Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Colombia's "Liquid Rainbow"

Greetings All,
Our trek through Los Nevados National Park ended in the colorful colonial town of Salento in the heart of Colombia's coffee growing area.  We were picked up in vintage Willys jeeps which were built from 1941-1945 to be used as WWII utility trucks and driven to a nearby coffee plantation.

Willys Jeep Ride

Colombia is the third largest producer of coffee in the world after Brazil and Vietnam.  Here at Finca El Ocaso Salento coffee is grown at nearly 6000 feet above sea level (considered mountain-grown) giving it specialty coffee status.  The process starts with planting the coffee beans in river sand.

Planting Coffee Beans

The plant reaches maturity after 18 months when it blooms for the first time.  The coffee fruit, called cherries, starts out green and after 9 months the fruit ripens to a vibrant red and is ready to be picked by hand.

Coffee-picking "Recruits"

Coffee plants produce twice a year for 5 years.  The coffee beans are extracted from the fruit by a process called milling then washed and dried.  The beans are finally roasted and ground producing what we now recognize as coffee.

Coffee Cherries to Ground Coffee

Salento is a cute town with brightly painted houses, shops selling local crafts, restaurants and of course a picturesque church in the town square.

Colorful Salento

Church of Our Lady of Carmen

Early the next morning we flew back to Bogotá for a city tour.  We visited the historic old city known as La Candelaria.  There was a time when this area was too dangerous to visit.  Now the neighborhood is safe and trendy causing real estate prices to soar.   For the most part the graffiti has been replaced with colorful murals.

Street Murals in La Candelaria

The main square, called Bolivar Square, was full of people out for a Sunday stroll or bike ride.

Bolivar Square

Our last stop was the Gold Museum.  The museum has on display 6000 pieces of pre-Columbian artifacts, most made with gold.

Pre-Columbian Artifacts

We left Bogotá at the crack of dawn the following morning to visit the world famous Caño Cristales.  To get there is quite a process.  We arrived at the main airport where several groups of people met.  Our names were called from a list and we were allowed to board a bus and driven to the military base on the other side of the airport.  Here we were weighed along with our bags and had to wait for the weather to clear in La Macarena or so we were told.  A third bus arrived with a man in uniform and suddenly we were allowed to board our plane, a twin prop which carried about 20 passengers.  The flight took only an hour and we were mainly in the clouds.  When we landed the man in uniform was greeted and photographed by other soldiers.  Apparently he is a high ranking officer.  There is a heavy military presence here.  During the final years of the civil war (1999-2002), La Marcarena was part of the FARC guerrilla El Caguán DMZ (demilitarized zone).  Today peace has been restored and the soldiers don't mind posing for photos with tourists.

Soldier and Peggy in Macarena

Visits to the river of Caño Cristales, also known as "The Crystal Spout" or "Liquid Rainbow", are tightly controlled to protect this fragile environment.  Only a certain number of tourists are allowed in a certain area on a given day.  Today the quota must have been met as we had to visit an alternate area.  We climbed to a mirador (lookout) over the Guayabero River and crossed a plateau to reach a smaller tributary of Caño Cristales called Cristalitos.  The unique Vellozia plants have adapted to growing on the nutrient poor solid rock surface of the tableland and are resistant to fire.

Vellozia Plants at Mirador

Cristalitos flowed raspberry-pink due to an aquatic plant growing in the riverbed.  


At first I thought the plants were an algal bloom but the water is crystal clear and nutrient poor.  Macarenia clavígera is actually an endemic plant species in the riverweed family with specially adapted roots to cling to rocks in fast flowing water.

 Macarenia clavígera

The next day we were allowed to visit  Caño Cristales and explored 5 branches of the river system.  Caño Cristales drains the quartzite tableland of the Serrania de la Macarena mountains formed approximately 1.2 billion years  ago.  They are a western extension of the Guiana Shield in Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil and are among the oldest exposed rocks in the world.  The river flowed over the rocks creating many waterfalls, rapids and potholes called "giant's kettles".  These circular pits are formed when harder rocks get trapped in cavities and scour out the softer rock in a circular motion.

Potholes in Caño Cristales

We carefully made our way downriver on slippery wet rocks stopping to admire the many waterfalls cascading over staircased-rocks into crystal clear pools.

Casada Piedra Negra

At a few points we actually had to cross the river but our local guide Walther was there to lend a helping hand.

Peggy Crossing Caño Cristales

Back at our hotel we were treated to a dinner of traditional cuisine and entertained by local dancers and musicians.  The music and accompanying dance called the joropo originated in the llanos (plains) of Venezuela and Columbia with African, native South American and European influences.  The dance involved a lot of foot stomping and twirling of the young women's colorful skirts.

Joropo Dance

We flew back to Bogotá on July 13 to prepare for the next chapter of our Colombian saga, a 12-day tour to look for some of Colombia's 1900 species of birds!  Stay tuned to see how many we find.
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc 

Our route:

Our Route

Friday, July 15, 2016

The " Frailejón Forest"

Greetings Everyone,
Our wanderlust has brought us to the colorful South American country of Colombia.  After 60 years of civil war, peace is finally returning and tourists are beginning to discover this gem of a country.  A 6-hour flight from Newark brought us directly to the capital city of Bogotá, a sprawling metropolis of 8 million people.  We arrived ahead of the rest of our group and had ample time to prepare for our upcoming trek in Los Nevados National Park.  Due to severe T-storms and tornado warnings on the East Coast of the US most of our group arrived late the previous night or in the morning just before we were to leave Bogotá.   We boarded a 1-hour flight to the city of Pereira where we met our trek crew.  Our group was now complete: Sergio our trip leader, local guides Mateo, Diego and Manuel and 7 clients: Marc and I, Sergey and Alla from RI, Jennifer and Dave from NJ and Julie, Jennifer's twin sister also from NJ.  We piled into two Toyota Land Cruisers along with all our gear stowed on the roofs for the 4-hour drive to El Bosque farm near the park border.

Loading the Land Cruisers

We stopped in the town of Santa Rosa de Cabal for lunch.  Ten years ago there was not much here but today the town is burgeoning with restaurants and shops catering to the local and foreign tourists on their way to the park.

Shop in Santa Rosa de Cabal

We left the tarmac road behind and bumped along a dirt road flanked by forest fragmented by cattle pastures and potato fields.  Late in the afternoon we arrived at Finca (farm) El Bosque and set up camp in a soccer field next to an abandoned school.

Our Camp at El Bosque

Dinner was served in the main farmhouse on a ridge above camp.  Here Diana and her two daughters, Loraina and Siomara, had prepared us a delicious meal of chicken, rice and fried plantains, staples for the farmers who live in this region of Colombia.  At an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet it was nice to have a warm place to eat and get out of the wind and rain.  We turned in early as most in our group hadn't slept in hours.

Diana Preparing Dinner

We woke to a cloudy morning and prepared for an acclimatization hike to La Asomadera Ridge, about 2500 feet above us.  We climbed gradually along a dirt road to the park headquarters at Potosi where we had to check in before entering the park.  We learned that this is a long holiday weekend in Colombia and that their would be many Colombian tourists in the park over the next few days.  A four mile walk from the park entrance brought us to our destination, the ridge overlooking Laguna Del Otúnthe largest lake in the Park.

Laguna Del Otún

Three Andean Condors soared overhead.  Condors had become extinct here but between 1997 and 2001, 16 captive bred condors from the US were reintroduced.  In 2010 a juvenile was spotted indicating that the released condors had started to breed in the wild.  Good news!  One soared overhead to check us out and Marc was able to get his photo even though he didn't have his long lens.

Andean Condor

We ate our packed lunches and headed back to camp as a light rain began to fall.  We left the road and climbed steeply down through pasture land.  We had an early dinner in order to prepare for our first climb tomorrow.  Mateo handed out crampons, harnesses and helmets for the climb up 16,289-foot Nevada Santa Isabel.  We were driven early the next morning to La Conjera area where the climb started.  We were now in the páramo, a neotropical high mountain biome above the tree line where grasses and shrubs prevail.

Start of our Climb up Nevada Santa Isabel

Once on the ridgeline we were hit with a strong wind and the clouds had descended obscuring all views.  The climb was pretty straightforward until we reached a glacier at around 15,600 feet.  We were informed that the park officials had prohibited anyone to go onto the glacier due to the deteriorating weather.  We had no choice but to return the way we had come.  Many locals were on their way up sporting only sneakers and sweatshirts while some of the more fashionable ladies were wearing fur coats.  Colombians flock here to see and touch snow for the first time.

Glacier on Nevada Santa Isabel

The weather had not improved by the next morning and we had to pack up camp in the rain for our move to Berlin Farm about 12 miles away.  We were driven to Potosi for the start of our hike.  We retraced the route we had taken 2 days earlier to the viewpoint over Otún Lake.  This time we continued down but veered off from the road before we reached the lake.  We entered the magical El Bosque (forest) were giant frailejón (Espeletia hartwegiana) plants abound.  These plants are endemic to the páramo regions of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.  The frailejón plant is endangered due to the destruction of the páramo for cattle grazing and potato farming.  

Us in the Frailejón Forest

This time of year the plants were blooming and their flowers resembled tiny sunflowers, not surprising since Espeletia is a genus in the sunflower family.

Frailejón Flowers

We continued our trek past a wetland and had to cross a few small ridges before spotting some farms in the distance.  We thought that one must be our destination, Berlin Mountain Farm, but they were not.  As we passed by Mateo spotted a few Andean Lapwings (Vanellus resplendens) foraging in a pasture.  

Andean Lapwing

We had to climb 1200 feet to the top of a ridge where we encountered a Colombian Cowboy called an Arriero and his two dogs.  


The sun broke through the clouds as we descended into the valley where Berlin Mountain Farm lay nestled in complete isolation.  

Berlin Mountain Farm Valley

We were welcomed by Maria and her son Little Diego and ushered into a tiny but warm kitchen.  

Maria and Little Diego

We thought it odd that benches had been built along the wall above the wood stove but they did provide additional seating in a cramped space.

Warm and Cozy in Maria's Kitchen

Diego, Maria's husband, arrived just before dark.  He had made the round trip from Berlin to Potosi to pick up our bags and delivered them on his horses to Berlin.  We set up our tents in a pasture while Little Diego chased the pigs and managed to ride one!  We turned in after dinner as the rain began to fall again.  When we awoke it was still raining so we hung out in Maria and Diego's kitchen where Mateo told us a sad story.  Diego's father had been murdered by cattle rustlers and Berlin Farm was abandoned.   Diego moved to the city where he met Maria but they couldn't make a go of it.  They returned to the Berlin Valley where they rebuilt the farmhouse.  They seem quite content in their isolated valley sometimes not receiving visitors for up to 3 months at a time.  They don't mind hosting a few tourists but I got the impression that large numbers would not be very manageable.  

By 9:30 it had stopped raining so we bid Maria farewell and waved a goodbye to Diego and Little Diego as they were milking the cows.  We climbed through another frailejón forest where cattle had caused a lot of destruction to a pass where we got a view of our second climbing objective, Parmillo Del Quindío.  

Parmillo Del Quindio.  

We headed down into a large wetland, the headwaters of the mighty Quindío River.  We stopped before we reached the bottom and had lunch around the frailejón plants.  We continued to the wetland where we had to decide whether or not to climb Parmillo Del Quindío.  By this time it was 1:45 and way too late to climb 2500 feet to the summit so we had to abandon our attempt.  Instead we crossed the wetland by hopping from one plant to the next.  The Colchon de Pobre (Plantago rigida) form firm cushions which dam and filter water.  

Colchon de Pobre Hopping

We climbed out of the wetland to a series of ridges which we had to traverse through long tussock grass.  The footing here was tricky and we had to take care not to sprain an ankle.  Despite our caution, Jennifer fell slightly twisting her ankle.  As we descended the fog rolled in and we could not see more than 30 feet in front of us.  It was difficult for Mateo and Diego to find the route to La Playa Farm, our next destination.

Hiking Through the Fog and Mud

Finally we could hear dogs barking and we knew we were getting close.  We arrived safely just before dark, cold, wet and with mud caked boots.  We sought warmth and food in the now familiar kitchen with its high benches next to a wood stove.

Kitchen at La Playa

The horses hadn't yet arrived with our gear so we opted to sleep in one of the bunkrooms.  As we were finishing dinner Diego arrived with the horses carrying our gear, whew!  A few minutes later Sergio announced that a horse was missing with my bag and his.  I was more concerned about my iPad than the safety of the horse and the guys who went back out in the dark to look for it.  Shame on me!  About 30 minutes later Mateo, Diego and a cowboy returned wet and covered in mud with the missing horse.  Thank you guys!  

The next day we were to climb to the high camp of Tolima known as Arenales in preparation for our final climbing attempt up Tolima Volcano.  Given the poor weather conditions and the muddy state of the trails we instead opted to spend the day at La Playa.  At this point we weren't sure how we were going to get down from the páramo as we were getting reports that some of the routes were impassible due to the thick mud.  After our rest day the guides decided the safest route down was via another farm called La Argentina.  The weather had finally cleared just in time for our retreat the following day.  We got our first views of Tolima Volcano as we were leaving La Playa.

Tolima Volcano Looms Over La Playa

We climbed to the top of a ridge where the views of 17,129-foot Tolima got even better.  Mateo commented that he hadn't seen the volcano in the clear for 25 years!

Tolima Volcano

We bade farewell to the páramo and its iconic frailejón plants and entered the Cocora Valley.  The forest returned and we were told that this area was one of the last hideouts for the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerillas during the civil war.  We passed by the abandoned farm of Buenos Aires where Don Javier, the owner of La Argentina, spent his childhood.  An immense pine tree planted by Don Javier's grandfather 150 years ago towered over the farm.

Buenos Aires Farm

We arrived at La Argentina Farm just in time for lunch.  Gloria, Don Javier's wife, had prepared a big pot of potato soup for us.  We spent the entire afternoon in the kitchen watching Gloria preform her daily chores.  She was constantly busy preparing meals, serving people, putting wood into the stove and making cheese.

Gloria Making Cheese

Cows are hand-milked daily to supply the key ingredient for making cheese.

Milking a Cow

We spent a very windy night in one of La Argentina's bunkrooms before finishing our trek the next day.  We continued our descent into the Cocora Valley to the town of Salento.  Tall Wax Palms (Ceroxylon quindiuense), the national tree of Colombia, grew on the ridges above town.  They can grow up to 150 feet in height and are the tallest monocots in the world.

Wax Palms Near Salento

Our trek through Los Nevados National Park had come to an end.  Although we had encountered a lot of wet weather and muddy trails, the warm hearts of the local farmers who welcomed us into their homes more than made up for it.  May the park and resident farmers continue to coexist in a way that protects the páramo and its unique plants.  Perhaps tourism can provide the farmers with an alternative form of income so they can abandon some of their more harmful agricultural practices.  A heartfelt thanks to our amazing local guides Mateo, Diego and Manuel for taking such good care of us during the trek!!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Los Nevados National Park location in Colombia:

Our route in Los Nevados National Park:

Orange: vehicle track, blue: trek route