Were just catching up on chores and resting today after getting back from our Los Nevados trek yesterday afternoon. I’ve got lots of sewing to do as my clothes are rapidly turning to rags, and XT is doing Spanish classes although she is really very good already – of course!
We thought we’d struck gold when we were shown our “room” yesterday evening. It’s part of the same Plantation House hostel in Salento as we stayed in before, but instead of a room with a shared bathroom, were in a suite with garden, kitchen and our own bathroom. This morning we discovered the reason; were surrounded by building works for a new dorm room and were not supposed to use the very well stocked kitchen. The Italian owner is here and popping in and out to make coffee etc, but she and her partner are really nice so although were still working out exactly our place, it’s still very pleasant.
The trek was really fantastic – we just can’t get enough of paramo, so it’s sad to think it will probably be our last visit on this trip. Although we very quickly realised that Lonely Planet was out of date and we really didn’t need a guide, we were in a fun group; Dominic from Germany and Mia from Dominica as well as our great Colombian guide Chucho (his nickname confusingly meaning both Bogyman and Jesus!). He is a biologist working for Paramo Trek who knows a lot about the park and could speak English well. He was fun, professional, and we were later to find out, went out of his way to make our trek enjoyable.
On the way to Tolima
We arrived in the now rather fake and touristy (take note LP!) little town of Salento in the middle of a parade/carnival. Crawling through traffic to a massively busy and noisy bustle – just our luck after bumbling into the Menizales carnival! Anyway, luckily, our hostel was in the edge of town and quite quiet.
The first day we walked the Cocora valley which is mostly pasture dotted with some wax palms which are native to the area and quite ridiculously tall. We quickly got into lovely jungle following a rocky river and crossing many (sometimes rickety) bridges. The jungle is home to countless birds including parrots, woodpeckers (stunningly coloured), hawks, pheasants and of course being Colombia, a wide variety of hummingbirds. It’s funny to notice how so many garden plants common in UK such as red hot pokers and fuchsias are actually designed for hummingbirds!
Many orchids were flowering in the jungle
It was a long walk to the paramo, but it was fascinating to climb up through the transitions slowly – the other times we’ve started off pretty high already, or the land was farmed. You can really see how the vegetation changes with altitude when you pass through it gradually.
After a brief zone of shorter vegetation, the paramo appeared suddenly and was the most densely packed with frailejones we’d seen yet, and so many were flowering – it was beautiful! The wind was picking up as we were walking and mist was sweeping across us, as Chucho said “like the blink of an eye”. It was very mysterious. Apparently when a particular famous gorilla fighter went to the hills with his force to escape the conquistadores they dressed some frailejones in their wool ponchos and sombreros to trick the spaniards that there was an army on the hills! We didn’t see much wildlife up there except a couple of daredevil eagles trying to fly in the extreme wind and thick cloud! As well as some birds and amphibians, there are supposed to be mammals there including rabbits, deer, foxes, but they are now very rare so it would have been very lucky to see any. Also, there are only 6 condors which have been reintroduced after loss of habitat and persecution by farmers in the past.
Though there were quite a few people on the track we were mostly on our own, but the La Primavera farmhouse/cabana where we were to spend the night was packed; hikers like us, guides, the farm family including many children, cows, chickens, and of course dogs. It was noisy but entertaining; for example Choocho luckily found the egg that was laid in his bed in the evening, not the morning!
The second day, we woke early to have enough time to reach the glacier edge at 4800m on the perfectly shaped currently dormant volcano of Nevado del Tolima. It is a shame that the land around the farmhouse is grazed by cattle. This means that there are no frailejones at all and the landscape reminded me a lot of the moors of north Scotland. After a “short-cut” across a bog of bouncy/sinky moss and wading though a river we rejoined a path which passed by some mountains that form spurs of Tolima and the frailejones started populating the landscape again with avengeance – at a distance they make the landscape spotty with their dark stalks and light yellow green furry tops. As we climbed, the vegetation gets more and more sparse and small, and at about 4500m just a few of the mini variety of frailejones, and mosses and lichens are left. It was hard work climbing, not only the altitude that makes breathing so hard, the path turned steep and sandy so for each step, we slid down half a step!
We’d each been provided with a little coca powder made from crushed coca leaves and bicarbonate of soda. Legally sold in Colombia, coca is the traditional treatment for altitude as it helps the body use oxygen. You simply put a bunch of the bitter, grassy tasting powder in a cheek and hold it there. As a first timer, I can tell you it really helps. I’ve walked at this altitude before without it but with, it staves off my normal headache and gave me more energy to walk – amazing stuff. Sadly despite its non-narcotic effects, its classed in the same category as cocain in the UK, so I won’t be bringing any back with me!
Though there were clouds all around us as we climbed up, they dispersed at times revealing the steep sides of the volcano and glacier. We could also see the wreckage of an aircraft on on the slopes. A pretty grisly scene – the fuselage and tail (of what looks a bit like a Macdonald Douglass DC-? But I can fun no information on what it actually is) clear to be seen quite a way below the wings. Finally, at 4800m we reached our destination, a peak just below glacier height with a great view of the mountain (or at least when the clouds briefly opened up at times). We’d been higher a couple of times at Cocuy, but this walk was definitely the longest, hardest, and most spectacular!
Tolima glacier and some tired hikers, Left to tight; Al, XT, Dominic, Chucho, Mia
To top it off, Chucho fished in his bag and revealed some bars of some of the best Colombian dark chocolate, one 100g bar each – oh yes! 🙂 He also cooked an elaborate vegetable casserole lunch (so heavy to carry!) by a beautiful laguna (which is home to some native ducks) half way down!
We returned to the cabana for the night and walked down the next day. Entering a into a stunning valley in sub-paramo (the lower of the 3 main classes) – was such a mass of flowers and humming birds! Its hard to believe that though we’ve been walking in so much paramo, this was still so different to what we’d seen before.
Tolima at dusk
We stopped at a farmhouse for some hot soup to be greeted with the scene of a pig being butchered outside accompanied by some cheerful music – not the best way to stimulate our appetite, but interesting to see how self sufficient these farms have to be! Later, on a grassy ledge overlooking the valley, to complete lunch Chucho exceeded himself by bringing out a bottle of red wine (Chilean of course – we tried Colombian wine once and that was enough!) – nice one! 🙂
The rest of the way was through jungle, but our hopes of seeing a toucan (not pelican Dominic!) as guaranteed by Chucho, were dashed when the dark clouds that had been forming turned into a thunderstorm. I’m sure all the toucans were huddled up somewhere relatively dry. Picked up again by one of the brightly coloured Willis Jeep tourist taxis, tired and wet but happy, we returned to Salento.
We found a book that provides a good overview and stunning pictures of Los Nevados in our hostel room. It also tells a great tale of the hard balance between conservation and the livelihood of farmers in the paramo. La Ruta del Condor (the route of the condor) is published by Universidad de Bogota Jorge Tadeo Lozano.