Hiking Los Nevados
An Introduction to Los Nevados
Nevado de Ruiz is one of Colombia’s best-kept secrets… from foreigners. Of course the Colombians remember this active volcano as the cause of the 1985 eruption that erased the entire town of Armero from the map, taking 25,000 lives with it. “The Armero Disaster” is now remembered as the deadliest natural disaster in Colombian history.
Still active, though relatively benign, Nevado de Ruiz’s summit is now within reach for the more daring South American travellers. The Nevado range sits in a line: Ruiz, Santa Isabel, and Tolima. They range from most to least famous, and least to most difficult. Counter intuitively, Nevado de Ruiz is the easiest of the three giants to summit.
Two weeks ago, I decided to test my luck and take on the middle of the three giants. It’s probably the best bet, I assumed, Not the hardest, and also not responsible for the most famous natural disaster in Colombia. Santa Isabel it was!
Foreign tourists are excited to discover that a guided tour of Santa Isabel (including transportation, breakfast, and lunch) costs $170,000 Colombian pesos, or roughly $50.90 US dollars at the time of conversion. Not that there is an option; climbers must be accompanied by a certified guide group.
The transportation alone was worth the price. About twenty minutes outside of Manizales— the standard starting point for Santa Isabel and Ruiz— our backroads-equipped jeep hit rough terrain. The ragged gravel, dips, and potholes were enough to jar the most determined sleeper from a pre-hiking nap. Surely, I thought, our tires would meet paved road again soon. Wrong! Come to this hike prepared for a three-hour grueling drive along winding and unpaved roads.
For those who are able to survive the drive outside of a Dramamine-induced sleep, the views are stunning. As the jeep climbs in elevation, the scenery changes, shifting from light green pastures to deep verdant jungles. Perhaps most importantly, the cascading Waterfall Rio Nereidas appears on the right shortly after a breakfast stop.
If you haven’t been travelling through Colombia for long, do not be surprised when a bowl of soup appears before you at 6:00 AM, breakfast time. The jeep stopped at a quaint village restaurant, about an hour and a half into the drive. Two women cooked the breakfast in front of the diners, working in a small kitchen complete with a roaring fire that filled the open air restaurant with its smokey scent. In preparation for the hike, climbers received a hearty meal: Sancocho, an arrepa, an egg, a chinchuron, and— of course— coffee.
No time for dilly-dallying! The second half of the drive awaited, and it was by far the most beautiful. We passed the waterfall, and slowly the dense trees and underbush faded to emerald. As the jeep climbed, passengers may have noted a shortness of breath or a headache. Guides urge climbers to drink plenty of water beforehand, and this is where their cautionary words truly manifested themselves! Water staves off the inevitable altitude sickness that accompanies the thousands-of-meters climb.
Finally, the white dome of Santa Isabel presented itself at just under 5,000 meters, with the shorter Nevado de Ruiz peeking out over its shoulder. The base was surprisingly dry, characterized by desert grasses, colorful flowers, and the extraterrestrial-looking, elongated cacti, which reached well over six feet.
The land itself is strange, with surrounding cliffs that appear like jagged teeth, and parts of the valley that look as though they were simply scooped out of the earth by a giant hand. This is due to the recession of the Santa Isabel glacier, which has receded many kilometers in the past century.
As we began walking, my hiking boots brought up little poofs of dust, and I quickly stripped off the down jacket that I had pulled on at the base. The start of the trail was distinguished by hot temperatures and a cold wind. It was difficult to dress correctly, but hikers soon warmed up under the beating sun. On this cold mountain, I sustained the worst sunburn of my time in Colombia. Thus, be warned: wear extra sunscreen at high altitude!
The beginning ranged from steep to flat, climbing steadily and then smoothing out again, as though recognizing intuitively when hikers were ready for a much-deserved break. The guides were vigilant about insuring that their groups drank lots of water, and many climbers that did not heed their warnings did not reach the top due to difficulties with altitude-adjustment.
The difficulty of the hike is extremely personal, because it depends primarily on the hiker’s ability to adjust to altitude. The climb to the glacier is relatively short— a few hours— but the altitude can be strenuous, requiring many hikers to take a few steps, and then bend over to catch their breath. Luckily, there was a range, and so each hiker could stick with a group and a guide that matched his or her acclimatization level.
Around three quarters of the way up, after the steepest assent, we reached a ridge line, where the wind whipped our faces brutally and where the views were stupendous. From this ridge, we could see the desert plains below, the glacier at the top, the white dome of Nevado de Ruiz to the right, and two crystalline, emerald lagoons, hidden from the trail below. For me, this was the most sensational part of the hike, including the moment when I touched the tips of my hiking boots to the first snow of the trail.
Reluctant to put this view to our backs, we slowly ascended the final portion of Santa Isabel. At the glacier’s edge, a sharp wind— I had already donned that down jacket again, plus a fleece, a rain jacket, a hat, and gloves— obliged us to turn around quite quickly.
Descent and Departure
Unguided, we made our way to the bottom, picking our way along the steep trail with rubbery legs. The loose gravel and slippery dirt made the descent more difficult on already tired legs, but the snacks at the bottom made the descent worth the stumbles.
On the way back, we ate a delicious Colombian lunch at the same restaurant. Exhaustion from the altitude rise and dip allowed some hikers to get much needed sleep on the ride back, but those who could keep their eyes open were privy to an amazing sunset setting over the Nevados.
What to bring:
- A backpack for layers and snacks
- Snacks (you will be hungrier at high altitude!)
- Extra water, and then some!
- A down jacket and a fleece
- A hat and gloves
- A rain jacket
- Sturdy hiking boots, ideally ankle supported
- Dramamine (if you’re prone to car sickness)