She came back and spoke curtly but kindly. A guide was going up to the centre at one o clock and you can join his party. Marino will come later and take me up to the mountains tomorrow. I thanked her and said I would go for a walk around the town. I went once more around the town square and as I did so, I saw a cross on a hill above the town. I was getting used to these, either a memorial or a cross high above any settlement in Colombia. I wandered back along the street where I’d stayed and climbed up a set of steps to this memorial. From this position I got a good impression of Salento’s setting. It was high and the air was rarefied, but it was still in the foothills. Across the town, which sat on a wide ridge I could see valley dropping away in all directions to a rich fertile farmland region, reminiscent slightly of the Scottish Borders.
Behind me was more like the highlands of Scotland. A wide river snaked between a glacial valley, with a few rich fincas in the bottom, some small woodland. Surrounding this were steep sided hills covered in rough and forest, and up the valley taller mountains appeared and disappeared amongst eye level clouds. I couldn’t see the tallest from where I was, the skyscape masked the highest peaks.
I wandered back into town and grabbed another snack. I headed back to the house I had stayed in which I had now worked out was the Salento office of the Conservation authority – Fundacion Herencia Verde. They conserved the high Quindio district from development because of the distinctive layers of Andean flora and fauna that I was going to see over the next few days. I sat around the office for an hour or so, wondering when I would ever get up into the mountains. A large man came in sporting a beard that sort of looked like it was false and had slipped below his chin. This was Marino. He was probably between 35 and 40 but looked a lot older. He shook hands with me roughly and said in Spanish “So, you go up to the Andes tomorrow, Mr Alan?” I said I hoped so. He eyed me suspiciously, not sure that my slim frame would last the walk into the street. He probably thought “this is an easy buck”. He explained that he had some things to get in Salento today and would meet me tonight at the centre. He then disappeared out into the street.
All of a sudden a minibus arrived outside the office, containing about twelve people, at least two families, a young couple and several others. It came to my consciousness that I was to join them to go up to the centre. There was a huge amount of luggage in the back, and I was told that we were going to walk up the valley. My spirits sank at the prospect of having to walk up into the mountains laden with a backpack. We sat in the bus and it circled under the monument I had walked to in the morning and down into the valley I had mapped out from the top. We went passed several of the farms and ended at a bridge over the river. Here were several pack horses, looking as unconcerned as pack animals anywhere in the world. I was relieved to find out that they were taking supplies and our baggage up the valley, we were to walk freely the next four miles or so.
With a little trepidation at where we were going, we set off on our gentle afternoon saunter through the valley. We continued along the track a short way, rising above the river. Trees were scattered around closely grazed grassland, and cone shaped hills rose steeply on either side. The others were all in groups of two or more, which didn’t improve my “outsider” feelings. I generally walked alone, which was nothing bad. I was sapping up this wonderful scenery, unlike anything I had seen before, and yet so strangely familiar. I expected to end up in Denbigh or New Galloway at any moment, rather than being 5000 miles across the Atlantic.
The familiarity stopped as the track ended and we rose up over a hill brow. There in front of us was a multitude of palm trees. Incredibly tall, they clustered up over the next few hills. Their green crowns were perched on long silver trunks. They were probably the tallest palm trees I have ever seen. They are certainly the highest. Here at about 6000ft above sea level they swarm over the grassland. The ones on the horizon appeared like the huge floodlights you get at motorway junctions in the UK. The area is called Estadero Las Palmas, and the palms Las Palmas de Cera, a national tree reserve. They were the trees Mauro had photos of back in Chatham.
We continued to follow the river, the Quindio from which the district gets its name, past some high cliff bluffs and on to a fork in the river, the Mirias comes down from the right, the Quindio from the left. The reserve lies in a triangle between the two rivers, and our home for the next two nights was up at the back. The path began to get much steeper. We had been passed by the pack animals while we’d been admiring the palm trees, now we caught up with them as they stumbled up the narrow track.
The afternoon was drawing on and when we reached the centre, the evening was beginning to form. Long shadows from some very high mountains were casting their net across our valley. Looking back towards Salento, we saw the tops of stratus clouds trail across our view, and below the almost models of farms, palms trees and grazing land appeared like a different world.
We were settled into our dormitory and made our way for dinner. The centre hung precariously on a hillside, two main buildings sat on the left, the office and staff quarters and the kitchen and dining area. Two more buildings were below us, two dormitories, below which were classrooms and the small museum. Little paths linked the two.
We dawdled before dinner, still taking in the views and the atmosphere. We ate, and chatted. I talked mainly to the German couple and told them of my intentions to climb the mountains (still not quite sure what this meant). They were keen to join me. The other families became more interested in me and they chatted amiably till well after dinner. We were invited to a talk in one of the classrooms and headed down there. I didn’t take much in but we were shown slides of the wonderful scenery, plants and wildlife. I enjoyed learning about the ecology of the region, the palm trees low down, the cloud forest around us, and the Paramo, where it becomes too cold for trees to grow and the curious plants you find up there, and the snow on top of the mountains; four degrees north of the equator there are glaciers.
We went back to the dining room for more chat. I was very tired, despite the lie in that morning. We were sitting around drinking coffee when the door burst open and the huge frame of Marino entered. He looked straight at me and said “ you ready for tomorrow Mister Alan?” I said yes and introduced him to the Germans. He said, “Oh, fine;” (unconvincingly; he still wasn’t sure of me let alone this pasty looking couple), “we start at six.”
I went straight to bed. I didn’t sleep well. The kids were too excited in my dormitory, the bed was itchy, it was incredibly cold, and I still did not quite know what I was letting myself in for. Eventually though I nodded off.