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We left Onzaga at the crack of dawn, following the truck driver’s hand drawn map. We had scoured all of the online maps and satellite photography we could find, but had failed to locate the road between Onzaga and Covarachia that he had sworn was the fastest route to reach El Cocuy. We were lost before we even made it out of the village. After stopping several times for directions, we crossed the river and made our way along the base of a mountain, heading North.
The truck driver had told us that we would reach some dilapidated houses, and then make the first right. Shortly after the houses we came to a fork in the road; the left road having been taken out by a landslide, we were happy to turn right. After a mile the road started to disappear underneath grass, while the edge of the road had largely flaked off into the river. We came across a man with a machete and a severe case of wookie eye, and we asked him for directions. It turned out that when the truck driver had said “turn right”, he actually meant “turn left”. It was our first inclination that he hadn’t actually driven his secret road before.
After retracing our tracks to the fork in the road, we stared disbelievingly at the path ahead. A landslide had wiped out the road, but it looked like a tractor had driven across it and cleared the way. It was going to be a long day. We reluctantly followed the tracks through the slide, after which the road turned upward and began snaking up the side of the mountain.
Before long, the road became narrow and rocky. The several days leading up to this had been on roads that could accommodate two vehicles side by side. The truck driver’s secret road was a single lane, and based on its condition it clearly hadn’t been often used. We gradually crept up one steep incline after another, interspersed with water crossings, landslides, ruts, and rock gardens.
After one water crossing, the road pitched steeply upward over a series of rocks and ruts. It seemed we wouldn’t make the climb unless we carried some momentum into the rocks, and if we were unable to make it, we’d have to backtrack several hours and find a different route. We had to make it.
We stopped to inspect the water crossing, and then backed up and took a run for it. We made it through the water, and then bounced into the uphill rocky section. After a couple of hard bumps our front wheels both came completely off the ground, throwing Nacho into a totally gnarly wheelie. We came down, and the recoil from the shocks caused us to bounce into the air again. It was totally gnarly, again. When we stopped bouncing we had lost much of our speed, and barely made it past the rocks and onto a less severe incline. And we wonder why poor Nacho keeps breaking down.
After three hours and as many mountain summits on the truck driver’s secret road, Sheena became nervous and started reading an e-book. This is her way of hiding from the reality of the nerve-wracking roads we encounter. Shortly thereafter, we approached a vertical rock crevasse in the side of the mountain, having sheer rock cliffs to either side. The road seemed to dive straight into the crack of the rocks, but I couldn’t discern an exit. We crept closer, but I couldn’t figure it out. As we reached the crevasse, I was shocked to see the road make a tight switchback inside of the crack, and then cut back abruptly against the opposing rock wall.
As we rounded the chicane, I could see that the cliff-hugging road had a rock wall on one side, and a sheer drop on the other. The road was the width of one vehicle, was strewn with rocks, and was bloody steep. I gunned it and Nacho raced forward like an injured turtle. As we bounced over the rocks I looked over the edge – only a couple of feet to my left out the open window. The height was dizzying and I felt nauseous. I stole a glance at Sheena, but she was oblivious to the situation, engulfed in her coming of age princess novel. Or whatever it is that women read on their e-readers.
By lunch time we emerged at the intersection of a slightly larger dirt road, only a few miles from Covarachia. We had cheated death and the VW mechanical gods once more. We parked Nacho in the road and ate some cereal out of plastic cups while we gazed into the valley below. Perched on the side of the road was a statue of a saint, where passersby could stop and make an offering for their safe passage. I poured out the remnants of my cereal milk at its base and got back in the van.
Finally after half a day of driving, we emerged at the tiny mountain town of Covarachia, not having seen a single other vehicle since daybreak. From Covarachia the terrain became more desert-like, the road being lined with agave and prickly pear cactus, mixed with tall green grass and bamboo. We switchbacked down the side of the mountain to the town of Tipacoque, where we intersected a larger road running along the side of Chicamocha canyon.
After reaching Soata we took directions from a mute man aided by his toddler grandson, filled our gas tank, and headed Eastward, through canyons, winding roads, mountains, and more winding roads inching ever closer to our destination.
As the sun sunk low in the sky, after four solid days of brutal, twisting, slow, yet stunningly beautiful driving, we arrived in the pueblo of El Cocuy – the gateway to Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains and final outpost before our destination: Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy. We found the Hotel Via Real, and inside, our friends James and Lauren who had arrived a day earlier from a different direction.
Before leaving Onzaga, we had told James and Lauren to watch our SPOT Tracker map, as we would be updating our location every 10 minutes throughout the day. This would allow them to keep tabs on us and know when to expect us. If the tracker sent repeated updates from the bottom of a ravine, they were to alert the proper rescue authorities.
“So…you chose an interesting route from Onzaga,” James said as he welcomed us into their hotel room. He had watched as we had driven away from all of the possible routes on the map, and instead drove over an entire mountain range through an unmapped no-man’s land.
“Damn truck driver never drove that stupid road in his life. Last time I take driving advice from someone whose name isn’t Garmin.”
We grabbed a room – an unremarkable plywood cube with a rock hard bed – and refueled in the downstairs restaurant. In the morning we would make the final Oxygen-starved push into the heart of the mountains.
When the sun came up, we loaded our trusty steeds, stocked up on empanadas for the car and non-perishables for the days of hiking that lay ahead. We checked in with the park ranger and pointed upward and to the East. Destination: Home on the Nacho Basecamp, elevation 13,000 feet.
After close to 30 hours of driving through mountains over the course of the previous four days, the hour and a half drive from El Cocuy to our first camp seemed to fly by. We threaded through the mountains, winding past Swiss-looking backdrops of green mountain pastures and high peaks.
Finally, only a few dozen meters from the top of the final pass, Nacho stalled out. The 12,800 foot elevation, in combination with a tricky rock climb and Nacho’s hamster-wheel engine proved too much. James and Lauren towed us up the last incline to the summit like a high altitude porter and his unfit mountain climbing client. At the pass, we stopped to take it all in.
A short distance from the road, we came across the foundation of the old park ranger’s cabin. Although details of the story are hard to come by, I had gathered that El Cocuy was used as a base by FARC rebels and other paramilitaries due to its remoteness and natural defenses. They had occupied the area since the 1970′s, forcing the boys in the surrounding villages to join them, and executing those who wouldn’t. In 1999, FARC rebels forced their way into the ranger’s cabin, killed him, and set his house on fire. After some time, President Uribe’s government sent in 20,000 troops to secure the region. A bloody but short battle ensued, and in 2003 the park was finally cleared of rebels and considered safe to visit. It hasn’t yet been “discovered” by adventure tourism – likely due to the difficulty in getting here.
After catching our breath we put away the tow strap and coasted the last half mile to our camp site; we had driven as far as it is possible to drive into the Sierra Nevada. After pulling up to the edge of the ravine above a glacial stream, we popped our tent, extended the awning, thanked Nacho for his hard work, and cracked open celebratory brews all around. We made it.