Peak Experiences: Santa Isabel and Los Nevados

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It started to snow during the first kilometer, which is not what you’d expect, hiking in Colombia.  It wasn’t a soft, New Hampshire, get-out-the-cross-country-skis snow, but a Rhode Island coastal snow, halfway between snow and sleet, that uniquely snot-like texture that sticks to and soaks through everything.  Which is unfortunate since we were wearing 90% of the clothes we brought on this six-month equatorial sojourn and we had three more kilometers of hiking to go to reach the glacier.  And then a three-kilometer return trip to the trailhead before a two-hour Jeep ride down a river bed to a hostel located an hour of mud road from the bus station in a city four precarious hours via bus over a spine of the Andes from our temporary home in Medellin.

The little-acknowledged truth about travel is that it is comprised primarily of slogging through various uncomfortable situations, putting in time between the peak experiences that are ostensibly your reason for leaving home.  This isn’t true about vacations — the good ones, at least — where the hassle is just in the getting-there and returning-home.  But if your only experience of “travel” is through Outside magazine and your great-uncle’s stories about that time he went to Africa in the ‘60s, you might think traveling an unbroken strand of exquisite/interesting/thought-provoking/eye-opening/death-defying experiences from the moment you embark to the moment you return.

This, my friends, is not true.

Most of travel is the greying, fraying string between those much-sought experience beads.  Perching uncomfortably on the side of a POD4 (1024x683)hard bed in a room with no chairs, waiting for the sun to go down so you can go to sleep.  Lounging awkwardly in a plastic lawn chair, waiting for the rain to stop or boat to arrive or ride to show or restaurant to open.  Standing on a street corner/train platform/ferry deck with one too many bags.  Trapped in a conversation with someone monolingual (not your-lingual) recounting again why you are here, where you are from and where you are going. Waiting skeptically for someone who said, “Stay right here.  I’ll be right back with the schedule/menu/medication/name of the place/information you need.”

This is the story of our pursuit of one exquisite bead — climbing to a glacier at a breath-stealing 14,200 feet on a sleeping volcano in Parque Nacional Natural de Los Nevados in central Colombia — and the 81 hours of string, with a few unexpectedly lovely beadlets, surrounding it.

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Four gringos walking into Medellin’s bus station bears a disturbing resemblance to a duck pond when the first handful of bread is thrown.  Crowds of men scurry toward us, all squawking for their piece.

“Where to?’

“Good price!”

“Wifi!”

“Air conditioned!”

This flurrying and scurrying is necessary because there are approximately 3271 separate bus companies operating from the same terminal, each with their own diverse list of destinations, mix of bus sizes and types, and pricing strategy.  Does there exist a master cheat sheet for travelers, outlining which companies travel in which direction, even — most helpfully — at what time?  Of course not.  Instead, we must fling ourselves at the mercy of the ducks, choosing to follow not the fattest or the loudest but a sort of mid-range duck to the counter he chooses for us, trusting that the other ducks chattering behind us will step in with a better offer if the price we’re quoted is too high or the timeline too extended.

ALEX1 (1024x683)Tickets in hand, we head to the bus, an air-conditioned 16-seater.  The first hint about what is in store is the plastic bag the driver hands each passenger before backing out of the bus station. This bus ride is the big leagues, taking us south, up and over the backbone of the Andes and down into Manizales.  It’s one of the major thoroughfares in Colombia, akin to the 5 or I-95 (depending on which coast of the US you are familiar with).  But it’s two lanes wide — ostensibly one lane in each direction but more fluid in practice — and more akin to the road up to Big Bear from Victorville, or the famous stretch of Lombard Street in San Francisco.  Our driver, BLOG9 (765x1024) (2)not wholly unrelated to Evel Knieval and possibly trained by Japanese kamikaze pilots, doesn’t blink as he passes an 18-wheeler which is passing a burro loaded with plantains and a Spandex-clad cyclist on a blind curve of unprecedented steepness.  We couldn’t know this yet, but our return driver added additional degrees of difficulty to the drive: navigating the same road in the rain, one-handed, while he held a series of loud phone conversations with unseen others, half of whom he addressed as “mi amor” or “mi corazon.”  Obviously there are no seatbelts, leaving us all clutching our seats to stay wedged in our piece of real estate and avoid pitching sideways into our neighbor’s lap.

After five weeks in Colombia, we know that the drivers are bad.  “How bad are they?” you chant, sycophantically.  They are so bad that, in order to stay alive and in one piece, pedestrians in Medellin rarely cross big roads at intersections.  There are too many variables at play: cars going straight, cars turning, buses off-loading and on-boarding passengers, motos obeying traffic laws, motos ignoring traffic laws.  Instead, mid-block, there are marked crosswalks.  But don’t think that pedestrians have right-of-way, or that cars will slow or even swerve to avoid pedestrians in these crosswalks.  No, they simply serve as a convenient location to wait for a break in traffic, then scramble to the median and hover there, waiting to dart to safety on the far side.  Between the motos clustered at the starting line of the light, revving ahead of the light, and the exhaust-belching buses lumbering in the rear, we have spent a not-insignificant portion of our month perched precariously on the edge of a curb.

BLOG3 (1024x683)But the views on this road are breath-taking.  Rows of coffee bushes interplanted with plantain trees.  Forest clad hills dropping off into river valleys, sprinkled with Cecropia telealba, a silver-leafed tree that looks, from a distance, like patches of snow in the sunlight.  Towns strung out along the ridge of the mountains, buildings spilling down the sides.  Brightly-painted houses surrounded by even-brighter flowers: in hanging pots, camouflaging the barbed wire fences, spilling over the roof.  Later, along the Rio Cauca, miles of pink-flowering trees arching over the road.  Settlements of cafes touting food and drink for weary travelers.

At the intersection for Riosucio (or “Dirty River” in a complete failure of marketing) is a line of twenty or so bodegas, each manned by a sullen-looking teen or a fierce-looking woman unenthusiastically flapping a towel at passing vehicles.  There are hundreds of these stands along the route, but this stretch is interesting because of the concentration and the fact that they all sell exactly the same thing: white tubs of varying sizes with red lids (I think they are full of panela, unrefined whole cane sugar) hanging from the roof and a selection of damp and sweet-looking breads in different shapes.  Not one stand features chips or oranges or mango juice, just the same merchandise as its neighbor. It reminds me of the souks in the Middle East, where all the leather-goods sellers are clustered together, and then all the spice vendors have their section, and the vegetable stands come next.  Why is this practical?  In my convenience-seeking, Target-trained Western mind, I want to be the only person selling soap and shampoo in the fruit section so shoppers don’t have to schlep all the way to the health-and-beauty section of the market.  But Colombia is covered with these clusters of related stores, all selling roofing tile, for example, or shoes.

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BLOG11 (1024x683)Jaime met us at the train station, a man of undetermined relation to the hostel we were aiming for who turned out to be the family patriarch.  After four awkward sentences of greeting before we mutually agreed that we couldn’t understand each other, we piled our suitcases in the back of his ancient pick-up, under a tarp next to two stalks of plantains still on the branch, and headed into the country.  Within ten minutes, we were on a dirt road.  Within twenty minutes, there was nothing but cows, young men at home on horses, and an occasional red and white house crowding the road, laundry flapping in the wind,
women and girls impassively watching us pass.

BLOG2 (1024x683) (2)The Hostal La Laguna, halfway between Manizales and the start of the trail up to the glacier of Santa Isabel, is a U-shaped structure.  The kitchen forms the base, backed by a walled garden with tortoises and a menagerie of parrots, lorikeets and cockatoos who spend their days shouting, “Mona! Ana! Como estas!”  Up one arm are three free-standing rooms with bunk beds for guests and up the other arm are the family’s quarters, all fronted by a deep porch.  In the middle is a stone courtyard, home to a few beautiful cats who unexpectedly coexist with striking yet dim-witted guinea fowl.  The finca has been in Alexandra’s family for over 100 years.  Along with milk cows, a farm of pine trees climbing up the hillside, and a trout pond, the hostel business is one of the ways to keep it in the family.

ALEX5 (683x1024)Alexandra loaned us rubber boots for our stay, ostensibly to keep our feet dry.  But as we left on our first wander, it became clear that the line between cow shit and mud is precariously thin in this free-range country.  The boots meant our feet stayed dry and toasty as we wandered — free-range ourselves — admiring the tendrils of cloud catching on the mountain peaks, eating mora (blackberries) ripe off the vine, skirting the bull that appeared unexpectedly out of the fog, testing each fence to see if the electricity was on before hopping over or climbing under.  This is a country held together by barbed wire and delineated by electric fences.

The hostel, chosen mostly as a place to acclimate before the climb, offered up a few unplanned beads of experience.  ALEX4 (1024x683)A short wander to an enormous waterfall, under which Eric stood, experiencing brain freeze from the outside.  Jack’s first fish, a rainbow trout on our plate not an hour later.  Snuggle time on the porch swing with my almost-teen, huddled under a blanket while our rain-soaked clothes hung optimistically to dry.  Eggs poached one morning in a combination of cheeses, accompanied by a perfectly-toasted arepa and fresh blackberry juice.

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POD15 (1024x683)Promptly at 7am on Sunday morning, our mountain guides arrived in a Land Cruiser to take us to the trailhead.  In Colombian national parks like Los Nevados, wandering freely is prohibited.  Climbing the mountains requires a guide, and fees, and sticking to the trail and the schedule.  With the bilingual guide we requested was another extranjero, a beefy young Dutchman who took one look at my children and barely contained his eyeroll.  He later apologized, as he stood, panting and dizzy at 14,000 feet, eating the granola bar I offered to keep him moving.  “I tot you wud slow me down but it is me that slow you down.”

I was being altruistic when I volunteered for the middle seat on the ride back, squashed between Eric and the Dutchman.  But I chose well, my seatmates cracking their heads against the windows as we crawled for an hour and a half down a “road” which was kissing cousins with a rocky river bed.  We all have bruises from that ride, up and down our arms and thighs, the kind that would make a doctor stop during a routine exam and ask a few probing questions.

Once, when Eric and I were young and on our first leave-it-behind adventure, a cyclone formed while we were diving on the Great Barrier Reef.  A cyclone, it turns out, is a hurricane in the southern hemisphere that ALEX2 (1024x683)rotates the opposite direction.  We were two days from port with a cowboy captain who decided we should outrun the storm and head north to the next closest harbor.  For two days, we lay in our bunks, hovering six inches over the bed as the ship dropped below us, then — bam — smacking our heads into the pillow as it climbed the next wave face.  But periodically we had to leave the safety of our bunks to visit the head, a room with a poorly-designed user interface, with walls liberally peppered with raw ends of bolts off which we bounced as we wrestled with pants and toilet paper and flushing mechanisms.  I couldn’t appear in public in short sleeves or a skirt for weeks afterwards for fear of the authorities picking up Eric for abuse.  This time, I’m the one hoping no one peers closely at my children.

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POD2 (1024x683)But we made it back to the hostel from the glacier, wet, cold, hungry but victorious. And then to the bus station.  And then to our temporary home in Medellin.  86 hours — all in — of transit, waiting, awkwardness, discomfort, and a few moments of glory.  We’d climbed a 14-er.  In South America.  Which is the kind of story I expect to re-tell at Thanksgiving dinner when I’m 80, my children chiming in with details I’ve forgotten, their spouses and/or children exchanging fond-but-exasperated looks behind our backs.  But they’ll be the kind of people who know we are leaving a few minor details out, that real travel isn’t all about the peak.

Photo credits: Retta (mostly)BLOG4 (683x1024)BLOG5 (1024x683)BLOG6 (1024x683)BLOG10 (1024x683)POD8 (1024x683)

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