Here we are in the Andes, surrounded by sheep and snow capped glacial mountains. The Cabañas Kanwara are lovely little cabins just inside the Parque Nacional El Cocuy. It’s run by a delightful family, Hermando and Maria. Maria speaks some English; Hernando doesn’t, but he loves talking and meeting new people, so we got to practice our Spanish.
After settling in and meeting a young lady, Crystal, from the states, we decided we were going to ride the bikes out the dirt road to this glacial lake. On the map it was like one inch from the Cabañas, so we figured that was probably like 10 km and it shouldn’t take more than fifteen or twenty minutes. One of the officials in the office where we had purchased our permit had told us a bit about the area of the park where we were going, and we had asked him if we could drive to the lake. He said a lot of stuff we didn’t understand, but confirmed that there was a road to the lake, but pointed half way down the road and implied that it ended. From the Cabañas we could see that it was in fact a road, so we assumed he probably meant cars couldn’t drive on it because it was rough, so we figured it would be fine for us.
I stupidly invited Crystal to come on the back of my bike because I thought it was going to be a fifteen minute stroll to a lake. I gave her my foot pegs, and my helmet, cause I’m nice, and about five minutes into the drive I regretted my invitation. The road started out as a dirt/gravel trail winding along the mountain side, but it quickly developed small obstacles, like rock fields, or empty river crossings that had been shaped into an abrupt concrete V and didn’t take well to the extra hundred pounds behind me. Also my legs were getting tired from not having foot pegs. After about twenty minutes or so of riding, when I figured we should be nearing the lake, we came across a car parked on the side of the road with a family hanging around enjoying the scenery. We turned the next bend and came to a stop, as did the road. There was a muddy looking grass field, and we saw on the other side what might be the continuation of the trail. Chris took off to investigate and as he returned, spraying a giant mud roost behind him, he confirmed that the road did continue on the other side of this soft field of muddy grass.
We took a look at the GPS to see if we could figure out how far we were, and it looked like we were about half way, but our desired points weren’t actually in the GPS, so we were making poor estimations. We had Crystal get off my bike and walk across the field so that I could ride through it fast enough to not sink in the mud. Success, we all got across and got back on the bikes and continued. From this point though, the road got a lot rougher. This is clearly what the guy in the office meant when he was telling us the road didn’t go through. The trail became a constant rock field instead of just an occasional rock field, and the bits that weren’t covered in large rocks were rutted out from previous vehicles into long, thin, snaking trails, one foot wide and one foot deep. I kept on making Crystal dismount for challenging sections. The downhill rock sections were easy enough because of the momentum, I was just dreading when we would have to come back up these hills. Not too far along we stopped again because the trail turned sharply uphill in a very rocky, steep, narrow trail that was far more difficult looking than what we had thus far gone through. We decided to call it. If I hadn’t had Crystal on the back we would’ve been fine to go through it, but I did, so we didn’t. We turned around, which was no small feat, and I made Crystal start walking back up the rocky hill.
We continued, on the bike, off the bike, for the rest of the trail until we got back to the mud field. We decided that the path we had taken to come across wasn’t the best path and we should try this other way, which looked less deep. We were wrong.
Remember how I thought this was a jaunty stroll down a path? I had also made the poor decision of wearing only sneakers and regular pants. We got Chris out, but in the process I got shoes full of mud. It was entertaining at least. We were a bit regretful that we didn’t reach the lake, but we couldn’t have left Crystal sitting on the side of the road, or made her walk the last six or seven or however many kilometers it actually was. So we returned as failures, but with good pictures to show for it.
When we had arrived, Hernando told us that we needed to let them know in advance when we want meals, so we had requested dinner at that point. They asked us at the time what we wanted for dinner: chicken, trout or sheep. We went for sheep since we were surrounded by sheep, and seven hours later we had some fresh sheep. It was pretty good. The meal came with a soup starter, as had most of our Colombian meals. There was then the main course of meat, rice, beans, salad and some weird cheesy corn thing. We also got a tea that was quite sweet and we learned later was “aqua de panela”, i.e. unprocessed cane sugar in hot water. It was good, but very sweet.
We retired to our cabin where Hernando started a fire for us, and we sat on sheep skin covered chairs, played cards, and chatted with some Colombian tourists. Maria, Hernando’s daughter, had told us that the hot water in the shower only worked when the tap was turned on just a little bit. She wasn’t kidding. They had one of the electric water heaters attached to the shower head. If you’ve never seen one of these, which I hadn’t before a few months ago when the first one I encountered was so shoddily attached that it electrocuted me, it’s like a large shower head that has electric coils in it that heat the water before it comes out. There’s usually three settings on it so you can adjust it to be hot, warm or cold. They never work properly, and this one was no different. If you just cracked the tap so water dribbled out it was hot. Turn it on any more than a dribble and it’s luke warm. Get some actual water pressure going and it’s freezing glacial run off. So I took a hot dribble of a shower and snuggled up under the wool blankets.
When we woke there was frost on the window, and the poor tents outside were frozen. It was chilly. But as the sun came over the mountains the valley heated up, and our lovely little room got all the afternoon sun and would turn into a sauna. We were up and making coffee by 6:30 and went down to the main cabin for breakfast shortly after. Once again we started with soup (it’s usually some kind of stock for breakfast), then had our eggs and bread and cheese. We were offered the traditional hot cocoa with bread and cheese, but we can’t handle that for breakfast very often. We were up early because today we were going to hike up the glacier in front of us, Ritacuba Blanco. The cabins are at about 13,000 feet. The top of the glacier is 16,000. We heard it was a seven or eight hour round trip, so we wanted to get an early start. We were on the road by eight, with lunch in our backpacks, a thermos full of coffee and lots of layers.
The trail meandered through the neighboring farm for a short while before we got to the official beginning of the mountain, at which point the trail started to go pretty directly up.
Within half an hour I had stripped off my fleece, my wool leggings, my wool long sleeved, my hat, and the pant part of my pants, which were now shorts. The trail wasn’t entirely clear more often than not, and either zig-zagged up the hill, or went straight up the middle. Because the trail wasn’t delineated, people had climbed wherever they chose and there were clearly many trails just as well worn as the official one. Every so often we would come across a little red piece of wood in the ground with a number on it so we figured it was the right way. Also we were going up, and up was definitely the right way.
After an hour and a half or so we heard some Colombians behind us, and soon enough an entire family blew by us like we were fat Americans. Oh wait. At least we are respectful Americans and don’t insist on imprinting our presence on nature via those piles of rocks some people think are art. Instead, we actively return nature to how it was before people disturbed it.
As we continued on the scenery started changing: the shrubs were getting smaller, the grass was disappearing, and we came across little rivers running over rocks full of bright red iron and other minerals. We also started feeling the altitude. We thought we had acclimatized fairly well. We had spent a night at the Cabañas at 13,000 feet; the previous few days in Güícan were at 12,000 feet, and before that when we were awoken at 4:30am by the call to Church via the blasting of Christmas music, we were at 9,000 feet. However, we had still gone from 13,000 to 14,500 feet in a couple of hours.
I started focusing on just putting one foot in front of the other. My mind didn’t really have the capacity to think about anything beyond walking. We would get to a steep section and after climbing it, have to sit down, catch our breaths, and let our heart rates drop back down from aggressive pounding to a reasonable thump. At this point we passed two members of the Colombian family who had sped by us earlier: a young girl and an older woman. They were taking a break as well, the young girl wasn’t doing well with the altitude. We powered on by them and kept going, slowly.
Every time there was a crest in the hill we kept thinking we must be at the top. Finally we did climb a crest and saw the expanse of rock that led up to the snow line.
The rock went on for ages, and at some point I decided that I didn’t care to reach the snow and I just wanted to lay down for a bit instead. So Chris left me in a crevice with the coffee and the lunch we had packed and continued on to the snow. He was out of site for a bit, but then I saw him through the binoculars as he approached the snow and the Colombian family that was playing in it
When he had left me he said it looked like it was ten or fifteen minutes walk away, but he returned, exhausted, over an hour later, realizing only then how long and deceptive that rock was.
Sitting around at the base of a 16,000 foot glacier was a bit chilly, so I had put back on all the layers I had removed earlier. I ate my hard boiled egg, but couldn’t stomach the pasta we had brought. The coffee was amazing though. After Chris stuffed himself full of pasta, egg and coffee, we headed back down. It was after 1pm at this point, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t run out of sunlight.
After only a half hour or so, I immediately noticed a boost in energy. My body felt normal again and my brain started working. I did start to get a headache, but at least I didn’t feel on the verge of collapse like I had at the top. Not long into our descent we came across the same young girl and older woman who we had passed before. The young girl, Lina, was doing worse then she had been, and she only had her grandmother with her. We didn’t want to leave a sick teenaged girl and a grandma alone on a mountain top, so we walked along with them. Lina had learned some English in school, so I got to practice my Spanish while being able to confirm in English that I had gotten my point across properly.
We chatted to pass the time and I learned that Lina was very disappointed to not reach the top because she had never seen snow before and wanted to touch it. That explained why her whole family had been playing in it. But we soldiered down the mountain, chatting and helping Grandma Leo down the steep bits. At one point Chris remembered the coffee he had and offered some to Lina and Grandma Leo. “Dios Mio!” Leo exclaimed, upon taking a sip of coffee. Note to future mountain climbers: coffee fixes everything.
The further down we got, the more noticeable it was that Lina was feeling better, and the worse my headache was getting. Once we got to the bottom of the mountain and onto the trail through the farms, I ditched Lina and Leo and scurried back to the cabins, feeling rough. I got back and decided all I needed to get rid of my headache was a hot dribble of a shower. Two minutes into my shower the dribble suddenly turned cold. Not just cold, but freezing glacier water cold. I turned it off, waited a minute, tried again. Nothing. I tried everything I could think of but eventually got out of the shower and realized that the power had gone out. No power, no electrical heater, no hot dribble. So now I was freezing, my headache had turned into a migraine, and I was feeling pretty pathetic. I crawled upstairs to our room, and was rewarded with a sun-heated sauna and a bed full of wool blankets. I put my eye mask on, ear plugs in, and lay there in a pile of discomfort. Chris brought me some soup a couple of hours later and eventually I felt better.
When we had purchased our permits and insurance to enter the park we had planned on staying two nights, so now those two nights were up, as were our permits, so it was time to leave. We had contemplated trying to ride back to the lake in the morning, this time without a passenger, but when we awoke we remembered that we had climbed a mountain the day before and couldn’t be bothered.
But before we left we had one last task. We had noticed in our time at the Cabañas that not only were there a lot of sheep roaming about, there were a lot of sheep hides laying about. Chris had the great idea that he could buy one and make a seat cover out of it, like the one I purchased in Alaska to make my motorbike seat more comfortable and less slippery. His seat is suede and so doesn’t have the slip factor, but it was custom made for a dude twice the size of Chris, so it’s a bit hard on his poor bum. I had already learned the Spanish word for sheep when ordering dinner, so I looked up how to say “hide”, then asked Hernando if we could buy one. He was thrilled that we wanted to and quoted us 20,000 pesos. That’s about six dollars. The sheep hide seat cover I bought in Alaska was $100. Granted it was dyed black, cut into the right shape, and treated on the underside until it felt like a baby lamb’s soft belly, but still that’s a big mark up. We were pretty stoked with this six dollar hide, and we rolled it up and strapped it to the bike, to be cut down to size and beaten into soft submission at a later date.
We then drove the long way out of the park to the slightly larger town of El Cocuy. It was a lovely drive on dirt roads through beautiful farms. And we noticed that the cows here were our normal, fluffy, black and white cows. Fluffy black and white cows in the mountains; saggy, skinny, white Brahma cows in the deserts and lowlands. I’m sure there’s a proper scientific cow reason for this, but I was just happy to have noticed it.
We got to the town of El Cocuy and checked into a hotel with the coolest, most impractical key ever. It was still quite early in the day and after wandering around the town we decided A) that Güícan was a way better town, and B) there was nothing to do but sit in the park and drink beer. So we got the playing cards out, bought a couple beers, and sat down on a bench in the square. We had gotten through maybe one hand of cards when two young girls and an even younger boy walked up to us and started asking us questions. “Where are you from? What are you doing here? Is that an iPhone?” So all of a sudden we were hanging out with these two eleven year old girls, cousins, and the nine year old younger brother of one of them.
The girl, Alejandra, who had first started talking to us was a very outspoken, forward, direct, and pretty young girl. She is going to be trouble in a few years. Her cousins were more reserved, but also were learning English in school, which was helpful in our conversation. All they wanted to do was play on our iPhones, listen to music, and hear about us, our lives, the US. At one point, Carol, the other girl, talked to some adults on the other side of the road, went into the corner store, and came back out with three lemonades for the kids, and two beers for us! Shortly after that, the adults called Carol over again and they talked, then told the other two kids they were going to run an errand and they took Carol and left their other two kids with two strangers, drinking beer in a park (us). Half an hour later the adults returned and Carol came back over to hang out with us. By this time, my phone had died from excessive game-playing, and it was time for the kids to go home, but Alejandra wanted to exchange numbers with us, so we hooked her up with Chris’ What’sApp account and we sent a couple messages as they were driving home. Now every so often we get a message from an eleven year old Colombian girl, just saying hey. Weird, I know. But totally awesome to be in a place where people feel comfortable leaving their children hanging out with strangers in a park. We love Colombia!
Tell your friends: only three days left til BOOBIES!