The 144,062-acre/58,300-hectare national park Parque de los Nevados, Colombia, is centered on three snow-capped volcanoes, most notably El Nevado del Ruiz, a 17,750-ft-/5,325-m-tall volcano that exploded in 1985, devastating everything and everyone in its path (the death toll was 23,000).
The best access to the park is through Manizales, and the driest months are January and February. Other months can be very rainy and cloudy. A four-wheel-drive rental vehicle is necessary for exploring the park. A guide is compulsory, and can be hired at the main park entrance.
Many consider Parque de los Nevados to be Colombia's ecological crown jewel. The effort required to reach the park is worth it. It boasts unique high-altitude paramo vegetation, studded with strange plants called frailejones; three active snow-covered volcanoes and many volcanic landforms; and two breathtaking lakes. Lago Verde occupies a beautiful cirque (this part of Colombia was glaciated) but is periodically off-limits to visitors to allow environmental restoration. The second lake may be reached by a half-day's drive over a rough road—the vistas are spectacular.
Camping is primitive everywhere except at the El Cisne refugio, at about 12,000 ft/4,000 m on the western flank of Nevada Ruiz; there you'll find a wooden hut with beds and blankets, and a kitchen and dining room where hot meals are served.
Generally, the park is safe, but guerrillas have used the most remote areas as a base.
Parque de los Nevados can be seen in one day, although two or three days is much better so that you can explore more fully. Be careful of the altitude if you're arriving from near sea level. Mountain sickness can be deadly, and the nearest medical attention is in Manizales, at least two hours away. If you get a headache that does not go away after a couple of aspirin and eight hours of sleep, descend to a lower elevation.
Aviatur (phone 571-381-7111; http://www.aviatur.com) operates the concession and offers a daily excursion from Manizales.
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