Central /South Colombia
Colombias Very Own Burning Man (12-23-17)
You never know where you’ll find yourself on the road. It’s one aspect of traveling I enjoy the most. Expecting one thing and getting another teaches you to release control of things outside yourself. I’ve learned repeatedly that I can only control how I react to each situation I’m in. Better to accept the unavoidable changes of destiny and make the most of them.
Somehow in the past week we found ourselves helping set up for Colombia’s Burning Man. The legendary festival from the states found a long-lost brother in Colombia and we arrived just in time to help him get ready for the party. We got lucky volunteering with some amazing people.
We spent a majority of our time painting signs for the festival. Anything from “First Aid” to koi fish circling each other. Each day all the volunteers ate meals together, wolfing down food after a long day of work. Breaking bread with Colombians never gets old. There’s always jokes, laughter, and good conversation.
The festival is held in a pasture on Daniel’s property (he puts on the festival). As the week went on, the festival grounds slowly started to take shape. Grass was cleared, showers put up, and eventually, two stages were installed. Long, hot days left people exhausted. We were lucky to be staying at Daniel’s house on the property which had a pool and a plethora of beds.
Every evening we watched the sunset and the fireflies light up the grass from the patio. One of the volunteers, Mark, became a good friend of ours. He shared some wild stories about riding his horse solo from Colombia to Peru.
Before we knew it, Friday had arrived. As we scrambled to get the last of it set up, folks started arriving. Music thundered from the stages and we could feel the bass a hundred yards away in our room. We could tell it was going to be true Colombian party.
Throughout our travels we’d learned Colombians love fireworks. As we watched the Man burn that night they proved their love again. With music blaring and neon lights flashing, hundreds of fireworks were shot into the sky and at the Man.
When we signed up to volunteer we figured we’d be helping at a hostel with daily maintenance duties. In reality, we signed ourselves up to help put on Hombre en Llamas. We met amazing people from around the world, danced our asses off through the night, and had an experience we’ll never forget. Colombia surprised us in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
Los Nevados: Part 2 (12-8-17)
My mind was consumed by the steep peaks surrounding me. “Where am I?” I thought to myself several times. It felt like the wild west. The occasional rough lookin’ cowboy whipping his donkeys carrying heavy loads, barren tan hill sides, and rare sightings of wild horses. But then BAM, 15,000 foot peaks with permanent glaciers on top.
Thankful the trail was mostly flat, I felt like I could actually soak in my surroundings. I wasn’t carefully placing my foot to avoid sink holes or stopping every 50 yards to gasp for air. It was a nice stroll through the middle of no where. Nothing around but steep mountains, frequent streams, and endless valleys.
The wind was strong and the air was brisk. Our noses were running, cheeks red, and fingers numb. We tightened our hoods, layered up, and never stopped for more than a few minutes. We talked about how lucky we are to experience all that we have, how much we miss spinach and blueberries, and our dreams of travel beyond this trip.
After approximately 9 miles of pure bliss, a steep ascent lay ahead of us. We had a mile and a half and then we got to soak our bodies in hot springs. “We’re almost there” we said to ourselves over and over again. I counted steps to distract myself from the steepness. We climbed closer and closer to Nevado de Tolima. We couldn’t see it because of the thick clouds, but we knew it was there.
With the last of the climb behind us our pace picked up, it was practically a run when the hot springs came into sight. I don’t think we have ever set up camp so fast. The tent was up with all the bedding laid in a matter of minutes.
We quickly submerged ourselves into what felt like scalding hot water to our numb bodies. Sweet relief. My feet have never been so happy with me. The therapeutic water relaxed all our sore muscles and put us into a dreamy state. It was 4pm and I was ready for bed. After at hot meal and a mellow sunset, to my sleeping bag I went. We competed in a few games of cribbage before turning the head lamps off and drifting into a sweet sleep.
The night was cold but the morning was colder. Below freezing outside, we were snug and warm in our sleeping bags when the alarm went off at 5am. Reluctant to get out of our cocoons, we couldn’t have been happier we did. The sunrise from a nearby look out point had us hootin’ and hollerin’. The sun rising from the east lit up the three snow capped peaks surrounding us. Tolima which seemed close enough to touch, Nevado Isabel far but stunning, and Paramillo del Quindio that lay majestic under the nearly full moon.
With each minute that passed by we couldn’t believe our eyes. Each ray of sunlight lit up the layers of the valleys, the crevasses of the shear peaks, and odd plant life that lives at this elevation. Before descending back to camp we said a quick thank you to the mountains for all the beauty and joy they brought us.
We packed up camp quickly, soaked our numb toes whilst eating hot oatmeal. We knew we had a long day of hiking ahead and wanted an early start. After a quick goodbye to Hernandez, the man who lives in a small shack next to the hot springs, we buckled our hip straps and headed out.
Words can not describe the clearness of this day. The sky was a perfect blue, no clouds, and the mountains were crystal clear. I felt like I was wearing special glasses that saturated everything with color.
The downhill began within a half of a mile of the hot springs. Ooosh and I mean straight down. Loose rocks, saturated mud, and frozen puddles made up the majority of the trail. Looking behind us was like a picture from National Geographic. Something you’d never dream of seeing, yet here it was right in front of us. We dropped down into incredible green valleys with grazing cows and crystal clear streams.
After getting a little off track, we stumbled upon a small house where we asked for directions. A kind man pointed us straight up the nearest ridge. He reassured us this would be our last ascent, “everything is downhill from there” he said. We took it slow, our muscles and lungs protesting every step of the way. Once at the top we looked back at the valley below and got a little sad.
One thing about traveling to such remote places such as this, is its pretty likely you won’t be back any time soon, if at all. Los Nevados is such a magical place with such rejuvenating energy and we couldn’t be more grateful for our time there. With a quick blow of a kiss and a mental picture on top of the thousands of pictures we had taken with our cameras, we turned our backs and began the real descent.
Five hours of nothing but downhill. Wooden logs placed as stairs, jumbled rocks, and mud destroyed by horses that frequent the trails. We transitioned from dry crisp air with hardly any vegetation to warm humid air and jungle like forests. We were descending into a steep, lush, and vibrant green canyon.
With every switch back we got closer to the river at the bottom of the canyon. Nothing felt better than a quick five minute foot soak in the ice cold water. We refilled our Camelbaks and were back on the trail.
After 8 hours total of hiking we reached the small town of Juntas. It consists of one street with a few small stores, a restaurant, and buses going to Ibague. Not knowing what Ibague was we were shocked. After 3 days of complete solidarity we entered a city of 553,000. It was bustling with traffic, street vendors, and prostitutes on the corners.
Long story short, to our surprise there were no buses back to Salento. We hopped on a crammed van to Armenia that arrived 45 minutes late. We got two hours into the drive, waited for an hour while hundreds of semis passed on a one lane road and arrived in Armenia 4 hours later. A little too late for a bus to Salento we exited the terminal to find a hostel and just as we spotted one across the street a guy in his taxi yelled “Salento”. Taylor and I locked eyes and asked each other “should we do it?”. We just wanted to be back, we wanted a hot shower, our clean clothes, and a place to lay down.
We hopped in the taxi and an hour later we arrived in Salento. The kind man took us to our hostel and wished us a great trip. It was 12:30 am. That day we woke up at 5 am, hiked for 8 hours, and then traveled by bus and car for another 8+ hours. And you know what, we wouldn’t have changed one minute of it!
Los Nevados: Part 1 (12-8-17)
The alarm went off at 5:30, we zipped up our bags, chowed down on some eggs, and were out the door. We began the hike in Cocora Valley (9000ft), famous for the 60 meter palm trees. We asked a few last minute questions, lathered the sunscreen, and shed a layer. The sun was bright and warm.
The trail starts mellow, winding through fields, eventually heading into a dense rain forest. We crossed a small creek several times via sketchy wood planks. The climb was comfortable at first. We were in the shade, the air was cool, and we were full of energy.
Let’s just say the trail is consistent… consistently straight up. It’s like doing the stair master on the slowest speed with a 30-40 pound pack. When we arrived at Estrella de Agua, we were happy to shed the weight. Estrella de Agua is essentially a ranger station. We gave the park employee our information, our destinations for the next few days, and in return he gave us some information and wished us well. The family living in the very rustic house next to the ranger station was serving up lentils, rice, and plantains to their family. They quickly offered us a bowl for $1.50. Worried that we hadn’t packed enough food, we couldn’t deny the hot meal.
With full bellies, we felt like slugs back on the trail. Lesson learned, no heavy meals before a steep climb. We navigated through thick mud, winding up the mountainside. After a few hours, we reached the tree line and entered into the paramo. Full of odd shaped plants, brush, and fog coming as quickly as it was going.
We had heard horror stories about the fog getting so thick you can’t see more than a foot in front of you. Of course, that’s where my mind goes, so I picked up the pace. The adrenaline was pumping and I wanted to arrive at the campsite before we were one of those lost hikers. No I’m just kidding, but I did get a second wind and the eagerness was real.
We caught up to three French men hiking with a Colombian guide which was a relief to know we were still on the right path. Our destination was Finca Primavera, a small house with a few rooms and a place to pitch a tent.
As we started the final descent, the clouds slowly started to clear exposing Tolima, a snow covered peak. The guide explained that the snow at the top is a permanent glacier and can be summited with the proper equipment. Bucket list. By the time we reached the Finca, the clouds had cleared completely giving us incredible 360 views of the mountains and the valley below. What a reward after 10.5 miles of climbing.
We set up camp while snapping shots of the sunset. I think my body was a little in shock and an intense shiver took over. I layered up, got in my sleeping bag, and boiled water in the tent. Once the sun set, the wind picked up, and Taylor was soon next to me in his sleeping bag fighting off shivers. We moved around like worms warming up our bags and our bodies.
A hot meal and a cup of tea put us into a coma. We snuggled up and fell fast asleep. We awoke with the sun rising. We had a slow morning watching the sun light up the peaks around us. While packing we conversed with Colombians who were on an eight day trip through Los Nevados. They invited us to join them at the end of their trek to summit one of the peaks. We exchanged numbers, said our goodbyes, and were back on the trail headed to Termales de Canon.
A Few Things About Medellin (12-7-17)
The bus ride from Santa Marta to Medellin is long, 16 hours long. Taking the overnight bus helps time pass by a little quicker. The sleep is restless and you’ll do just about anything to get comfortable including getting on your knees and resting your head on the seat. However, this only applies to people under 5’5”. As we entered into Medellin, there were high rises made of brick as far as we could see. We stepped off the bus at North Terminal, into refreshing cool air. Amen to no humidity.
The metro is the best option for ease of travel throughout Medellin. The rails run through the center of the valley from north and south, with a few lines running east and west. The metro is clean, unusually clean for public transportation. Since then we’ve learned the locals take extreme pride in their metro. No food is allowed on the platforms and if you put your feet up on the seats while riding, its likely you’ll get yelled at. Anyways, the metro is clean, easy to use, and gets you just about anywhere.
Here are a few parts of the city we’ve explored…
Poblado is definitely the ‘hippest’ and most famous neighborhood of the city. When tourists go to Medellin, they usually end up in Poblado. The streets are lined with international restaurants, hip coffee shops, and nicely dressed business folk. Poblado is part of the 2.5 million inhabitants of Medellin, but you can step off the main roads into quiet, canopy covered side streets. It’s refreshing to be in a big city and not be shoulder to shoulder with the masses.
Did we mention all the greenery? It’s amazing. The people of Medellin take pride in their trees, much like Chico, California. During the expansion of the city the trees were preserved in order to filter the polluted air from the millions of cars and factories. Brilliant work!
Overall Poblado is a great place to stay in Medellin. We loved the atmosphere plus the ability to easily reach the rest of the city (via metro/uber/taxi).
2. Parque Explora
We hit Medellin in the middle of the rainy season. Therefore, it was raining all day our first day. Apparently it’s typical in Medellin. One of the first suggestions on the internet to do was Parque Explora. An indoor exploratorium never fails to entertain so we decided to go for it. When we got there we learned that five major sections make up the complex: an aquarium, physics, mind, film, and time.
You can spend a whole day in there trying out the many different interactive displays. Starting with the aquarium we got to stare down eels and stand face to face with fish bigger than Alaina. Learning all these animals were endemic to Colombia was fascinating. The amount of diversity bottled into one building left us oohing and ahh-ing (except for the giant cockroaches).
3. Parque Arví
In order to get some outdoor time we decided to check out Parque Arví. It’s a short metro cable ride. The rad thing about heading up to the park via the metro cable is flying over the Medellin “comunas”. The hillside below is completely covered by tin roofs and make shift brick walls.
The park is close to Medellín, but remote enough to have the trails to yourself. Every day of the week you’ll be able to find at least 10 stalls at the Arví Market. The market is held at the top of the metro cable and boasts local foods and products from the region. Snacking on some delicious food prior to walking around the park kept us full and happy the entire time we were there.
4. Hit the Town
Poblado is poppin’ Thursday through Saturday nights and we got to enjoy a couple nights out. One of the great things about Medellin, and a lot of South America, is sitting in the city plaza with your friends, drinking a beer.
Clubs, restaurants and bars line the streets with well dressed Colombians and underdressed tourists eager to dance. Cover charges are pretty steep at the clubs but people will pay for good music and dancing. It’s common to be out until the early morning hours.
After spending some solid time in Medellin we were ready for a break from the city and decided to make our way south towards Salento…