As we see the snow piling up in the motherland we take this time to share our story of seeing old snow in tropical Colombia just two weeks ago.
Incessantly the roosters scream out, back and forth, only occasionally broken by the howls of the local street dogs, fog shrouds the Forrest canopy, threatening to crawl down the valley, potentially obscuring our magnificent view, and I’m trying not to fall asleep, while daydreaming that the cocks are really communicating about the big cockfights on this weekends local card. Throughout rural Colombia nearly every small town we’ve driven through has three things, speed bumps, police checkpoints and cockfighting rings; the seedier the barrio, the larger the makeshift stadiums. unfortunately on our 13 kilometer, 40 minute drive up the steep, often landslide-blocked jungle road from the Caribbean port town of Santa Marta, the dense vegetation has concealed any trace of the local and somewhat savage sport.
Having heard rave reviews of this little jungle hamlet from friends that passed through earlier year, a week left in the country, and having just dropped Blake ‘Bidwell’ Caldwell off at the bus station in Santa Marta, we opted for a few cool nights of high country. Through the cacophony of domestic animal chatter, a subtle chirp chirp, the one that hummingbirds tend to make when dipping in and out of a feeder, is barely audible. Tomorrow morning, with a little luck, we are planning on visiting a local hotel for breakfast, where it is said that hundreds of hummers buzz in for their daily sugar water feeding frenzy (the feeders were empty the next morning, but our presence attracted a large number of the hammers). Perhaps in the afternoon we will hire a guide for the internationally acclaimed birdwatching that draws most foreigners to this town of Minca, I’ve always wanted to see a Toucan.
For the first time since we left the 2500 meter elevation of our campsite high above the metropolis of Medellin, the air is cool and my skin is dry. We left our high-camp ten days ago, a day late, due to the all night fiesta surrounding my father and grandfathers favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, tremendous World Series game seven victory. After a full twenty four hour recovery consisting of naps, greasy empanadas and stretches of binge watching Vikings on Netflix, our hangovers were in the rear view mirror and we were barreling toward the coast. Once out of the city, we found ourselves driving through misty coffee plantations in what was once guerrilla held territory, dropping our way down to the Caribbean and the gulf of Uribe.
After Six countries and 6 months of travel, we’ve crossed the South American continent, driving nearly its entire length, anticipating the Windows 2000 screensaver beach campsites of the Caribbean; only to be greeted by the brown chocolate sea of trash stew served up by the gritty port town of Turbo. We marked the moment with a cold Aguila beer and then pushed on north finding a less trashy and more scenic parking spot for our first of many nights of coconut framed picturesque sunsets over the Caribbean. It was also our first night of blood donation to the local mosquito farm while trying to sleep in the sweat lodge that the van morphs into after the breeze and auxiliary battery wind down.
After fourteen days of fine tuning our mosquito and tropical sauna war tactics, the cool crisp mosquito less air of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada felt better than antifreeze blue super cool aloe on the the most severe of sunburn. The town of Minca consists of a a few restaurants, hostels and hotels lining a few narrow paved streets. Catering to birding enthusiasts, spiritual seekers, and traveling backpackers. It does not however cater to nineteen foot long monstrosities like our van, so after a few tight corners, a large steep sketchy hill climb, lifting power lines with a broom to accomodate our height and we were able to pull into the entrance gate at the Hotel El Mirador. For five dollars a person we were able to sleep in the van, plug into power, given access to a enclosed toilet, flanked by a urinal trough and wine bottle walled outdoor shower. The owner appears to be the now retired most interesting man in the world from the Dos Equis commercials, and after spending the week there, I’m not convinced that he’s not.
After two days of hiking to waterfalls, and enjoying the tranquility of the nearby hills, naps, and reading, we hatched a plan to hike to see the famed snowfields of the Sierra Nevada. After discussing the plan with Mr. Most Interesting, it was decided that we would walk into town, hire a moto taxi for each of us, and an additional for our gear and take the nearly two hour ride to the end of the road and near the top of Cerro Kennedy, which is said to have the clearest view of the highest peaks of the glacier capped peaks. Not exactly a nature walk but after hearing the 15 kilometer hike takes nearly 8 hours, we opted for the mechanical transport and then hike down. The biggest problem of hiring the motos was the divers infighting over who would get to shuttle Marlie up the mountain.
Nuts to butts we loaded up on the smallish 125cc motos and began the treacherous ascent. From the start my driver was clearly disappointed to have my fat ass along for the ride instead of Marlie, and as I tried my hardest not to hump his backside, we steadily climbed, through mud, streams over potted pavement, and nearly impossible ruts. Within minutes we reached a steep, mud caked section that challenged the overweighted moto, also the point in which the van would have high centered, spun out and then exploded, in turn blocking the only route in and out of the hills surrounding Minca. Instead the van blocking the way, there was a collection of aged vehicles struggling up the mudslide, overloaded with supplies and people, occasionally bogged down, and then, usually accompanied by a pissed off driver pick axing the center berm down to a passable height. After an hour of making our way through the the labyrinth of mud, rock and sometimes remnants of asphalt and concrete we reached the turn off into the national park Known for the 200+ species of birds in it’s misty canopies. Along with these exotic birds comes the funding of the birdwatching enthusiasts that pay 150 USD a day to be toured around the exceptionally, as compared to the first hour, good roads.
Passing the last known hostel at the edge of the park, we continued on for another thirty minutes, out of the jungle canopy and into the beginning of the semitropical coniferous forests, with an eclectic mix of pines, palms, and rainforesty shrubbery. Finally reaching a experimental research station straight from the TV show LOST and the end of our fifteen dollar ride. After jostling up the shitty roads for the past two hours a quick stretch and hike a was in order. We paid the moto fellas and opted for them to return to the exact spot the next day at one p.m. (so much for exercise). Having a good look around we determined that the experimental station was a good place as any to pitch a tent, but with an afternoon left of daylight we opted to take to the road and hike up further to find a suitable place where we could get a view of the near distant Sierras.
The road less traveled still is a road, and after an hour of uphill slogging we reached an antenna tower site, that on crudely hand painted sign, advertised camping. The “campground” consisted of a few ridgetop benches, a swing, a pile of wet wood, and someones attempt to level out tent sites. While looking for a site that was level enough to call home a US Army jeep came lumbering up the road and with it a man asking for 7.50 per person to camp on his slopping hilltop property. We argued a bit with the gentleman until finally he was tired of insisting we pay the 20k COP and headed back to his antenna tower guardhouse bunker of an abode. Pissed off by the mans exorbitant camping fees, we huffed around the ridgeline trying to find anther suitable cheaper option, and after a feeble search and misty rain settling in, we caved and pitched our tent in the pricey but by no means ritzy campground.
Catan and box wine are two things that make our nights out camping, we had our share of both after a hearty pasta dinner and that night we fell asleep very contented. The night was a chilly as it comes in Colombia, between sharing our two sleeping pads and two sleeping bags we were warm enough, but getting up and out of the tent in the morning proved difficult. I awoke first in a bit of fuzzy wine grog and after peering out the tent fly only seeing the dull grey of what I assumed was the clouds that we had been shrouded in since our arrival the previous afternoon, fell back fast asleep. Only to be jolted awake by Marlie thirty minutes later, scolding me for not waking her up in time for our one objective of the trip, the Sierra Nevada sunrise.
After taking in the sunrise and having our first arepa breakfast of the trip we hike ran 1/5 of the way down much to the dismay of the moto drivers who lost out on the mega fare that we paid the previous day. No Tuscan sightings this time around but, cool nights and great sleeps made our time in the hills worth it.
Enjoying waves and sun down here in Bocas Del toro Panama, enjoy the snow.