The infamous Nevado del Ruiz erupted on November 13, 1985. Landslides and avalanches caused by the eruption killed over 23,000 people and wiped out the village of Armero. Villages around the volcano, which is 5,321m high, remain on constant alert to this day.
In order to learn more about this tragedy and get a good look at a unique landscape, along with my girlfriend Marisol, I decided to visit Nevado del Ruiz, which is located inside Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, on a day trip from nearby Manizales. The tour was organized by our hostel and cost COP$110,000 per person. Foreigners pay more – COP$130,000. The entire tour was done in Spanish. Before the tour, we were told to bring plenty of water, warm clothing to layer, including winter hats, comfortable walking shoes, and some snacks such as fruit and nuts.
We were picked up at 7am from our hostel in Manizales in a small van. After picking up some other passengers, we were driven to a restaurant situated in a green valley for a nice hearty breakfast.
After breakfast, we started our drive into the park. Our first stop was Laguna Negra. This small lake has a black tint to it because of a species of algae that grows inside.
Next, as we came closer to the entrance of the park, we stopped and looked at some unique plants that grow in the park. The most interesting of these plants were the Frailejones, which are tall plants with thick trunks that grow at high altitudes, just one centimeter per year. They are an endangered plant and it is illegal to cut them down.
We made it to the gates of the park at Sector Brisas at around 10am. Here, a park ranger joined our group and gave us a lecture about the park and what we would see. We were also given a safety briefing about the quick ascent to high altitude. The ranger station was at around 3,800m and we would be going up to 4,500m on the tour. In the past, tours would go to the crater of the volcano at 5,300m, but due to safety reasons, that practice has stopped.
Our first stop in the park was Aguacerales. This is a place where water dripped down from the mountain promoting growth of mosses and lichens. The view was also amazing.
Next, we stopped at Arenales. Besides a wonderful view of the mountain, there was a chalet serving coffee and coca tea. We rested there for a half hour before moving on.
Lunares was just up the road from Arenales. There were huge boulders scattered around, many of which were climbed for photo opportunities by the guests.
Our final stop was at the highest point we would reach, Valle de las Tumbas. This flat area is a desert above the growth line. The indigenous people used to come up to this point for religious ceremonies. It was quite frightening with bolts of lightning striking nearby and nothing to protect us. Being at the edge of the cliffs staring straight down a steep drop also didn’t help.
At Valle de las Tumbas, our guide explained the Armero tragedy in detail. She told about how experts had warned the Colombian authorities to evacuate the villagers more than two days before the town was destroyed and that it was easily preventable, but the government ignored the warnings and told the villagers it was safe to stay. She said the tragedy affects Colombians to this day and that it changed the psyche of the entire nation regarding disaster preparedness.
On our way back to the park entrance, a light snow had fallen at Lunares. We stopped to play a bit in the snow. Many of the guests had never seen snow before so it was an enjoyable experience for all.
After about an hour’s drive, we stopped at a small restaurant, El Mesón Gitano, for a traditional Colombian lunch. From there we went to Termales El Otoño, a thermal spring about 20 minutes from Manizales. We were given about 90 minutes to relax in the hot water. It was a great finish to an amazing tour. The springs had changing rooms and lockers (bring your own lock) and snacks and drinks for sale. There is also a hotel for those wishing to stay longer.
A popular extension to PNN Los Nevados is Valle de Cocora, located near the town of Salento. Admission is free there and hikers can make it all the way to the highest parts of the park if they choose.