Los Nevados: Part 2

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.

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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.

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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.

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Lago de Encanto

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.

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Tolima

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.

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Termales de Canon

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.

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Sunrise

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Los Nevados: Part 1

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.

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Cocora Valley

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.

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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.

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The family’s home and sleepy guard dog.

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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.

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Destroyed portion of the trail.

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.

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Final descent down to Finca Primavera.

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.

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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.

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A clear night and nearly a full moon.

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.

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Tolima and all it’s beauty.

A Few Things About Medellín

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.

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Rainy but beautiful.

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…

1. Poblado

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.

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Colombian saying meaning “Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of”

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.

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Entrance to the time exhibit at Explora.

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.

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View of the “comunas”.

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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.

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Cheesy good bread at the market.

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…

 

Barichara

The town where everyday feels like Sunday. Barichara is an indigenous word which means “a place to rest”. The cobble stone streets are sandwiched by white buildings with colorfully painted doors. It looks like a Pinterest photo, perfectly decorated with cacti, clay pots, and blooming flowers.

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Barichara sits on the edge of the Suarez Canyon. The river below is brown and consistently full. The hills are steep and of course, green. (Colombia is one of the most water rich countries in the world.) Everyday the clouds build on the high peaks. They are gorgeous. Starting off small and translucent, eventually building to look like big macaroons.

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Suarez Canyon

We spent nearly a week enjoying this town. I’d go for long runs on the canyons edge catching the morning coolness. After, we’d sip on fresh fruit smoothies enjoying the hostel’s lush courtyard. We spent the days playing cards in the plaza, going for hikes, and taking naps. It was the most we have just chilled and it was fantastic.

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One of the local churches. 

Thanksgiving was during this week. Feeling bummed that we weren’t gorging ourselves with family and friends, we decided we’d treat ourselves to a dinner out. A small international restaurant, named Shanti, was in need of an English menu and we jumped at the opportunity to translate it. In exchange, Carolina, the owner cooked us an amazing meal. A vegetable wok and an Italian vegetable and rice dish, accompanied by exotic smoothies, all made with fresh ingredients. Figuring out ways to save money such as this is actually pretty fun. We will definitely be doing more of these exchanges in the future. To top the night off we substituted pumpkin pie for ice cream sundaes with melted chocolate and bananas.

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Some art in the park at the top of town. 

By the end of the week we were feeling rested and overly relaxed, which ended up being good preparation for the busy city life that lay ahead. We’ll be writing about our time in Medellin shortly, but first we have to get out and explore this incredible city!

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Hike Through Chicamocha Canyon

Currently being considered as one of the wonders of the world, Chicamocha’s Canyon walls rise high and powerful. The rich green foliage seen all over Colombia clashes with beautiful shades of red and orange clay on every part of the 900 meter walls.

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The hike to Chicamocha Canyon is called the Camino Real. It encompasses a one or two night backpacking trip through five different colonial towns in the Santander department of Colombia. Starting in Cabrera, the path goes through Barichara, then Guane, Villanueva, Jordanand finally Los SantosThe historical trek was originally used by the indigenous of Guane, followed by the Spanish to transport goods and finally restored by a German settler.

Barichara to Guane – 

We originally learned about the hike in San Gil while flipping through the hostel booklet of activities, so thats where we began. Stashing our stuff at the hostel, we left from San Gil with camping gear and loaded packs around 11am. The late start caused us to miss the first bus to Cabrera so we decided to skip the first part and begin from Barichara. We hopped off the bus and quickly found the beginning of the path at the edge of Barichara.

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Automatically we realized how epic the hike was going to be. Barichara lies at the edge of the Suarez Canyon. On the opposite side are the incredible mountains of Nautral Serranía De Los Yariguíes National Park. It’s a breathtaking view and a perfect way to start the journey. The first part of the hike was on a wide stone path with semi-flat rocks. It winds through lush farmland with friendly farmers and happy goats.

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After a couple of hours descending towards the canyon floor we arrived at Guane. A tiny town with a soccer court in the main plaza. A couple of shuttered houses and restaurants surround the square with the church as the centerpiece (as always). It’s a quaint town with friendly Colombians. It was a perfect spot to enjoy a packed lunch before getting back on the road to see whats next.

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The little town of Guane.

Guane to Villanueva – 

After a while the stone path dies out and the path turns into a dirt road weaving between small tobacco farms. It’s easy to get lost on the hike, we relied heavily on locals to tell us the way. Yellow markers line the trail but it’s not always clear. The locals see hikers pass through occasionally and were quick to tell us where to go before we could even ask.

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The hike to Villanueva is a steady uphill that eventually leads to a beautiful lookout point. We reached a vista and got a full view of the mountains bordering Rio Suarez.  It was a clear enough day to see Bucaramanga nested in the mountains off in the distance.

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A final burst of climbing uphill brought us to the top of the ridge where a vast expanse of colorful farmland lay below. Villanueva was hidden just behind a hill but we knew we were on the right path.

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The descent to Villanueva brings you through a completely different environment. Red, orange, and brown clay is covered with dry brush. It looked like prime snake habitat and our guess was right. A friendly serpent was lying right on the path in front of us and we finally got to see one of the beautiful snakes of Colombia.

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Circumventing the snake we descended into Villanueva just as evening was setting in. The plaza was filled with old men relaxing on benches and young kids running around. We sat and enjoyed the scene for a second before finding the only hotel to ask where we could camp.

 

The hotel owner told us that we could pitch a tent in the plaza. The center plaza. He said it casually like it was no big deal putting a tent up in the middle of town with a ton of people around. We quickly asked if there was another place to camp and he told us about an empty soccer field on the outskirts of town. We got the impression camping spots are pretty laid back in this part of Colombia.

 

After setting up camp we fell asleep exhausted and woke up to voices. It turns out the soccer field is a bit of a late night hangout spot. Realizing sleep was going to be minimal and feeling slightly uncomfortable, we barely got to the hotel in time to snag a room (about USD $8) for the night.

 

We woke up around 5am the next day to get a head start on the long hike. Villanueva wakes up early (even on Sundays) so we had plenty of people to ask for directions.

Villanueva to Jordan – 

Winding through beautiful Colombian countryside and watching the sunrise made for a great start to the day. Flatbed trucks with 20 people in the back would pass us heading into town to go to church or the market (most likely the local “bus”). Eventually, we crested a hill giving us the first peek of the canyon below.

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Following rusted signs and local guidance, we meandered through some cows and farms to a small shop resting on the edge of the canyon. Folks were drinking beer and enjoying their day off, we laughed because it was 9am. They pointed us to a gate and we found the trail cutting into the side of the canyon.

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Gravel and large rocks clutter the trail and the downhill is steep. As we rounded different bends we got better and better views of the vastness Chicamocha encompasses. Huge walls and falling waterfalls make it look like a location where Jurassic Park might’ve been shot.

As we descended we became aware of the extreme humidity and heat of the canyon. The packs should’ve felt heavier but the views kept us captivated and distracted.

Jordan lies along the Umpala River at the bottom of the canyon. It’s a small ghost town nearly abandoned with incredible views of the massive walls all around.

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We followed the road into town. Abandoned buildings and empty roads made up the two main streets. A few workers were building the plaza (not sure why) and almost every shop was closed. We had read that on the other side of the bridge you could maybe find a house that served food.

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Nothing like a homemade meal.

Turned out to be a farm owners house with a dirt floor kitchen. They served us two massive plates of food and a couple coffees for (USD $3). The food was delicious and after hiking on not much of a breakfast, it really hit the spot. We left pretty soon after eating to try and beat the afternoon heat.

Jordan to Los Santos

The uphill climb out of the canyon is a consistent calf burner. In the midday sun it became apparent how brutal it was going to be. Nearly 3,000ft of path ahead and we were already dripping with sweat.fullsizeoutput_56c.jpeg

Our water ran out halfway up and we began periodically stopping in the shade to rest.  Eventually the stops turned into lying down on the path in the shade and dreaming of the cold water and ice cream at the top.

Los Santos rests on the edge of the canyon and is the final stop on the Camino Real. The climate changes abruptly when you get to the top. The sweat soaking our shirts and bodies was quickly dried by the consistent breeze and cool shade. We sat down at a small shop and chugged ice cold water.

Meandering into the plaza we found a clutter of stands selling pineapple, mango, and of course, ice cream. All the treats that make up a perfect reward after a tough hike.

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Town center church in Los Santos.

Looking back on the hike we might’ve done a two-nighter and done the entire trek. Camping somewhere between Guane and Villanueva for the first night, and Jordan for the second would’ve allowed us to avoid the heat on the final climb up. Regardless, we didn’t regret a minute of it. Seeing such incredible landscapes is always inspiring and humbling. It’s exactly what we look for when we travel.

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Paramo Iguaque

Our morning began at 6am with a cup of coffee and uncertainty of how we would arrive at Paramo Iguaque. We gathered our necessary layers, packed a lunch, and minutes later Nitzan woke up and so kindly offered to take us to the trailhead. Before the kids and us piled into the car, Nitzan gave us Coca leaves (the most sacred plant in the Andes) to chew on and as an offering to the Laguna at the end of the trail. On the drive we passed by horses congregating, fresh milk kegs being delivered, and farms that have no end.

Iguaque is considered one of the most sacred places in Colombia. The Muisca (indigenous tribe) believed Iguaque lake was where mankind began. The legend goes like this; goddess Bachue rose from the lake with a boy in her arms. He grew and they married and populated the Earth with their children. The goddess Bachue and her husband disappeared into the depths of the lake in the shape of snakes. This legend has attracted thousands (mostly indigenous) to bring an offering to the birthplace.

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We started in dense forest, where succulent looking plants grow on the sides of birch shaped trees. The trail was wet and slippery. Mud caked our boots and legs within minutes. We were some of the first people to enter the park that morning, so our hike was quiet and peaceful. The sun shone bright through the thick canopy of varying shaped leaves.

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At just about half way you cross a line, leaving trees and entering jumbled rocks and small shrubs. The shrubs are high desert like. Some spiny and others soft with coat like fur. We climbed at a 45 degree angle for nearly an hour. Every minute stopping to gasp for air and gawk at the incredible views in every direction. We looked over ridge lines and valleys full of green fields boasting their fresh fruits.

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We scrambled, sometimes on all fours, to count markers notifying us we were getting closer to the top. As we rounded the last bend, we could see just the corner of the lagoon. Peaks bowled around the water and the clouds rolled over us. Our stride became quicker with excitement as we neared the lagoon. Dropping down, reaching lake level, and taking in the view, we smiled like never before. What is this place? How is this real? We had never seen anything like it before. Peaks that were speckled with odd plant life, clouds puffy but allowing the sun to shine strong, water clear and fresh to drink. This place is sacred.

We offered our coca leaves to the lagoon, gave our thanks to the power out there that creates places like this, and warmed our sweaty bodies in the powerful sun.

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The way down was slippery. We slipped and slid our way down, showing off our ice skating moves and laughing the whole way. We felt rejuvenated, energized, and inspired. As we made our descent the clouds built, the thunder roared, and just as we reached the park entrance the rain poured.

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Our plan was to catch a bus back home but of course we didn’t plan and that didn’t work out so well. So we walked home, approximately 3 hours later we arrived, soaked and cold. “Vale la pena”, worth it. One of the most incredible places we have ever been. We feel energized and incredibly lucky to be living the life we’re living. We are lucky individuals that have been given the most incredible opportunities. This is just one of many. 

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