High up in the Andes is a beautiful and unusual shrubby grassland called the páramo. “In the páramo, you can let go of your negativity and invite in positivity,” said one of our tour guides as our group stood on a trail in Colombia’s Chingaza National Natural Park. “It’s a sacred spiritual place.”
I was on a day trip out of Bogotá organized by local tourism giant Green Travel DMC. We’d left bumper-to-bumper early Sunday morning traffic as we slowly rolled out of the city of ten million. Our bus was surrounded by cyclists in neon spandex. Cycling has become extra popular since Colombian Egan Bernal won the Tour de France in 2019. On weekends, “People run away from the city,” said our guide Laura Garay.
However, they don’t run all the way to the national park. The cyclists thinned out once they reached a string of garden restaurants on the hills above Bogotá. A little farther and our bus turned off onto a rutted dirt road, which we had to ourselves, save for dairy cows and people working the potato farms.
One of the most surprising things about Chingaza National Park was the lack of people. Other than our busload and people working in the park, we saw no one. As one of our guides told us, even though it’s only two hours from Bogotá, city dwellers don’t seem to know about it. It takes some planning to get here, what with requesting an entrance permit at least 15 days in advance. Policies prioritize preserving the páramo ecosystem over making visiting easy. Since 80% of Bogotá’s tap water comes from Chingaza, it’s extra important to protect the area.
The páramo exists above the timberline and below the snowline, or between about 10,000 and 16,000 feet. It’s only found in the Andes of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and a few small places in Central America. About 80 inches of rain fall per year in this ecosystem that shelters many rare and endangered species, such as the mountain taper, poison dart frogs, the spectacled bear and the Colombian lightbulb lizard.
Predictably, our busload of tourists scared away any tapirs or bears that might have been lurking around. But the flowers couldn’t run. We saw lots of interesting specimens, including masses of tiny yellow orchids and fleshy red shrimp grapes. Our guides pointed out huge bromeliads, a favorite treat for spectacled bears. The plants grow for a few years until a bear eats the flower at its heart. Then the bromeliad dies.
After a muddy five-mile hike with incredible cloud forest vistas, we had lunch in the park at a tiny ecolodge. The Almeciga family, who have been on the land for 150 years, served a traditional chicken, corn and potato soup called ajiaco. They had kindly prepared a vegan version for me. The family rents simple rooms for $30 per night, including breakfast.
Unless your Spanish is “muy bueno,” tourists will find it much easier to arrange a visit to Chingaza through a tour service. It’s worth doing to see the rare páramos ecosystem.
Images by Teresa Bergen