The city of Popayan, capital of Cauca department, is famous for many things: it’s gastronomy, gorgeous whitewashed walls, UNESCO status. What fewer people know though, is that Popayan is surrounded by stunning scenery, fascinating cultural heritage and wonderful wildlife. There are several excellent day-trips that can be made from the white city, and ranking among the best of those is a day hiking in Puracé National Park.
Puracé is a volcano located a couple of hours away from Popayan (theoretically you can see it from the city on a clear day, but this region doesn’t get an overwhelming number of those). The volcano itself can be climbed with a good level of fitness and a guide, but I didn’t manage to make it to the summit this time (although, to be fair, I didn’t actually try) – the plan is to go back and have a crack at the summit during the better weather of July or August. What I did do though, was hike the gorgeous 15km trail through the national park surrounding the volcano; famous for it’s paramo landscapes, birdlife and mist-shrouded waterfalls. I have hiked a lot in Colombia, and Puracé was a stunning addition to those hikes; well-worth the small cost, and sore legs for anyone with a day to spare in Cauca.
To start with – the practicalities: this trip is easy to do. Buses are not all that regular, but there are departures with Sotracauca at 5am, 10:30am and 2:30pm, and with Translaplatena at 6:30am, 9:30am, 1pm and 3pm. I took the 6:30am bus (which is recommended by most hostels in Popayan), from the office over the Puente del Humilladero (N.B. this isn’t the bus terminal; check the location beforehand); this bus (more of a colectivo truck really) took about an hour and a half, and cost the princely sum of 10.000 COP. Remember to tell the driver to drop you off at Termales de San Juan.
After a cramped and bumpy journey, punctuated by regular projectile vomiting sessions from 6 of the 12 members of a Guambiano family crammed in there with me, we pulled up at the ranger station of the national park at about 8:30am, and I jumped out, ready to meet the ranger and start my hike. No such luck; the station was deserted, and, shrouded in mist, reminded me a little bit of an outtake from one of the less popular Jurassic Park movies. Well, you can’t say I didn’t try to pay them; I spend about 10 minutes knocking on the door before realizing that the padlock on the outside probably meant that whoever loved there was out. No matter; time to start hiking.
The route is easy to follow – it’s back the way you came! A lovely, rambling 15km hike along the rocky road that fringes the park takes you through a variety of changing habitat; from paramo to sub-paramo, and cloud forest. It’s a quiet, almost eerie trek, punctuated by the occasional motorbike, and the aforementioned buses making their scheduled trip along the road. There’s not much to do but amble along and enjoy the solitude and scenery; which is exactly up my street…I would suggest that if you’re someone who needs action, this might not be for you.
Along the path you occasionally pass a few small waterfalls, and the crumbling remains of what I assume was once a Guambiano homestead; other than that, it’s just frailejones, mist, and the occasional mountain tanager. Conveniently, the road is marked by kilometer stones, so you can track your progress; they say it takes 5 hours to do the 15km hike, I took more like 3, but it depends on fitness levels I suppose; it’s pretty high altitude. The scenery is stunning, in a simple sort of way; not snow-capped mountains straining to the sky, just rolling hills, bogs and mist…it sort of reminded me of how people imagine Ireland must look.
The hike (as laid out by most hostels) ends at the Condor viewpoint. I should explain: if the ranger had been home, I would have asked him to be there at the end of my hike to feed the condors. Puracé is one of the best places to observe Colombia’s national bird in the wild, and they will commonly come and land close to guests when some slabs of meat are offered up on the condor viewing rock. As the ranger wasn’t home, I unfortunately missed out on feeding time, but was still treated to spectacular views of a huge adult male condor soaring through his natural habitat. There can’t be many more stirring sights; and I managed to spot a carunculated caracara, a Shining Sunbeam hummingbird and a lovely pair of grey-breasted mountain toucans too. Birding heaven!
From this point, it’s a waiting game; the buses start passing by on the return journey from 2pm, so just hail one down and you’re on your way back to Popayan. A few extra tips; there is nowhere to buy food or drink along the way, so bring snacks, lunch and water with you. Also, even through the mist, the sun is intense at this altitude (I found that out the red and peeling way), so pack strong sun block!
Puracé is not exactly one of Colombia’s most famous national parks and, up against Tayrona, Cano Cristales, Amazonas et. al., it’s never likely to be; which is a shame in a sense, because somewhere this calm and beautiful deserves more recognition. On the other hand, more peace and quiet for the rest of us, right?! So, should you find yourself in Popayan, in need of some exercise (spiritual or physical), hop on the bus, and head to Puracé for some hiking, birding, solitude…whatever you need: it’s an inexpensive and beautiful day out. And I’ll see you there in August for the climb…