What to Know When Hiking Santa Isabel and Tolima Snow-capped Mountains

Discover the Natural Wonders of the Snow-capped Volcanoes of Santa Isabel and Tolima, both famous destinations for hiking in Colombia. Find here useful information for your hiking trip to these two beautiful mountains in the Central Andes of Colombia.

The Andean Mountain Range

A large part of Colombia belongs to the so-called Andean highlands, consisting of the three Andean ranges which spread across a vast part of the territory.

Los Nevados National Natural Park is in the middle of one of these ranges, in what is known as the “Cordillera Central” or Central Andes (the middle range), splitting its territory through 4 departments named Tolima, Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío.

At Los Nevados National Natural Park you will enjoy 6 volcanoes: Ruiz, Tolima, Santa Isabel, Cisne, Quindío and Paramillo de Santa Rosa.

Snow-capped Santa Isabel volcano

Santa Isabel volcano, also known as Poleka Kasue which translates “maiden of the mountain or princess of the snows”, was named after the ancient tribes of the area.

The Santa Isabel volcano is between the provinces of Risaralda, Tolima and Caldas, and sits in-between the other two snow-capped volcanoes: Ruiz and Tolima.

Santa Isabel is the lowest glaciated mountain in Colombia and one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world.

It consists of three main peaks:

  • The Northern one at 4,964 meters above sea level,
  • The Central one at 4,934 meters and
  • The Southern peak at over 5,100 meters above sea level.

Hiking to the summit of Santa Isabel

Considering its moderate altitude it is not necessary to have experience in climbing snowy mountains. But it is important to take a day or two on a farm nearby the hiking trail to the summit to get used to the lack of oxygen and the weather.

For a better experience, 2 days of travel is highly recommended.

Day 1: Bogotá-Manizales-Base camp (Santa Rosa de Cabal)

Take a 40-minute flight from Bogota to La Nubia (MZL) airport in the city of Manizales. From Manizales, you must take a 1-hour road trip (bus trip) to Santa Rosa de Cabal where you will stay on a local farm.

Taking the earliest 06:00 am flight is deemed very convenient and will allow you to reach your destination at approx. 10:00.

Enjoy some typical breakfast, take a rest and immediately after begin your journey to the entrance of Los Nevados National Natural Park.

Arrival at Los Nevados National Natural Park

Upon arrival, expect a quick “things to care about” chat with officials from the National Park.

Please note that the entrance fee for non-resident foreigners is COP 64.500 (approx. 18 USD), and it includes a tour guide and medical insurance.

Otún Lagoon

The first stop, “Otún” Lagoon, located about 4,000 meters above sea level, will help you get an idea of the terrain and the conditions.

To get to Otún Lagoon first take a 3.5-kilometer hike to the base point where you will have a rest and some delicious lunch.

Lake Otún, Parque Nacional los Nevados, Colombia. © Creative Commons

In the afternoon, the journey will resume heading to Otún Lagoon viewpoint for about 1 extra hour. Once there enjoy the view.

The return trip will commence before sunset all the way back to the farm.

Day 2: Base camp- Summit of Santa Isabel snow-capped volcano

The day starts at crazy early 1:30 a.m with some hot drinks and energy bars. A -transport will take you in 1 hour to the mountain rise at 4100 meters above sea level where your journey will begin.

The trail from this point leads to the glacier known as Las Conejeras (4700 meters above sea level) with a walking time of 3 hours.

During the hike be sure to enjoy the large variety of plants, including, the famous Frailejones, Spanish for “Big Monks”. These are some of the most important paramo plants and essential for the preservation of this type of ecosystem.

Moreover, lagoons and a beautiful panoramic view of the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano are also worth enjoying.

From Las Conejeras onward mountain-climbing equipment will be used to reach the top of the snow-capped volcano of Santa Isabel. This 2-hour hike across snowy trails allows everyone to appreciate an unforgettable 4964 m above sea level panoramic view.

1 hour at the peak is more than enough to appreciate the view and get some well-deserved rest. After that, head down to the base camp.

Snow-capped Tolima (Dulima) volcano

The Tolima Volcano is also known as Dulima which means “Emerged from the snows”, was named after the ancient local tribes inhabiting the area.

The natives considered that the spirit of the brave priestess and leader “cacica Dulima or Ibanasca” inhabits this snow-capped volcano.

Nevado del Tolima from the Ukuku Lodge.

The Tolima volcano is located in the province of Tolima, in the central mountain range of the Colombian Andes.

The Tolima snow-capped volcano is an attraction for those who wish to go beyond their limits due to its height (5,220 meters) and harsh climatic conditions. It has a glacier cap with an area of 2.8 km2 and a volume of 69 million cubic meters of ice.

Thus, those who wish to climb this snow-capped volcano must be experienced.

The Tolima Volcano is an important tourist attraction as a site for mountaineering and ice climbing, as well as for its thermal springs.

Hiking to the summit of Tolima

To visit the snow-capped volcano Tolima there are two routes, one of 4 days and the other of 3 days.

Option 1 (4 days)

Day 1: Bogotá-Armenia-Salento

Take a 1-hour flight from Bogota to El Eden International Airport (AXM) in the city of Armenia. From Armenia, you must travel by land to Salento for approximately 1 hour.

Once in Salento you can enjoy the rest of the day and visit famous sightseeing spots and the handicraft market of the town.

Day 2: Salento- Refuge

After breakfast in Salento, it is necessary to take a 30-minute “jeep” ride to the famous Cocora Valley. Next, start your hiking journey with an initial 4.5-kilometer hike crossing 6 rustic bridges.

The first stop is at 3100 meters above sea level refugee, from where it is possible to have lunch.

During this part, one can enjoy the flora and fauna of the Colombian Andean forests. Watch out especially for Andean tapirs, spectacled bears, pumas, sloths, Yellow-eared parrots, blue toucans, Andean guans, and Andean condors, among others.

The second 9 km hike starts after lunch through the middle of the unique ecosystem in the Andes mountain range: “the páramo”. The páramo is the ecosystem of the regions above the continuous forest line, yet below the permanent snowline.

Enjoy the large variety of plants, including, the famous Frailejones “Spanish for Big Monks”.  One of the most important paramos plants, essential for the preservation of this type of ecosystem and considered an endemic species.

This hike ends at 3700 meters above sea level refugee site, where camp will be set up, and dinner and hot drinks served. Rest is highly recommended.

Day 3: Refuge- Base Camp

Revitalize yourself, enjoy breakfast, drink your coffee and get ready for a 9km mountain top hike, starting at the valley of the snow-capped mountain.

One hour away from the Refuge camp, you will first come across the beautiful Laguna del Encanto, 4,000 meters above sea-level wetland that gives rise to the Totare River that is on the way towards the Base where camping will be set up.

This 4,350 meters above sea level Base Camp is hit strongly by snowy winds that favor the view of the three additional beautiful snowy volcanoes, to wit: Nevado del Ruiz, Nevado Santa Isabel, and paramillo del Quindio.

At the Base Camp, additional preparation talk and rehearsal on the use of necessary mountain equipment will be given by the guides, in preparation for the next day’s hike to the top.

Please note that the entrance fee to Los Nevados Park is for non-resident foreigners is worth COP 64.500 (approx.18 USD), and includes guide and medical insurance.

Day 4: Base camp- Summit of Tolima snow-capped volcano

The final day starts at 1:30 a.m. with some hot drinks and energy bars.

Bear in mind to reach the top of the snow-capped volcano you must cross 3 different zones during a 9 kilometers hike:

  • Arenales/morrenas  (4,350 m-4,750 m): it has a steep slope and most of the way the terrain is sandy, its duration is 1 hour of walking.
  • Rock zone/old Glacier (4,750 m-4,950 m): a 1-hour walk through rocks once covered by ice and now uncovered by the melted glacier. Note that the use of personal protection equipment (helmet, harness, and rope) is important for safety.
  • Glacier/top (4,950 m-5,220 m): the last part of the scaling takes about 1.5 hours., temperature significantly drops, and difficulty in breathing might be experienced.

At the top, it’s good to relax, recover, enjoy the scenery before returning to the Base Camp for lunch.

The last part of the return trip down the mountain is riding a donkey back which helps speed up the journey.

Nevado del Tolima from the Combeyma Canyon at night

Option 2 (3 days)

Day 1: Bogotá-Ibagué

Take 45 minutes flight from Bogota to Perales Airport (IBE) in the city of Ibagué where you can spend your afternoon and night going around the city.

Day 2: Ibagué-Base Camp

Early in the morning, a Jeep will take you to El Silencio at 2550 meters above sea level. From there, take a 1-hour hike to the thermal springs El Rancho and enjoy breakfast.

Next, you will face the steep hiking of Las Raices, known for its humidity and very dense flora.

The most representative flora visible on this route apart from the Espeletia hartwegiana, so-called Big Monks (frailejones) are the following species:

  • The Loricaria colombiana, endemic plant of Colombia in the pussy’s-toes tribe within the sunflower family.
  • The Polylepis sericea, another endemic of highlands.
  • St. John’s wort of the genus Hypericum
  • And the paramo rosemary of the genus Diplostephium.

Continue through the sector of Lajas until reaching Tierra de Gigantes. It is worth noting this is the last stop to refill drinking water.

Reaching 3700 meters above sea level you will come across La Cueva where you can enjoy a rest and have lunch.

The last part before reaching the 4,200 meters above sea level Base Camp is a moderately inclined hike of 2 hours. There you can camp and rest until the early hours of the morning.

Day 3: Base camp- Summit of Tolima snow-capped volcano

The day starts at 1:30 a.m. with some hot drinks and energy bars. Walkthrough las Latas until you glimpse the first snow-covered areas.

From this point on, it is necessary to use the personal protective elements (hull, harness, and rope) to make the last ascent to the top of the snowfall for approximately 45 minutes.

Lastly, go back down to the camp and get some well-deserved rest.

By taking these hikes you support sustainable tourism

During any of the hiking options you can support the following ventures:

  • Energy bars @boli. bar. co, an enterprise of natural, tasty, and nutritious snacks, free of excess sugar.
  • El Chalet del Cisne, eco-hotel has a panoramic view of the snow-capped peaks of Ruiz and Santa Isabel.
  • The restaurants that you will find at each of the obligatory stops, each of the dishes served there are prepared by the inhabitants of the area.

Recommendations before hiking the snow-capped volcanoes of Santa Isabel and Tolima

  • Enter only the authorized trails by Parques Nacionales, which are well kept, safe, and have guide services.
  • Bring along convenient clothing since temperatures can significantly drop.
  • Carry a suitcase of at least 30 liters, with a waterproof jacket and waist straps.
  • Bring along basic protective elements such as cap, neck protector, flashlight, sunscreen, UV filter glasses, gloves, and boots with a high or medium cane.
  • The entry and use of single-use plastics is prohibited by Sistema de Parques Nacionales Naturales.
  • Carry enough snacks for the tour and make sure to store wraps in the available suitcase.
  • Do not litter and help preserve the ecosystem
  • Liquor or any toxic, psychoactive, or hallucinogenic substances are not allowed within the premises of the Parque Nacionales.

About the authors

Luisa Martin

Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.

9 Destinations for Trekking and Mountaineering in Colombia  

Trekking and mountaineering in Colombia are becoming more popular among all tourists, not only backpackers. This is because these activities provide a different experience that allows people to connect with nature while discovering incredible places. Both require a good physical condition though, so think of this when planning an expedition!  

Colombia offers many trails for go trekking or mountaineering, from the world’s highest coastal mountain in the Caribbean coast to rock hills in the Amazon and some of the greatest snowy peaks in the imposing Andes mountain range that splits into 3 branches in Colombian ground. 

If you are an adventurous traveler, you need to know the diverse trails for trekking and mountaineering in Colombia. Here they are! 

1. The Lost City  

Lost City, or Teyuna, is the greatest archaeological finding in Colombia. This ancient indigenous civilization was built in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, along the Buritaca river, by the Tayrona culture.

Over 200 stone structures including interconnected roads, stairs, terraces, canals, and ceremonial buildings are the remnants of the city, which was forcibly abandoned during the Spanish colonization. 

The round trip is 50 km long approximately and to enter, you must climb a 1,200 step stone stairway through the forest. This unique trek experience takes an average of 4 days but goes up to 6 depending on your physical level and stops done during the trip.

You will not only challenge your body but get to interact with Kogui local indigenous group and discover the immense biodiversity that inhabits this sanctuary. No need to say more, live the Lost City trek yourself! 

2. Tayrona National Natural Park  

The foothills of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta merge into the intense blue-colored Caribbean sea, forming gorgeous white sanded beaches surrounded by mangroves and dense jungle with many endemic fauna and flora species. This is the breathtaking landscape you can appreciate in Tayrona. 

To get to the camping zone from the entrance, you need to take a 2-hour hike and there are other trekking trails:

  • The Kogui trail or Knowledge route from Cañaveral to Arrecife lasts 1 hour and has a low difficulty level.
  • The Arrecifes – Boca del Saco trail, also moderate and 2-hour long, in which you can pass by Playa Arrecifes, La Piscina and Cabo de San Juan del Guia. 
  • Another popular trek is Pueblito, something like the mini version of Lost City where Kogui families live. 

3. Los Nevados National Natural Park 

Los Nevados National Natural Park is in the Central mountain range of the Andes and comprises the three coldest thermal floors.

This means that here you can get to know Andean forest, paramo, and glacier ecosystems. 38 nearby municipalities and crop fields are provided with water thanks to the rivers that descend from the paramos and glaciers in the park. 

The snowy mountains that belong to this protected area are Ruiz, Tolima, Santa Isabel, and El Cisne, Quindio, and Santa Rosa paramillos, which form the greatest volcano complex in the country.

Many tourists visit this park to climb to the highest peaks of these mountains that go up to 5,300 meters above sea level!  

Currently, Nevado del Ruiz presents volcanic activity so access is restricted. Here are the two snowy mountains within the park you can climb to. 

4. Tolima and Santa Isabel Snow-capped Mountains

With its peak at 5,220 MASL, Nevado del Tolima is one of the two currently available options for mountaineering in Colombia.

The excursions take 4 days in total and usually start from Ibague or Salento. When you get to the summit, a view over Los Nevados Park and the Magdalena valley will take your breath away -on sunny days, of course.

This is one of the most demanding treks in Colombia because of its steep slopes and only experienced mountaineers should attempt to climb to the 2.8 km2 glacier.  

Located between the snowy volcanoes of Tolima and Ruiz, Santa Isabel is the lowest snowy mountain in Colombia.

Unlike others, it does not have a conic structure with a crater but a set of domes created by lava outpouring that allows the glacier thermal floor to existing. Poleka Kasue, as the Quimbaya indigenous culture called it, has its highest peak on the central summit at 4,968 meters above sea level.

Unfortunately, it suffered deglaciation in recent years, passing from 1.9 kmto 0.5 kmin 10 years. In fact, IDEAM studies have determined that it would take only a decade for this glacier to become extinct. 

The trip to Santa Isabel’s summit starts from Pereira, Santa Rosa de Cabal, or Manizales and takes 1 or 2 days to the summit.

Among the attractions of the trek is the viewpoint of Laguna del Otún and Paramillo del Quindío, and the gorgeous paramo landscapes that boast a frailejones valley and endemic flora and fauna species.

Once again, it is recommended to have experience in mountaineering and take all the safety precautions. 

5. Puracé National Natural Park 

Another Andean volcanic zone, this time declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this is Puracé NNP.

The Coconucos volcanic range has 11 volcanoes, among which Puracé is the only active one. The Magdalena, Cauca, Patía, and Caquetá rivers (some of the main rivers in Colombia) originate in this mountain, along with around 30 crystalline lagoons and several sulfur springs for hot baths.

It is located in the Cauca department and its name means “fire mountain” in the Quechua language, spoken by the homonymous indigenous culture that protects the territory. Puracé is a privileged spot for those looking for the majestic Andean condor, which soars over the paramo ecosystem. 

Departing early from Popayan, a road takes you to the park entrance, where you will find various trekking trails: one directly to the volcano and others with lower difficulty that pass by its beautiful water bodies and are 20 km long approximately. The landscape is stunning and the park is quite calm. 

6. El Cocuy National Natural Park  

Sierra Nevada of Güicán, El Cocuy, and Chita is the largest glacier mass in Colombia: within two mountain ranges it has over 20 snow peaks from 4,800 to 5,330 meters above sea level, Ritacuba Blanco being the highest.

It is located in the departments of Arauca and Boyacá and is sacred territory for the Uwa indigenous community, because of this there are some restricted areas.

This trek is particularly stunning cause you can find waterfalls, lagoons, important rivers such as the Magdalena or the Orinoco, frailejones, Andean condors, spectacled bears, and white-tailed deer! An unbelievable view. 

Mountain climbers of all levels visit the park to go trekking for 5 days usually, although now there are simpler trails for one-day hikes that start from El Cocuy municipality. However, it is better to be in good shape for any trekking trail, especially at such high altitudes. 

Notice: Since February 10th, 2020, El Cocuy NNP closed temporarily due to public order issues. Check its status on the web page before your trip. 

7. Chingaza National Natural Park

Chingaza páramo is a National Natural Park on the Eastern range of the Andes, between the departments of Cundinamarca and Meta.

Here you will face a cloudy environment hiding the blue sky, which reflects on the lakes surrounded by frailejones. Plus, it is possible to spot spectacled bears, deer, pumas, páramo tapirs, Andean condors, and Andean Cock-of-the-rock in the lower areas near Villavicencio.  

Trekking trips start from Guasca or La Calera municipalities and depending on the starting point, you will get to different lagoons. These water bodies were sacred to the former inhabitants, Muisca indigenous communities.

Among the most famous ones are the Siecha Lagoons, three small glacial lakes with high biodiversity around them. The maximum height you can reach is 3,800 meters above sea level and the route to the lagoons can be done in 1 day. This is an excellent option for practicing trekking near Bogota. 

8. Mavecure hills  

In the Guainia department, part of the Colombian Amazon region, three majestic rock hills rise from a pristine jungle by the Inirida river.

El Mono, El Pajarito, and Mavecure belong to the millenary Guiana Shield and can be reached by boat on a 3-hour trip from Puerto Inírida, the capital. Out of the three majestic black rounded hills, you can only climb Mavecure, which is 170 meters high.

Although it is not a really demanding hike that takes about an hour, the experience of sailing the river for hours and exploring a remote natural territory makes it a whole adventure. 

Take into account that this is a tropical zone and the weather here is hot, therefore you should be vaccinated against tetanus and yellow fever, also you should dress properly (long pants and rain boots) and keep with you a piece of basic safety equipment.   

9. Chicaque Natural Park 

Just 30 minutes away from Bogota, this eco-park covered by cloud forest offers several hiking trails for all adventurers. Although the routes individually do not take much time, there are over 20 km (12.5 miles) of hiking trails that you can complete in over 1 day, if you stay there, whether in camping zones, the hostel, cabins, or treehouses.  

After going into the forest, you can get to the Eagle’s peak, a viewpoint at 2,290 MASL from where you can see the Tequendama region and the snow-capped peaks of Los Nevados NNP on clear days.

Other trails are:

  • Roquedal, 667-meter long trail of high difficulty;
  • Butterflies, 1.6 km trail that leads to the hostel;
  • Oak Forest, 2.5 km trail surrounded by 30-meter oak trees;
  • Waterfall, 3.5 km long trail of high difficulty with a 70-meter high gorge; and the 
  • Colonial trail, 1.5 km long which was used by Muisca and Panche natives to connect the Bogota plateau with the Magdalena valley in the pre-Columbian era.

It is worth visiting Chicaque park on the outskirts of Colombia’s capital. 

These were 10 destinations to go trekking and mountaineering in Colombia in different regions of the country: the Caribbean coast, the Andes mountain range in the central region, and the Amazon jungle to the south.

From tropical to cloud forests, moorlands, and glaciers, trekking in Colombia is always a new adventure! 

If you want to know more about the most incredible natural destinations in Colombia, plan your trip with us!

About the author.

Ana María Parra

Modern Languages professional with an emphasis on business translation. Interested in the cultural adaptation of written and audiovisual content.  Passionate about knowing new cultures and languages, tourism, and sustainable living.