Indisputably one of the crown jewels in Colombia’s national parks system, the PARQUE NACIONAL NATURAL LOS NEVADOS (entry COP$57,000, including guide), 40km southeast of Manizales, protects some of the last surviving snowcapped peaks in the tropics. Three of the five volcanoes are now dormant, but Nevado del Ruiz – the tallest at 5321m – remains an active threat, having killed 22,000 people and buried the now extinct town of Armero when it erupted in 1985. Sadly, though, for a park whose name, Nevado, implies perpetual snow, climate change has lifted the snow line to almost 5000m on most peaks. The best months to visit are January and February – clear days make for spectacular views of the volcanic peaks. March, July, August and December can also be ideal, while the rest of the year sees a fair amount of rain.
The park’s northern sector is the more touristy and is easily accessible from Manizales. Though it’s of little compensation, because of the severe melt, it’s now possible for even moderately fit armchair adventurers to reach Nevado del Ruiz’s summit in a long day’s journey from Manizales. Although not technically difficult – with good weather you can climb in regular hiking shoes – a guide (see Tour operator) is required to navigate the confusing path and assist in the event of altitude sickness.
At the time of writing, the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano was showing some activity, so the park was off-limits. Instead, Mountain House offers an alternative: hiking down through stunning mountain scenery, past mountain villages. The hostel arranges for its guests to meet a milkman’s cart at an assigned point at 4.30am; the milkman then drives up the mountain road to the starting point of the hike and picks up the hikers further down the road a couple of hours later, having finished his rounds. The outing costs around COP$50,000. Wear warm clothing as you’ll be going up to a high altitude in the middle of the night.
The dramatic southern end, where a dense wax-palm forest slowly metamorphoses into páramo near the cobalt-blue Laguna del Otún (3950m), can only be accessed on foot. Reaching Laguna del Otún from Manizales involves an initial four-hour drive, taking in park highlights such as the extinct Olleta crater, Laguna Verde and Hacienda Potosí, before culminating in a two-hour trek to the trout-stuffed lagoon (fishing permitted). You can also approach from the Valle de Cócora in Salento.
There is no public transport to the park. Many visitors come as part of a day-trip, which doesn’t allow a great deal of time for hiking. To explore the park at your leisure, it’s possible to sign up for a day-trip and then arrange to stay overnight, to be picked up by the same tour company the following day.
Contact a tour operator to see whether Parque Nacional Los Nevados is still off-limits.