Parque Nacional Puracé

.The National Park contains Volcán Puracé (4646 m), Pan de Azúcar (4670 m) with its permanent snow summit, and the line of nine craters known as the Volcanes los Coconucos. A strenuous two-day hike can be made around the summits. The park also encompasses the sources of four of Colombia's greatest rivers: the Magdalena, Cauca, Caquetá and Patía. Virtually all the park is over 3000 m and covers an area of 86,600 ha. The Andean Condor is being reintroduced to the wild here from Californian zoos, and there are many other birds to be seen. The park's fauna include the spectacled bear and mountain tapir. Pilimbalá is a good base from which to explore the northern end of the park, where there are Páez settlements. Although much of the park is
, there are also many species of orchids to be found. For those who do not wish to make the strenuous climb up Volcán Puracé there are many waterfalls, lakes and some technicolour sulphur pools to visit.

Ins and outs

All these places beyond Puracé village can be reached by any bus from Popayán to La Plata or Garzón. The last bus returning to Popayán in daylight leaves the visitor centre at about 1700. The bus service can be erratic so be prepared to spend a cold night at 3000 m. The Park is open all week, but reduced service on Monday. From Popayán a road crosses the Central Cordillera to Garzón on the paved highway south of Neiva. At Km 18 from Popayán, the road turning up to the right (south) leads to Coconuco and San Agustín .

Around the park

The valley road climbs to the small town of
, at Km 12 (30 km from Popayán), which has several old buildings. Behind the school a path leads for 500 m to Chorrera de las Monjas waterfalls on the Río Vinagre, notable for the milky white water due to concentrations of sulphur and other minerals. At Km 22, look for the spectacular San Francisco waterfall on the opposite side of the valley. At Km 23 is the turning right to Puracé sulphur mines (6 km) which can be visited by applying to
Industrias Puracé SA
, or, better still, through the Popayán tourist office. About 1 km along this road is a turning left leading in 1.5 km to
in the Puracé National Park. There are several buses daily to Puracé from Popayán, the last returning about 1730. At Pilimbalá saloon cars will struggle up the last stretch to the centre, but it is an easy 2.5 km walk from Km 23.

The walk to the
Cascada de San Nicolás
from Pilimbalá is recommended, turn right when you see the abandoned cabin and continue steadily uphill through very muddy terrain, rubber boots advisable. The waterfall is spectacular, take care on the slippery overhanging rocks. At Km 37, the visitor centre has a good geology/ethnology museum. The rangers are very helpful and will allow you to stay there..

Half an hour's walk past the visitor centre on the road to La Plata are the Termales de San Juan. The toxic, sulphurous gases released by these hot pools means that swimming is not advisable but a walkway allows for a tour through the colourful mosses and algae surrounding the bubbling, multi-coloured pools and along the milky-white streams that run off them. There's a basic place to eat where the bus stops and a cabin with information about the National Park..

Climbing Volcán Puracé

The hike to the summit is demanding; loose ash makes footholds difficult. Avoid getting down wind of the fumaroles, and do not be tempted to climb down into the crater. Although the best weather is reported to be December to March and July to August, this massif makes its own climate, and high winds, rain and sub-zero temperatures can come in quickly at any time. A marked trail goes from behind the park office and eventually joins the road leading to a set of telecommunications antennae. These installations are no longer guarded by the military
but the area around them is mined; don't take shortcuts
. The summit is about one hour beyond the military buildings. Start early; the total time from Pilimbalá is at least four hours up and 2½ down, and you may need to take shelter if there is a sudden storm. Rangers will not allow you to start after 1200. An alternative route is from the sulphur mine (at 3000 m), or driving, with permission, to the military base. It is also possible to walk round the crater (30 minutes). Rope and crampons are useful above the snowline if you want to continue to Pan de Azúcar and the Coconucos. For this trek, high-altitude camping and mountaineering equipment are required and a guide is strongly recommended. A descent over the
to Paletará on the Popayán-San Agustín road is also possible.

Continuing on the main road to La Plata, at Km 31 there is a viewpoint for Laguna Rafael, at Km 35 the Cascada de Bedón (also chemically charged water) and at Km 37 the entrance to the most northerly part of the Puracé National Park where there is another park centre.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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