Get Out of This World
This post is part of Everything to Know Before Visiting Medellin, a collection of no-B.S., unique guides to how to have an unforgettable stay in Colombia.
Even if you’re coming to Colombia for the warm sun, the cold, sometimes freezing, sun of the Colombia paramo is worth packing a jacket for. Indeed, the sun at the Paramo del Sol may have been the most drop-your-jaw-and-forget-to-take-pictures-while-reconsidering-your-place-in-this-world sun we’ve seen.
And it wasn’t just the sun that blew us away on our two-day trek in the Paramo del Sol. There was also the hummingbird beehive, the fairy-tale-worthy moss jungle, the orchids, the views of seemingly all of Colombia, and the high-on-mushrooms-like scenery of the paramo plains. We can’t recommend trekking in the Paramo more highly.
If you’re interested, here’s everything you should know.
Paramo del Sol Trek Guide Outline
This is a big guide, so use the links below to jump directly to sections that most interest you:
Get to Know the Colombian Paramo
For an inspiring overview of the paramo and Colombia’s other amazing ecosystems, we recommend you watch the Planet Earth-like documentary, Colombia: Wild Magic (watch trailer). It’s available on Netflix in many countries.
Quick Facts about the Trek
- Duration: Minimum 7 hours from the base to the top, Alto Campanas. 11 hours or more if you take the less-direct route up and stop along the way, which we recommend.
- Difficulty: Medium-difficult. While our group moaned and groaned about sore legs the day after the trek, we made it up and down with minimal complaint.
- Distance: 14 kilometers on the direct route. We walked the less direct route and made many swamp-avoiding detours that brought our total distance covered to 42 kilometers (a marathon!) over two days—19 km the first day and 23 km the second.
- Elevation: 1,700 m net gain from 2,380 m above sea level at the base to 4,080 m at the top of Alto Campanas.
Paramo del Sol Trek Itinerary
Use this itinerary to get a general idea of the timings for the Paramo del Sol trek and to make sure you don’t miss any highlights.
The timings will obviously depend on your fitness level. Amongst people fit enough to consider doing the trek, our speed was roughly average. Our group of seven—our friends Jorge (owner of Las Cometas Hostel in Jerico), Jess, Oskar (who took all of the best photos in this post), our two guides, Kim, and I—walked at a steady pace, and took two-to-five minute breaks every hour or so. We’re not mountain goats, but we’re not hippos either.
04:10: It begins
Up well before daylight, we showered and had a quick breakfast that Sandra and Laura from Villa Laura (see: Where to Stay in Urrao) had gotten out of bed to prepare for us.
We took a taxi to Urrao’s main square (15,000 COP) and met our guide Toño and his friend Chano. Chano was tagging along to help out free-of-charge. The fact that someone would offer to help guide for free in exchange for the privilege of joining says a lot about how amazing the Paramo del Sol Trek it is.
From the main square, we jumped on the daily 5:20 a.m. chiva—a colorful community bus costing 5,000 COP per person—for the 40-minute ride to the Paramo del Sol trailhead, 2,380 meters above sea level (MASL).
06:10 (Hour 0): Starting off on the wrong
Dawn broke to reveal an overcast, drizzly day. Our guides had on big rubber boots and waterproof bags. We had running shoes with holes in the soles and garbage bags.
We were concerned. But there was no turning back.
Seeing our poorly protected feet, a couple other hikers who left at the same time as us gave us what proved to be sound advice: Your feet are going to get soaked, so don’t bother trying to keep them dry. Give up, let your shoes get soaked, and get to the top faster so you can dry out and warm up your feet sooner.
8:12 (2 hours in): A warm up to the ranger’s station
The first couple of hours of hiking was a good warm up—a gradual uphill mostly through open pasture. We excitedly and nervously approached the mountain that loomed ahead of us.
After an hour-and-a-half, a waterfall with a building below it came into sight. That was to be our first stop, the ranger’s station at the Dusky Starfrontlet Bird Reserve (Official Page | TripAdvisor), 5.2 km and 570 meters above where we started.
8:45: Hummingbird heaven
The hummingbird reserve was the first experience to blew us away.
It was a hummingbird beehive!
There were hundreds of them of all sizes, colors, and beak style fighting over the feeders in front of the lodge. And they weren’t shy. Some even landed on my hat, confusing its bright red color with that of the feeders.
We spent half an hour oohing and ahhing and fruitlessly trying to capture a photo of one on my head.
Important: Unless you want to pay an obscene $50 USD reserve fee, make sure to be in and out of the hummingbird reserve before the ranger gets there at 9 a.m.
10:40 (4.5 hours in): The land of fairy tales
The following section through the woods was the steepest part of the climb.
To keep our minds off the slog, our guide Toño pointed out an abundant variety of orchids and passed around edible and medicinal plants he found along the way—stuff like stinging nettle, wild blackberry, and a mint called poleo. There are so many orchids in this part of the forest that Toño told us one of his friends, a 24-year-old biologist, had discovered four new species himself.
We took a quick break in a clearing with a view of another waterfall and, ten minutes later, entered a land of fairy tales—a forest so overgrown with mossy limbs, vines, and plants that we could hardly tell which way was up.
This made two incredible experiences already, and we hadn’t even made it to the paramo yet.
11:30 (5.5 hours in): Incom-paramo-able scenery
Fifteen minutes from the Lord of the Rings-like land of moss, we emerged into another fairy-tale-like scene: the Paramo del Sol.
We’d seen the videos and photos, but it was only when we saw it with our own eyes that we understood what all the fuss was about. The rolling tundra landscape was covered in fields of yellow-flowered plants called frailejones (see Wikipedia). It was a surreal cross between France’s sunflower fields (the plants are actually related) and Arizona’s cactus fields (except this damp area was the opposite of a desert).
We enjoyed a snack and brewed some coffee on a raised platform before continuing on.
13:20 (7 hours in): Gasping (but not for air)
Our energy was renewed by the hot coffee and the novelty of walking amongst the fields of frailejones. And so what if the weather was wet cloudy and we couldn’t see the valleys below. It added to the atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, it was around this point, as we continued to climb up to a 3,650-meter high crest called El Alto del Burro, that we started to notice the thin air. Fortunately, none of us suffered any ill effects from the altitude. We were probably too busy gasping at the incredible scenery to worry about gasping for air.
13:52: A final challenge
From the top of Alto del Burro, a plateau with lagunas opened up below, backed by a crest of even higher hills. It was down on that plateau that we decided to camp.
Getting down there was the ultimate swampy challenge. At some points, the path sunk into swamps and ponds large enough to support a flock of ducks. Every step was a potential shoe-swallowing disaster. Even the thigh-high tufts of mossy long grass weren’t safe. When we stepped on them they sunk down into the mud like giant marshmallows.
Including all our breaks, it took us 7 hours and 42 minutes to hike from the base to our campsite.
14:24: Setting up
Remarkably, the campsite our guides led us to was completely dry. We could sit on the ground without our butts getting wet and it was flat and perfect for tents.
We gorged on our fiambres (see: Food) while Toño and Chano vanished then reappeared with armfuls of tarps and some cooking gas. They’d dug them up from a secret stash the Paramo del Sol guides use to avoid having to haul the same things up and down.
Rightfully not trusting our ability to set up a surefire waterproof camp, Toño and Chano set everything up for us. This in itself justified the 200,000 COP fee Toño charged for the two days.
18:40: Exploring, resting, warming-up, and eating
Toño took a Kim, Oskar, and Ion a quick tour of a small waterfall and a big boulder near our campsite while Jorge and Jess warmed up in their tent. We then all rested up a bit before cooking up a bare-bones pasta dinner.
19:00 The Moonrise
Just as the day was coming to an end, an extraordinary thing happened:
The sky started to clear up.
On the eastern horizon, over Alto el Burro, the huge front of angry grey clouds was being pushed aside by clear blue sky. It was the opposite of an end-of-the-world storm scene from a movie like The Day After Tomorrow.
Then we saw what looked like a fire blazing on the hill. At least we thought it was a fire. Chris even asked Toño what was going on.
Then we wondered if it was the sun. It was neither. It was the moon!
Who knows if it was because at our altitude we were closer to the stars or what, but without exaggeration, it was the biggest, brightest full moon we’d ever seen. Until then we didn’t know moon-rises were a thing.
19:40: Getting cold and getting in bed
As the moon rose over the horizon and shrunk into the stars, the cold hit our weak, tropical Colombia acclimated bodies hard. Since Toño and Chano were unable to keep a fire going, we all hurried into our tents to warm up and rest up for even more hiking the next day.
4:45: Is this worth it?
After a second-straight 4 a.m. alarm, we fought our bodies’ self-preservation instincts, crawled out of our sleeping bags, put on every layer of clothes we could, and slipped on our freezing, soaking shoes.
Our destination was Alto Campanas, the highest point in Antioquia.
We all wondered if all this pain would be worth it.
(Spoiler: It was.)
6:00: Misery to majesty
The first thirty minutes of our hike was pure misery.
Despite the full moon, we couldn’t see a thing on the path, making it impossible to dodge the swamps. Soaked and muddy with the temperature hovering just above freezing, our feet become numb, and so did our brains as we stumbled forward blindly.
But then came the light.
As we crested the hill above our campsite, the sun started to peek out from the horizon to the east. At the same time, the full moon hovered on the western horizon behind us and the skies above us and cloud-covered valleys of Antioquia below lit up with color.
We stopped shivering with cold and shuddered with delight at the unprecedented beauty all around us.
7:30: The top of Antioquia
The rest of the climb up to Alto Campanas was along mostly dry mountain ridges. We’d see a peak ahead, ask Toño if that was our destination and he’d say it’s the next one. Then it was the next one. Then the next.
The fourth peak was, finally, Alto Campanas.
7:50: Alto Campanas
At 4,080 meters above sea level, Alto Campanas is the highest point in Antioquia.
From the top, we could see the craggy peaks of the Farallones, the Choco jungle that leads to the Pacific Ocean, the plains of the Paramo del Sol, and the city of Urrao.
There are a couple campsites at Alto Campanas, but we were glad we’d decided to camp down below. While the views from these campsites were undoubtedly more impressive than from ours, the ground was muddy and we doubted we would’ve been able to tolerate the extra cold of being 500 meters higher.
9:40: Back to camp and packing up
Since we had to make it all the way back to Medellin that evening, we hustled back down to our campsite. It took just under two hours to return from Alto Campanas to our campsite, where we quickly packed up our gear and started back towards the real world.
14:21: A speedy descent
To make it down as fast as possible, we took a much less scenic but much more direct route down (see Alternate Routes below).
Other than taking short bathroom and snack breaks every hour or so, we plowed ahead.
We made it down from our camp to the base in only four hours, half the time it took us to get up.
While we did the Paramo del Sol trek in two days, camping near Alto del Burro, you can consider these alternate itineraries as well:
Alternate 2-Day Itinerary
Instead of stopping at the plateau below Alto del Burro like we did, you could continue on to Alto Campanas and camp there. Two guys who started at the same time as us did so. They went at the same pace we did and arrived at 16:15, ten hours after starting the hike.
The upsides of camping at Alto Campanas is you’ll have more time to enjoy your second day and, if the weather is clear, have an amazing valley and sunset views.
The downsides are you have to carry your stuff an extra 7 km from Alto del Burro to Alto Campanas, the campsite is higher (so colder) and wetter, and the sunrise views to the east aren’t as good.
Some were happy with our choice to camp where we did, while others thought we should have continued on. Decide for yourself once you get to the first camp.
If we were to go to the Paramo del Sol again, we’d stay for an extra day. It’s more relaxed and lets you explore the Colombian paramo more fully.
On the second day, you can do a 16km extended loop to Alto Campanas and back, passing by some waterfalls and canyons. Then, on the third day, you can avoid the misery of a freezing wet-footed early morning hike and have a more relaxed hike back down to civilization.
Plus, with an extra day, you increase your chances of having a clear sunrise, moonrise, and sunset.
There are three different routes from the base to the Paramo del Sol. We recommend you follow the itinerary we did, taking the Hummingbird Route up and the Direct Route down, but you might choose otherwise depending on how much time you have.
This route past the hummingbird reserve and the moss forest is the western (left) path marked out here on Wikiloc. In terms of steepness and distance, it falls in between the other two routes.
Be sure to make it past the ranger station before 9 a.m. or else be prepared to pay the
50 USD reserve entrance fee (or a much more reasonable 20,000 COP for Colombians). [APR 2019 UPDATE: According to Diana in the comments, the fee is now a much more reasonable COP50,000.]
This is the route to take if you’re in a rush to get up to the Paramo del Sol or back down. “Camino 14,” as our guide said it’s called, is the route mules have been taking ever since potato farmers lived in the paramo over a hundred years ago.
We walked—ok stumbled—down it and were glad we didn’t come up it. It’s steep. And it’s not particularly beautiful, especially since we had to keep our heads down, focused on the loose rocks on the path to avoid breaking our ankles. We could have passed right under a family of spectacled bears without even knowing.
Camino 14 isn’t all bad though. At times the path is so eroded you walk in a dramatic three-meter high moss-covered gulley.
If you download Wikiloc and pay 2.99 USD for the three-month subscription, you can use this map to guide you on GPS.
Slow but Steady Route
This third option is called Camino 15. We didn’t take it and couldn’t find anyone who’d recorded the route on WIkiloc, but according to our guide, it’s the slowest, most relaxed way to get up to the Paramo del Sur.
You might consider this route if you’re doing a three-day trek since you’ll have more time to get up and down.
What to Pack for the Colombian Paramo
If you’re worried about having the right gear for a Paramo del Sol trek, you’re right.
We were definitely worried. We came to Colombia to chill in tropical weather, not freeze in the alpine cold. But even though we didn’t have ideal camping gear, we survived.
Chris packed everything from his minimalist packing list minus the electronics, shorts, and sleeveless shirts, and adding in a warm hat. Aside from those clothes, here’s what else you should consider packing.
- Food – See Food section below
- Cooking stove – If you hire a guide, they will be able to provide one, but confirm with them in advance nevertheless.
- Tent – The guide can provide a tent if you don’t have one. Ask in advance.
- Sleeping bag – Our guides were unable to provide these.
- Sleeping mat – We forgot about sleeping mats and paid the consequences with a freezing cold sleep.
- Waterproof covers for gear – If you don’t have proper waterproof covers for your packs, garbage bags will do the trick. Bring extras just in case.
Makes the Trek Much Better
- Waterproof boots – Your feet and ill-equipped running shoes will thank you.
- Crocs sandals – We were all jealous when we met a guy at Alto Campanas wearing a cozy pair of dry socks in Crocs sandals.
- A warm hat – Also known as a toque in Canadian. You’ll want this at night and in the early morning when temperatures hover around freezing.
- Extra socks – …Especially if you don’t have waterproof boots. No matter how many pairs you bring, you’ll use them all.
- Bright colors – My red hat was a beacon for hummingbirds. A few even landed on it, probably mistaking it for one of the feeders of the same color. The more you look like a flower, the more you attract hummingbirds.
Make your hike easier by not packing more food than you need, but bring some luxuries if you’d like. The hike up to the Paramo del Sol isn’t so hard you need to ration down to the last grain of rice or anything.
For example, we brought a 250 ml. juice box of rum up and mightily appreciated taking fiery swallows at night when it was too wet to get our campfire going.
Here’s the food we brought:
- 1st day lunch: Fiambres from El Punto de Sabor in Urrao’s town square (see: Map and Urrao Info below). Though our guide said these were like tamales, they’re better described as bandeja Paisas wrapped in a banana leaf. They had rice, potato, chicharron, ground beef, a big chorizo. They were so big Chris suspected the name “fiambre” was derived from a mash-up of “finita la hambre.”
- Dinner: Dried pasta with a salsa made from powdered pasta sauce and powdered milk and some chopped up garlic.
- Drinks: Rum, Water.
- Breakfast: Granola and granola bars.
Don’t worry about water. Streams with fresh, clean water are abundant. We, and the others we met en route, all drank from it and we promise we’re not writing this from a toilet seat.
How to Find a Guide?
We’ve added this section because many readers have asked in the comments how we got in touch with our guide, Toño.
Unfortunately, we can’t help much. Our friend Jorge organized the trip and got Toño’s contact through Laura at Villa Laura (see Where to Stay below). We had Toño’s Facebook contact for a while, but he recently took his page down.
Until we find a direct contact to Toño or another guide, our best advice is to contact Laura, who is as hospitable as they come and will help you out.
Do You Need a Guide?
We first thought 200,000 COP was overpriced for a guide, but it turned out to be an excellent investment.
Without Toño and Chano we wouldn’t have known the best routes and where the best water sources are, had access to the secret stash of gear and tarps on the paramo, learned interesting facts about the flora and fauna, and had the number of a taxi to pick us up after the hike.
But if you’re an experienced hiker, have all the gear, and can find whichever route you want to follow on Maps.Me or elsewhere, and rather sacrifice on local knowledge to save money, you could get away without a guide.
How to Get to Urrao and the Paramo del Sol
Medellin to Urrao
Buses to Urrao leave from Medellin’s south terminal, take five hours, and cost about 30,000 pesos. Three different bus companies cover the route (contact info here).
Important: Beware that the last bus from Urrao to Medellin leaves at 4 p.m.
If you come by car, it can take four hours instead of five to get between Medellin and Urrao, but you’ll probably take longer because you’ll want to stop along the way to properly absorb sights such as Cerro Tusa, the world’s tallest natural pyramid (which you can hike) and the death-defyingly steep coffee farms around Betulia.
Urrao to the Paramo del Sol Trailhead
The trailhead for the Paramo del Sol is about 40 minutes from town at what’s called la Terminal de Chuscal. You have three options to get there:
- Chiva: The public bus/cargo-vehicle/colorful-crate-on-wheels leaves daily at 5:15 a.m. and returns to town at 3:30 p.m.
- Taxi: From town it costs 50,000 to 60,000 COP
- Your own car: There is a small parking lot at the trailhead. It’s unguarded, but the owners of the four cars that were parked there when we went by didn’t seem to mind.
Tip: Write down the number of the taxis before setting off on your Paramo del Sol trek so that you can call one in advance to pick you up at the bottom of the hill.
Where to Stay in Urrao
For Unparalleled Hospitality:
To give you a couple examples, she made us breakfast at 4 a.m. before we set off on our hike and offered us hot tea, an empty room, and towels to clean up and warm up after our trek even though we weren’t staying there.
Villa Laura’s rooms are tidy, in great shape, and affordable (about 60,000 COP per person per night).
For Convenient Location:
If you come by bus, you’re better off staying in town. We would’ve stayed at Hotel Colonial Urrao (Booking.com | Google Reviews) because it has great reviews and an ideal location right on Urrao’s main square, where the chivas and taxis leave for the trailhead.
Help us help you: Wherever you stay in Urrao, if you book on Booking.com after clicking our links to the site, you’ll be thanking us for this guide by rewarding us with a small percent of the booking at no extra cost to you.
Where to Eat in Urrao
Healthy Pre-Hike Food
Eco Tienda Urrao (Facebook Page | Google Reviews) uses local ingredients to prepare both vegetarian and meat-based meals. Service was slow but friendly. Even us meat-eaters preferred the veggie burger to the meat one.
Hearty Hike Food
Urrao’s famous artisanal treat is called queso dulce. Maybe it’s called queso because there’s milk in it, but it’s not cheese. It’s fudge. You can buy bricks of it all over town. We got some from the house right beside Villa Laura for 1,000 COP a brick, a third the price it was in town. It went well with tea.
For your reference, here’s a summary of some of the expenses you can expect on a Paramo del Sol trek:
- 200,000 COP total for a guide (2 days), including all the gear he can help you get (Dec 2019 Update: A reader in the comments says they paid 300k for 3 days and got a stay and dinner with with Toño’s mom the night before included.)
- 60,000 COP per person per night at Villa Laura
- 10,000 COP fiambres from Punto del Sabor
- 30,000 COP bus from Medellin to Urrao
- 5,000 COP chiva from Urrao to the Paramo del Sol trailhead
- 50,000 COP taxi from Urrao to the Paramo del Sol trailhead
- 11,000 COP dinner of a veggie burger with fries and salad from Eco Tienda restaurant in Urrao
Can Anything Top the Colombian Paramo?
In a literal sense, there’s not much that can top the Colombian Paramo. The Paramo del Sol is the highest point in Antioquia after all.
But there are lots of adventures that come close—including hikes to waterfalls, pyramids, and prisons. And most are easily doable as day trips from Medellin. See our extensive list of hike guides here.
And if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions to share with other readers, please share them in the comments!