones
We are somewhere between Popayán and Tierradentro, along a road where no one drives. There are several hikes to take and much research is being done on the animals that live here. Black bears, for example. There is no marked trail, no scenic path and no signage. The hike starts out pretty tough with a climb over large rocks. We are at 3,343 meters altitude and in the middle of one of the most unique ecosystems in the world: páramo.
Across the road is the Valley of the Frailejones. More than 100 species of espeletia exist and the plant is found exclusively in the higher parts of the Northern Andes. Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, in other words. You recognize the frailejon immediately: a tall plant with a brown stem and green or brown leaves. The plant can grow up to 15 meters tall. We do not see these, but we do encounter an espeletia about 3 meters high. The plant can live over 100 years and they grow at an altitude between 2,800 and 4,600 meters.
Never have I seen so many frailejones together, there are thousands of them. The view of the valley is unreal and a fantastic sight. We climb to 3,500 meters altitude and enjoy this beautiful natural area immensely.
Through the mud to 7 lakes
The hike leads to the top of the mountain, where you would have an insane view of the 7 lakes beyond. But because the route is quite difficult to walk, we don’t know the way and we have to be back down at a certain time, we don’t make it to the 7 lakes. Too bad, but this hike was so cool that it doesn’t matter very much.
With difficulty we struggle through the mud, with great strides trying to stay dry and avoid the deeper pools of water. It looks like we are almost at the top, but appearances are deceiving. A hundred meters is quite far if you have to climb that through the mud. But 7 lakes or not: hiking among such beautiful páramo with insane views makes up for everything.
How do you get to the hike to the 7 lakes?
We drove along with the owner of our hotel: Los Guaduales Ecoparque. The owner is active in several conservation groups and knows many people who take the walk regularly. He can arrange for a guide in advance.
Off the beaten path: advice
This nature reserve is way off the beaten path: there are no tourists and no amenities. Always seek advice from a local before you decide to go here (regarding weather conditions, for example). The area is safe today and guerrillas would be gone altogether. However, I did not find the information given to us that this is always the case completely convincing, even though guerrilla activities have been seen in recent years in this region of Cauca. Probably this area is safe, but to be sure of the situation at the time you are there it is better to ask about current developments.
Where does the walk start?
The hike does not have a clear beginning and without a guide, the place to climb up into the mountains is difficult to find. If you still want to try it without a guide, search Google Maps for coordinates 2°29’46.7 “N 76°14’10.1 “W.
Advice for during the hike
It is best to hike the route with a guide. Someone who knows the area well and so leads you to the top. Ask for a guide at the eco-hotel or look for information in Popayán. There is risk of getting lost, so don’t just go on the road. Bring the following items:
- A raincoat and good, sturdy and high hiking boots (in some places you get pretty deep in the mud);
- You’re at nearly 3,500 meters in altitude, so it’s pretty chilly: bring a sweater;
- A phone with Google Maps on it and an app to record your route (such as WikiLoc), so you can walk the same way back;
- A compass (we had this one on the phone);
This route is difficult to walk. First, because of the enormous height at which you find yourself, but mainly because there is no clear path, you have to struggle through mud, step over branches and rocks, and the first part is steep and difficult to climb. Only for people with reasonable fitness, good footwear and who have good mobility.
How long is the walk and what else is there to see?
According to the owner of our hotel, the 7 lakes should be reached in 45 minutes. We took a total of almost 2 hours to hike there and back, and we did not reach the lakes. However, if you go with a guide you walk much faster because the guide knows how to walk.
In the Valley of the Frailejones, you can also hike. There is a large lake there that you can visit. Again, there is risk of getting lost and so this section is also better done with a guide.
Are you in Popayán? Then discover not only the beautiful white city, but precisely the beautiful surroundings. The department of Cauca has much to offer and its inhabitants are immensely proud of their piece of Colombia. Don’t miss this!