Whilst planning our final couple of weeks in Colombia, we suddenly realised that our visas were going to run out a mere three days after Semana Santa. After Popayan, we were going to have to scurry across the border rather quickly, lest we anger the men with guns and, more importantly, the passport stamp!
Having already decided to see San Agustin before the Easter celebrations in a back-to-front itinerary that seems all too frequent in our route planning, we scoured the map (and Google images) looking for something of interest to commemorate our final days in one of our favourite countries.
And there it was - Volcan Azufral and its beautiful looking Laguna Verde.
So, after a couple of days with some of Colombia's biggest Jesus fans, we headed south to Pasto and the unusually named 'Koala Inn' to make a base for our day hike to the green waters of Azufral.
Tucked inside the foothills of the Andes, the 4000m Volcan Azufral is practically dwarfed by the giant volcanoes in neighbouring Ecuador. However, unlike these, it is not views from dizzying heights that draw people to its summit. Instead it is what lies within - a beautifully serene turquoise lake.
Located around two hours from Pasto, without the luxury of public transport to guide you to its doors (a trip here necessitates a somewhat pricey taxi tide to the park entrance), Laguna Verde is not seen by many international tourists.
Head there during the week and you may not see another soul.
Head here in the afternoon and you may not see your hand in front of you on account of the thick layer of fog that wraps itself around everything above three thousand metres.
Whilst you meander along the dirt track, admiring landscapes and fields which would look more at home in Britain than South America, counting down the kilometres with the aid of makeshift signs, it seems a long time until you glimpse the summit.
As we approached the look-out point we couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. Cloud, as far as the eye could see. We waited, in part because descending to the lake in thick mud was only going to end one way - face down in the dirt.
And then slowly, very slowly, Laguna Verde revealed itself.
The view is spectacular, but for us, the real beauty was at the water's edge.
Perfectly still and beautifully serene.
It seemed like we had transported ourselves to Iceland, rather than southern Colombia.
how to get there
In order to make the most out of a day here, you need to set that alarm far earlier than either of us would ever by choice - around 6.30 a.m, aiming to be on a bus to Tuquerres by 7.30 a.m. (should cost no more than $8,000 pesos per person in a small van).
Now, when you arrive in Tuquerres, this is where you need to utilise all your best haggling skills unless you fancy walking the steep 10kms to the National Park entrance. The buses drop you off next to a large car park, where there are plenty of taxis who will bring you up to the entrance.
A one-way trip should cost no more than $20,000 irrespective of how many people are in the car. This is why you should really try and find some people to share with. It takes 10-15 minutes to the park entrance.
On arrival to the park, you will see a wooden hut which is where you should register and pay your $1,000 entry fee. There are also bathrooms and a small shop here.
Depending on how quickly you walk and how often you fall over in the mud, the hike should take around 5 hours round-trip. If the weather has been particularly awful, and you only make it as far as the look-out point, you could make the trip in around 3 hours.
Getting back to Tuquerres will also require a taxi. The best option is to arrange this in advance with the first taxi-driver. If you have a phone, then they will give you their number or you can just state a time for pick-up. However, if they fail to show up for you or you arrive back from the hike earlier or later than expected, the workers in the hut can also phone someone for you. Or, if you've still got some energy - walk back to town.
For reasons we don't entirely understand, buses back to Pasto are almost twice the price ($15,000 per person), and slightly less frequent. This wasn't us getting ripped off either - every local on our bus paid this price and was equally annoyed at it! There was fierce competition to grab a spot, so we had to abandon the Britishness and push our way in!
total cost for two people: $88,000 (if not sharing the taxi with others)
The taxi there and back really is the big cost, so we definitely recommend getting at least another person to go with you. Otherwise, this may be a big dent on your budget.
If the weather is good, you're not too tired and you have enough time, walking there or back is a good money-saving option.
what we learned from our adventure
#1 Colombians (especially those from warmer climates) are apparently not aware of what constitutes 'suitable hiking attire'. Just for the record, this does not include brand new converse, thin leggings and a white (white!!) three-quarter sleeved top. Five hours with us, and a Colombian tourism student had taken a number of falls, was covered in mud, ended up wearing Andrew's hoodie and using both our hats in an attempt at regaining feeling in her fingers. Make sure to dress appropriately!
#2 Do not trust men who speak Spanish called Manuel. A lifelong love of Fawlty Towers should have taught us this, but after dicing with death in possibly the oldest 'taxi' left on the road on the way up, and being abandoned in the National Park on the way back, we were given a very cold reminder. Manuel said he would pick us up at 2.30 p.m. - he never showed up.
#3 It is exceedingly cold on the top of volcanoes, and however silly you felt getting into your thermals at 6.30 a.m. that morning, you won't regret it later! Dress appropriately!
#4 If there is mud and a hill, Emily will fall over. Several times. Hiking shoes or really decent trainers are a must for this trip if you want any chance of your feet staying dry! But seriously, if it has been raining, even a little, certain parts of the route from the look-out point down to the lake are exceedingly treacherous and you will need to take serious care to not slip.
#5 Start early! There is usually at least a light covering of cloud at that altitude, however, as we descended in early afternoon, there were large sections of the track that you couldn't see more than a few feet ahead. Judging by others' experiences of this trip, this seems pretty common. The earlier you start, the clearer your view of the lake will be.