The Páramo – Where Tropics Meet Glacier!
I know, I know, snow in Colombia!? Oh yes, it can be found and the areas where it is found are host to a very rare climate zone known as the Páramo.
Páramos are a high-alpine tundra ecosystem that only exist in South and Central America. Most of them are actually in the northern part of the Colombian Andes, but there are others in Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Panama. They are the most recent climate zone to develop, and they will also be the first to disappear. How lucky for us that we are here during their short lifespan on planet earth!
Páramos developed as a result of climate change after the last Ice Age. As temperatures began to warm up, the Páramo was created as the hot tropical wind came crashing into the frigid glacier. Parts of the glacier slid down the mountain, creating deep canyons that essentially became wind tunnels. For this reason, the curious plants that started to grow here are dwarfish in nature and unlike any others that you have likely seen.
The Plants and Flowers
Because of these rare conditions, the plants have all taken rare forms as well. There are strange, short trees called Fraylijones that look like they are straight out of the Lorax! (What is it with Colombia and Dr. Seussian plants?!) Their furry exteriors aren’t just for looks, these small trees gather any moisture they can from the ever-present humid winds — snatching their lifeline from the air!
There are also many tiny yellow and purple flowers know as Arnica. They dot the landscape throughout most of the hike until you reach the rocky area before the glacier, the superpáramo. The guide was also saying something about how these flowers either had medicinal… or maybe it was poisonous… properties when consumed… I apologize, my Spanish isn’t perfect and I was honestly a little distracted by the scenery. Los Pinche Gringos advise you NOT to eat them 🙂
You will also find strange spongy plants and tiny trees among the straw-colored, grassy fields of the Páramo. These conditions aren’t exactly lush, rather they are quite tough! A tiny tree we passed was actually 400 years old… the hard knock life.
This is the last section before you reach the glacier. Conditions become too harsh for vegetation and the cold winds start to chill you to the bone on your final ascent… Ok, I hate the cold… it’s not like Everest or anything, but it was cold for some of us! This is where the canyon becomes quite distinct and jagged, showing the rough edges the glacier had as it carved into the earth, sliding down the hill.
It has been shrinking rapidly in the past few decades. There is a spray painted rock where they marked the glacier in the 80s, the new glacier line is several hundred meters up the hill… You’d better visit quick! In between the jagged rocks, you will find fresh glacier melt lakes and creeks. Glacier melt always has this crazy green color!
There is still quite a bit of glacier to see, and we got lucky to have a small 10-minute window to see the final Isabela peak! As we were a gang of tourists with minimal gear, we opted not to summit the peak and chance falling into the glacier. Becoming a Colombian popsicle for a hundred years, only to be found and thawed out again later, didn’t exactly seem like a life goal of mine. I believe there are more extreme tours to summit it though if you like taking chances!
The San Isabel Páramo Trek Video
Take the tour and see the amazing, rare Páramo!
The tour left at 5 A.M. and was a long day, arriving back after 6 P.M. It is about a 3 hour drive each way, but our tour included a breakfast and dinner stop along the way, plus a small sandwich reward for completing the trek. The hike is also rather intense at points where you will hike straight up without switchbacks! However, it is likely a different trek due to its unique nature and will be well worth the effort! You can find several tour agencies leaving from Pereira and Manizales that will take you there and guide you through the sites! Good luck!!