I grew up in London, so I wasn’t much of a hiker before moving to Colombia. But if you’ve lived in Bogota, you’ll know that restless feeling of wanting to escape the city once in a while. Bogota is surrounded by lush green countryside, several different ecosystems due to the varying altitude, and wildlife-spotting opportunities. There are numerous areas that are perfect for hiking near Bogota, some of which very few visitors to Colombia know about. One of these is the stunning and sparsely populated rural area of Choachi.
Hiking in Choachi
About an hour’s drive southeast of Bogota is an incredible hiking trail. I’m fortunate that my good friend Chantelle, co-owner of Andes Ecotours, invited me to join them on this hike recently. She told me that this is a relatively unexplored trail by tourists, as many head to the more well-known La Chorrera waterfall and Chicaque Natural Park.
The beauty of this part of Choachí is its obscurity. While there are marked trails, much of the hike took us through dense forest that looked as though it had rarely been touched by a human being. These areas belong to the family of our guide Manuel, so we were able to explore parts of the forest that aren’t normally accessible to the public.
Walking through the cloud forest
When we arrived, it was raining and there was heavy cloud cover. In the cloud forest ecosystem, this literally means you’ll be hiking through the clouds, which is quite a surreal experience if you’ve never done so before. As the rain poured down, I was grateful for the water-resistant jacket I’d bought the week before.
Before heading to our entry point to the forest, we stopped at a small roadside food stall where a local man was selling cuajada. Cuajada is a type of fresh cheese with no salt added to it. It is typically served on a plate with fruit jam and sugar cane syrup. Chantelle bought a plate and encouraged us all to try some. As with many Colombian dishes I had my doubts at first, but it was surprisingly tasty!
A learning experience
We ducked under a fence entering a marshy area just outside the forest. Our local guide, Manuel, explained that when the marsh fills with water during rainfall, this is diverted via irrigation channels to nearby crops. What I particularly enjoyed about this hike from the beginning was not only the beautiful surroundings and scenery – which anyone could enjoy on their own – but the opportunities to meet local people and the explanations from Manuel and Chantelle about what we were seeing.
We stopped to look at different plants and trees, learning about their uses in construction, their traditional medicinal properties, and the symbiotic relationship between different types of fauna. Bushes grow on top of rocks, sustained by the water from the thick, spongy mosses underneath. Chantelle picked wild fruits and berries for us to taste, telling us their names and what the indigenous people would use them for. The hike and the educational commentary immersed us in our surroundings and the local culture, making the experience all the more memorable. I almost didn’t notice it was pouring with rain!
The part where I fell into a bush…
As we walked along a mountain ridge, the conditions were muddy and slippery. I jokingly asked if anyone had ever fallen off the ridge. Chantelle said no, but that if they did, there were plenty of bushes to break the fall. As if fate were listening and sniggering to itself, I promptly lost my footing and fell backwards into a bush over the ridge. At least I had tested Chantelle’s theory – there was literally no way to fall further than a meter down that mountain. Phew!
They pulled me out of the bush and we continued walking along the ridge, treading carefully and squinting in an effort to see through the thick cloud that filled the valley beside us. As we got closer to the forest, the cloud began to clear and we saw a few grazing cows come into view.
Discovering fruits of the forest
Chantelle picked a leaf of wild sage for us to smell. Later we would try some with hot milk prepared by Manuel’s aunt. This is supposed to be good for a cough. I found it deliciously warming and soothing after a chilly hike. We also tried eating some uva camarona (‘prawn grape’) on our way, an acidic type of prawn-shaped wild fruit that local people eat to treat lung conditions.
As we chewed on the fruit, we continued our challenging hike through the forest. At times we walked along the centuries-old colonial trail of cobbled stones, but often we were walking through mud and detritus. I loved this, as it felt very natural and undisturbed. We passed bright red bromeliads and green ones with black spikes at the edge of their long, pointy leaves. The leaves overlap and form a kind of natural water tank in the centre of the plant, which can provide water for frogs, insects, spiders and worms. The largest bromeliads can hold up to two gallons of water, which helps the plants to survive periods of dry weather.
As we climbed higher, the gushing flow of water from nearby streams became louder. The rain from the paramo ecosystem several hundred meters above us fed waterfalls that formed the streams that flowed beside us. As it had been raining heavily that day, the waterfall was producing torrents of water.
With Manuel’s help we crossed a stream, treading cautiously on conveniently placed stones. After ducking through a cave clothed with a myriad of different mosses, we saw our first waterfall. This waterfall is on the land of Manuel’s family, and therefore isn’t accessible except through hikes with Andes Ecotours.
Gateway to Heaven?
We continued our hike up through the forest of Choachi, observing yellow baby orchids glistening with dew, spiky bromeliads emerging from the bushes at either side, and wild flowers with mystical names such as zapatos de hada (‘fairy shoes’).
We reached the second larger waterfall and Manuel told us a tale of an old woman who once lived in this part of Choachi. She loved this waterfall so much that she hoped she would die in it when her time came. According to the locals, one day she went to the waterfall and never returned. Perhaps it was her time. And what more beautiful place to die than in this part of the Colombian cloud forest?
A warm drink and snack
To finish our hike, we stopped at a rural house where Manuel’s grandmother had lived before she died a few years ago. Nowadays, his uncle runs a rest-and-snack-stop for hikers. We were given hot milk with sage to warm us up, which I found delicious. I also bought some mora (redberry) wine and some snacks to refuel after the challenging hike.
Beautiful views on the way back
As we headed back to the jeep and passed by the cows once again, nearly the entire valley was clear, revealing the stunning views that had been obscured by the cloud earlier in the hike. I dragged behind the rest of the group taking photos and videos until my phone warned that my storage was ‘dangerously low’. Clambering up the hill, I soon arrived back at the jeep. I was damp, my trousers and boots were caked in mud, and my legs were weary from the steep hike uphill. But inside I felt elated. How lucky was I to live in Bogota, just an hour’s drive away from such incredible natural scenery?
Last year, I hiked through the paramo ecosystem in Chingaza National Park. Last week, I discovered the cloud forest for the first time in an unspoiled area of Choachí. You may see a few local hikers, but unlike at La Chorrera (a better known waterfall), you’re extremely unlikely to see tourists in this part of Choachi. It’s for this reason that if you want to go hiking near Bogota, I highly recommend this trip to Choachi with Andes Ecotours. Not only can you explore an area that very few others go to, you benefit from the local expertise of guides who know the area extremely well.
The value of ecotourism for rural communities
To round off this post, I wanted to say something about ecotourism. When done responsibly and ethically, ecotourism generates a much-needed additional income for rural communities around Bogota and throughout Colombia, many of who live lives of subsistence working as small farmers. When people are able to supplement their incomes by engaging with tourism, this offers an alternative to moving to the city in search of work, which many people from rural areas feel forced to do in order to earn a living wage.
Ecotourism creates jobs in these communities. People may choose to work as tour guides, such as our guide Manuel on our Choachi hike. They might rent out their rooms to tourists or they might sell their products (cheese, arepas, coffee, sugar cane and other tasty snacks) to hikers. Ecotourism can make a significant contribution to the economies of local communities, which are often neglected by central government. This is why many of my tour posts focus on promoting ecotourism opportunities in and around Bogota.
I want to take this opportunity to thank my friend Chantelle and our local guide Manuel for taking me on this incredible hike through Choachí. If you want to go hiking near Bogota or are looking for day-trips outside of the city, check out Andes Ecotours’ website.
What’s your favorite hiking spot near Bogota? Let readers know by posting in the comments section below!
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