Backpacking in the Columbian Andes

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By David Founds
Los Nevados, Columbia

Over Semana Santa (spring break) I went on a six-day backpacking trip in the Colombian Andes. We basically hiked from one end of the national park Los Nevados to the other, a distance of about 80 miles. The park surrounds a volcanic range with five volcanoes. The scenery was spectacular and we were at very high elevation the whole time.

On Sunday morning I woke up at seven in the morning, grabbed my packed backpack and walked out to the road to catch to bus. I arrived at the bus terminal and waited for the trip guide and the other participants. This was the beginning of the Colombian equivalent of spring break, where everyone travels, and the station was a mass of families swarming throughout vast station, clutching cardboard boxes. Shortly before eight, I met up with Eric, my Dutch guide. Standing at about six-foot-five, blond a person can be, in the sea of short dark Columbians, Eric stood out like a giraffe at a penguin party. The other clients besides my self were a 28-year-old Colombian girl with her newly emigrated French
husband, and a fifty-year-old Colombian guy. Between the five of us, two could actually speak Spanish decently.

We boarded the bus and were soon zooming through the Colombian countryside on our way to Ibague, the town where we were going to start our hike. The driver of our mini buss drove like a madman, frequently passing people and accelerating through the windy curves in the hilly, lush countryside. We arrived at Ibague around one and walked a few blocks, dodging hyper-aggressive traffic through the hot, congested city. Our motley crew, with our huge bags was VERY out of place, and we were soon swarmed by gawking onlookers and beggars pestering us for money. As we walked past the street vendors I overheard one say to one another, “look! Gringos.” I felt like I was being marched on parade.

The restaurant we chose for lunch was gritty, dilapidated, and amazingly cheap. The ancient cash register set on the disheveled bar, and was manned by the owner who collected the money with mistrustful eyes and a sweaty face. Sleazy beer posters covered the walls, and the men’s urinal lacked a door and cost 200 pesos(ten cents). None of the silverware or plates matched, and the painfully young waitress had a taught protruding belly that screamed “pregnancy!” through her grease stained shirt. Regetton (spanish hip hop mainly from the Caribbean, but popular through out latin america) music blared through the speakers, and poured through the open garage-style door out into the street.

For about a dollar, I had a thick vegetable soup, beans, rice, fried platano(like banana), fresh-squeezed lemonade and a side of beef that had the consistency of moist leather. Due to the dullness of the knives (I have seen sharper spoons), I was shaking the plastic table as I tried to mash my meat apart and keep myself from laughing at the thought of what the health department would have to say about eating here. Nonetheless, minus the beef, the food was quite good, and we re-entered the streets feeling quite full.

Next we headed to the crowded supermercado, which made the streets feel like a wide-open prairie. Everyone stared like we were from Mars as we shopped for the food that would sustain us for the next six days (the vast majority being pasta and cookies, but also including canned food, fresh carrots, tomatoes, and onions in (gross violation of my ultra light backpacking principals.) An hour or so later we emerged from the store, shoved our food into our over-flowing packs and walked a block to street corner that serves as a public transportation center.

The open air busses that normally take people up the hill to their houses or the national park had already left for the day, so we hired a jeep. We lashed our bags to the roof rack and piled into the back. The driver was endlessly amused by us, and kept smiling as we zipped out of the city and began bouncing down the spectacularly bumpy road. The road followed a river as it surged upward into the mountains. In the back of the jeep we were jostled and tossed into each other for the hour it took to get to the end of the road.

Our next step of the journey was a half hour walk up hill to the “Rancho”. The Rancho consisted of several crude buildings set in the middle of a cow pasture that doubled as a camping zone. There was also a spectacular waterfall, and one of the best hot springs I have ever been in nearby. We were able to buy dinner that had been cooked on a wood stove. After dinner we sat in the massive hot spring for about a hour and watched the stars and moon before heading to our tents for a warm sleep.

El Rancho

Waterfall

The next morning we woke up at six and started hiking up through the jungle into the mountains. Not a whole lot of people go backpacking in Colombia, and the trails through the jungle were severely overgrown. In places landslides had wiped out the trail, forcing us to have to scramble up steep hillsides to find the trail again. The trail wound its way up a lush valley, and we saw many amazing tropical plants. The mosquitoes and biting flies were savage, and everyone was covered in bites by the end of the day.

Jungle

The first day was pretty brutal as we gained thousands of feet of elevation over about eight hours of hiking with heavy bags. We ended up at 4000 meters of elevation which is around 13,000 feet. The terrain at this altitude is completely different than that of the jungle. The terrain was open, hilly, grassland covered in plants called Frilojones. These plants have leaves that look and feel like rabbit ears, and grow a rate of about one centimeter a year. We saw several that were tall enough to be hundreds of years old.

Fralajones

FARC sign:
(Translation- the fountains of water are life, we don’t chop down the trees)

The second day was much easier, and we hovered around the same elevation and hiked past lakes and wound our way most of the way around the volcano Tolima. We also found a sign left over from a few years ago when the park was occupied by FARC, the largest of Colombians rebel groups. It was a little unnerving to find a sign declaring this to be FARC territory, but apparently they haven’t been in the park for a few years.

Getting friendly with the local flora, tolima in the background

For the next three days we hiked, sometimes overland, through the range, crossing high passes and dropping down to lakes and streams. At the largest lake we passed I saw 16 inch rainbow trout jumping for flies and felt like slapping myself for leaving my fishing pole back in the states. Pretty much every day we were near a new volcano. On the fifth day we did an amazing overland traverse of the volcano Santa Isabella, climbing to over 15,000 feet. We found marshy land that had small, (2 to six feet in diameter) intensely green islands. The islands looked like putting greens, but were hard as solid wood, and we crossed the marsh by jumping from mini-island to mini-island.

Putting green plants:

We stopped for lunch in the intense sun at 14,000 feet, by an unnamed lake that over looked a valley between the volcano we were on and the next. We were looking at the map when a shadow sped past, blocking the intense high altitude sun for a instant. Everyone’s eyes shot upward and we saw two huge Andean condors riding the thermals above us. The Andean condors are one of the largest species of flying birds in the world, with wingspans reaching nearly ten feet. The massive birds cruised up and down back and forth in front of us, sometimes bombing right over out heads. This went on for about ten minutes, and then one landed about thirty feet away. The huge bird just sort of stared at us for a few minutes, then launched itself into the air with one effortless flap of its massive wings, and dropped down into the clouds and out of sight.

Condor(Vultur gryphus)

The next day we hiked along a dirt road to the most famous of the volcanoes. Bus loads of tourists take a bus up to nearly 16,000 feet and then struggle up another thousand feet on foot to the snow line. The hordes of people were pretty overwhelming. The people were generally dressed inappropriately, and were having immense trouble struggling upward due to the thin air. We had been at altitude and for a week and climbed rather easily past the multitudes of jeans-clad, altitude-sick people, up through the thick cloud cover to the glacial snowfield. It was pretty nasty on top, and there was no view whatsoever. It started snowing so we didn’t stick around for long. We caught a buss down to the town of Manizales, ate some dinner, had a few beers and spent the night in a hotel.

The next day was an eight hour bus ride back to Bogotá. If you are interested in coming to Colombia or want to hear what it is like for foreigners here drop him an email at Davidfounds at gmail dot com





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