The second most biodiverse country on the planet makes for some pretty spectacular scenery which is the very reason why hiking in Colombia was so high on our list of priorities when we visited… & should be on yours too!
With so many stunning places to visit in Colombia, each area we travelled to we tried to fit at least one hike in & we are so glad that we did. From sunrise cloud inversions, trekking through the jungle, to getting off-the-beaten-track – we had some truly amazing experiences.
In this complete guide, we’ve put together everything you need to know about hiking in Colombia & we’ve included 5 epic hikes that we experienced & loved.
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Updated by The Wilder Route on 13th May 2021.
Hiking In Colombia ∼ An Overview
There are an array of options when it comes to hiking in Colombia. From the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural Park which is the highest coastal mountain range in the world, to any of its three Andean ranges. Known as Cordilleras the Andes mountains divide north of Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador into three separate chains – Cordillera Occidental (western), Cordillera Central, & Cordillera Oriental (eastern).
We can assure you, whichever hiking adventure(s) you choose, one thing’s for the sure… the scenery will be spectacular.
You have the option to go it alone (which we did for most of our hikes) or to book guided hiking tours. Personally we’d recommend trying at least one of each but keep reading as we’ll cover more on that below.
“If Earth’s biodiversity were a country, it could be called Colombia.”– Costas Christ via National Geographic
Second only to Brazil, Colombia hosts close to 10% of the entire planet’s biodiversity. In fact, per square kilometre it is the most biodiverse – worldwide, it ranks first in bird & orchid species diversity & second in plants, butterflies, freshwater fishes & amphibians.
Colombia is a nature lover’s dream.
Best Time To Visit Colombia
When it comes to hiking in Colombia, some months are wetter & some are drier…
- December through to March are the months that the air is cooler & the climate is drier.
- The rainy season is September & October (Colombia’s most popular hike, The Lost City is closed to hikers in September).
- May through to September is typically warmer.
Bear in mind, that Colombia is a big country so the climate can vary depending on which area you are visiting.
Hiking Colombia ∼ What To Bring
With varying heights come varying climates, so just bear in mind whilst you may be sweating on a hike in the jungle one minute, you may also be shivering atop a snow-capped mountain the next.
The gear you need bring will very much depend on how high you are looking to go… hiking Nevado del Tolima, a three-day trek at high altitude taking you to 5,276 m (17,310 ft) above sea level or hiking up to the glacier Nevado Santa Isabel taking you to 4,950 m (16,240 ft) will mean you having to be much better prepared.
Personally, the highest we went was 3,100 m (10,170 ft) above sea level & based on that we would recommend bringing…
- A decent pair of hiking boots – your feet will thank you.
- Hiking socks – they make all the difference.
- Sleeping bag – a 3-season bag should do if you are sticking to heights similar to ours.
- Warm layers – essential for changing climates, for warm comfy layers, check out our organic clothing range Nature Threads.
- A raincoat – yes, it rains in Colombia!
- Waterproof/drybag – to put those valuable electronics in when it pours.
- A beanie – keeping your head warm when it’s chilly is a must.
- An adjustable backpack – trust us, a properly fitting backpack will make all the difference.
- High SPF suncream – for body, face & lips.
- Mosquito repellent – for those jungle hikes.
- A cap – or wrap to keep the sun off of your head.
- Sunglasses – with proper UV protection.
- Refillable water bottle – at least 2L.
- Rehydration salts – for when you are sweating quicker than you can hydrate yourself.
- Swiss army knife – for cutting bread, fruit, etc.
- Headtorch – a USB rechargeable one if possible, needed for sunrise hikes.
- Portable phone battery charger – always handy.
- Foldable walking poles – more for the downhills, if like Kelly you suffer from your knees.
- Knee supports – as above, you might need some extra knee support.
For all of the hikes that we went on without a guide, we used the app Maps.Me to navigate, as we do for a lot of hikes & found it more than suitable for what we were doing.
If going to higher heights without a guide, you’ll probably need to be a little more prepared.
If using Maps.Me just ensure that you download the maps for the area you are trekking in when you are on WIFI & they will still work offline. For more info on how to use the app check out our Maps.Me post.
Colombia’s Indigenous Peoples & Their Sacred Lands
Colombia’s indigenous peoples amount to around 1.5 million people, making up around 3.4% of the total population. Made up of 87 tribes, the indigenous peoples are Colombia’s heart. It goes without saying really, that it is important to respect indigenous communities – for it is a privilege to travel through their lands & observe how they revere & care for our Mother Earth.
With a lot of communities practicing age-old traditions whilst adopting parts of the modern world, it’s vital to know that the peaks which we tourists trek, the rivers that we traverse & those mighty trees shading us in the jungle, are sacred to the original peoples of this land. They were in Colombia long before the Spanish conquistadores arrived & they remain, many of them with little of their day-to-day lives unchanged for thousands of years.
If going on a guided tour, such as the Lost City Trek, negotiations will have been made with the Kogi people via your tour company, for access to the area – helping to maintain cultural assets, ensuring fair treatment, & respecting their ancestral rights to the land. If trekking independently, please do your research & check if you are required to gain permission to access the land on which you plan to hike.
In terms of meeting indigenous peoples, for us, it is always an honour, for they are the keepers of ancient wisdom, deep knowledge & are the true stewards of our planet. Be respectful – don’t take photos without permission, be polite if you come across anyone on a hike but remember people may (rightfully) be wary of you so don’t be offended if they don’t wish to stop & talk & finally, whilst you think it may help, handing out sweets or anything else you feel people need, may not help at all, so think first. Having money with you to buy handmade crafts that you’ll likely encounter along the way, means that you’ll be directly supporting indigenous communities & you’ll also have a beautiful & unique souvenir to take home.
We’d recommend doing some more reading about Cololmbia’s indigenous peoples, this post details more with the IWGIA site having lots more reading material.
Hiking Without A Guide In Colombia (& Safety)
We did most of our hikes independently (bar The Lost City Trek, which has to be done with a guide) & we didn’t run into any problems at all. It is always advisable, however, to stick to marked trails (knowing where you are going) & not have any large amounts of cash or wave anything valuable around (like your phone) or have expensive jewellery on show, etc.
Colombian people are extremely friendly & most of the country is now safe for people to visit. At the time of updating this post, however, there is increasing unrest in Colombia due to the pandemic so be sure to check for updates on that – in fact, we’d always recommend a quick Google on the area you are hiking in to check if there’s anything that you need to be aware of (not just people related but landslides, road closures, etc. & as above requesting access to sacred indigenous lands).
The most dangerous thing that we faced when hiking in Colombia, in all honesty, was the heat – it is vital to be prepared for it, with enough water, rehydration salts, suncream & something to cover your head. A rabies injection, is something, if hiking in remote areas for longer periods, that you could also consider.
Speaking the lingo, even if just a little will also help. Most people in remote areas in Colombia only speak Spanish so knowing a few words when you need to ask for directions or assistance with something can be very useful indeed, even taking a phrasebook with you or having some sentences saved in your phone so that you can ask for what you need is always a good idea.
Booking Hiking Tours
It is, of course, possible to book hiking tours in Colombia, as we did for The Lost City Trek (detailed below).
As always, we recommend doing your research before booking a tour, checking out reviews of the company & making sure you know exactly what you are getting for your money.
There are a couple of guided tour options below, from trusted provider, Get Your Guide.
5 Epic Hikes In Colombia
There are many, many epic hikes in Colombia, below are the best hikes that we experienced, all of which we would highly recommend. Most of these hikes pass through areas that don’t have many shops (except for the Lost City Trek) so make sure you bring plenty of food & water with you (for the Camino Real you can stock up & eat in the towns but be aware that the distances between are not short).
1) Lost City Trek
Colombia’s most popular hike & for very good reason, it was our favourite experience in Colombia & a must-add to anyone’s Colombia hiking itinerary. Trekking through the jungle for 5 days to the lost city of Tairona people & back, was so magical. We passed by indigenous villages, waded through rivers, crossed rickety bridges & made our way through thick, lush & very beautiful jungle all the way up to the Cuidad Perdida – built in 800AD, after many years of being ‘lost’ the city was only ‘discovered’ again in the 1970s.
The feeling of climbing the 1200 steps up to The Lost City just as the sun was rising is a memory that will remain us forever. It was not, however, only The Lost City that amazed us but everything else along the way. Stopping for a swim in the river, seeing indigenous peoples going about their daily lives, sitting with a Kogi shaman & hearing all about his forms of worship & ancient traditions, were just some of the many things that we loved about this hiking in Colombia experience.
This trek can be done by guided tour only, we opted for 5 days rather than 4 so we had more time to take it all in.
Summary of The Lost City Trek
- Hike from – Most tours go from Santa Marta, we booked & went from Minca.
- Distance – 46 km/28-mile return route.
- Time to hike – 4 days (although you can opt to do it in 5 or 6).
- Difficulty – Medium to high (due to the humidity rather than the altitude).
- Mountain Range – Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
- Highest point of the trek – 1,200 m (3,937 ft) above sea level.
- Top tips – If a Kogi shaman happens to sit down & talk to your group, don’t miss it & remember to bring swim stuff for dip & a cool down en-route.
2) Cocora Valley
Quindío, a tall, leaning wax palm is native to the Andes & is Colombia’s national tree. The tallest type of palm tree in the world, these beauties are what draw so many to visit the Cocora Valley. Although a very popular trek we liked the fact that we could easily do this independently & therefore take in those spectacular views all by ourselves.
Getting to the Cocora Valley involves catching a Willy’s Jeep from Salento’s town square (the town where most travellers stay when in this area) which is an experience all of its own. To see the palms themselves there is the option to either walk just 1 km from the point where the Jeeps drop off or take the full-day hike option.
The full-day hike was what we did & is what we’d recommend doing, it’s a 7 km hike that takes you through farmland, jungle & cloud forest – winding through the valley, up & over & back down to take in the spectacular views of those majestic palms.
Summary of The Cocora Valley Hike
- Hike from – Jeeps leave from Salento town square, every hour from 6:10am to 5:30pm.
- Distance – 7 km/4.5-mile loop (or just 2 km/1.3-mile return if you opt to only see the palms).
- Time to hike – 5 to 6 hours (or under an hour if you go for the 2 km/1.2-miles return option).
- Difficulty – Medium (the high altitude & mud can make it tougher but we experienced problems with neither).
- Mountain range – Los Nevados National Natural Park in Cordillera Central (Colombia’s central Andean mountain range).
- Highest point of the trek – 2,860 m (9,383 ft) above sea level.
- Top tips – There’s a farmhouse at the highest point of the 7 km loop that sells food & drinks so remember to take enough change for that & for the 7000 COP total park entrance fee.
3) Los Pinos Trek
Starting in the gorgeous mountain town of Minca this hike follows trails through cooling cloud forest, all the way up to the viewpoint of Los Pinos. The Los Pinos viewpoint overlooks the foothills of Minca with views stretching to the coastal city of Santa Marta (which on a clear day, you’ll be able to see). What’s even more awesome though, is that there is the option to combine the hike with a visit to not just one but two waterfalls – & this is the option we went for.
We set off from Minca in the very early morning (around 6 am) for an hour-long hike followed by a dip in the peaceful & calming Cascadas de Marinka – a spot we were advised to arrive at before anyone else so that we could make the most of it & that’s exactly what we did.
After our early morning swim, we headed off up to the Los Pinos viewpoint. This hike took us around 8-9 hours in total, a lot more than the recommended 5-7 hours due to the muddy terrain after a lot of rainfall, which in this area, is common. The constantly changing landscape was what we found most fascinating about this hiking in Colombia experience with the icing on the cake being not only Cascadas de Marinka to stop off at pre-hike but also the waterfalls of Pozo Azul on the way back into Minca.
This hike can be done either way round stopping off first at Cascadas de Marinka as we did, or following the trail in the opposite direction & stopping off at Pozo Azul first. Or of course, you can just choose to do the hike without stopping at any waterfalls.
Summary of The Los Pinos Trek
- Hike from – Minca.
- Distance – 20 km/13-mile loop.
- Time to hike – 5 – 7 hours (although it took us 8 – 9 with stop-offs & the muddy terrain).
- Difficulty – Medium to high (the mud made this hike a lot more difficult for us).
- Mountain range – Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
- Highest point of the trek – Los Pinos at 1600 m (5,250 ft) above sea level
- Top tips – Wear proper hiking boots or at least a good pair of runners (sandals will be a nightmare with that much mud).
4) Cerro Kennedy Hike
The perfect mountain from which to get a view of the Sierra de Nevada mountains, all the way out to the coast. This overnight hike involves staying at the only accommodation available, basic huts on the site of a weather station. It is a real off-the-beaten-track experience, that is both challenging & exhilarating.