Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to really visit another alien world (I’m working on it) but I got pretty close on Saturday when I visited Los Nevados National Park. I took a day tour with Ecosistemas travel company (which I highly recommend) up to the volcano Nevado Del Ruiz.
Before I go into the adventure part, a quick introduction: Los Nevados is part of the Colombian Andes, which is a tropical mountain range. I didn’t understand the whole science behind it but this basically means there is more water here than in other mountain ranges and plants grow at high altitudes where in other parts of the world there would be no vegetation. Colombia has the greatest amount of tropical mountain ranges in the world. The park supplies fresh, clean water to most of the region, vital for coffee growers and other farmers. There used to be many glaciers here and while some still exist many have been melted by volcanic activity. The temperature in the park doesn’t vary greatly, 14º C to –3º C year round, but it is the only place in Colombia where you can see snow.
My adventure began early in the morning on Saturday when I was picked up by the tour company, joining a bus of about 15 other people. We then began the drive up to the park, which took about an hour.
At the precipice of the park we ate breakfast and then we ventured into the otherworldly landscape. As we journeyed through the park, steadily driving higher and higher, we would stop every 20 minutes or so to explore the scenery, learn about the park’s wildlife and get acclimatised to the altitude.
Much of the lower-altitude areas of the park are covered in low grasses and shrubs, and tall cactus-like plants that stand in columns across the landscape. I say ‘cactus-like’ because they aren’t actually cactuses. I sadly can’t remember the name of the plant and can’t find it on the internet so if anyone knows the name leave a comment! Either way, they were curiously odd, some standing twice my height, with soft silky leaves designed to catch condensation in the air. We learnt from our guide that they have a soft spongy middle that soaks up all the water and carries it down to the ground, helping to regulate and filter water in the valleys.
Along the way, we stopped at a waterfall which is unique because the water flows year round and is perfectly clean. We were able to drink it and it is the best water I have ever tasted, so pure and almost sweet. One of the things that amazed me the most in the park was the clouds. We were lucky that most of the day was clear and sunny, but around and below us, the clouds rapidly twisted and swirled. They would crawl up the landscape, seeping into and filling up valleys, living vapour. It was daunting and mesmerising.
At one of our first stops in the park, as I got off the bus, I found out I wasn’t the only English speaker on the tour. I met a group of 4 travellers and I really hit it off with two of the guys. One was a teacher in Philadelphia in the US, Puerto Rican parents but had grown up in Lancaster (my family is from Philadelphia so we bonded over the connection). The other was from Belgium and he ran his own business, living between Brussels and Montenegro, travelling in his free time. It seemed like an odd pairing until they told me that they met each other at a hostel in Argentina two years ago and ended up travelling together, and since then have stayed close friends.
They immediately adopted me into the pack and we had a fantastic day on the tour together. It was great to talk English for a little while and at times I translated the Spanish for them. It made the whole day so much more memorable and, funnily enough, I found out they’ll be in Peru at the same time as me so I might run into them again.
Anyway, as we travelled higher into the park the scenery changed abruptly. All green vegetation disappeared, leaving only bright orange bushes scattered between large sandy pink boulders and grey ashy earth. Then even the orange bushes disappeared so that the whole landscape was nothing but stark white ash, as far as you could see. It felt like we were on the moon.
Finally, we arrived at the Valley of the Tombs, the highest point visitors can access in the park at roughly 4200 metres above sea level. The road we drove on is the highest in Colombia. You could see the summit of the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano far above at 5321 metres and smell sulphur in the air. We found out from our guide that the valley got its morbid name from naturally-made flat rocks that used to cover the valley floor, which looked uncannily like tombstones. It was eerie and breathtaking and the photos really can’t do the colossal scale and alien beauty justice.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the views that left me breathless. At this height, even after taking an altitude pill I could really feel the effect. It felt like someone was squeezing my head as hard as they could and even the short walk around the valley left me short of breath. We were told we could only be there 20 minutes because of the health risks.
And, to answer your question, Nevado del Ruiz volcano is very much an active volcano. The first thing the guide told us when we arrived at the Valley of the Tombs was the different threat levels and what to do if there is an emergency. The levels are: green, yellow, orange, and red, and we were at yellow 3. In 1985 the volcano erupted and created a colossal landslide of molten mud and water which destroyed the town of Armery and killed 22,000 people. It is one of the worst natural disasters in Colombian history, and it is a harrowing reminder of the very real dangers of the volcano. Looking at the peaceful peak it was hard to imagine that so much destructive power lay waiting far below. A ranger at the park told us that Kumandai is the Ruiz volcano’s real name, the original name, and personally, I like it better. It feels more powerful and alive.
One of the positive side-effects of the volcano is natural thermal hot springs which scatter the valleys below. We ended our day at Los Termales Otoño, where the thermal water is collected into 3 pools of different temperatures. Apparently, the temperature of the water is all the same, they just regulate the temperatures by the size of the pool and how much new water flows into them. It was the perfect way to relax and unwind at the end of a long but remarkable day.
This was undoubtedly one of my favourite trips of my whole stay in Manizales, and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone visiting Colombia. You will have the most unforgettable experience! If you have any questions or thoughts about my trip or the national park, leave a comment below xx