Volcano Purace: Hiking in The National Park to Observe Condors

Ever found yourself at the brink of dawn in Popayan‘s bus terminal, scrambling for the right information to traverse the untamed wilderness of the Volcán Purace and its National Park?

Trust me, I’ve been there, and as a Colombia expert since 2015 who spent two invigorating days in the park, I’ve got the low-down on all the insider tips you need.

Whether you’re a condor-watching enthusiast or an avid volcano-hiker, I’ve got you covered. Buckle up for an easy-peasy adventure in Purace National Park, all curated in this article.

Edit 03.2024: You can’t hike to the Volcano Purace. It’s closed.

Who are we 👋

Since 2015, Adrien, Alejandra, and I (Tom) have been helping travelers explore Colombia. Here, you will find everything you need to fall in love with this beautiful country easily.

How to get to the Purace National Park

Adrien break Laguna Volcano Purace

To start your adventure, you’ll need to be an early bird. Be ready at Popayan’s bus terminal by 4:40 a.m. for the 5 a.m. bus from Sotracauca – a timing that fluctuates depending on passenger count. This, my friend, is the quintessential Colombian way.

On my trip, I spotted a family at the bus station who had rented a private vehicle for roughly 100 USD – a viable option if you’re planning to spend just a day at Purace National Park.

Ensure to inform the driver about your stop at the park’s entrance. After a chilly two-hour drive on a dirt road, you’ll be dropped off at El Crucero de la Mina. From here, strap on your hiking boots for a brisk 30-minute hike to Pilimbala, the official entrance of the park.

At Pilimbala, you’ll be required to pay a park entrance fee of approximately 10 USD and hire a local guide for about 10 USD per day for the group.

Once done, it’s time to get your adventure hat on and pick your day trip inside the National Park. If you’re up for it, you can even opt to do both – just like we did – with an overnight stay for a full, immersive experience.

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Day 1: Adventure in the Purace National Park

Dog Volcano Purace

Your first destination?

A beautiful day through the Purace National Park, an unmissable spot for any nature lover. A 16km hike awaits you, but don’t be daunted – the path is flat, and the vistas are worth every step.

Marvel at the Majestic Condors

Andean Condor Volcano Purace

Get your day started early, heading out from Pilimbala by 9 a.m.

Timing is key here, as you’re about to witness an incredible sight: the feeding of the Andean condors. These majestic creatures, some of the largest birds on the planet, are part of a reintegration project from a zoo in the U.S.

Their morning meal (from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.) is provided by park employees, and let’s just say, these birds of prey make for quite the spectacle with their 3-meter wingspans and 15kg bodies.

A word of advice from someone who’s seen it firsthand – you don’t want to miss this extraordinary event. It’s the reason I recommend Purace National Park to anyone visiting Colombia.

Once the show is over, try to catch a bus to the fabulous Termales de San Juan. Just remember to check with your local guide about the bus schedules.

Discover the Colourful hot springs de San Juan

Termales de San Juan is up next, and trust me, it’s a sight for sore eyes. Imagine more than 50 thermal pools, nestled within Cauca’s breathtaking landscapes, each more vibrant than the last. The sulfur and surrounding vegetation create a riot of colors. But remember, as tempting as those pools may look, they are not for swimming.

With a guide, you’ll explore this surreal place in about 30 minutes. The path is well marked, and the views? Simply out of this world.

Embark on a 16km Trek Amidst Nature

Now to the final leg of your day – the 16km hike between San Juan and El Crucero—yes, you’ll make the same journey in the opposite direction as the one you just made with the bus. A moderately challenging hike, the path’s rocky terrain is surrounded by rolling hills and shrouded in mist, offering a sense of serenity and solitude.

This trail takes you through diverse landscapes, from paramo and sub-paramo to cloud forests. You’ll encounter small waterfalls and old ruins, with highlights like el bebedero de las Dantas, la cascada Bedón, and the magnificentValle de Frailejones.

Make use of the kilometer markers on the road to monitor your progress. While some finish the hike in 5 hours, the fit and experienced could complete it in about 3. Just remember, the high altitude can be challenging, so listen to your body and pace yourself.

This trek may not be for thrill-seekers, but for those who appreciate the tranquility and beauty of nature, it’s a rewarding experience.

That’s it for Day 1 in Colombia, folks.

Day 2: Hike the Volcano Purace

Purace Volcano Hike Adrien

This is the day when you become a true adventurer, embarking on the ascent of the Puracé volcano—a solid 4700m above sea level.

My travel companion, Adrien, and I, kick-started the trek from the refuge at the unearthly hour of 2 a.m., aiming to conquer the summit by 6 a.m. for a magical sunrise.

Spoiler alert: The weather had other plans. Cloudy skies and an icy wind meant no sunrise view. But, as they say, nature always has a way of compensating. As we descended, the weather cleared, and we were greeted by awe-inspiring views of Nevado del Huila, the tallest volcano in Colombia.

Purace Volcano Hike Adrien
Waiting for the sunrise ^^

Our guide, a sprightly 65-year-old from the local indigenous community, led the way. His pace? Think of a mountain goat on a caffeine high.

For early bird trekkers like us, it’s advisable to sleep on-site the night before. However, be prepared for the long walk.

If you’re not keen on the early start, there’s a more popular option:

Set off with your guide around 8 a.m. and consider availing private transport to the military base (perched at 4050 meters above sea level). This not only saves you a 5km walk but also shaves off about 2.5 hours from your trek (one-way). However, the van won’t be for free ;).

From the military base, brace yourself for a rocky terrain. It’s not exactly a mountaineer’s delight, but neither is it a leisurely stroll. The 500m-wide crater is about a 2-hour hike away.

If Lady Luck is on your side and the weather cooperates, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the steaming crater and the majestic Andean ranges. But let’s keep it real; the weather can be unpredictable—ranging from wet and windy to freezing cold.

Headed back to Popayán?

Road Purace National Park

If you’ve embarked on this journey solo, hop on the bus to el Crucero de la Mina. The bus schedule (which should be verified with the refuge) is as follows: 11h30, 13h30 & 16h00.

But a word of caution: The schedules aren’t the most reliable. So, don’t be surprised if you find yourself flagging down the occasional passing jeep.

Overnighting at Purace National Park

Refuge Purace National Park

Pilimbala, the rustic refuge within the park, offers a cozy cluster of 3-4 wooden cabins, providing shelter for roughly 20 nature enthusiasts. While you may have to forgo the luxury of hot water baths, the cabins are equipped with substantial wool blankets (although their laundry history may be questionable) to combat the nippy night air.

During my stay, the refuge exuded a pleasant vibe, coupled with a decent food service that helped refuel after a day of exploring. A bonus? A hot spring nearby, perfect for a soothing dip to ease your weary muscles.

While there’s usually enough room, it’s always wise to reserve a spot, particularly if you plan a weekend visit. Getting in touch with them will be challenging, but here’s the number I used during my visit: 313 705 57 07 (in 2019).

The tariff won’t burn a hole in your pocket. Expect to shell out approximately 5 USD for lodging and an additional 3 USD for meals (as per 2019 prices).

The Magic of Purace National Park: A Snapshot

Andean Condor Purace National Park

Puracé isn’t just another national park; it’s a treasure trove of natural wonders waiting to be discovered. Here’s why it should make it to your Colombian itinerary.

Volcanic Vistas and More

  • The Quechua translation of Puracé is “Mountain of Fire,” perfectly encapsulating its volcanic character.
  • Traddling across several municipalities in the departments of Cauca and Huila, the park is a part of the Macizo Colombiano.
  • It spans an impressive 83,000 hectares.
  • Temperatures here oscillate between 12°C and a biting -2°C, so pack accordingly.
  • The park is the cradle of Colombia’s most important rivers like Magdalena, Cauca, and Caquetá.
  • Puracé is one of the most active volcanoes in Colombia, with its peak soaring almost 4700m above sea level.

A Bounty of Biodiversity

  • The park is a haven for birdwatchers, with species like the lofty Andean condor, vibrant hummingbirds, and ducks calling it home.
  • It’s not just the birds; diverse mammals like spectacled bears, deer, and pumas can be spotted too—if you’re (very) lucky.
  • Puracé’s vegetation is a mix of endangered species like the Colombian pine and wax palm, along with a striking páramo.

Tips Puracé National Park

Tom and Adrien Purace National Park

Don’t skip this section before planning your trip to the Purace Volcano.

Staying Ahead: Know if Puracé is Welcoming Guests

→ With Puracé still an active volcano, its welcoming status can be as unpredictable as the breath of the giant itself. Keep an eye on this real-time volcano activity trackerto stay informed of its mood swings. A change in its color code could mean a temporary closure of the park.

– The indigenous community considers Puracé a sacred site and may occasionally choose to close its doors.

When in doubt, tap into the local grapevine. Popayan Tours are your go-to local experts.

Packing Tips for the Perfect Puracé Adventure

  • Cash is king at Puracé. Leave your credit cards at home.
  • Keep a copy of your passport handy.
  • Ever tried spotting a colibri with bare eyes? Binoculars are a must.
  • Pack snacks. The only restaurant you’ll find here is nestled in the refuge.
  • Trusty hiking shoes to brave the rugged terrains.
  • A rain jacket to befriend the unpredictable weather.
  • Warm clothes to keep the high-altitude chill at bay.

When to Visit Puracé National Park

As the world grapples with climate change, predicting the perfect weather window can be tricky. If you’re a fan of statistics, aim for December to March. These months tend to be generous with clear skies.

Preparing for the Altitude

Hydrate like a Pro: Start hydrating even before you hit the trail. Carry ample water and consider packing Gatorade, agua de panela, or agua de coca. These are your secret weapons against high altitudes. Don’t drink booze.

Pace Yourself: Resist the urge to race against the mountain. It might feel like a thrilling challenge, but the aftermath can be a throbbing headache.

Brace for Altitude Sickness: The high-altitude air can play tricks on your body. Pack pills for headaches or dizziness. It’s better to be over-prepared than caught off guard.

Better To Speak Spanish

Between the rather haphazard public transport and the fact that the park is run by an indigenous community, I’d advise you to speak as well as Garcia Marquez if you want to enjoy this adventure without a Popayan agency.

A review of the Puracé National Park by Chris

Andean Condor Purace National Park (1)

Tomplanmytrip has bought out SeeColombia.Travel, and we’ve decided to republish the article Chris published in 2015. Don’t follow his recommendations, as they’re outdated. But enjoy the description of his adventure!

The town of Popayan, the capital of the Cauca department, is famous for many things: its gastronomy, gorgeous whitewashed walls, and UNESCO status. What fewer people know, though, is that Popayan is surrounded by stunning scenery, fascinating cultural heritage, and wonderful wildlife. There are several excellent day trips that can be made from the white city, and ranking among the best of those is a day hiking in Puracé National Park.

My day in the Puracé National Natural Park

Puracé is a volcano located a couple of hours away from Popayan (theoretically, you can see it from the city on a clear day, but this region doesn’t get an overwhelming number of those).

The volcano itself can be climbed with a good level of fitness and a guide, but I didn’t manage to make it to the summit this time (although, to be fair, I didn’t actually try) – the plan is to go back and have a crack at the summit during the better weather. What I did do, though, was hike the gorgeous 16km trail through the national park surrounding the volcano, famous for its paramo landscapes, birdlife, and mist-shrouded waterfalls. I have hiked a lot in Colombia, and Puracé was a stunning addition to those hikes, well-worth the small cost, and sore legs for anyone with a day to spare in Cauca.

Leaving with the public bus

To start with – the practicalities: this tour is easy to do. Buses are not all that regular, but there are departures with Sotracauca and Translaplatena. I took the 6:30am bus (which is recommended by most hostels in Popayan), from the office over the Puente del Humilladero (N.B. this isn’t the bus terminal; check the location beforehand); this bus (more of a colectivo truck, really) took about an hour and a half, and cost the princely sum of 10.000 COP. Remember to tell the driver to drop you off at Termales de San Juan.

After a cramped and bumpy journey, punctuated by regular projectile vomiting sessions from 6 of the 12 members of a Guambiano family crammed in there with me, we pulled up at the ranger station of the national park at about 8:30am, and I jumped out, ready to meet the ranger and start my hike. No such luck; the station was deserted, and, shrouded in mist, reminded me a little bit of an outtake from one of the less popular Jurassic Park movies. Well, you can’t say I didn’t try to pay them; I spent about 10 minutes knocking on the door before realizing that the padlock on the outside probably meant that whoever loved there was out. No matter, time to start hiking.

A beautiful hike in the Puracé National Natural Park

The route is easy to follow – it’s back the way you came! A lovely, rambling 15km hike along the rocky road that fringes the park takes you through a variety of changing habitats, from paramo to sub-paramo and cloud forest. It’s a quiet, almost eerie trek, punctuated by the occasional motorbike, and the aforementioned buses making their scheduled trip along the road. There’s not much to do but amble along and enjoy the solitude and scenery, which is exactly up my street…I would suggest that if you’re someone who needs action, this might not be for you.

 Along the path, you occasionally pass a few small waterfalls, and the crumbling remains of what I assume was once a Guambiano homestead; other than that, it’s just frailejones, mist, and the occasional mountain tanager. Conveniently, the road is marked by kilometer stones, so you can track your progress; they say it takes 5 hours to do the 15km hike, I took more like 3, but it depends on fitness levels, I suppose; it’s pretty high altitude. The scenery is stunning, in a simple sort of way; no snow-capped mountains straining to the sky, just rolling hills, bogs, and mist…it sort of reminded me of how people imagine Ireland must look.

The hike (as laid out by most hostels) ends at the Condor viewpoint. I should explain: if the ranger had been home, I would have asked him to be there at the end of my hike to feed the condors. Puracé is one of the best places to observe Colombia’s national bird in the wild, and they will commonly come and land close to guests when some slabs of meat are offered up on the condor viewing rock. As the ranger wasn’t home, I, unfortunately, missed out on feeding time but was still treated to spectacular views of a huge adult male condor soaring through his natural habitat. There can’t be many more stirring sights, and I managed to spot a carunculated caracara, a Shining Sunbeam hummingbird, and a lovely pair of grey-breasted mountain toucans too. Birding heaven!

Not a famous Colombia hike

Puracé is not exactly one of Colombia’s most famous national parks and, up against Tayrona, Cano Cristales, Amazonas, and all, it’s never likely to be, which is a shame in a sense, because somewhere this calm and beautiful deserves more recognition. On the other hand, more peace and quiet for the rest of us, right?! So, should you find yourself in Popayan, in need of some exercise (spiritual or physical), hop on the bus, and head to Puracé for some hiking, birding, solitude…whatever you need: it’s an inexpensive and beautiful day out. And I’ll see you there in August for the climb…

Bottom line

Popayan white street

If you’re looking for an adventure that combines natural wonders, cultural richness, and a dash of adrenaline, Purace National Park is your go-to destination in Colombia. 

Don’t just take my word for it—experience it for yourself. 

And hey, if you need a helping hand to navigate this incredible landscape, reach out to Popayan Tours. They’ve got the expertise to make your trip unforgettable. 

So, what are you waiting for?

→ More places to explore in the South of Colombia.

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Visit Caño Cristales (the most beautiful river worldwide)

Pozos naturales San Jose del Guaviare

Explore San José del Guaviare (an off-the-beaten-path destination)

Tomplanmytrip’s sections

I have been traveling around Colombia and Mexico since 2015 to discover new experiences and help travelers make the right choices.

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