Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Best and Worst Days in Colombia

"When will we ever get there!?" is what we kept repeating as we took a "shortcut" over endless mountain passes exceeding 13k feet. It had been nearly the whole day since we had left our last point of civilization, where a local expat told us something along the lines of "you are better off sticking to the main roads!" We didn't take a 4Runner on this trip to solely drive on paved roads, and anyway the main roads required a whole lot of backtracking. Now we were out of GPS familiar territory, and collecting quite the number of stares from locals as we drove through their farmlands and pueblos too small to show up on our map. The drive was long, but it was fun and felt like an adventure to not know where we were and have to stop and ask for directions. Plus, not just the thin air made us breathless, the views around every corner did too! Finally asphalt appeared, the seldom used shortcut intersected with a highway at a roadblock manned by a group of soldiers doing routine checkpoints. They were a bit bewildered by our appearance out of the random mountain road, but all smiles and curiosity about our trip, and where we were headed, and how we liked Colombia. After lots of friendly questions they pointed us in the right direction and told us goodluck as we drove off.

With barely any daylight left we needed a place to stay pronto. We pulled into a restaurant, hoping to camp for the night in the parking lot. Before we even got out of the car, a woman came scurrying up from a house that shared the same property as the restaurant. She explained they were closed but insisted on opening up the kitchen and cooking up dinner for us. Soup, steak, and fries, how could we say No! Her English speaking husband Julio joined us and we chatted for awhile over a food and a couple drinks and camped in their parking lot for the night. The next morning we awoke to fresh coffee and bread in their dining room, followed by a tasting of many different local fruits, a tour of their trout farm, a tour of an up-and-coming neighborhood that they insisted we should move to, a shopping trip, and even got our very own highly trendy wool ponchos (Ruanas) made from their mother's sheep up the hill! Man Colombians are friendly!

Chris totally stoked that his Clint Eastwood collection is coming together.

We drive up the last few hours of winding mountain roads, make a pit stop through the charming town of El Cocuy to buy our passes to El Cocuy National Park and prove to them that we have health or life insurance... This is getting exciting already! The town is somehow bland but at the same time perfect with its uniform of white houses and seafoam green trim, each place looking exactly the same on the outside. You are not cool in this town unless you are sporting a thick ruana like every single other person in this state of Colombia... Lucky for us we are prepared!!

Cute little El Cocuy from above
The cool look in this part of the Andes

After stocking up in town, we slowly crawl up the last hour of muddy road to Hacienda Esperanza, nestled at 11,500 feet. This traditional Colombian hacienda has been in the family of Guillermo for a few generations, and he now runs it with the absolute best hospitality and warmth imanginable. There are cozy rooms situated around the open courtyard, and Guillermo gives us a good spot for car camping... or so it seemed at first.

Glaciers ahead!
The hacienda from above.

Apparently a day before arriving a storm knocked out powerlines, sending the hacienda back to the stone age. No power or hot water at these high altitudes made for dinners with all the guests huddled around candlelit tables by the fireplace, fighting to stave off the cold temperatures. It seems that this is the case more often than not from the ease at which life went on without power and without a glitch in the hominess and good food. That night we hung around the chilly open aired dining room in the hacienda drinking warm "agua de panela" spiked with anise liquor and bundled in our new ponchos until dinner time. Meanwhile Guillermo and friends were in the kitchen cooking up a homemade farm fresh dinner by candle light. The entire night was as quaint as it gets. As we settled into bed out in Lola for the night, a little knock on the window came with a delivery of two old school rubber hot water bottles to help heat up our bed! At that point, it was definately the coldest night of the trip, so we were not sure how cold we would be, but by the middle of the night we were shedding blanket layers because it was nice and toasty in our little sheet metal room. The other guests at the Hacienda commented the next day that their rooms were quite chilly overnight, giving us hope that we would survive future nights on the road at low temperatures.

Locals in this region are known for their cute rosy cheeks
Candlelight cooking.

In preperation for our goal of hiking up to some glaciers and picturesque lakes at a breathtaking 14,500 feet, we spent the first day acclimating with a hike into the surrounding valleys. People warned us to hike with a guide because of how easy it is to make a wrong turn, and sure enough we found out what they meant. The main path was crisscrossed by dozens of cow trails leaving the unguided hiker with a "choose your own adventure." After arriving into some high meadows and gaining a good view of the area were we able to see where we needed to be of in the distance. Scraggily forests, barbwire fences, stonewalls, steep ravines, and waist high grasslands lay in between. Bushwacking time! This proved very fun despite Mallary dealing with level 10 allergy attacks causing her to violently sneeze and sniffle the entire day and night til her abs hurt!

Bring on the allergies!

The anticipation was building as we had been talking to other hikers who shared stories of how stellar the hikes are. At 6am we rose for the usual hacienda breakfast that included the traditonal potato and cilantro soup that warmed our bones from the inside out. The hike started with a gentle grade past deliciously plump cows and thankfully we knew were to go after yesterdays mistake. Roughly an hour in, we entered a paramo, which is a high altitude enviroment in the Andes made up of rare alpine flowers and odd plants that grow at an extremely slow rate.

Mallary standing next to an Andean Frailejone plant
Rushing to beat the clouds!

The trail got steep and soon we were gasping our way up endless rocky slopes, wishing that every bend in the trail would yield some form of end. The occasional person heading back would say 40 more minutes, yet after 40 minutes of hiking, people would tell us the same thing. What's going on here?! Midday had arrived and we knew we didn't have much time left before it was immenent that we turn back. Each afternoon, usually beginning around 4pm, torrential rain would hit the area. Combined with cold winds and air temperature in the 40's, it could prove downright miserable. With that in mind we told ourselves "okay, we'll go 15 more minutes and turn around regardless if we make it or not." We walked at a zombie pace over one last hump in the trail, and at last came to one of the scenic glacial fed lagoons. The feeling was exhilarating, and maybe it was the lack of oxygen persuading us, but we needed to keep going because there are more ahead! So breathing 12% oxygen in the thin air (compared to a normal 21% at sea level) onward we trudged over one pile of rocks to the next seeing what laid beyond and too curious to not go "over just one more crest!" until we reached our share of big lagoons, with a backdrop of a glacier close behind. We stuck around for a few pictures and a record fast meal before racing back down. The descent was worrisome as the temperature was slowly dropping and ominous clouds socked the trail. We pushed onward as fast as we could down the loose steep gravel paths with our tired muscles, til we reached the safety of the hacienda, a total of nine hours. Five minutes later, the kind of downpour hit that conjures up images of Noahs Arc. We looked at each other knowing we had barely made it warm and dry, especially after seeing a couple poor souls make it back a little later soaked to the bone, shivering, and wearing a face that was about as far from happy as it gets. We went to bed as soon as our bellies were full, sleeping like babies in the car.

Mallary's first time seeing a glacier!

The next day it was very hard to leave the hacienda, even though our car was in the middle of the Swamp of Sadness from the Neverending Story. We did our best to pack and walk through it without sinking to oblivion. But whatever, the sun was shining, the clouds were sparse in the blue sky, showing a beautiful clear view of the glacier in the distant background, and this place looked stunning. We loved it here! We couldn't help but sit in the warm strong sun in the courtyard and take one last mini hike up around the pastures for a bit before heading down to the town El Cucoy for a night. We really almost stayed, and if they had a way to wash clothes or take a warm shower we would have. In hindsight, we definitely should have stayed... that could've changed the next days events, but who knows...

Here we will try and make a long story short in telling about the crappiest day of the trip. We arrived back at Julio's midday for a quick lunch. We walked out 45 minutes later, and Mallary hollers over "Where is the camera?" "Wait, where is the backpack? Where are all our electronics?" Shit! Thiefs had jammed a flathead screwdriver into the drivers side door lock and hammered it out. The police arrived and handed over an official police report for insurance purposes. Julio and his family felt horrible for what happened on their property, and they hooked us up with dinner, gave us a bedrom for the night, and fed us breakfast before we took off. We hadn't planned to go to Bogota, the massive capital city of 8 million people, but with many an item needing to be replaced we had no choice. Fast forward three days: most items are replaced, and we were feeling upbeat because we have been reassured that travel insurance will cover almost everything. We actually had a decent time exploring the city, and spoiling ourselves with a nice place was a huge morale booster on its own. It's amazing that a luxury hotel in a nice area costs the same as a Motel 6 back home... And we managed to stay positive and thankful that we were not harmed and everything was replaceable.

The hotel was the best part of getting robbed!
Pablo Escobar's cousin driving us around in the city


Friday, September 18, 2015

We <3 Colombia

We had spent enough time on the coast melting in the heat and fighting off skin cancer, so we opt to race to get into the cool Colombian mountains. It still takes two long days of driving in the endless sweltering lowlands before we reach some mountain relief. Seeing how little progress we make on the map really drives home the size of which South America is. We are no longer in the tiny countries of Central America where a ten hour drive could put us in three different countries.

Ah yes, mountains!
Clocking an amazing 20 something MPH up some mountain roads.

Along the road south, it is always clear when we are close to a road that crosses into Venezuela because there are heaps upon heaps of people selling contraband gas for 2/3 the price of Colombian gas. These smart people were making a killing because we hear gas in Venezuela is 1 cent a gallon! Too bad the politics to get into that backwards country is more difficult then is worth filling up a tank for under twenty cents. Not even a free tank of gas is changing our course at this point!

Don't mind my grimy cans.

Sick of subpar photos, we dropped in the big city of Bucaramanga and bought a new and better camera...Chris excited about a new toy and Mallary already believing she is the next pro photographer. Freshly equipped with our said toy, we head up to the hills overlooking the city for the most magical of campsites. Not only does this site have a fantastic view, but it also has parasailing! Driving up to it, we see plenty of brightly colored sails floating and manuevering around in the thermals, some even so close to the road that they look like they could land on Lola. Having never witnessed this sport up close, it was really amazing to see what could be done with a sail, some cords, and a padded seat. Without hesitation we signed up for a ride above the city with one of the local professionals. Within minutes, we were being called out individually to the takeoff cliff, given a helmet, and strapped in....and with three steps forward, the thermals quickly swooped the sail up into the air, taking us into their control. Our pilots then took us sailing by cliffs, over the sprawling city, and by request swung the carriage in sweeping side to side pendulum-like motions. 10 minutes in that seat was awesome, and definitely worth the going price of $16! The day at the paragliding place was coming to a close and it cleared out, leaving us, the view of the city, and the sunset in the distance all alone. We cooked dinner, opened a bottle of wine, stuck our chairs right in the middle of the take off field, turned up some tunes, and soaked up the night. Simply perfect.

Mallary in flight, her voice can be heard from even further now!

Almost tempted to have a second sail in the thermals, we hit the road for a scenic drive through Chicamocha Canyon. The views are breathtaking, and we are enjoying it so much that we find a cute little ranch to camp for the night called Cabanas Campestres. Here we parked in the front of their lot, overlooking their garden and the immense canyon before us. The small family run place was more like a homestay than a campground. The grandmother loved to take us on mini tours of the property, showing us how they grow, roast, and make their own coffee and grind corn for the chickens. She would give us tiny cups of coffee and tastes of homemade empanadas thoughout the day. The two kids had the day off from school, and after we shared some candy with them, they became our shadows until bedtime. The little girl even took us on a hike and showed off her new friends to the neighborhood. We loved this place, but our main perogotive for chilling out here was to catch up on some blogs, and that definitely did not happen with the presence of our new favorite ankle biters!

We've seen a million chickens so far, but yes we will go on your chicken tour.
Coffee time, supporting local farmers.
Try cooking with these four vultures sneezing all over your food.
The face says it all.

By now we had made our way into the Colombian Highland region, a very beautiful landscape of mountains loaded with well maintained farms, pastures, and well preserved Spanish style colonial towns. The town of Barichara is arguably the most picturesque of the country, so it wasn't long before we found ourselves bouncing our way into this town on streets built way before the idea of cars and the destruction of their shocks ever came to mind. Of course, we had highlighted this town in our book long ago with an additional note saying "camp on side of cliff". We walked all through the cobblestone streets, seeking out some stellar local specialties, and even strolled into a building full of old folks making craftwork in antiquated fashion. The town presented so many perfect opportunities to practice our skills on the new camera... every picture resulting in a "man we are sooo happy we got a new camera for this!" We had to be aware though, getting caught up in gazing at the rolling town and green hillsides can lead to an almost pee your pants scare when a huge barking dog head comes at your face as you walk innocently down the sidewalk!

The big one scared Mallary, then she scared the whole town with her out of this world scream
Torture device or weaving machine?
$4 per plate, tasted like 15!

That night we pulled up to the cliffside overlooking the mountains and canyon in the back of town, and had yet another amazing and free place to make camp. Throughout the evening many friendly locals approached us for a quick chat as we cooked up some wonderful fresh Colombian veggies, and then later in the night (3am actually) the friendly police approached us for a quick questioning! :/ At the time we were fast asleep, until their high beams illuminated every inch of the car, quickly followed by bright red and blue lights... the international sign that you're in trouble! After circling the car suspiciously, they glanced in through one of our screens asking, "What are you doing here?" "Umm, we are sleeping" "Okay, well have a nice night!" We suspect they were investigating a random abandoned vehicle, not expecting us to be sleeping inside... But who knows?

Even though modern roads traverse the region, the villages are still connected by footpaths (camino reales) that go back hundreds of years. We woke up the next morning and set out one of the more popular caminos that would bring us to Guane, a town known for it's own version of eggnog, goats milk, and goat cheese. The trail was pleasant on the eyes, mostly lined by old rock walls and meandered along a multitude of farms. It was fitting that halfway into the hike, we caught up with a goat rancher herding his flock of thirty or so goats towards Guane. He was thrilled to have us around, and even snatched up the smallest of the babies and shoved it into Mallary's arms. Meanwhile, mama goat was going buck wild with hatred. We spent close to an hour walking with him, learning more info then necessary about goat ranching....about 60% of which we understood through his thick country accent. When we got to Guane, the goats ran home, and our new friend directed us to the best goat cheese in town, which we gobbled down on the hike back!

Chris had been eyeing a place called El Cocuy National Park for a couple years, so next we are off to even bigger mountains, where we would soon feel like we turned back the hands of time at a rustic hacienda...