It was a long and hard decision to leave my family for a few days to go trekking. Looking back maybe it was silly but Jamie is still breastfeeding and the thought of leaving him went against all my instincts. Plus I was really out of shape and had never done a multi-day trek before so to be honest I was a little scared. But doing a multi-day trek had been in the back of my mind from day 1 of this trip and when we arrived in Colombia, my mind kept returning to setting foot high in the Colombian Andes. After forcing myself to rethink my motivation and my fears over many weeks, I finally booked a guide, got the okay from Simon (not in this order), and reached the point of no return. I was going on a 3 day, 35 mile trek to summit Paramillo del Quindio at 15500 feet. This mountain used to be called Nevado del Quindio, or “snowcapped mountain of Quindio”. But the glacier/snow is all gone now so it has been renamed Paramillo del Quindio.
Day 1 started off in Cocora Valley outside Salento, 12 miles, elevation gain 5000 feet. About half of that was in mud which made it physically harder but also provided me an excuse to go slower. I take back everything I said before about hiking poles; I am a believer now. What makes this part of the Colombian Andes special is the “páramo” ecosystem, which is like a high altitude tropical wetland. This area above the tree line and below the snow line is constantly wet from cloud, fog and rain. The trails are mixed use, shared by hikers, horses and even cattle. After a few hours of mud trekking in the morning, we arrived at Finca Estrella de Agua for lunch, a little farm that provides food and shelter for hikers. There was a dog that joined us on the trail in the morning and followed us until we reached the farm. We were worried about it following us all the way to the top, where the guide had seen a few dead dogs succumbing to the conditions. But after he got some food from us, he found another party at the farm who were descending and followed them. I have a sense he just did that for a living. He was a lone dog who preferred to live in the mountains.
I felt pretty good in the morning, but the hardest part was to come in the afternoon, a continuous uphill slog in the mud until we reached 3700 meters/12000 feet, where we would overnight at another farm. The scenery until we reached the paramo was pleasant enough, but when we broke above the tree line in the mid-afternoon, those views with mountains and ridges within reach were what I came here for. We were lucky with good weather and no rain. Every few minutes the mountains and vegetation would be framed by a different skew of sunlight and clouds. I had never before seen so many shades of green. It was really breathtaking.
By late afternoon different parts of my body started to sore, not just my legs. I was cranking my neck to spot the farm where we would spend the night. The moment we saw Finca La Primavera, it was just barely still in the sunlight. It was perfect timing. The farm, which sits at over 12000 feet, is run by a woman who lives there with her 25 year old and 4 year old sons. They do not have a car or a motorbike, which would be useless on the mountain trails anyway. To buy anything they take the horses for a day’s ride into town. They make cheese and yogurt to sell, and offer beds and hot meals to hikers. At this altitude and with the kind of humidity in the paramo, it was cold. They have no hot water or heater. The only hot stove is in the kitchen where everyone huddled. They have cows, chickens, a dog, and a pig that they raise for Christmas feast. Part of what makes this trek so interesting is seeing how these mountain folks live. The older son, having lived in the mountains, knows his backyard well. He used to guide climbers to the glaciers in rubber boots (!) but has now bought all the right equipment like crampons, picks and ropes. From their farm there is a beautiful view of the Tolima glacier. The mother has summited that 18 times and has guided climbers too! Imagine that. We had a dinner of lentils, chorizo, rice and cheese. And I learned that all four year olds must be the same because her little boy fussed about eating his dinner too. I was in bed by eight and slept for the first time in a shared dorm since freshman year in college.
Day 2 was another long day. 11 miles, elevation gain of 3300 feet reaching summit 4750 meters/15500 feet. While first day was run on excitement, second day was more intentional. I was learning to pace myself, control my breath and heart rate at a sustainable level, and keep going. The morning started off very foggy which is common in the páramo and a good reason to get a guide. The farm dog, a 9 month old German Shepherd puppy, decided to tag along. After a couple hours, I took some of the coca leave powder that my guide had been chewing on for the altitude. I think it did work, as I didn’t have the altitude headache that I usually get. Another couple more hours, we turned a corner and Paramillo del Quindio loomed over a wet marshland valley. The hike was interesting as we passed alpine lakes, skipped over wetland and ascended steep sand and scree. The higher we went, the stronger the wind and as we summited, we were enveloped in fog and I was cuddling the trembling puppy for warmth. A couple obligatory foggy summit photos later, we started the descent to get away from the wind. Then of course, after we came off the ridge, the fog cleared and the views came out again. It was wonderful to look back at the hills behind which I hiked from, knowing now that it was possible to walk that far, and that yup, we had to walk all the way back the same way to get back to Finca Primavera for the night. But yes, after climbing 8000 feet over 2 days I made it to the highest peak I had ever been on.
Day 3 we chose a different return route that was longer but less muddy and more open. 12 miles and descending 5000 feet. While day 2 was about achieving the summit and a few thoughts of “why am I doing this…”, this last day I began to savor the feeling of body in motion, the awareness from sore muscles and joints, an inward state of balancing mind, breath and movement. Now I know why these things can be addictive and leave you wanting more. But I was still very glad it was the last day and that I would see my family again! When we left Finca La Primavera in the morning I was sad to see it go knowing that it was a special experience to get a taste of life so different from my own. As the fog covered the farm I couldn’t help thinking how equally beautiful and harsh life here was.
We stopped by another farm on the way down for a break. After seeing the one up at 12000 feet, this one halfway down the mountain and only a few hours’ horse ride away from town seemed just too easy! Plus they had creature comforts like an instant hot water heater, a generator, and lots of dogs and cats for pets! They had a Rottweiler that reminded me of my own. We continued on skipping lunch to make time and ran into two marmots and two armadillos. After seven hours, we were back in Cocora Valley where we started the trek 3 days ago, a place famous for its wax palms but whose views seriously pale in comparison to what was available higher up. I took the local bus back to the dirt road that led to our hostel in Boquia, and walked the 10 minutes down the rocky path with sore feet and backpack to see Ty running towards me. It was the perfect ending to a great 3 day trek.