Climbing the Andes – End of the Dos Caminos

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By the time we returned there was a semblance of activity in the camp.  Marino was up and about chopping some logs behind the dining hall.  He seemed none the worse for our journey the day before.  I was still aching from head to toe and beyond.

 I had some breakfast, packed my few belonging into the rucksack and then proudly took up my place next to Marino, two Caminos, bade farewell to my new friends (I never saw any of them ever again) and we started the long walk back to Salento.  Marino had promised me a quick detour in the reserve and instead of taking the main path downwards we went back up the shoulder of hill between the two river valleys.  Turning left down the Quindio valley instead of upwards, there was a series of small caves lined with flat stones set into the rock.  They were barely two feet high and triangular in shape, but Marino impressed on me the fact that these were ancient Indian caves.

The cave

The cave

The Colombians have more respect for the Indian population in their country than others, having not exterminated them like in Argentina, or marginalised them to the same degree as in Peru or Ecuador.  I’d already seen several communities around Silves in the mountains to the south east of Cali.

 We continued down and it became similar to the previous afternoon, a perpetual retracing of steps that one had already begun to forget.  It is remarkable the effectiveness of a spatial memory.  Only because we are able to organise our memories in a spatial manner are we able to recognise so may features of the earth’s surface.  As I came down the hill, I not only recognise the farms, bridges, river sections and fields, and the changing hillscape around us, but also little features and compositions of places, a little grassy knoll with a palm tree here, a marshy area with a few curiously shaped rocks interspersed there.  Every view was familiar despite me only seeing it once before, and becoming catalogued away with a million other scenes over the last two days.

 The other factor which overtook me was the tameness of this landscape.  Three days ago, Salento had been a frontier town, wilder than any place in South America that I had been to.  That had been replaced by the reserve camp, high in the forest away from any roads.  The camp was then civilised compared to the mountain high finca that we’d lunched in, but even that was familiar as I headed back on the trek.

 The grazing fields of that last valley were now no wilder than a Cumbrian dale.  We had long since passed the point where I had started walking, and were advancing along the gravel track we had driven along towards Salento.  The gravel track became concreted and I saw to my horror the last hill.  Of course, I remembered now, Salento lay on a ridge above this valley, and if I were to catch the taxi back to Armenia, I had to scale this.  Compared to Tolima, this was nothing, but at the end of thirty miles serious trekking (for an unfit geographer, you must realise), this was the north face of the Eiger.  But up it I went, following Marino’s long purposeful strides.

 We reached the town and descended quietly to the centre.  Marino was greeted by everyone as a long lost friend.  He must have visited Salento only once a month or so.  He left me at the centre and said he would join me for lunch.  In the bar where I had first come to in Salento, we ate a couple of ham sandwiches and he told me again for his desire to visit London and he must have a colour picture book of England.  Then he helped me into a taxi, shook my hand (“Great camino”) and we wound down the hills to Armenia.

 I had to find the bus station in Armenia, and like many Colombian towns it wasn’t in the real centre of town.  I wandered down out of the office district and through some small streets.  One street in particular fascinated me; the houses were low level and badly built, but various occupations were going on; scrap metal dealer, bike repair, hairdresser, hardware store, photocopying and phoning shop.  Little kids played in the street.  I saw a lot of the real Colombia there.  Six years later, that street was devastated in an earthquake.

 I caught a Cali Supertaxi and the Cauca valley towns passed me by quickly and within a couple of hours, I was back in Cali.  I caught a local taxi home.  Four days after being on top of the Andes, I was back in Chatham.  I went into London a couple of weeks later and found a relatively cheap but very good colour photo album book of the UK.  I wrapped it up and sent it to Marino with a letter stating my address, thanking him for his company.  I never got a reply.  In fact, I never saw any of them again.

Climbing the Andes – Catching the early birds

I awoke the next morning very early, from a combination of cold, excitement at getting ready for the road, and also a comradely fascination in seeing another scientist at work.  I wrapped myself up in as many clothes as possible and tried to get out of bed.  I don’t know what a constipated penguin looks or feels like, but it was the only way I could describe my stiff movement that morning.  I seemed to be permanently pointing uphill, which was not good on the floor boards of the dormitory.  I was also not in control of the sizeable swagger I had, every movement seemed to make my glutius maximus grate against my hip bone, and I had trouble walking the straight line from my bunk to the door.  I was afraid of waking the rest of the dorm, who were snoring at different rates at present.  I made it and eased myself down the stairs and up the small paved pathway to the dining hall.

 As I have a tedious habit of being, I was early.  I sat on one of the logs shaped as a stool, and looked down the valley.  It was wonderful to have the whole place to myself.  No arguing kids, no music in the background and no chatter of middle class adults.  One gets terribly selfish at these times and I sat there soaking up the early morning mist as it draped over the nearby hills.  I could make out the tree canopies on those hills, and the rising chatter of the dawn chorus.

 I heard a vibrating hum next to me and looked towards the dining room.  I had noticed a set of bird feeding stations there, but they were curious in the fact that they had no places for birds’ beaks to enter.  One was saucer shaped with a red base and a white top, with a raised centre.  Around the bottom were little flowers and each flower had a small hole, and I realised that these feeding stations were very specialised, because the type of bird equipped to get anything out of them was there at this moment.  Iridescent green with a long forked tail, three times longer than the rest of the body, this humming bird was probing deep into the flowers with his needle-thin beak and sucking up the sugary water inside at a high rate of knots.  The bird stayed at that hole for less than two seconds and moved round, thinking the next flower had a different source.

Humming Bird on the feeder

Humming Bird on the feeder

 A couple of other humming birds hovered close by, waiting for their chance.  Increasingly nervous at the activity around him, the green bird flew off.  Now the others took their chance with the station and I was able to watch the teams of humming birds take it in turns to get around the station.  I would only be able to focus on their brightly coloured bodies for a few moments before they had flown on and I was only left with a snapshot of memory.

 My guides for the dawn appeared soon after. I pointed out in wonder at the scene of humming birds at the dining hall.  They both smiled condescendingly and said they saw it all the time.  I had mixed emotions about that; pleased that they were able to share their world with such wonderful creatures, and slightly jealous of the way they were able to take it all so much for granted.

 The little man grabbed a whole load of equipment from one of the staff rooms and stalked off down the hill ahead of me and the woman.  We chatted about the reserve in English, a relief for me after struggling for days with almost all Spanish.  She told me about the project.  They left several nets up in the woods for a period and they checked the nets twice a day, at sunrise and sunset.  They weighed and examined the bird species and health and were trying to characterise the species biodiversity in the reserve.  We soon reached the spot and I saw for myself a set of seven or eight nets strung between small bushes up to fifty metres away from me on the steep slope.

 The assistant went to work with a series of little black bags.  He plucked several small birds tangled in the net and stuffed them quickly in the black bags and pulled on the drawstring at the top.  Before he came down, the woman had taken or set up a few weather measurements, temperature, wet and dry bulbs for humidity, and started recording the important data on her log sheet; date, time, name of reporter, etc etc.

 The little guy took a spring balance from his pack and extricated one of the birds.  He weighed the bird and then looked inside the bag.  It was explained to me that the birds invariably shit themselves when they are caught, and although they go quiet when in the bag, they are incredibly scared.  They try and keep this trauma to a minimum, but they collect the sample from the bottom of the bag and scraped it into a test tube, and they can make a good guess as to what the bird has been eating.  Seeds and discolourations to the excrement are good indicators.

 They identified the bird species and then guessed at their age from the shape of the beak and their markings. They then ringed the bird uniquely and let it loose.  I sat and watched them work methodically for forty minutes, trying to ask them the most intelligent questions I could think of at 6.00 in the morning.  When finished, the assistant checked the nets for holes and made sure they were all free and we set off back to the camp.

Climbing the Andes – a Good Camino

The High Moorland

The High Moorland

Looking back down the valley

Looking back down the valley

The day was no less windy, but the clouds had lifted somewhat.  I could now see clearly over what appeared a sheer drop into the main valley, and could appreciate why we had circled it far to the north west.  The return trip was like a video in rewind, I recognised so many of the features that we had passed on the way up; first the gully, then the cactus plants on the Paramo, then the dwarf trees as the forest took over.  Then the steep drop to the main river.  Then past the new centre, incongruous among the naturalness of the valley.  Then up, oh my god, we went up again, over the ridge between the two rivers.  My legs, despite being in autodrive for the past few miles, found this so difficult that I was going along in a daze, missing my footing on the way up, and then stumbling over every type of obstacle; root, rock, stream, on the way down.

 The afternoon drew on and the forest was steamy.  Marino would take great long strides and disappear in front of me.  The several layers of clothes we had clung to on the mountain tops got stripped away and Marino took his baseball cap off.  A dazzling white bald head bobbed up and down in front of me as we headed along the valley.

 We turned the final corner and in the distance, along the steep ridge, I once more saw the Chalets of the foundation’s lodges.  They looked so civilised now, after seeming hostile the day before.  The rough buildings and rudimentary facilities of this rustic centre seemed a centre of calm and civilisation after the blustery mountaintops.

 I came into the camp and went into the dining room.  The sun was setting fast as I walked in and several of the party were already in there chatting before dinner.  They were all interested in my day, having themselves just milled around the camp and played games.  Marino followed me in and beamed.  He slapped me roughly on the back and said “A camino, a good camino, Mister Alan.”

 I ate like a horse despite being dog tired, and the two Germans who had limped back to camp enviously questioned me about the tops of the mountains, above the clouds.  I chatted to many or the people there, like in Gorgona, no longer an outsider but one of the crowd.  In the fast diminishing light after the meal, I sat outside the dining hall with one of the families. The mother and father told me they were from Cali, one of the leafy suburbs way to the south.  We shared a bottle of Chilean Red Wine and I was introduced to their sixteen-year-old daughter who was planning to travel to London.  I told her to get in touch with me when she got there and enthusiastically, she gave me her details.  I never heard from her again.  I told them about my work in the UK and this was overheard by one of the fresh faced women from the staff.  She was a scientist and she told me in English that she was doing a study into the habits of the rare birds up in the reserve.  She asked whether I was interested in seeing them collect the birds from their nets in the morning.  A little, dark guy gave me a crooked smile , it was her assistant on the project, which told me that he would welcome me.  I said I would be delighted so was told to meet them here at 5:30 next morning.  This made me look at my watch.  It was eight o’clock, I had been on the go for over 14 hours, and was absolutely shattered.  As I made my excuses and left the little group, I bumped into Marino, who beamed at me again.

 “I go to Salento tomorrow after breakfast.  You come, I find you taxi.”  I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to be back in Cali tomorrow night.  I had a day visiting CIAT, the Agricultural Centre nearby the next day, and then fly on to Cartagena for my last weekend before flying back via Caracas to London.  The air up here had made me forget my rush around completely.  I realised also that the arrangements to get me back to Cali, some hundred miles away, were not all that firm.  It sounded like Marino and I were to walk to Salento and then I would get a taxi to Armenia and on to Cali by Super Taxi.  This was something I would not have had guts to do three weeks earlier, but I had now learnt the Colombian transport system quite well, my Spanish was a lot better than it had been, and I was on the home stretch and still knew how to say “Carrera 53, Calle 13” in Spanish.  So I didn’t blanche too much at Marino’s plans, the worst fear was whether I was going to be able to walk the next day.  So now I headed off to my bunk, read a few more chapters of Sherlock Holmes while the kids played around me on the dormitory and fell into a fitful sleep.

Climbing the Andes – Lunch on the roof

The finca lay in a small shelf below our current ridge, and as we dropped down towards it, I could see over its lip, with the clouds spilling over the ridge towards us, then dropping back into the valley below us.  Then I would get a glimpse of the cloud forest, thousands of feet below me, bleached out by the reflection of the sun on a million drizzly droplets.

 I dropped down, into a small gully with a pebble lined rivulet running through it.

Down to the Finca with Tolima in the distance

Down to the Finca with Tolima in the distance

I stumbled weakly between the high walls of this gully, at least protected from the incessant winds of the plateau.  We scurried across a small field, kept in check by inquisitive goats, and through to a diminutive sheltered farmyard.  There, a small man, wrinkled to the extent of obscuring many features, greeted Marino.  I stood back and waited for the introduction and then shook the man warmly by the hands.

 “Come, he’ll give us lunch,” Said Marino and he led me into the small house where a plump well wrapped woman was fussing over a stove.  A humid air greeted me as I went in and I realised that amongst the pots of soup, rice and meat being boiled on an open fire was a large vat of washing.

In the Finca - lunch being prepared

In the Finca – lunch being prepared

I perched on a plank wedged onto a plaster ledge at the side of the room and Marino sat with me and beamed.  He told me what a good friend the farmer was, and many a time when he had been trekking here, he had come to be fed.  It then transpired that Marino had not been this way for many months and, despite the gifts Marino had brought up from Salento, the farmer was not too chuffed that there had been such a pause.  He busied himself outside while we talked.  Then he came in and told us that he was breeding salmon.  I found this amazing, wondering where the market was for such fish.  While the preparations for lunch were being finished, he took us out into the nearby field, and I saw a couple of rectangular ponds dug into the peaty soil, and sure enough, a whole load of middle sized salmon were scurrying at the bottom of the brown waters.  There were two pools and salmon of different sizes were being farmed.  The farmer told us how he was branching out and was hoping to sell these in Salento soon.  I wondered how quickly he could get the fish down, it was a good day’s trek unladen, what it was like traipsing a pack horse behind you, I did not know, particularly the route we had taken.  He fed them on spaghetti.  Nothing more, nothing less, but they seemed not to suffer.

 We went back in and were served with a hot lunch of rice, vegetables and shredded meat.  I found it difficult to eat, being exhausted from the climb, but managed to get most of it down, since they were small morsels.  A couple of large shots of agua pannela and I was feeling better.  Marino lit one of his horrible cigarettes and we sat and eased our aching feet for a few moments.

 He smiled at me, admiringly. “You are a camino, Mr Alan”.  I thought it had something to do with walking, and just acknowledged.  “you don’t know what I mean, Camino is special.  It means a good walker.  You come back to Colombia next time, I take you to the tops of the mountains.”  I was a bit worried by this, I was quite satisfied that I had seen the peak of Tolima covered in snow, but for all our hiking, it still looked a good day’s hiking upwards.  At the present moment I was unsure if I would ever stand up again.

 Marino started to ask me about where I come from.  When I said about near London, his eyes went hazy.  “Ah, London, it’s big city, yes?  I like to go there.” I always get a bit worried when I hear this as it usually means that they think not only am I obliged to put these people up if they ever get to the UK, but also to pay for their air ticket and act as guide when they arrive.

 “You have picture books in England?”

I thought this was a really strange question, but said “Yes”

“You buy me big picture book of England” he stretched his arms wide giving the impression of a monks’ dormitory table rather than a coffee one.

 Without waiting for a reply (he obviously assumed this would now happen), Marino said we should head back if we wanted to be back by nightfall.  He lumbered to his feet and I gently raised myself to mine.  I passed a few notes to our farmer and bade him farewell, then we crossed his tidy little field, passed the salmon ponds and headed back into the wild.

Climbing the Andes – We make some progress now, no, Mister Alan?

Marino and I went into the dining room at the same time.  He was packing his bag with Aqua Pannela, a sweet drink, some very sugary lumps, and various other items.  I realised I had nothing much to sustain me for the trip.  I had packed my blue cagoule, my ruablo that I had picked up in Silves, a small market town south of Cali that had a large Indian population, and was wearing my straw Panama, which was my everyday apparel in Colombia.  Marino eyed me even more suspiciously than before, and I was getting the impression he thought I was taking the Mickey.

 The German couple opened the kitchen door.  Breakfast for the four of us was some bread and coffee.  Then we headed off.  I always get a curious feeling just before a long walk, that I am so tired that no way can my body get me through the whole day.  When I get into my rhythm I am all right then till after the first stop, then it becomes more difficult to go again.  I get very tired after lunch and then reach that stage where I can’t care whether I carry on or drop dead on the spot.  At no time do I really feel that I completely enjoy walking, and even afterwards I feel so dogged tired that I don’t really appreciate it.  I think it is only the after experience, the memories of the walk through rose tinted glasses that makes it all right again.

 I was certainly shocked by the severity of the walk from the first moment.  We went a short way back along yesterday’s track, then turned abruptly right and up over a high ridge between the Miras and Quindio valleys.  It rose a good 500 ft before slackening in its gradient, and we meandered still upwards through the cloud forest.  Then blow me if we didn’t go down again.  This confused me enormously.  I was supposed to be going up the mountains and here I was losing the potential energy I had fought to obtain over the previous half hour.  Marino and I managed to keep up a good pace, but we kept having to wait for the Germans.  This was slowing us down and Marino showed a carefully guarded impatience for them as we went higher.  He would say things to me when we were alone like “we aren’t going to climb far in one day, Mister Alan”.  We came down to the Quindio River and followed past some sizeable waterfalls, rock bluffs and gorges.  We crossed the river and climbed steeply once more.  This wrecked the Germans.  The man complained of a blister that was flaring up on his foot and they decided that they would turn back.  Marino ensured that they could find there way back, watched them disappear down the narrow rocky path and then smiled at me and said “We make some progress now, no, Mister Alan?”

Forest at the start of the ascent

Forest at the start of the ascent

 I wasn’t so sure of this.  He had already changed his mind about my walking skills, but I had had the excuse of having frequent rests to let the others catch up.  This was now gone and I had only my own weaknesses to blame for lack of progress.  Marino set off at a renewed pace and I found it difficult to keep up with him, but I soon found that my legs were stretching and my lungs were expanding.  To a certain extent this did not work, as the rising altitude was making it more essential to get oxygen into the lungs, and I had only had one day to acclimatise to 6000 ft before going further up.

 At one point, near the River Quindio again, we came across a huge wooden structure.  Apparently a new centre for research in the mountains, the building work had only recently finished.  I was grateful for a quick pause to look around it, but Marino was in a hurry to make more progress.  We’d been climbing for three hours and we hadn’t reached the end of the forest yet.

At the new centre

At the new centre

 We continued to rise and the cloud forest began to thin slightly.  We skirted the fringe of some cloud and then delved straight into it.  The temperature dropped dramatically and I continued to layer myself with clothes.  The trees began to reduce in height and a scrubby moorland took over, like that you find on the HighPeak but without the heather.  Fully mature trees were growing to less than three feet up here and the mist swirled between their gnarled branches.

 At various stages, Marino would stop, and he got out the Agua Pannela.  This was a very sweet drink, made from melting the Pannela Sweetbread (almost pure sugar as far as I could make out) into water.  Marino added lemon juice that gave it a delicious tang.  A few drops of this liquid were enough to refresh you, clean you mouth out and give you substantial energy to sustain you for the next stages.  He also had some solid Pannela which melted in your mouth.  These two victuals kept us going on the upward journey.

 I was getting a little frustrated that we had climbed to over ten thousand feet and all I could see was cloud. I got glimpses between wisps of an expansive moorland, and the strange plants of the Paramo became apparent.

The Paramo

The Paramo

A rubbery cactus style plant grew almost everywhere, which a thick stem rising up to three feet above the ground crowned by fleshy yellow-green leaves.  Hairs cover most of the plant, catching the condensation and various attributes keep the plants stable in this extreme climate.    Now, as far as the eye could see, these plants dominated.  Marino disappeared off into the mist as we arrived at another layer of cloud.  I struggled to keep up now, I had some of my own blisters to contend with, and an ache in my legs, back and neck from walking perpetually upwards.  I saw Marino’s outline ahead of me on a hilltop.  I decide to tell him that I needed to go back.  We’d be walking almost non stop for six hours and were now close to fourteen thousand feet.

 I reached him and began to speak, when my mind was blown away.  Not only was it very windy up there, which may have accounted for some of it, but I now saw that we were above the clouds and ahead of me was Tolima, the second highest peak in the Central Cordillera, capped in snow and glistening in bright light.  A higher level of cloud drifted over it now and again, but I felt so satisfied that I had seen it.  I got my photo taken and took one of Marino, wrapped up in his heavy green coat, ragged jeans, turquoise scarf and purple baseball cap.  Then I noticed, amongst the pimply green moorland around me, was a small finca, here at this level.  I was amazed to find that many people eke out lives up here, and Marino said “That is where lunch is, Mister Alan”.  I said I was very tired and wanted to turn back.  I had said “Bastante”, which I’d looked up in my dictionary, but still don’t know whether it was the right thing to say.  Nevertheless, my haggard look must convinced Marino that if he didn’t turn round soon, he would have to carry me off the mountain.

Climbing the Andes – heading up the valley

 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.

The view back from the centre

The view back from the centre

 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.

Climbing the Andes – Emerging from the duvet

My guy had turned up moments before and he motioned me up the street to where his vehicle now stood. He got my bag out and we went inside a house, the shutters all firmly closed.  I met another young girl, said goodbye to the guy (another jolt; I had thought up to this stage that he was coming with me).  The girl led me up some creaking stairs and showed me a large room with a sloping wooden floor and a low bed in one corner.  It looked like the lower half of a bunk bed, with high wooden slats to stop you falling out.  She pointed the bathroom out down the way, I thanked her and I was alone.  I flopped on the bed, didn’t bother to get undressed, turned out the light from a cord above the bed and fell instantly to sleep.

 When I woke, sunlight was streaming through the slats in the shutters, and I could hear some banging about downstairs.  I lay there for quite a time, a slow throbbing headache developing in my skull.  The bed, despite being rustic and old, was supremely comfortable, and I thought I should like to spend the rest of my life here.  It is like those Sunday lie ins that you never want to end.  The rest of the world can go stuff as you move around the soft quilted portions of the bed, finding a cooler spot or a new lie.  You count the patterns on the wall paper, you pick out all the flaws in the decorating – chipped paint, mismatching paper, gaps in the floor boards.  A million things run through your head, but before you can make sense of them they have moved on and you are left with the feeling that you have solved all your life’s problems if only you can remember what the hell the answer had been.

 These states never really remain.  One of three things always happens.  A feeling of guilt comes over you that you shouldn’t fritter your life away in bed or a dawning realisation that your current situation isn’t particularly useful.  The third is that your bladder is screaming to be emptied.  It was the second one that I got that day.  I suddenly remembered where I was, and that I was meant to be trekking up in the mountains high above me.  I also remembered that the details of the plan to get me there had not really been finalised and that I wasn’t entirely sure where I had been sleeping.  I thought back to the night before.  I remembered someone’s broken leg, but thought that didn’t help.  Then I thought of the smell of horse shit.  It was an odour currently coming through the window.

 To help me think I went and opened the shutter.  Sunlight blazed through the window and my headache went up four octaves.  The view was not inspiring, a set of farm sheds with various animals running around.  A woman was swishing some clothes in a huge tub on some steps to the left.  She smiled at me.  The sky above was a very pale blue.

 I got back to sorting my brain out.  I remembered the guy who had driven me here.  And I thought I should find him.  Then I thought of the girl that had shown me to the room the night before.  I thought, find those two and my troubles will be solved.  I gathered myself together, had a quick wash down the hallway and creaked back down the stairs.  I came down into what appeared from the office, something I didn’t remember at all from the previous night.  There were four or five people here milling around busily, a couple of them smiled at me benignly and carried on doing what they were doing.  I went out in the street.  It was alive with people carrying out routine tasks.  I decided to have a quick walk around.  I went into a small café and bought some coffee and a rather tasteless pastry.  Then went down into the square. It sloped gently away from both me and a grand church with a large white belltower.  Surrounding the square were distinctive little houses.  One or two storeys only, they had wooden doors and shutters, some had balconies or decks with ornate carving for balustrades.  I found out that the town’s name was Salento and from my estimate contained  about five thousand people.

 I wandered back to the house, hoping to find the girl.  She wasn’t there, I couldn’t remember her name or even what she looked like.  So I asked for my guy who had brought me from Cali.  “Oh, he went back to Cali first thing this morning”.  I then had to try and explain in an increasingly faltering voice that I didn’t know what was going on.  I was supposed to be going up into the mountains with a guide.  They looked bemused at me, not knowing a word of it.  Then one of the senior women there said, “I’ll go and find Marino.”  She went out and I sat around the office, being very English and tried not to be any further nuisance.

Climbing the Andes – Night out in Quindia

Then we turned of the main road onto a still wide, but much quieter byway.  And immediately we started to climb.  Despite the fact I could see little out of my right hand window, I knew we were climbing out of the Cauca valley.  My guide tried to describe the geography in a strangled Spanglais.  We were heading towards Armenia, which sits on a small plateau in the foothills of the central Cordillera.  Beyond there lay the Magdalena River, the longest wholly in Colombia and beyond that Santa fe de Bogota.  To the west, the Cauca started to drop off the plateau that Cali sat on, into a series of gorges where you find Medellin. The world’s perceptions of Medellin is, like Cali, strangely warped.  It is one of drug gangs, violent killings and disorder, but most Colombians describe the second city of Colombia as the Garden City.  It’s refreshing climate above a massive valley of the Aburra River.   A bustling commercial city and the centre for most of the west and north west of Colombia.  I found that about Colombia all over.  Their attitude to their country was like mine to my home city, Liverpool. Against a barricade of abuse and contempt, they find themselves overselling themselves all the time to try to compensate for the bad press.  As I had already discovered in Cali and Gorgona, and was about to discover up ahead, there was really little need for their hype.  Colombia is one of the most fantastic countries in the world.

 The road twisted and turned and all I saw were high trees protecting farmland, little farm houses, occasional road side stalls all locked up for the night, and the odd person staring like a startled rabbit at the beam lights.  We started to drop and the outskirts of a city could be seen.   There were electric wires everywhere, more houses, bright flood lights on sports fields, road junctions, a prison, railway yards, and then Armenia approached.  We skirted the old city on a dual carriageway, then headed into the commercial centre.  Armenia looked much more friendly than Cali, a much smaller city, probably the size of Derby, it nonetheless had a feeling of pride and stature.  The central area was built with medium sky-scrapers, but the streets were near deserted at about ten o’clock.

 We drove out the back end of the city, up in the hills, the roads more winding still, less substantial.  The suburbs gave way to farms, but they were obviously more livestocking than anything else.  I was nodding off to sleep now, and still uncertain of how long we had.  My man kept telling me “not long”, but every half-hour after he said it, my doubts would rise further.

 Then we reached a brow of a hill and a small town was laid out below.  A few electric lights could be seen in people’s houses, the occasional street lamp attached to a telegraph pole, and almost deserted streets.  Our vehicle sounded booming as it traversed the narrow streets.  We opened into an enormous square and hangered left immediately.  We stopped and my guide got out and went off into a bar.  I followed behind and the first thing he did was buy a drink.  I was a bit amazed at this.  What I really wanted to do was go to bed.  I was even more uncertain as to what I was supposed to be doing.  I’d been promised some trekking in the mountains.  I was now in a bar ordering drinks in a town. Not a one-horse town, I grant you; by the smell of things I’d have said there were more horses than people.  And despite three weeks in Colombia, my Spanish was not good enough to say, “What the Hell is going on” and not cause offence.

 So I settled down with my unending faith in life that things will sort themselves out one way or another.  Not the best philosophy always, but when there is no alternative, I tend to go with the flow.  It doesn’t stop the nausea but it gets rid of any responsibility on my part.

 I was then introduced to some of my guy’s friends who were sitting at a table by the door in the half-light.  There were only 40 W electric lights in the room, enhanced by a few neon signs and occasional bursts when the fridge was opened, so I struggled to make out who was there.  There were a number of rather gorgeous Colombian girls, no more than 20, and one huge fat girl with a broken leg, big red lips, wild curly hair and raucous laugh.  She was the only one who spoke any English so small talk elsewhere was out of the question.  We sat and drank and I told them about my adventures so far in Colombia.  I soon realised that I was in small town America and that few of the crowd had been further than Armenia, let alone Cali, and most of them hadn’t heard of Gorgona.  Describing where I came from was equally difficult.  I used the bog standard “outside London” which covers a multitude.  It probably made no difference.  Chatham, Reading, Southend, Watford, Crawley; all are amorphous towns that have no meaning to anyone beyond their confines.  I’m not trying to upset any residents of these towns, but plainly stating a few facts.  Few people have heard of your town beyond the shores of Britain.  Little more than you have heard of Palmira, Buga and Popayan before reading this.  However, the questioning got round to where I was born, and I said, Liverpool.  Two responses immediately came back – Ahhh the Beatles, Ahhh Football (the memories of Liverpool’s European and Domestic domination were still overwhelming in those days).  I’m not sure that they were the things I’d like Liverpool to be remembered for, but it was a much bigger response than I got for saying Chatham.

 The inevitable question came “what are you going to do?”  Here I was a bit lost, I shrugged my shoulders and said that I’d intended to go up into the Quindio to do some trekking.  They all laughed and said “but your in Quindio.  That’s the name of the district you are in”.  This did not raise my spirits.  I said I was going up into some park?  At last, a positive response.  They told me it’s beautiful up there, there are huge palm trees and cloud forest, birds everywhere and loads of waterfalls.

 The stilted conversation carried on, often I would say something mildly witty in English, the limb challenged girl would repeat it in Spanish and there would be hoots of laughter.  I looked round to see that my guy, who had been chatting to another friend at the bar, had disappeared (with my bag still in his jeep).  I now became very worried.  It was almost midnight and I had no possessions, anywhere to sleep and no way of knowing what was meant to happen next.  However, I was enjoying the ambience of this little town already. Things were so much more relaxed here than in the big city.  I drank more, the conversation got more ridiculous, I understood less and less and started to close my eyes and smile benignly….

 Eventually people started to drift away into the night and I was told to keep in touch, see you again when you get back to town.  I made all sorts of promises and waved them off into the night, including the big lass on crutches, who’d given me a smackingly big kiss on the way out (nothing from the other girls, I think my new beard was getting a bit too ragged).  I never saw any of them ever again.

Climbing the Andes – A slow start

Two days after my trip to Gorgona, Mauricio (I suppose to get me out of Lucy’s house) promised me another trip.  It was to travel north towards Armenia and into the Central Cordillera between Medellin and Bogota.  I was quite looking forward to this.  I wanted to get high into the mountains after being at the Pacific’s edge.  I packed a small bag and waited around Mauro’s apartment most of the day. In true Colombian style and with their concept of time, I sat there all day when I thought I was going to get going early on.  I was beginning to think that it was too late to travel north that day.  I wasn’t sure about being out on Colombian roads at night, not from the hijacking angle, which has become more of a threat since my visit, but more from the accident point of view.  Colombians drive as if no-one else is on the road, despite the evidence around to show that this is not the case.  Like a lot of countries, the roads are in bad repair, and unlike the UK, there are few roads which are separated from the other aspects of life.  So you can be driving down the Pan American Highway and still have chickens crossing the road, children playing, buses stopping and porcupines copulating in front of you at any moment.  This does not deter your average Colombian driver.  They will try and drive at 160 kmh-1 and have forgotten what a brake is.

 So I was surprised when Mauro turned up mid afternoon from work and said “Let’s go”.  We went over to the leafy hillsides to the west of the city centre and I was introduced to various people at the ecological foundation who ran the reserve I was to go walking in.  I then sat there while Mauro talked away, then he said “Bye, I’ll see you on Thursday”.  I wasn’t sure what was happening.  I sat there for another half an hour, in the reception area.  Looking at the posters on the wall from every angle, reading through the literature displayed on a series of coffee tables (despite the fact that I could only translate one word in six).

 Then a medium height man in black jeans, black shirt and a “Hey Gringo” moustache came out, smiled at me and went outside.  A moment later he was back and he shook my hand, and said “You Mauro’s friend”.  I affirmed and he picked up my bag and flung it in the boot of his pick-up.  He had a quick cigarette, talked to the receptionist (who was packing up to go home for the day) and then we jumped into the vehicle.  It was after five o’clock.  There was about an hour’s sunlight left and then we’d be driving in the dark.

 After a quiet start to the day, I realised that I had a long and strange time ahead before normality would resume.  I also had very little idea of what was going to go on.  Mauro in his loveable way had given me the sketchiest details.  I was going with this guy to the Andes, to a reserve run by this foundation that contains the highest palm trees in the world.  I could get hold of a guide and climb the mountains for the day.  More than that I did not know, and it was as I set off into the evening rush hour traffic of Cali that I realised there were a lot of gaps in the story to come.

 We inched our way through Cali and I thought I would never see the industrial areas to the north that would show us that we had reached the countryside.  Finally the road opened out and we made some proper progress.  We followed the main road on the west side of the Cauca valley, a route I had travelled on the very first day I had arrived in Cali.  We passed through Buga, where Mauro’s research institute have a field station. On we drove, into new territory for me, further down the huge Cauca valley.  We were on the true Pan-American Highway now, the arterial route through South America and on up into the north.  It would be little more than an old fashioned trunk route in UK, a wide enough single carriageway road, bit of varying quality, usually tarred but often rutted.  It bypasses few towns, instead the huge trucks and 4×4’s have to dodge the farm wagons and chickens throughout, and your journey can be seriously disrupted when a market or festival is going on in the local town you pass through. It is usually packed full of vehicles, and it is a joy to get to an open stretch where there are few disruptions.  The highway runs north from Chile, through Peru and up to Ecuador before crossing into Colombia south of the city of Pasto.  It then drops down to the ancient centre of Popayan and to the east of Cali.  Despite its size, Cali is on the west side of the Cauca valley.  The highway goes to the east, with several roads leading to the metropolis.  It then heads north through Palmira to Buga and on towards Medellin.  Beyond there it becomes less of a highway as it descends into the jungle towards Darien.  At one point it peters out completely and you have to pick it up in Panama City through some other route.

 The night was drawing on now, when my friend calmly stopped the vehicle. He got out and banged his front wheel. A number of smelly trucks belched passed us.  I got out to have a look.  It was difficult to really make out what was going on as it was on the dark side of the truck and the sun had long since set behind the western cordillera.  It was just a flat and we fixed in a few minutes.  We set off again but he stopped a few minutes later, pulling into the sort of diner that the Flintstones frequented after a night at the movies.  It was round and had a bunch of flimsy looking 4×4’s parked outside.  We went in and there was a brightly lit room with a series of bewildering counters serving anything from rice to hamburgers, beer and soft drinks, cabinets full of Coca Cola, and utensil trays and salt and pepper satchels distributed in the most awkward positions the designers could find.  These sorts of places are common at most service areas in the UK these days   (although perhaps not with the same range of foodstuffs), but at the time it was all novel to me.

 I remember having something akin to shredded beef and rice with bits of plantain and a large cup of coffee.  It wasn’t my real choice of meal at that time but several factors contributed to the selection.  I was actually very hungry as I had eaten lightly at lunchtime and it was now after nine o’clock.  But I was not very sure of the arrangements for bed that night (it appeared that it would be very late when I got there) and this made me unwilling to tackle a huge meal.  When I’m nervous, I have terrible problems looking at food.  I find when I eat it, I’m not so bad, but unfortunately to make the stuff get into the mouth, I do have to look at it.  And thirdly, in the dreadful arrangement of counters, I couldn’t really find anything that I wanted, nor could I really ask for it in Spanish and their were a bunch of cowboy looking people in check shirts and bristly moustaches breathing down my neck as I fumbled along the pots of vegetables, pies, sweet stuffs and hot sauces.

 I felt a little better for having stemmed the hunger and we set off again along the main highway.  The traffic was probably heavier than it had been before, with more delivery lorries ploughing along the thoroughfare, the exhaust fumes swirling around in their headlights.  Occasionally, jeeps carrying some militia of one sort of the other would overtake us and several times we were waived through checkpoints.