The trail into Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados starts just a few kilometers outside of Salento in the Valle de Cocora. Reaching the trailhead is an adventure in itself: you arrive in the central plaza early in the morning to hitch a ride in the back of an old-school Willy jeep. If the seats are full, you have the option of hanging off the back. We shared the cab with an adorable baby and her mother, two red cross volunteers out visiting more remote villages and estancias, and some hungover British tourists. No one else seemed to be off to trek, which generally is a thrilling feeling. It's exciting to be doing something different and Annie and I were ready to get back on the trail. The manager at our hotel was insistent that it was dangerous for us to go hiking alone, however, her real concern was that she would be held responsible for our rescue should anything happen to us. Irregardless, her concerns were unfounded, almost.
The biggest challenges she described were trails which were difficult to follow in the dense clumps of vegetation that make up the paramo, loss of visibility due to "la neblina" (fog) and los nubes (clouds). Apparently, trekkers get lost all the time because they lose the trail and then cannot use landmarks and orienteering to get back out. That ineptness, coupled with people bringing insufficient trekking supplies (stay dry, stay warm, stay fed) has led to a few expensive rescues, and the Colombian government had enough and told hoteliers that they would be held responsible if they knowingly sent off tourists into the hills and a rescue was necessary. We heard a LOT of resistance to our plans, and this explains why people were so reluctant to give us advice on how to go trekking. However, we're pretty confident, and stubborn, and set out against their advice.
The Valle De Cocora is famous for its towering wax palms. Some of these palms stand 60 meters above pastures dotted with cows. These absurdly tall trees are topped with a few fronds - like the Lorax's truffala trees. Our trail wound up the valley through pasture and tropical forest and included several exciting stream crossings on suspension bridges. The trail was moderately crowded at first, but as we continued to climb we left the day hikers behind. After several hours the trail started to climb more steeply and we passed into a moss covered cloud forest. Eventually we reached a small farm / scientific outpost / ranger station where we had thought to set up camp for the evening. However, the ranger manning the station corrected that notion.
We received a firm 'no puedes campar aqui', despite a field of gorgeous, leveled sites behind the homestay. The woman who owns the Estancia/the caretaker apparently only accept guests during the high season, and it seems most campers expect to be fed in a restaurant. Even though we explained we needed no services, we were refused. However, the ranger told us that less than a kilometer up the valley was a flat spot at a fork in the trail. So we filled our water bottles and continued on our way. This was when we first encountered the mud.
The mud was . . . intense. The continual wet of the cloud forest, combined with frequent use by hikers and horses alike had churned the trail into a thik soup six inches deep. The trail had eroded into a steeply walled trough, cutting steeply uphill and serving as a streambed for a steady trickle. Helpfully, the occasional rock or tree root studded the trail. Using our poles and oozing our way upwards through the magical but clammy forest challenged our end-of-day resolve. The doubt that creeps in when you are tired, need a meal, and encounter an unexpected challenge set in. What if our campsite never materialized? What if the sun set and we were stranded on this oozing wet trail? Why, why was the mud so deep? Thankfully, we quickly found the fork as foretold and set up camp in a tiny glade just big enough to accommodate our tent. We ate dinner on the trail, and moods immediately elevated. We turned in early after listening to a podcast in the tropical darkness, excited to see the world above treeline on our trek the next day.
The next day we broke camp and started out early, excited to reach the lip of the valley where it met the high paramo and hopefully escape the worst of the mud. We slogged uphill for several hours, sometimes hopping from rock to rock or clinging to the sides of the trail to avoid the deepest, muddiest sections of trail. It felt great to be out on an adventure and spirits were high.
Cresting the top of the valley the trees of the cloud forest were left behind and we were faced with misty views of rolling paramo hills dotted with endemic 'frailejones' (giant fuzzy daisies). The contrast was magical, and the moisture laden valleys give the impression of dream-walking as you hike.
We had decided the night before to cut our hike short. Even with three weeks left in our trip, the more time we spend in Colombia the more we want to see. Our original trek had us going another day into the paramo, then trekking back. Cutting our trek short meant we could see more of the northern coast later, and so we left the main trail behind and followed a faint path uphill towards a hilltop shrine topped with a cross. Our new trail cut through to the next valley over, making our trek a neat loop. Here we broke for lunch and watched wave after wave of clouds wash over the hills around us giving us glimpses of the mountains that give the park its name and outstanding views of green valleys that stretched out before us.
We walked along the ridge until we met our trail down a parallel valley and started our descent. This is when disaster struck.
Prior to our trip, we had prepared by going to some HITT/Crossfit classes. At one of these, Annie took a misstep and dropped a 50 poundbarbell on her ankle while similtaniously spraining it rather badly. Have I mentioned her grace and poise? She took great care to heal up and by the time we left for our trip had mostly recovered. What we had not counted on was the fiercity of the mud. As we decended, the mud began to thicken once again and on a particularly steep curve Annie stepped in some mud, slid, and her ankle turned once again as her leg went one way and her foot stayed firmly rooted in the muck. The hills echoed with profanity which would make even a sailor's mother blush.
Once Annie had recovered some degree of poise, and found that her ankle could still, mostly, hold her weight, we continued on. Thank god for hiking poles. Annie hobbled along gamely and I carried both bags, one in front and one in back. Sprained ankles may happen all the time, but Annie was in very real pain and the worry is always that you'll make the injury worse. The trail was steep, but blissfully less muddy because it sat on a south-facing slope. We made slow but steady progress down valley, hoping to reach an ex-estancia (burned down by the FARC . . . nothing to worry about now) with the level ground necessary for camping. As luck would have it, a young man leading two tourists on horseback came down the trail behind us.
Annie quickly explained our dilemma and asked him to return with his horses the following day to carry us to the trailhead. Thankfully, he agreed and for a very reasonable 200,000 pesos. (to rescue my wife I would have gladly paid much more). Our adventure morphed into something different than we expected, exciting in a totally new way.
It was another couple of hours hiking until we reached our campsite. We were both very tired and grateful to set up camp. Still, the views of the valley and the forest with its diverse flowers and plants continued to amaze and made our ordeal totally worthwhile. As a bonus, a thunderstorm raged on the horizon, never bringing rain to our camp, but lighting up the valley with flashes of lightning. Colombia is exciting.
Early the next morning, our savior returned leading two horses and we set off down the trail. As we descended the valley on horseback we realized the true extent of our predicament trekking on a bum ankle and how lucky we were to encounter a horseback rider so high up in the valley. This trail was rough! I'm not a very comfortable horseman, and the slopes of the valley were quite steep. Several times I had to grab the pommel of the saddle with both hands to keep from being pitched forward as my horse dropped over 2 foot rocks and fallen branches. Several times we had to dismount and walk the horses through the worst sections. Even on horseback it took all morning to reach the trailhead. After profusely thanking our impromptu guide we found a Willy jeep headed back to Salento and were soon back in our hotel.