At dinner one night I was discussing my upcoming trip to Salento with my Colombian friend Santiago, telling him about the coffee tour, Los Nevados National Park and wax palms that were on my list of things to see and do. “Why don’t you go and see the glacier?” he asked. Well this was quite the bombshell as I had no idea there were any glaciers in Colombia. I’d never done any lengthy hiking before, let alone anything to the height that a glacier would be found at so I was pretty excited at this prospect. Regardless of my lack of prior experience, I decided that it would be my mission to hike to the top of this glacier.
Salento is a gateway city for exploring the nearby Cocora Valley and Los Nevados National Park. It’s a quiet little town surrounded by farm lands but has some great restaurants and surrounding mountain views. Arriving in Salento, I had found a tour company that was offering a tour to the glacier but unfortunately they didn’t have an English speaking guide available. I’d previously had guides that only spoke Spanish which resorted in me having to make up a story in my head about what they were saying just to combat the boredom of not understanding them. Alternatively, they had an English speaking guide that could take me in a couple of day’s time to Paramillo del Quindío which was a smaller pass at a height of 4700m. I was happy to wait until then, even though it meant waiting another two days as I had found a fantastic hostel called La Serrana to stay at. Even though the place reminded me of a cult commune, I still loved staying there, the food was fantastic and we had a bonfire every night. Everyone ate together in the communal dining area and the place seemed self-sufficient as they grew their own produce which is what gave it that cult feeling. I felt that if the authorities came to raid the place like the Waco siege they could have survived without any dependency on the outside world. I’m not sure how they would have kept the police at bay though, maybe launching a barrage of potatoes at their assailants as they encroached on them.
The saleswoman took me through what to expect on the 3 day tour through Los Nevados and what kind of equipment I would need. I’d been travelling mainly to beach side destinations prior to arriving in Salento so I only had shorts and t-shirts which were not ideal attire for traversing Los Nevados. Fortunately, I was able to hire a few warmer items from her, although one of those items was her pink Gore-Tex jacket which I reluctantly took as I had no other alternative. I left the office with a check list of things to bring, along with a slight apprehension about hiking to an altitude of 4700m. My uneasiness was due to the fact that at this altitude everyone is susceptible to altitude sickness, no matter what your level of fitness it can be fatal if ignored.
All Hail Caesar
The day of reckoning had arrived. I walked down to the hiking office at 6:30am with all my provisions to be greeted by the saleswoman and two other travellers who would be joining me through Los Nevados National Park. I’d actually met one of them before, Martin from Canada was sitting out front of the office on the first day I’d arrived waiting for the office to open. My second comrade was Linda from Denmark. I would call her Denmark on the trek as I had recently gotten into the habit of calling people by their country name due to forgetting everyone’s names.
We walked up to the Salento mirador (city lookout) to meet our guide and have breakfast before starting the trek. Our guide arrived at breakfast looking very sluggish. It looked like he’d been on a three day bender. The saleswoman, whom I discovered later was the owner of the tour company, introduced him to us as Caesar. Caesar’s body language was like reading the blurb of a book which simply read “I do not want to be here”. We were waiting for him to address us but he just sat there with his arms folded, his level of interest in engaging us was like that of a shark and a school of anchovies. Eventually the owner broke the stalemate by bringing us our breakfast and asking us if we all wanted a cup of coca tea. Coca tea is great at reducing the effects of altitude sickness but kind of tastes like drinking a cup of bark and twigs. It’s like partaking in a tea party with a two year old girl she’s going to serve you mud pies and grass horderves, that’s what coca tea reminded me of. Saying that, I was open to take anything on board that was going to aid me in getting to the top of the mountain. I’d already followed her recommendation of drinking plenty of water. So much so that I was starting to feel like a pregnant woman with the amount of water I was retaining!
After a short ride in a Jeep or “Willys” as they are called, we arrived at the Cocora Valley part of Los Nevados and home to the tallest palm trees in the world, the wax palms! I’d been hanging off the back of the Jeep for a better view during the drive, something that any every western country would disallow. I grabbed my imitation Nike backpack from the inside of Jeep containing mostly snacks for the next 3 days hiking. The others seemed more prepared and experienced with their backpacks with waist straps and many compartments for hiking paraphernalia. On the way down they had been exchanging stories of previous treks they’d accomplished, dropping figures like 6000m into the conversation and several South American countries I hadn’t visited yet. I felt a little out of my league surrounded by such experience but I was still determined that I would make it.
Caesar was still in a foul mood lagging behind us, carrying a significantly larger backpack full of our food as well as other pieces of equipment like a butane burner which seemed excessive to me. I could easily have gone without having hot tea for the next few days if it meant my backpack would be a few kilos lighter. We stopped at a grassy patch next to a stream, Caesar removed his backpack and began to explain that we were currently at an altitude of 2200m and that we would be sleeping at 3700m. Finally he had started to talk, although his topic of conversation was about to take a slight detour. “This is my tenth hike in a row with no days off” he declared. “I told my boss that I wanted the day off for my mum’s birthday but she told me I had to do the trek” Caesar sluggishly spoke. He went on to vent a bit more about how his boss was only interested in money and that they never use a mule to carry the supplies up because they are trying to save money. I joking replied that he was being treated like a mule, he bowed his head and replied simply “Si”.
I felt a lot of sympathy for the guy, he’d been worked really hard and no one wants a guide who is miserable. When we started to walk again I discussed the situation with Martin. He had a different perspective on the scenario, if said that if he didn’t want to be there then he could just say no. Martin’s outlook was that if you are not willing to work then it’s better not to be there at all. I liked that attitude, so many times I’d gone into work but had not wanted to be there and your work ethic suffers as a result. I think there’s something in my Italian blood that makes me feel incredibly guilty if I don’t go to work. It’s like some sort of fail-safe switch they built into me to ensure that I work without any complications. Saying that, I still felt empathy towards Caesar as I’ve found it difficult to say no to an employer in the past when asked to come into work on an impromptu basis.
A couple of hours have passed into the trek and I’ve already eaten most of my provisions allocated for the day. Caesar was still lagging behind, I though guides were meant to be up front guiding us? Arriving at the top of a steep ascent, we all sat down on the grass to rest our dusty feet whilst waiting for Caesar. A few minutes later, Caesar appeared on the path brimming ear to ear with a huge smile. Dropping his pack next to us he proclaimed that he had taken a photo of a toucan, the first one he had ever captured on camera! “How long have you been doing this trail for?” I enquired. “More than twenty years!” he announced. That sour taste he’d had in this mouth making him look like a bulldog licking urine off a nettle had vanished. The first toucan in twenty years was exactly what the doctor would have prescribed to cheer him up!
We stopped for a lunch break in an area called Estela de Agua within Los Nevados. There was a cow laying on the grass by the entrance, welcoming guests into the farm. Well actually it was just lying there doing nothing, I envied it laying there sunbathing, surrounded by food. Inside the fenced area I saw a Colombia grandma manning a kitchen in a little outhouse. Caesar went over to check on how she was progressing with the food whilst we all lay around the grassed area with a bunch of other backpackers who’d just come down from the mountains. Emerging from the kitchen, Caesar approached us holding several cups of a hot liquid which called aguapanela, a mixture of hot water and sugar cane.
These Colombians certainly know how to give themselves diabetes, almost everything in our snack packs and drinks was loaded with sugar. The cooking grandma stuck her head out of her kitchen and beckoned for us to enter for lunch. I have to admit I had low expectations for what we would be served but I was blown away by the deliciousness of the spread she had assembled in her shanty kitchen! Avocado added to a potato soup is not a combination I would have expected to try or enjoy but I had just done both!
At the 3590m altitude mark, the vegetation starts to change in the Los Nevados National Park. Correction, when I say start to change, you can literally see a distinct line where the vegetation changes from jungle into páramo, a unique high altitude ecosystem. Most of this region is dotted with frailejones, a plant which thrives in the low oxygen environment using its thick yellow-greenish leaves to collect moisture from the air and transport it into the ground. Most of the region’s water is sourced from these plants which generate streams and then in turn rivers from their work. These plants reminded me of movie Total Recall where machines terraformed the environment to create a breathable atmosphere. Maybe one day these plants will be used on Mars, Arnold Schwarzenegger can head the campaign to terraform the planet and hopefully someone would have had plastic surgery to add an extra boob to their body so we can have the three boobed woman from the movie as the mascot!
Lego Farm House
We arrived at a farm house called La Primavera, the place the tour company usually stays in at Los Nevados but unfortunately the owner had decided to go to town the following day to run some errands so the place was unavailable. I’m guessing they had run out cigarettes, alcohol and toilet paper, the staple of any Colombian farming community. Covering about 17km of terrain thus far, Caesar instructed us that we needed to walk for another 40mins to get to the next farm where we would be staying. He described this other farm as more traditional but I’m not sure how much more traditional you can get because this house had pigs, cows, chickens and a woman manually washing her clothes against a slab of concrete. Sounded pretty traditional to me!
Finally we arrived at our farm house named Aquilino o Ventiadero. The dwelling was surrounded by livestock, several dogs of indistinguishable breed roamed around the premise and a small brook that provided water to property babbled away. The first room we walked into seemed to be a multi-purpose kitchen and dining room with sort of mezzanine housing a wood fuelled stove. There was a table and a couple of benches surrounding the traditional stove but the most apparent thing was that everything was miniaturised. We all took a seat at the dining table. I was constantly hunched over trying to navigate around the Hobbit’s home. The farmer’s wife was busy beavering around preparing dinner for a group of local cowboys that were resting there for the night on route to Salento.
Caesar came over to the table and offered us all another cup of aguapanela, I politely refuse, I was sickened at the thought of digesting another one of those sugary drinks. As a substitute I requested another cup of coca tea as I could feel myself developing a bit of a headache. This is one of the first signs of altitude sickness as your body starts to acclimatise to the thin air. After finishing our tea we collectively enquired as to where we would be sleeping for the night. We followed Caesar down a corridor with a couple of doors at the end that looked like they were made from factory pallets. The makeshift door swung exposing two sets of bunk beds and a small window with a view of the surrounding mountainous landscape. There were stacks of blankets on each of the top bunks resembling the type of blankets removalists would use to wrap a fridge in, so heavy and stiff like cardboard. I could only imagine how many people had previously slept in these beds as the mattresses were quite stained but at that moment I was too tired to care about the state of the residence.
We all hopped into our beds not caring about rubbing the dirt we had collected all over the mattresses because frankly no one would have noticed the difference. A chicken started to cackle and it sounded like it was coming from inside the room. I looked down and could see a couple of them through the gaps in the floorboards. The chickens were living beneath us! Caesar appeared holding a pack of green olives which seemed pretty random considering the environment we were in but I didn’t ask any questions and just shoved a handful of them in my mouth. I closed my eyes whilst chewing on the olives and with the thought of tapas on my mind I drifted off to sleep.
I was awoken suddenly by Caesar alerting us that dinner was ready. The sun had now set and the temperature had dropped significantly. Still wearing my shorts, my legs were now starting to feel the crisp conditions of Los Nevados. I walked into the kitchen, arms crossed, hood flicked over my head trying to maintain as much body heat as possible. There were a group of cowboys sitting around the stove. One of them was passing his phone around showing the others photos of himself on his farm. I even saw a few awkwardly taken selfies amongst the collection, not the most flattering photos but I was amazed at how far the selfie phenomena had spread. Shuffling along the dining table bench which seemed to have been built for school children, I positioned myself closer to the open embers of the kitchen stove. Soon after the others awkwardly joined me at the table, after our fantastic lunch experience we were all pretty excited to see what would be served up. What gastronomic delights would this chef provide us with?
She passed a dish over Martin’s head which I intercepted and placed down onto the table. We all stared at the plate, then at each other. In any other scenario I would have walked out of the restaurant and gone somewhere else but at this location my options were severely limited. What we were presented with was some plain rice, fried platano (banana) and some tuna pasta with a minuscule amount of tuna. There was so little tuna on the plate! It was almost like she had just rubbed a whole tuna over the pasta to give it a fishy flavour. I imagined some of the comments that the judges from MasterChef would have expressed if they had been served this dish. “Presentation was abysmal, the selection of ingredients was horrible, all and all a very unpleasant dining experience and I must say that I don’t think there’s any room in this kitchen for a dish like that. Good day to you!”. Nevertheless, I wasn’t a MasterChef judge and in my current state of famine the meal looked like it had been produced by a 3 star Michelin restaurant. I devoured every last morsel of food.
After our lack lustre meal we excused ourselves from the dinner table and headed off to bed, leaving a couple of cowboys to their peeling potatoes duties around the stove. Cowboy life in the Los Nevados seemed a lot different from the Western movies I used to watch on TV!
Breaking The Glass Ceiling
It was really cold at night, so cold that I slept in all the clothes that I hiked in from the previous day through Los Nevados. Not only that, but I created a blanket lasagne on top of myself, using every free blanket I could get my hands on. Aroused from my slumber by the sounds of the cowboys, I noticed that my headache I’d had before going to sleep had now disappeared. This was reassuring that my body now was becoming accustomed to the altitude. The weight of all the blankets on me made me feel like I’d been trapped by an avalanche. I dug myself out of my blanket prison and checked the time. A rooster started to crow right on cue at 6am, breakfast would be served shortly so I slide down the bunk and commenced the chilly journey to the bathroom.
Expecting a lavatory that resembled the Blue Hole in Belize, I was quite surprised to be confronted with a flushing toilet instead of having to stare down an abyss into the ground. There was no toilet seat of course, that would be asking for too much. After expunging last night’s bland dinner, I attempted to send the remnants of my meal onto its final voyage, pressing down on the flushing lever but having no result. This had to be everyone’s worst nightmare! I started to imagine a small line up outside the toilet waiting for me to exit whilst I was brainstorming a way to save myself from the embarrassment of the situation. Then a flash of brilliance, I remembered one of my visits to Thailand, I needed a bucket. Looking around the bathroom I found a large empty bucket, this would suffice as an emergency flushing system. Darting out before someone else discovered my dilemma, I quickly filled the bucket then raced back into the bathroom showering the stubborn remains and blessing them on their way into the river system of Los Nevados.
The hiking objective that day was to reach the pass of Paramillo del Quindío at 4700m in Los Nevados, then return back to the dairy farm. I’d never been that high before and I was very excited at the prospect of shattering my previous record which I had already done by being at the farm. From now on, every metre that I climbed I’d be setting a new personal best. Caesar instructed us to bring the bare minimum of items as we would be returning to the farm. We packed some snacks into our backpacks and commenced the final day of ascent.
After a couple of hours of traversing through the stunning scenery of Los Nevados, we took a break to admire the views and refuel our bodies. Caesar sat down and opened up a box of roasted coca leaves, stuffing a handful of the crunchy leaves into his mouth. Pushing them onto one side of his cheek, he then produced a little container filled with some sort of white powder. Tapping out a small pile into his palm, he threw the powder into his mouth and laid back onto his backpack. I enquired as to what the powder was, cocaine immediately came to mind but my guess was very far off the mark. He explained that the power comes from a rock that is roasted for three days after which water is applied causing the rock to crumble into a powder. That powder being calcium carbonate which behaves as a catalyst activating the coca leaves and giving you a greater buzz. Since we touched on the subject of cocaine, according to Caesar, to create one 1kg of cocaine you need around 250kg of coca leaves.
I always like to try new things, I’d tried chewing coca leaves before but now I wanted to try it with the added goodness of the powder. Shovelling a fistful of leaves into my mouth, I manipulated them into a green lump and pushed them to the side of my mouth. Caesar shook his head, “No, no, you need to place it on the left side so it’s on the same side as your heart” he explained. I’d been placing it on the right hand side all this time, what an amateur!
Hole In One
A few more hours of trekking passed and we arrived at the crater of an extinct volcano, entering into an ecosystem unique to Los Nevados Caesar explained. The place had the feel of a golf course, there were sand bunkers, ponds and putting greens, a very unique environment indeed. Caesar instructed us to follow him through what he called the labyrinth and rightfully so because it looked quite tricky to navigate in order to get to the base of the mountain. Linda misjudged one of the crossings and her foot went straight into the pond, “Hole in one!” I shouted. Everyone laughed except Linda who continued along the path unfazed by her squelching shoe. Caesar showed us a few spots to take some reflective photos after which it was time to head to base camp as he put it.
Base camp was not what I had expected. There were no structures or anything for that matter that would suggest there was a camp here in Los Nevados. Caesar’s idea of base camp was laying out a table cloth for us to eat lunch on and preparing some tea with a butane burner he had been lugging around the past couple of days. I was almost out of water and I asked Caesar if he was carrying any more. He took my water bottle and proceeded to fill it up from the nearby stream. I’d never been to a country where I could just fill up my water bottle from a stream it was amazing. Then he tipped it all out again as he said I had disturbed the soil when I crossed the stream making the water cloudy. Luckily I had decided to urinate further downstream so as to not pollute my own drinking water. I chuckled at the thought of having urinated in the water supply of the Colombians. Eventually he produced a reasonably clear bottle of drinking water from the spring which tasted a little dirty but good enough for me.
After finishing the pre prepared burritos Caesar had made for us, it was time for our final push to the summit. As a side note, I found out that burro means donkey so burrito translates into little donkey. We had about 200m left to ascend to get to the top of the pass overlooking Los Nevados which didn’t seem that far at all. The world record for running 200m is around 20 seconds so how much longer could it take? The air had become very thin at that stage, every step seemed like I was wearing cement boots and the terrain wasn’t doing me any favours as it had turned into a loose gravel. It seemed I was heading further backwards than forwards, one step forward, slide two steps backwards! I made a comment to Martin to distract myself from my burning calves, “How does anyone make it to the top of Everest?” I asked in between gasps of air. “Slowly… very slowly” Martin exclaimed.
I stopped a few times whilst heading up the gravel slope to admire the view and take a few photos. The weather was perfect and the clouds had dissipated enough to leave us with a magnificent view of the surrounding area. The rest of the group had stopped just before the top of the pass, waiting for me so that we could all walk up together. At the top of the pass the silence was deafening, it’s hard to describe the sound of silence but I felt as though I could hear my brain operating, like a low buzzing sound of electrical connections being made. In the valley of Los Nevados below, the only sounds we had heard were from grazing cows and a few rogue flies that buzzed by. From my experience where there’s cow dung there’s always flies but finally at 4700m I had escaped the annoyance of the common fly!
Peanut Butter Kid
We arrived back at the dairy farm a couple of hours late after taking what Caesar called a shortcut through Los Nevados. I think he was just bored of his usual route and wanted a change.
No surprises that our last dinner on the farm consisted mainly of boiled rice, however this time we are given some fish that has been cooked with a layer of cheese on top. Being on a dairy farm cheese was pretty much included in every meal but it was nothing gourmet like Parmesan cheese. Instead it had a quite a salty taste with the consistency of a firm feta but not as crumbly. I remembered Caesar had brought a loaf of bread for us to share and I had a jar of home-made peanut butter that I’d bought from Salento so dessert was sorted. Caesar placed some of the bread into a makeshift toasting wand and held it over the open flames whilst I sat there salivating, ready to spread my delicious condiment all over it.
The children of the dairy farmers were sitting next to me eating the same bland meal that I had been served. I wondered if they had every tried peanut butter before as I bit down on my generously applied peanut butter on toast. “Caesar, can you ask if the kids want some peanut butter” I enquired. Caesar got the children’s attention and the boy nodded his head in enthusiasm. We prepared another couple of pieces of toast covered in thick peanut butter and handed the gifts to the children. The boy took the toast from me with great delight, thanking me as he commenced licking the spread of the bread. He had no interest whatsoever in the bread and after he had finished removing the peanut butter coating, he discarded the bread like it was just an inedible package. Whilst watching him eating the peanut butter I did have a brief moment of anxiety as I hoped he wasn’t allergic to peanuts. That all passed when he didn’t swell up like a water balloon, he still appeared to be breathing, how long does anaphylactic shock take to kick in anyway?
The kids left the table and ran off to get ready for bed, I’m not sure what that involves on a farm but it didn’t include showering because I hadn’t seen one of those in 2 days in Los Nevados! There was about half a jar of peanut butter left and I instructed Caesar to tell the boy that he could have the rest of the jar. Caesar disappeared around the corner with my care package in hand, I could hear muffled shrieks of what I assumed was delight in the background. A couple of seconds later the boy appeared back in the kitchen beaming with delight. “Gracias”, he smiled as he held the jar above his head like a trophy. I must say that the warm fuzzy feeling I felt when I saw the look of joy on his face far outweighed the feeling I would have gotten by eating the rest of the jar myself. His most valued possession at that point in time was a container of crushed nuts. He probably ended up sleeping with that jar that night!
The grumpy kitchen lady (AKA farmer’s wife) had not been the most hospitable person to us. In fact, I constantly felt like I was obstructing her daily routine of potato and rice cooking. Maybe if she had a larger variety of vegetables and spices to work with it might have quelled the monotony of her cooking and brightened her day. Nevertheless, her grumpiness persisted, Martin had asked her for some butter and her reply in Spanish insinuated that she had none, even though Caesar had given us some the previous night from her cupboard. Unfortunately as this farm in Los Nevados was not listed on Hostel World, any avenue to vent our frustrations did not exist and we just had to tolerate her irritation at having these extra mouths to feed. Consequently, Martin was forced to try and swallow one of the driest, mangled pieces of white bread I had ever seen. It looked like it had been left out in the sun for a few days and then used as a hammer for some routine maintenance. He had to take a sip of his coca tea for every mouthful of bread he ate in order to soften it enough to swallow.
Chatting at breakfast, Linda and I decided to take the direct path back to Salento through Los Nevados in order to make our flights to Bogota that evening, leaving Martin to take the more scenic route back with Caesar. It had been so cold the night before that the fruit Caesar was treating us to for breakfast had frozen solid. I sat there watching him awkwardly trying to scoop out a frozen kiwi fruit and equally distribute the pieces of frozen mango. It was quite entertaining watching him cursing and shaking his numb hands whilst he painfully handled the frozen fruit.
One of the cowboys stopped us as we were leaving the farm and motioned that he wanted to have a photo with us. We obliged and took a few quick snaps with him alongside his horse. It’s weird when the shoe is on the other foot and a local wanted to take a photo with you. The previous week I witnessed a guy on a city tour being handed a baby to hold and pose with its family. I’d love to see their Facebook profile picture of some random white guy holding their baby with a look of bewilderment on his face. We thanked the cowboy for his hospitality and Linda and I set off into the morning fog through Los Nevados onto Salento.
Class Is In Session
Back in Salento I had no clean clothes left, everything had been covered in dust from venturing through Los Nevados. Stupidly I had decided to wear a pair of white socks that no amount of bleach would restore to their former glory. These were promptly removed and discarded into the nearest bin after removing them and putting on my flip flops. The only reasonably clean clothes I had left were my pyjamas so I ended up wearing those on the bus trip to Armenia where my flight was leaving from.
Arriving in Armenia, I got off the bus and walked down to where an old guy was waiting for a fare in a cab rank. I jumped into his cab and he immediately started the meter running. This surprised me as they usually turn it off and charge you the gringo rate. He started to converse with me in Spanish and I replied “Lo siento, no entiendo”, apologising for not speaking Spanish. “Ah English” he enquired, “Si…hablas ingles?” I asked. “A little bit” he replied illustrating with his two fore fingers. This kicked off a demonstration of his vocabulary which entailed counting to twenty in English like a 3 year old child. I joined in on the counting game and delivered a round of applause when we both reached twenty. That was pretty much the extent of our conversation and we both sat there in silence until we reached our destination. Pulling up to the airport terminal, I handed over a note slightly greater than the fare and signalled for him to keep the change. “Tip” I exclaimed, I’d just added another English word to his vocabulary.