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.
Arriving early in the morning we dropped our bags at our hostel located in the hip neighborhood of La Candelaria. From there we set off to explore the city on foot. Our first stop was breakfast - we opted for a busy restaurant full of locals - and enjoyed some traditional sweet breads with our coffee. Then we hit the Museo del Oro - the Museum of Gold.
The Museo del Oro in Bogota houses a truly astounding collection of golden artifacts. The bottom floor of the museum of devoted to room after room of golden odornments - ear rings and nose rings and bangles - that apparently everyone wore. It is not hard to understand how the Spanish lost their minds (and their humanity) when they encountered such casual oppulence. And then you go upstairs, to the vault, where they keep the good stuff.
The peoples of the New World were master goldsmiths and employed lost wax techniques and created gold alloys that far surpased anything in Europe. In the vault are just a small sampling of the treasures of Colombia and the socieites of the Northern Andes - only the small number that survived Spanish greed. The objects range from abstract animal masks to suits of golden armor to intricate and delicate jewelry - all lustrous and all wonderful.
One of our favorite artifacts was a tiny model, all in gold, of a man on a raft surrounded by heaps of treasure. A model of El Dorado. In the mountains near Bogota lies Lago Guavita, an ancient collapsed caldera filled with startlingly blue water and ringed by green hills. In pre-Colombian times, the Muisca people of this area celebrated important events by anointing their chief in gold dust after which this 'golden man' would take a raft laden with golden offerings into the center of the lake to make offering to the gods. The Spanish, and later the Colombians, have at various times tried draining the lake to extract whatever riches remain at the bottom. In fact, the Museum has a very cool exhibit of sunken treasure recovered from Guavita's depths.
The neighborhood of La Candelaria sprawls around the Plaza de Bolivar - the center of historic Bogota. The narrow Calles and Carreras - all numbered - are lined with shops, churches, restaurants, and museums.
At this time, I think its appropriate to break and relate one of the true guilty pleasures of Bogota: Crepes and Waffles. Nearly everyone we talked to, if they were into food, told us of the wonderful food (including, but not limited too waffles and crepes) at this upscale chain restaurant that awaited us throughout Colombia in the major norther cities. After a month of bland food and a seemingly endless stream of fried chicken in southern Colombia the food at Crepes and Waffles was truly delicious. And almost sinfully inexpensive :) The restaurant in La Candelaria sits opposite the Museo de Oro along Calle 13 and the main floor is just a small ice cream and waffle cafe with a limited menu. We walked in and thought, 'what were people raving about?' but then we went downstairs where a sprawling restaurant occupies the basement of several building above. We took a seat and ordered fresh juice and sparkling water - sometimes it is fun to splash out. With the most amazingly hypnotic food porn playing on the wall, we ordered a decadent meal of rich crepes, followed by both ice cream and waffles. Life is good. We repeated this experience in Medellin and Cartagena and enjoyed every meal. If you should visit Colombia, you should definitely get the crepes . . . and the waffles.
One of the highlights of our rambling walks through the neighborhood was the Museo Botero. Comprised of Fernando Botero's work as well as his personal collection of modern art, the museum allows you to explore the entirety of Botero's exploration of proportion. His works are not in fact, fat, just round and mis-proportioned. Truth be told we did giggle at the sight of a rounded Mona Lisa, a rounded horse, even rounded bananas, but Botero also explored darker themes of death and war. The collection also included beautifully polished bronzes sculpted by Botero. Besides the works of the master himself, the collection includes the art he amassed from friends and peers throughout his prolific career. Wowza.
(Next door to the Museo Botero is the Museo de Arte del Banco de la Republica which houses another collection of art showcasing a range of Colombian artists from colonial times through today.
From there we strolled down the Calle 11 towards Plaza de Bolivar. Further along the street we stopped at La Puerta Falsa. This tiny hole in the wall restaurant is on all the tourist to-do lists and has been in business for something like 200 years serving classic Colombian fare. We tried it . . . and found the watery hot chocolate, weird cheese, and sad Colombian tamale to be not to our liking. (At this point, Annie would like to interject that the tamale was rather tasty, if rustic. She enjoyed the masa studed with garbanzo beans, corn, and a pigs foot.) It was atmospheric as hell.
The other highlight of our time in Colombia's capitol was the street art. Denver is no stranger to murals, however, the Colombian versions feel more raw and more authentic than what you typically see in the States. Street art in Colombia has long been associated with political movements and protests and today it has been embraced by the Bogotanos as both a cultural and aesthetic expression. We decided to take one of the cities' free grafitti tours. We met a group of travelers - including several teachers from the States - early in the morning along with our guide, an energetic young woman armed with an deep knowledge of Colombian street art and a bull horn. We walked for several hours, learning about the various artistic collectives that operate throughout La Candelaria as well as the art's connection with Colombia's continual, and tragic, civil war. Our guide took us to several areas that would have felt sketchy on our own and seeing the graffiti in context made it all the more interesting and moving.
To get to San Agustin from Popoyan, you have to cross over the Colombian Massif on a sketchy road that switched from asphalt to gravel to dirt as we went along. We'd been warned at our hostel that the road was very rough and that if it was raining it was better to wait in Popoyan than risk getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. However, the weather seemed clear and the bus was running on schedule so we were soon on our way. Annie took a precautionary Dromamine and was soon asleep while I enjoyed the scenery whizzing by outside. The Colombian Massif is an upswelling of mountains in the Andes of southern Colombia and it is the source of 70% of Colombia's drinking water - which means it is wet. The road took us across a rolling green paramo landscape with picturesque rivers meandering lazily down from the mountains. Then our route went up into a dripping cloudforest where (predictably) it started to rain. Besides from being a little slow and a little rough, especially one spot where the road had washed out, we made it to San Agustin safe and sound.
San Agustin is a small town tucked into the forested foothills of the Andes in southern Colombia. Its more temperate than tropical due to it's elevation but still verdant and 'jungley'. The town itself is only a few blocks but the surrounding area is cultivated by coffee growers and their plantations are scattered throughout. We stayed about a kilometer outside of town at Hotel Casa de Nelly where we had a private cabana set amidst a gorgeous tropical garden with our own balcony overlooking the town. Not bad for $25 a night. If you arrange in advance, Casa de Nelly will also arrange dinner for you, which saves you a bumpy and expensive taxi ride into town. The food was fantastic, fresh, and included large portions. This was one of our favorite hotels in all of our travels.
The statues of San Agustin are something of a mystery. People have lived and flourished in this region for thousands of years; taking advantage of the lush landscape The earliest evidence of human habitation in the San Agustin region dates back to 3300 BCE. However the statues were made by a civilization the existed in the upper Magdelana river valley for almost a thousand years from 100 BCE to 900 CE. These people were skilled farmers and constructed massive earthworks - ramparts and burial mounds - as well as master stone carvers. These suggest an advanced civilization with a developed system of social heirarchy, however little is know about these people as the jungle has since devoured other evidence of their lives. Their artisans, possibly influenced by the shamanic visions brought on by psychotropic jungle plants like ayahuasca, carved massive stone idols - part animal, part man that stood guard over the tombs of elite individuals. These statues have threatening, smiling, or somber faces: some appear to be divine guards, armed with clubs, rounded eyes, and jaguar teeth; some depict serenity and wisdom; others fear and darkness. No one knows their true significance, but they are undeniably striking and well worth the diversion off the beaten path for history nerds such as ourselves.
There are hundreds of statues scattered throughout the hills surrounding San Agustin. Almost a hundred are concentrated at the San Agustin Archeological Park. We were able to walk there from Casa de Nelly and so we ambled through coffee fincas and forest for 2 km or so enjoying the views and admiring the flowers along the way. At Archeological Park we paid our entrance fee and got sweet visitors' 'passports' to record our experience. The park has a wonderful and informative Museum in Spanish which we tried to get the most out of. By the time we made it through the exhibits it had started raining. However, we'd come prepared with our raingear - 'los impermeables' in Spanish - and walked out into the downpour to check out some creepy statues.
On our second day in San Agustin I took my second ever ride on a horse as we saddled up to see some of the more far-flung statues located in the hills above town. Just getting to the horses proved to be an adventure as we were picked up by moto-taxi. This, to be clear, was a first for both of us, and so we nervously clung to the back of dirt bike as our drivers whisked us back to town to meet our horses - Annie hugged her driver unashamedly while I tried my best to retain my manly cool by hanging on to the seat (with limited success).
From town, we rode our horses along country roads to 3 more burial sites. Some of these statues still had remains of color which made them even neater. As we went along we were able to see the lives of the local people - farmers out in their fields, children on their way to school - as well as enjoy the unbelievable green landscape. Our guide even picked a few exotic fruits for us to try including a giant peapod-like fruit called 'guama' which was full of sweet white pith. After a full afternoon we caught an overnight bus to Bogotá.