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No doubt about it, I’ve made some bad calls when traveling, like trying to climb a volcano the morning after the worst case of travel food poisoning I’ve ever had.
Or the first time I went backcountry camping in Virginia. It was only a 14.4 mile trail (a baby compared to what Mike and I do now), but I packed twice as much gear as I needed and it was 95 degrees outside. I ended up with such bad heat exhaustion that I completely gave up 100 yards from the end. I just couldn’t make it, probably because I never bothered to drink the four liters of water I was carrying. (Actually, that whole weekend is a really good story — remind me to tell it to you sometime).
In Bogota, my bad decision (once again) revolved around hiking.
People don’t realize that Bogota sits at 8,600+ feet in elevation. I knew it and can’t claim ignorance, but there was a mountain calling my name. I wanted to hike Quebrada La Vieja, in the eastern hills of Bogota, and I scheduled it for early into my trip because that’s when it was most convenient for my schedule.
That was a dumb move. It takes time to acclimate, and even though most people will be just fine at Bogota’s 8600 feet, pushing yourself in strenuous physical activity before your body adjusts is the quickest way to make yourself sick. But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?
I teamed up with expats Tommy and Simon of Bogota & Beyond plus another traveler from New York for their early morning hike. We left from a part of the city with tons of tall office buildings, a great example of how just a few minutes walk takes you away from a clearly urban area to a gorgeous natural setting.
Everything was going well at first. The path starts with a gradual uphill with tons of greenery, a few small waterfalls, and air that seems way fresher than the pollutant-filled haze of Bogota.
I was having a great time chatting with everyone in our small group. Tommy and Simon are passionate about Bogota and I had a ton in common with Jeff, the other traveler in our group. The only problem was I could feel my heart start to race as we continued along the path.
I’m not a world class athlete, but I hit the gym every other day and I’m in decent health. Twenty minutes of hiking is normally just a warm-up, but there was nothing normal about this.
Up, up, up we continued. Every once in awhile I caught a glimpse of a cool bird (did you know Colombia has more species of birds than any other country on earth?) and even when I didn’t, I was mesmerized by the scenery.
Halfway through, I didn’t have a choice anymore. I had to stop, catch my breath, let my pulse settle, and put my head between my knees to get some blood and oxygen flowing. Every once in awhile, I tried to sip on some water, knowing full well the rule of thumb is oxygen first, water second. At one point, I wondered if I could wander to a private spot in the woods to throw up before continuing onward.
(Yes, stupidly, my thought wasn’t to head back down. It was always to finish the hike. It’s gorgeous.)
Seeing my despair, my group started stopping more frequently. There I was, reminding myself the hard way that acclimatization is a necessity, not a luxury.
Eventually, a eucalyptus forest surrounded our trail, and just like in a spa, the eucalyptus helped me catch my breath. Was it just a placebo effect? I don’t know, but it was exactly what I needed to push on.
From there, the trail leveled out through a pine forest, a scent without any respiratory improvement properties, but one so familiar to me that it kept me at ease. My pulse finally leveled out and I breathed evenly, but the lingering effects of a massive headache and nausea didn’t go away.
The view from the top was one of the most unimpressive I’ve ever seen (or maybe I just didn’t appreciate it in my condition). Bogota’s normal hazy skies and pollution were further clouded by smoke from a forest fire, but it felt so good to make it to the top.
The way down was easy, given that it was physically less demanding and every step helped me get a little closer to a lower elevation. But it wasn’t until I was sipping a coffee at Cafe Cultur that I started to recuperate and it took a solid 12 hours for my migraine to fully subside. You better believe that next time I’ll give my body a little longer to adjust before trying to hike!
If you go…
La Vieja is a great hike — and one I highly recommend — but be sure you’ve spent a few days in the city first. Then, lace up your shoes and hit the trail!
Previously this hike has been known as a targeted spot for thefts and attacks. Police are posted along the trail for a few hours every morning, so you’ll have to go first thing in order to finish before they usher you out at 10am.
Hiking with Bogota & Beyond was a great option. We met up first thing in the morning and they made sure we found the trailhead and made it back down safely. Plus, you’ll get tons of Bogota recommendations from two Aussie expats who are a joy to hang out with. You can even tack on a coffee date with them afterward for more conversation and advice. Check it out!
If you prefer to head out on your own, look for the entrance on Calle 71 at Avenida Circunvalar. The trail is well-marked and you’ll be joined by Colombians getting their exercise for the day.
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Read More on sightDOING:
- I Acclimated the Wrong Way, But You Don’t Have To: Learn how to safely acclimate to high altitude destinations so you don’t make the same mistake I do.
- Is Bogota Safe? The elevation isn’t the only thing you have to worry about in Colombia. Find out, from the opinion of a solo female traveler, whether or not Bogota is safe to visit.
- The Absolute Best Things to Do in Bogota: Have a few days? I hope so! Get all my recommendations for what to do in Bogota, including tours, day trips, and where to eat.