A trek into the Colombian Andes

I decided to do a three day trek up to Lago Otun above the little town of La Florida. I created a map in Caltopo and did some research on places I could camp along the way to the lagoon. I’d take a chiva bus to and from El Cedral, where the trailhead began. Savannah could have a few days off and stayed parked at the hostel.

Patricia (the hostel caretaker), her sons, and her sister walked me down to the chiva bus stop in the middle of town around 9 AM. They weren’t sure where exactly the bus would pick up passengers, and wanted to make sure the bus driver knew where to drop me off. Though we were all struggling with the language barrier, I was able to understand a joke Patricia said. She asked me how many languages I could speak and I said 2 but only the basics with Spanish. She said she spoke two fluently – Spanish and sleep talking! While we were waiting for the bus, her sister seemed concerned I would be hiking “sola” and that I really did have everything I would need for 3 or 4 days in my pack. She asked how old I was, and I asked her to guess – she thought I was only 22!

We saw the bus coming down the road and immediately I was concerned about getting a space since it seemed to be literally over flowing. When it arrived, Patricia made sure to let the driver know where I was going, and he told me to hop up on the top. On the top… where before in Guatemala, Andre and I passed up our bags to be tied down. On this bus, since the route from the big city of Pereira only went through three times per day, people also rode up on the top when it was too full. I clambered up onto the top of the bus and placed my pack inside of a spare tire. At first I sat on the edge of the rail but the guys already up there told me to sit down on the roof and made some room for me. They were all young people, probably all younger than me, riding up on top. At first we all sat up and enjoyed the last of the paved roads out of La Florida. But once we hit the gravel, the bus heaved and rocked as it dipped into deep potholes. Bodies and bags slid back and forth along the roof. I love how laughter is a universal language, we were all giggling like little kids and could barely catch our breath as branches swatted us and we ducked and blocked the blows. At one point I had a sneaker from a guy on my head and my own shoe was under someone else. There was literally no way to keep control. It took 45 minutes to ride from La Florida to El Cedral. After I hopped down, I couldn’t see anyone to pay – maybe it was free if you rode on the top?

I wasn’t sure where the trail was at first and waited a bit to see where other people were trekking off to. There were about 2 dozen or so hikers with big bags so I knew they were all overnighting somewhere. I grew impatient though and checked on Caltopo (hiking app) that the trail was just an extension from the road. I blasted off leaving the crowd behind. The trail began as a gradual incline along the Otun River and was quite muddy and slick from the frequent rains. Lush rainforest only grew denser the higher I hiked. Some trail runners passed by me and not long after I had a total wipeout on a slippery rock. I thought my elbow took the brunt of the fall but later I would find that I must’ve pulled some muscle on the inside of my leg near my groin… I did nearly do a split during the fall. With every step upwards there was a sharp, but bearable, twinge that caused me to take a lot of breaks.

I reached La Pastura, a popular destination for overnighters who don’t want to camp. It’s only about 4 miles from the trailhead and offers bunks and a kitchen to cook. I took one wrong turn down a horse trail just after passing this area, but quickly fixed it and was on my way gaining the valley again. I hiked up through the clouds as the trail continued to get steeper. The trail was also used as a horse trail to bring goods to and from the farms that dotted the valley. I couldn’t quite tell what they were bringing back and forth but it looked like crops perhaps. Right leg wasn’t keeping up with left leg very well since the slip so that slowed me down quite a bit, but I was able to take more photos and watch for wildlife. I heard a lot of frogs but could never quite spot them and there were a lot of different bird song.

I made it to El Jordan, the small farm about 9 miles up where I would be camping my first night, with no other hiker in sight on the trail. I heard a lady talking quite intensely on the phone in the kitchen when I peeked my head around and asked if I could camp there. She was bent over a large cauldron looking pot, stirring some stew, and I couldn’t help but imagine a fantasy where she was a witch stirring up her latest potion. She asked, rather shouted at me, if I wanted to buy some stew or tea but I told her I had my own food. I paid her the 8000 pesos ($2) and walked around to the back of the farm where the camping area was. The site was gorgeous, with a backdrop of twin waterfalls falling from between two mountains. I pumped water from her tap, not sure if it was filtered or not, and went about setting up my bivy and cooking ramen among the chickens. While I ate, I looked around at the scenery and couldn’t believe it was real life.

Just before dusk, a group of hikers, who had also taken the roof ride to El Cedral, made it to camp and set up two large tents. They didn’t look super prepared in their jogging pants and hoodies but they made it all the way up there as well with supplies to camp. The resident German Shepard, Rocky, was let off his chain and he frolicked among us with his favorite tire toy.

Fog and mist rolled in around 5 PM forcing me to retire into my small bivy. I definitely prefer a tent to a bivy, but on long solo trips a bivy makes more sense. I fell asleep soon after, despite the activity of the nearby campers but I woke up around midnight to flashes. I peered out to see crazy lightning flashes around the valley. There was no rain or thunder, just lightning. The flashes lit up the farm and I could see the smoke billowing out of the chimney, as if it was chasing something, or perhaps running away from whatever was brewing in the cauldron. Orion shone brightly directly above me.

Soon the rain began though and I had to fully zip the bivy. Whether it’s really not very permeable to air, or if there’s still some Utah dust from our packrafting trip in the Escalante, I was having trouble breathing with it fully zipped. Unable to endure the stifling, I opened the zipper a bit, but then thought about snakes (not sure if they’re at the altitude?) and zipped it back up. I had bouts of sleep but would wake frequently panting. I also roused from a few unexplained noises but wrote it off as it must’ve been Rocky.

I heard the other group shuffling about around 6 AM. I debated waiting them out and packing up after, but soon I got anxious and decided to get moving. It took me no more than 10 minutes to pack up camp and be moving up the trail. I quickly lost a few layers of clothes though that the morning chill convinced me I needed. After ducking behind a rock to change, I was good to go with a light sun shirt and leggings under my shorts.

The trail wove between farms perched on the hillside. As I took breaks (still had the bum leg) along the steady incline, I watched little moments in the farm life. I saw a young boy chasing a calf, unsuccessfully, and heard a ton of dogs. The section I would be hiking this day was only 5 miles, but packed a punch with about the same amount of elevation gain (~2500 feet). The mist slowly rising out of the valley kept me cool and constantly changed the view. I ran in to a few farmers who looked confused when I confirmed “sola” (solo) after they asked where my companions were. The hostel hosts had told me it’s easy for people to get lost above the farms, but I assume mapping apps (probably not even smartphones) are used in the area. With the map downloaded from Caltopo, it would be really hard to get lost.

The trail climbed through a rocky section with some really cool looking dense trees, then spat out on what first appeared to be barren land. I had reached the cliffs that I naively thought must be around my destination, but then continued on up and over them. I was leaving the farms behind and entering the paramo ecosystem. The paramo ecosystem begins around 3000 meters and contains the plant, Frailejones, which kind of look like weird cactus/aloe plants. They are unique to the Andes mountains and existed from over 2.5 million years ago! The frailejones I was hiking through are estimated to be about 2000 years old.

The trail flattened out around 12,800 feet and wove around bumps of the hilly landscape. This section of trail was easy to cruise with wild scenery that I’d never experienced before. Soon though, fog rolled in again and it was eerie how little I could see. I made it to the first lagoon and couldn’t even see to the other side. I heard a lot of ducks making a fuss about the dropping temperature that the fog brought. Along the trail I saw signs for panther and jaguar, but not warning signs for hikers, rather information signs that we need to protect the ecosystem for these species to survive. I thought that was pretty cool!

I thought I would camp on the North side of the large section of the lagoon, however once I arrived it seemed really soggy and wet. I decided to continue another mile around to the South side of the lake where an established camping area existed. When I finally spotted it coming down the trail, it looked really busy and I almost just decided to return to the swampy spot. But, it was still early and no one wants to sit in a swamp for the evening so I continued to the lodge. I asked a few people who were cooking their dinner next to the building where I could camp and where to pay. They told me it was free, where to camp, and that the water from the lagoon was not good to drink so I should use the tap. I did have my pump to purify water, but decided to follow their lead and just use the tap. I’m not sure where so many people came from, and a lot looked like they came straight from the city. Perhaps some rode up on horses as was advertised online.

There was a large group of people hanging out where the first group was cooking for most of the evening. It was sheltered there from the wind and rain that started around 5 PM. I considered trying to join in and be social, but thought the language barrier would make me a burden to the conversation and retreated into my bivy with my notebook. Later that night the rain cleared and I was able to leave the hood of the bivy open for some fresh air. Occasionally I’d wake up to see a new perspective of the constellations spinning above my head.

I woke up at 6 AM to pink skies and birds chirping. Also, to a sheet of ice over my bivy! Throughout the night, I knew the temperature was dropping but snuggled into my sleeping bag with Andre’s puff jacket around my core and stayed cozy. The birds’ urgency in their morning song reminded me I needed to hike the 13 miles back down this day before 5 PM to catch the chiva bus out. Reluctant to leave my cocoon, I watched the pink sky for a bit before crawling out.

Barely no one else was awake yet as I packed my bag. My sleeping bag was actually stuck to my bivy with more ice! I couldn’t believe I had slept so well and warm. A girl from the group I had spoken with the evening before came up and asked me where I was heading next. She invited me to join their group to sleep back at El Jordan for a night, but I told her I needed to get moving and keep driving South. She told me to look back at the mountains on either side of the waterfall at El Jordan to see two monkey faces kissing in the shape of the mountains.

The mist began clearing as I headed down. I passed a large sulfur cliff that I missed the day before with smoke puffing out of the yellow rocks. At the lagoon, the ducks were more active than the evening before and flew some circles around me while quacking. I could see the lagoon and beyond more clearly without the fog and was amazed at towering peaks beyond the valley – some of them must have been around 16,000 feet! I imagined how amazing it would be to climb them and was sad my stay here was so short and that I needed to keep moving.

I met a man walking up the trail as I was heading down from the lagoon. He was whistling and looking for his four “perritos.” I didn’t know what that meant but hadn’t seen four of anything, including humans, once I started hiking (I later looked it up and perritos are doggies!). He also asked if I was solo and whether I had been there before. We chatted for a bit, and he was incredibly patient and told me to slow down my speaking so I could find the right words in Spanish. I think he was asking about administration at the basecamp I was at, and I hadn’t seen anybody who seemed like a ranger. We shook hands and exchanged names, his was Jose Machatta. He was a farmer on the hillside and helped take care of the park. After we parted ways, I could still hear him whistling for his dogs – I hope he found them!

Before the steep downhill began, I took a quick break for a PB sandwich breakfast and took in the view. It was around 8 AM and I was still above the clouds so I could look down the valley or up along the ridgeline of the Andes. I then passed back through the cow farms with way fewer breaks than the climb up. My leg still hurt but not as bad going downhill.

When I passed El Jordan, I looked back to see the two monkey faces kissing above the waterfall and sure enough that is exactly what the mountains looked like. Totally beat, I continued to shuffle down the now super muddy trail from the recent rain and traffic. I was lost in thought and not paying much attention as I crossed one muddy section and wiped out. A branch stabbed my face and in my peripheral vision I thought I saw a chunk of skin sticking out as I steadied myself. It turned out to be part of the branch, snapped off, stuck into my cheek. I pulled it out and dug through my 10 essentials kit (because why bring a med kit if it’s only one person?… dumb). Somehow some skin glue made it in with my moleskin and ibuprofen so I glued the hole shut to stop the bleeding and carried on. I tasted blood in my mouth but I don’t think it actually punctured all the way through. Today it looks fine and only looks like a small scratch – yay for skin glue!

The trail went from mud to slick rocks so I paid extra attention to not slip… again. I passed quite a few people walking up to La Pastura and was amazed at how much stuff they were carrying up – 2 liter jugs of soda, chips, toilet paper. One man asked how much farther and I’m pretty sure I accidentally gave him an incorrect estimate. I was definitely shuffling the last few miles as my body rebelled against this excursion. I got to El Cedral at around 2:30 PM to find that a bus would not arrive until 5 PM. I bought some Gatorade and chips, and sat with a black and brown cat as we watched a thunderstorm roll over the jungle.

Quite a few groups made it just in time for the bus as they came running down the trail in the downpour. There was enough room this time for all of us to sit inside the bus, which was fortunate because now it was a full on storm. The bus lurched and bumped it’s way along the road, now in complete darkness. I have no idea how the driver maneuvered the bus through what looked more like a river than a road now. Thunder cracked and sounded like it was rolling right over the bus roof. What should have been a 45 minute bus ride ended up being over an hour. I hopped off the bus at La Florida and walked up the roads to the hostel. I barely unpacked, just put everything in a heep on a tarp in Savanah, and took an ice cold shower in the hostel. Finally, I slept, really really well.

Today I’m doing some maintenance on drying gear/doing laundry and planning for the next few days South!

Map of campsites, here!

4 thoughts on “A trek into the Colombian Andes

  1. I now realize you are actually Super Girl!! Such bravery to be able… and to also enjoy … a solo hike up and down mountainous trails, not to mention starting and holding conversations with total strangers who speak a different language. I would be totally lost!!
    I hope your injuries are all healed and you are SAFELY heading South again. Take care, be safe… Love you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an adventure – Sola in the Andes! Way too many miles and not enough time to enjoy all of them. I’m always impressed at your stamina and determination to get the most out of every day! Gotta keep your eyes peeled, and watch out for slippy rocks, though.
    Have fun out there!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are one tough cookie! I so enjoy your writings filled with such description. I feel like I’m right there with you. I look forward to your next adventure. Safe journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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