This spectacular National Park near Bogota sums up what tourism in Colombia is all about. Chingaza National Park is a real anomaly. Almost nobody visits the beautiful National Park that sits on Bogota’s doorstep. It’s just one hour from Bogota, yet many (perhaps most) Bogotanos don’t even know where Chingaza is! None of the mainstream Colombia travel guidebooks even mention this park, which seriously lacks publicity (for environmental reasons). For me, it’s almost a must see – and a highly worthwhile day trip from Bogota. Any other country would treat this type of landscape as a real tourist honeypot, but as Colombia is so full of amazing landscapes, my guess is that the National Parks authority tries to keep it a secret – and a secret gem it is. It’s perfectly safe to visit too.
Chingaza consists of a delicate, fragile paramo environment – Bogota’s drinking water comes from here. The park wardens weren’t even sure that they wanted me to promote them when I asked them if they wanted greater publicity – none the less I have chosen to promote this little secret. Tourism to the National Park is tightly controlled, as I’ll explain – the Parks authorities just don’t want too many visitors.
Activities in the Park
The highland paramo scenery of the Park is spectacular and consists of alien like vegetation including the bizarre frailejones, mirror-like lakes and rolling mountains. Plants and flora have never particularly interested me, but in Chingaza I found each plant bizarrely fascinating and completely different from the next. Everything is extremely peaceful here – the total silence and tranquillity is a stark contrast to the noise when in nearby Bogota.
Hiking is the main activity in the Park – there’s short (ie. 2 hour) and long (ie. 5/6 hour) walks from both the admin centres – Piedras Gordas (the entrance point) and Monte Redondo (the camping zone) – of the Park. The most spectacular scenery is around Monte Redondo. The longer walks require a guide, the shorter walks are doable alone.
The Park is full of wildlife – deers, condors and eagles are commonly spotted, those luckier might see the bespectacled bear or with even greater luck a puma. With over 180 species of birds having been recorded in Chingaza, this is one of Colombia's most popular birdwatching destination.
You can also go trout fishing near the campsite (with prior permission). Catch your own trout then bbq it for dinner.
Day trips from Bogota
Technically, you can only visit Chingaza National Park if you’ve prior permission from the National Parks office in Bogota. Their address is pretty central, so just turn up and request permission – Cra. 10 No.20-30 – see www.parquesnacionales.gov.co .
However, I spontaneously turned up on the weekend and was allowed in without prior permission and had no problems. About 100-200 people visit the National Park every day of the weekend, and it seems you’re allowed in without the paperwork from the National Parks authority. If you want to do a longer walk (ie. of the 5/6 hour variety), you’ll need a guide (no cost as they’re the park wardens), but you’re highly advised to request one in advance.
Almost nobody visits midweek, and I was told that if you plan on taking a day trip during the week, you do need the document from the National Parks office granting you permission to enter – otherwise you’ll be turned away.
Chingaza has one of Colombia's (indeed South America’s) most “luxurious” camping zones, they say. Super clean bathrooms, hot water showers, bbq zones for camp fires/bbqs etc etc. There are a total of 8 different spots to pitch a tent, and the maximum number of people allowed to spend the night is just 35. To camp in the campsite, you do need permission from the Parks office in Bogota beforehand – don’t risk just turning up without doing the proper process beforehand as you’ll almost certainly be turned away. When you book, if you advise the Parks people in advance, meals can be prepared for you when you camp (but you have to advise them in advance!). At an altitude of about 3400 metres, it can get a bit cold at night, but we’re not talking freezing or anything here – a decent sleeping bag and some warm clothes and you should be fine.
Once you are out of the hellish traffic in Bogota, Chingaza National Park is just one hour’s drive East. Piedras Gordas is the entrance point to the Park and is an hours drive from Bogota. From Piedras Gordas there’s a couple of beautiful walks you can take (see photos). A further 40 minutes drive beyond Piedras Gordas is Monte Redondo, where the campsite is. There’s more walks available from here, and the scenery even more spectacular once deep inside the Park. There’s also more chance of seeing wildlife deeper into the National Park around Monte Redondo.
Get a hire car, get a taxi, or take a tour to visit Chingaza.
To charter a taxi in Bogota costs 15,000 pesos per hour (as of September 2010, when this section was written) – this is probably the best option for a day trip. You should be able to haggle a price of about 100,000 pesos for the whole day I would guess. Take a packed lunch and water – there’s little for sale once in the Park.
To hire a car in Bogota costs from 100,000 pesos per 24 hours if you want to drive yourself. If you want to camp, you’ll need a hire car. The route isn’t complicated – from the Chapinero part of Bogota, head East into the mountains to La Calera (see Google Maps). About 1km after passing through La Calera, you’ll see a road forking off to the right (it’s not signposted) – take this road, which soon becomes a dirt track (no need for a 4WD - if it has been raining incessantly it might prove slightly tricky though). After a few more km turn left (again no signpost) then keep straight for 20km to Piedras Gordas. The signposting is rubbish, but there’s various houses and people ambling about from whom you can get directions if unsure. It’s a very scenic drive through typically beautiful Colombian countryside and mountains.
To take a tour, your options are very limited. Very few Colombia tour operators offer tours to Chingaza, so you'll have to hunt about.
Take note that the weather in Chingaza is unpredictable year round – it rains frequently, so pack a raincoat.
If visiting Chingaza National Park, please pay attention to your impact upon this delicate environment – don’t leave litter, and don’t damage the environment or take any flora with you. This page will not be translated into Spanish, as I don’t want to publicize the Park to Latin / Colombian tourists, who in my experience aren’t as environmentally conscientious as you English language readers are (I hope). Visit this beautiful part of Colombia with care please.