Chingaza, a Mighty Páramo

Clouds sleeping over mountain tops are waking up with strong winds. Petting plants, grasses, shrubs, and lakes, they move softly and furious over a humid cold tropical landscape. Their mist diffuses and unveils silent skies, bromeliads fields, and meditating lakes. A place where the clouds travel as rivers, circumventing mountain edges, searching for lakes, frailejones, frogs and spectacled bears. This is the páramo, where the clouds sleep, flow, and disolve, dropping water into plants, lakes and soils. Cold, humid, and with sudden changes in weather, the páramo is a place for connecting with nature, with the cycle of water and life.

Chingaza mountain chain

In several tropical areas of the Andean mountains, between the treeline and the glaciers, at high altitudes beyond 3000 meters above the sea level (12,500 feet), there is a wonderful ecosystem called the “páramo.” Páramos are factories of water, complex ecosystems of plants, soils, and animals that collect water from fog, drizzle, and melting glaciers, storage it, and then release it in rivers, creeks, and lakes.

Last weekend we visited the páramo de Chingaza which is located at a National Park 60km east of Bogotá, approximately at one and a half hours drive from the Chapinero neighborhood. Beyond the eastern hills of Bogota that act as a natural wall closing the field of view through the horizon, there are in fact more mountains. More mountains with higher elevations extend towards the east as part of of the Cordillera Oriental (eastern mountain chain). It is in this higher mountains, where Chingaza is located. With a system of 20 lakes, a rich flora and fauna, this paramo was in pre-columbian times a sacred place for the Muiscas, the indigenous people that inhabited this territory. According to the mythology, the name Chingaza means “serranía del dios de la noche¨ (mountains of the night god). Since 1977, the páramo de Chingaza and its surroundings, became a National Park and a protected area (189,000 acres). Among the 34 páramos that exist in Colombia, Chingaza is of crucial importance to the City of Bogotá, since it provides 80% of the water that people consumes.

Trail of Laguna Seca

Breathing, seeing, smelling, and walking the Chingaza páramo is a fantastic experience (trails for hiking vary in difficulty). The ecosystem and the landscape are full of life and inspiration. Surrounded by mountains, immersed in clouds and fog, covered by a miriad of diverse small plants, lakes and creeks, Chingaza allows the visitor to connect with nature in a powerful way. On the one hand the visitor can experience the beauty of a dreamlike landscape, constantly changing with the fog, creating surprises as the light and winds morph. On the other, the visitor can also connect with nature in an spiritual manner, feeling its force, magic, and power.

The fog constantly comes and goes, unveiling the edges of the high mountains, the silver leaves of the frailejones , the surface of hills, the contours of lakes, and sometimes even the silhouette of animals such as Andean spectacled bears (Oso de Anteojos) and deers.

Laguna Seca
Laguna seca swamps

The frailejon (espeletia) is a fascinating native plant of the Andean páramos. With different sizes and textures, the frailejones, cover the soil of the páramo with their unique thick trunks and hairy leaves organized in spiral patterns. Their popular name, is a reference to the word “monk” in Spanish, the “frailes” of religious communities such as Dominicos and Franciscanos. Their technical name, “espeletia” was given by Botanic Expeditions from Nueva Granada in honor to the virrey Jose Manuel de Ezpeleta. The flower of the frailejones, that blooms every two years, seems to have a hood that surrounds it, protecting it from the cold, and also collecting the vapor and water drops of the clouds.

The fields of blooming frailejones sometimes appeared during our visit, painting with yellow dots the misty landscape. At a close distance the flowers appeared also like sunflowers, signaling the lineage of this plants. The frailejón is part of the sunflower family, a distant cousin of the sunflower that grows at the high altitudes of the Andes.

Frailejones field
Blooming Frailejon
Frailejon flowers hoods

Although not that abundant as the frailejones, there are many “bromeliads” scattered through the páramo. One of them, known locally as the “puya,” is a favorite food of the spectacled bear.

Bromeliad gigantic bud

At one point of the trail, a tall bromeliad called my attention because of some of their leaves formed a long bud. As I approached to it to take a closer look, I spotted a green frog sitting in one of their leaves. The green frog breathed. While twinkling, the frog showed a golden eyelid.

Andean paramo frog

Rediscovering the páramo was fantastic. It has passed more than 20 years since my last visit to this kind of ecosystem. The last time I visited a páramo in Colombia was at the Iguaque lake in Boyacá, close to Villa de Leyva. My memories of the páramo did not recall the majesty of the landscape, its silent force and magnificence. In my memory, what I remembered was mainly the vegetation, small plants and frailejon scattered through the top of a mountain. The short visit to Chingaza, and the two trails we walked, revealed to me the páramo at another scale.

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