At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
Dozens of figs had swelled to a purple mass, soft to the touch, and desperately hanging on for dear life. Literally, it was a race with the birds. The ripest fruits were already pecked to death, left hanging to taunt us in what we did not discover in time. Birds had wings, but we had sticks. As I was warned, you had to be careful when you picked the figs from up high as they leaked a white sticky sap when broken free. I stood on my tip toes, arm fully extended, beating the figs free from their roots. I wanted those fruits, badly.
What to do. What to do.
I had at least a week to burn while waiting for Brad to maneuver Nacho’s new transmission back in place plus a laundry list of other projects to increase Nacho’s mojo. Each day, I would start by running through the eucalyptus trees and alongside the fields of grazing cows and corn fields. At my turning around point, I would stare out at the countryside in utter disbelief of its beauty. My thoughts often led to the general ideas that most Americans had on this country: cocaine and violence. There is no denying that both of these things exist, but often not known is how little this represents Colombia as a whole. After my mind stopped wandering, I’d continue on, stopping to greet the many families of baby cows and the truck driver I saw daily, as he dropped off his workers to tend to the sheep.
When I returned home, Brad was already to work on the vehicle and would stop briefly when I yelled breakfast was ready. For the remainder of the day, the Olympics played in the background while painted, basked in the sun, watched the cows, cooked, wandered through the yard, or kept Brad company. A few extraordinary days occurred in the mix, and that was when Constanza and Hernando took the time to show me how to cook up some local dishes.
Before we left Susacon the first time around, I attempted to cook dessert figs. I failed horribly and realized I needed some expert advice. Cos accepted the role and tutored me on how to cook figs in sugar water, infused with cloves and cinnamon. While the figs simmered, I learned how to make a custard dessert as well called Postre De Nata.
A few days later, Hernando showed Raphael (a French backpacker and instant friend) and me how to make Sarapas, a corn-based pancake. This variation was a close relative to the arepa, also a corn-based pancake offered on every street corner and home in Colombia. After we made a stack of a dozen or so, Luis made hot chocolate, also a staple in the Colombian diet. Yes, there is heaven on this earth. Next to the spatulas and spoons in the Colombian kitchen, there is a special stirring stick made solely for mixing the chocolate and frothing milk.
40 figs (these can still be green but must be somewhat soft to the touch)
1 large block of panela (8″X6″X3” block), chopped (white or turbinado sugar will work as a substitute)
5 cinnamon sticks
1 dozen whole cloves
Cut the stem off of each fig.
On the opposite side create an X by cutting two 1″ slits. This will allow the milk juices to run out while cooking. In a large pot, add 6 inches of water and bring to a boil.
Add the figs and reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes, or until the figs are soft.
Drain the water while leaving the figs in the pot.
In another large pot, add water (a few inches from the top) and bring to a boil.
Add panela, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. Cook until the panela has dissolved.
Add the sugar water to the figs.
Simmer for 2+ hours uncovered, allowing the figs to cook and sugar water to reduce to a syrup.
*If a fig begins to split, remove from the pot and set aside.
*The figs will be done when their color changes from a green to a dark purple.
Recipe alternatives: Instead of cooking the figs in sugar water, you can leave the canela out and simmer just in water. When the figs have been removed from the heat and cooled, fill them with arequipe (milk + panela).
POSTRE DE NATAS
2 cups of whole milk
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons of liquor (rum, contreou, aguadente)
4 tablespoons of sugar
In a large diameter shallow pot, add milk and bring to a boil. Let the milk stand until a cream forms. This will look like a thin layer of skin on the surface of the milk. Remove the cream with a spatula and transfer to a bowl, repeating until there is no more milk cream. Try to remove the cream each time in whole chunks.
In a separate bowl beat the egg yolk until frothy and light in color.
With a little milk left in the pan (1/4 cup or so), add the egg yolk and mix in a slow moving motion. Some solids will form from the egg yolk (this is fine). Next add the sugar and liquor and continue stirring. Lastly add the cream that was set aside. Continue stirring on low heat and remove before it boils.
Pour into individual dessert cups. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes and then refrigerate. Enjoy when cold.
*If you want to add a tablespoons of raisins, do so while combining the cream and syrup.
1 kilogram of fresh corn kernels (35 ounces)
500 grams of cheese (17 ounces)
1 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of raw sugar
2 tablespoons of butter (melted)
4 tablespoons of warm milk
1 tablespoon of thick cream (consistency of sour cream)
In a hand grinder (or blender), grind corn kernels to a thick paste. As you grind, a milk will drip from the grinder. Reserve the milk as it will be added back to the corn paste later. Once all corn has been ground, change the setting on the grinder to a finer setting. Process the corn through once more. The end result should be a liquidy paste.
Next, add the milk and all its remnants to the corn paste. It should be somewhere around 1 – 2 cups.
In a pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add to the corn paste in addition to salt, sugar, cream and milk.
Once all ingredients are added, check the consistency. It should be somewhere between the consistency of pancake and crepe batter. If the mixture is too thick, add water. Whether or not you will need to add water will depend on the freshness of the corn. Fresher corn will produce more milk.
“What are these car parts?” I had been sitting at the DIAN office for hours as Alicia tirelessly entered information about my illegally smuggled goods into her computer. One should expect nothing less from a Colombian version of the IRS. Sheena still sat outside on a concrete island in between two lanes of traffic, studiously reading her e-book.
“In the one bag I have a transmission. The other suitcase has wheel bearings, nothing more.” I was lying, but only because I didn’t think it mattered. It probably made no difference to Alicia, on whom the difference between a hub, a stub axle, a catalytic converter and a wheel bearing would be lost anyway.
“And what is the value?” I just wanted to get out of there, so I made something up. “The transmission is about $700, and the wheel bearings are $85.” It was my second mistake, because at the time I didn’t know that I would have to back it up with official proof. I was digging myself a deep hole. After a few hours of paperwork and computer entries, all I had to do was go to the Cargo Port and pay my import taxes.
“Just tell them that the parts are elementos de arte oficio,” a random stranger told me as I left the building. “Otherwise you’ll have to pay high taxes. ” I told him I didn’t understand. “You’re only allowed to enter the country with personal items. If you’re a tennis player and you enter with a tennis racket, this is an elemento de arte oficio. It’s something that you use to perform your hobby. It’s a personal item. Just tell them you’re a mechanic and these things are for you to perform your hobby. They’re like your tennis racket.”
At the cargo port, I was told to find an agent, give them my Customs papers, and pay the associated taxes. According to Alicia, I should be suckling the sweet milk of Freedom’s teat by day’s end. I promptly found a customs agent, handed him my papers, and told him I was there to settle my debt. “It should be quick,” I said, “these are elementos de arte oficio.” He mustered a contrite giggle. “Sorry, I don’t think so,” he said. So much for that idea. And not only was he sorry about my lame attempt to sidestep the laws of The Man, but furthermore I was not even allowed to handle payment of my own import taxes. I would have to employ the services of a Customs Agent, or find someone who lived in Colombia with a commercial license to act as a Customs Agent. Importing my contraband-ridden suitcases basically involved the same process as importing our van.
Day one came to an end and our transmission was still on lockdown in the damned DIAN office at the airport. I regretted not pepper spraying the Customs Agent and making a run for the door when I had the chance. That evening I put out the word on our Facebook page that we needed help, and a few hours later we were in luck. The coworker of a friend of one of our Facebook followers would meet us the following morning and accompany us to the Cargo Port to pay our simple fee. DIAN had gone too far this time – we had called upon a third degree of separation for help.
Omar met us in front of our house at 9AM where we hailed a really expensive cab. Upon arriving at the Cargo Port, we were told that we must use a special software program to fill out more paperwork before we could pay the import tax. They had a computer with the software that we could use, but no user manual. The efforts of Omar, a professional importer, and me, a professional software designer, were useless against the confusing and non-user-friendly DIAN software. Recognizing our conundrum, we opted to visit a Customs Agent in Bogotá to see if they could help. Another expensive taxi ride ensued, and we soon found ourselves sitting in the office of a Customs Agent. The prognosis? In three days we could have our illegal contraband, and it would only cost us $180 on top of the import fees. We declined the nice agent’s offer and took another expensive taxi ride back to the Cargo Port, where we withered away the rest of the day. On our way out of the building on our way to hail another expensive taxi, we found a mysterious fortune-teller type named “Miss Ofelia” who could meet us in an internet café the next day and fill out our paperwork for a fee of $90.
The next morning Omar took another day off of work and met us at the internet café. I was armed with fake receipts for my transmission and “wheel bearings”, reflecting the exact values I had reported to Customs. Miss Ofelia clicked away on the computer for a couple of hours, eventually producing separate sets of paperwork for each illegal item I was importing. All I had to do was bring them to the Customs Agent to pay my taxes. Of course, it couldn’t be so easy. When I presented the papers to the Customs Agent I was told I could only pay my taxes at the bank, and that I should bring my receipt back to him get another official receipt with a stamp on it. Only then could I bring that receipt to DIAN where more paperwork could be done.
I went to the bank and paid my import taxes – another $200 – but I couldn’t get a receipt because the computer system was down. After a few hours the system returned, I got my receipt, and we headed to the DIAN office at the airport. Now it was time for Alicia to actually inspect my bags to be sure everything was as I said it should be. Together we inspected the transmission. She looked at it cluelessly as I described what it did and ensured her that it was brand new and not used. Next it was time to inspect my pack of lies – suitcase #2. When I opened it, Alicia looked so disgusted I thought she would lurch all over my stuff. She looked at the pile of rusty parts and the timing light that looked like a gun. “Those parts are all used. It’s illegal to import used car parts. And what is that gun?” I tried to explain how the hubs and stub axles were somehow actually wheel bearings. I placed a stub axle into one of the hubs and spun it, “See? It spins, so it’s a wheel bearing.” I next tried to explain that the catalytic converter didn’t really count, and that I’d forgotten about the timing gun. After a few minutes of my backpedaling she finally took pity on me.
“I didn’t see anything,” she said. “Just wrap up those parts so I can’t see them. I never saw anything.” Next, she grabbed the catalytic converter and handed it to me. “Put this in your bag. It was never in the suitcase at all. I never saw it. Also, take this gun, throw away the packaging, and put it in your bag. ” Somehow rules were being bent in our favor. We had out-patienced the Colombian IRS! I walked out of the quarantine room with a backpack full of undocumented contraband, watched Alicia type some more information into the computer, and then I was handed a piece of official-looking paper.
“You’re free to go,” she said. All at once the taste of freedom came rushing back and I remembered what liberation felt like. I grabbed my suitcases and wheeled them out the back door into the overcast, chilly air of Bogotá, handing my official papers to the police guard at the door. All said, including airline baggage fees, import taxes, paperwork fees, and three days of taxi rides, it had cost us $721 to get our transmission and other assorted parts from the USA to Colombia.
After a day-long car trip from Bogotá to Susacón with Hernando and Constanza, it was time to get back to work. We reacquainted ourselves with our little cabin and took a day to relax. We stocked up on firewood and filet mignon for the grill – we weren’t here to rough it, after all – and prepared ourselves for the work ahead.
As a warm up for installing the transmission, I decided to start off by replacing our rear hub housings, stub axles, and wheel bearings. We’d had two wheel bearing failures in close succession in Mexico and Guatemala, and I wanted to be sure that those were behind us. I figured the most likely cause for the second failure was a bad installation by the Mexican mechanic, but I wanted to be sure. I installed the salvaged hub housings and stub axles from my smuggled inventory, and replaced the wheel bearings for good measure.
Next, I tackled a few other minor jobs around the van. In many cases I was taking preventative steps to solidify what I thought were weak spots to avoid future problems, and in some cases I fixed problems that actually needed fixing.
Our CV joints have had a history of problems, starting long before we left on our trip. In Costa Rica one of our axles separated from the stub axle when all of the CV bolts simultaneously came loose, and recently the CVs had started to intermittently click – a sign that they were wearing out. To avoid more problems, I rotated the axles from side to side to give the CV bearings a new surface to wear on, replaced a couple of worn CV boots, and safety wired all of the bolts together so that it would be impossible for them to come loose again.
The wire for our oil pressure warning light has been frayed for some time, after having been badly burned in a confrontation with an exhaust pipe. I cut a new strand of wire and replaced it, noting in the process that the wire had been much worse than I’d originally thought.
In the interest of simplification, I decided to remove our air conditioner along with its 12x25x1 air filters. I’d never actually hooked it up, and it simply served to be in the way of me accessing the left side of the engine. It was the air conditioner’s fault that I hadn’t seen the frayed oil pressure light, after all. Once I got it all out on the ground I felt a lot better, and in the process Nacho lost about 50 pounds.
Our front brakes had started causing us problems in Costa Rica when the pistons froze while leaving the trout farm. I took this opportunity to give our front brakes a makeover; I rebuilt the calipers, replaced the piston seals and dust boots, replaced all of the brake hardware and springs, and installed a fresh set of braided stainless steel brake hoses. The fact that our rotors had been warped in the Costa Rica incident would be hardly noticeable through the awesome performance of our nearly new brakes.
Since I was doing the front brakes, I figured I might as well do the rear while I was at it. I found that one of my rear wheel bearing seals had allowed grease to escape and coat one of the rear brake shoes, so I thoroughly cleaned both shoes, sanded them, and cleaned up the brake drums. To my dismay, but not disbelief, I found that the deranged mechanic of Susacón had sabotaged my driver’s side rear brake while he was in the process of sabotaging my transmission. When I removed the rear brake drum on that side, I had found that he hadn’t bothered to tighten the bolts that hold the brake system to the hub housing. And while he was at it, he stole both of my brake shoe return springs. Hernando volunteered to go over to his shop to get them back, but the maniac denied everything. Instead, I was forced to manufacture new return springs using things we found on or near the farm. I knew that watching MacGyver would pay off some day.
Since I was in a fix-it mood, I decided to install an override for our automatic battery separator. Since leaving home, I had a near-constant feeling of discontent with the battery separator that would automatically connect or disconnect our starting and house batteries depending on their respective voltages. I decided that it would better if I could override its hard-coded decisions, so I installed a manual battery separation switch next to our radio.
Finally I had procrastinated enough and it was time to install our new transmission. Since trying to borrow a jack from the local mechanic had backfired, I decided to try it without a proper jack. I rigged up a series of ratchet straps instead, which would allow me to hoist the transmission into place. I replaced the pilot bearing, clutch, and pressure plate, and then hoisted the transmission. The ratchet straps turned out to be less than ideal for the job, so I had to position myself under the tranny and basically hump it into place using my pelvis. It was the most grotesque thing I ever did to a tranny.
In the last few weeks before the transmission failure, the starter had occasionally ignored my pleas to start. I took the initiative to replace it as well before it left us stranded. With everything in place I turned the key and pumped life into Nacho for the first time in six weeks. Everything went great until I depressed the clutch and tried to shift. From Nacho’s belly the sound of crunching metal emanated. Something was totally whack with the transmission. After much debate and many phone calls I decided to remove the transmission again to see if all was well within the bell housing. This time I located a proper jack to help me along.
After removing the transmission I found that everything was as it should be in the bell housing, although I noticed that the bracket that stabilizes the clutch slave cylinder was, and always had been missing. At this realization I sprung into action and employed my blacksmithing skills to create a new bracket out of a piece of steel I found in the barn. I also noticed that the reason for the metal grinding was an incorrectly installed clutch throwout arm. I fixed the arm and got everything ready to reinstall.
With the jack, the installation went much more smoothly the second time. I jacked that puppy into place, reattached the CV joints and safety wired them in place, and then bolted all of the other associated doo-dads in place. I re-bled the clutch one more time for good measure and fired Nacho up. This time when I changed gears I heard nothing but Nacho’s deep purr.
Later on I did a full tune up; new fuel filter, spark plugs and wires, new air filter, distributor rotor, and a new idle stabilizer. I finished it all off by adjusting the timing to add a few extra hamster wheels to Nacho’s total power, and then took it for a test drive. Cruising the streets of Susacón filled me with a sense of liberation akin to that of Timothy Robbins after he’d crept through the sewers and stumbled into the forest in Shawshank Redemption. On my way back to the farm I passed the deranged mechanic of Susacón walking on the sidewalk. Our eyes connected for a split second and it felt like I was staring into the devil’s soul. When I got home, Sheena and I celebrated with a barbeque and some Club Colombia beer.
The following morning we Ioaded Nacho and said goodbye to Luis and Constanza. In a display of true Colombian hospitality, they told us we could stay in their home in Bogotá for as long as we wanted as a liberation gift. We locked up the cabin, pointed Nacho’s big, dumb, blunt nose out of the farm gate, and slowly pulled out onto the winding mountain road toward Bogotá. Susacón, it’s been lovely. Maybe one day we’ll ,meet again.
Although we were having all kinds of fun with family reunions, seeing our friends, eating stuff, and drinking alcoholic beverages, it had come down to game time. We were home for a reason, and we couldn’t avoid it any longer. We needed to pick up a transmission, put it in a suitcase, check it onto a plane, and somehow get it through Customs in Colombia without being caught. Since being home, we had also managed to acquire an eighth grade girl’s weight in other car parts, fishing equipment, clothing, and more car parts. We knew it would require a great deal of savvy and luck to pull it off, so we trained for it in the only way we knew how; we played horseshoes to hone our precision, and we rode our bikes to build our endurance. We saw a sign that said “purchase AK47 rifles” and right next to that was another that told us that guns were the source of freedom, which we were going to need, so we got some guns and shot some little clay disks. We were willing to try anything.
Our first step was to swing by AZ Transaxle and pick up the transmission. I was pleased to see how shiny and clean it looked; this would play a key role in my ability to lie my way through Customs in the event that I was caught trying to smuggle a used transmission into Colombia. As you may recall, smuggling such things into Colombia is illegal.
Next, we had to pack it up. We needed to make it as small as possible so as to fly under the radar of the Colombian Customs agents, and we needed it to be light. The maximum weight allowed for a checked bag, regardless of how many crisp Benjamins you flash in front of the ticket agent’s face, is 100 pounds. I decided to remove the bell housing to make it sleek like supermodel, and then build a slim wooden box in its place to protect the input shaft. With any luck the box would survive a fall from the airplane’s cargo door. Just to be sure, I wrapped the thing in a whole bunch of bubble wrap. We didn’t want to sneak through Customs only to discover that we had a trashed transmission again, so we used wood and plastic. Nature and science.
My original idea had been to try and carry the transmission in my carry-on bag. Everyone said I was crazy, but it made good sense to me. First of all, it would save us $350 in overweight baggage fees. I mean seriously, who has ever had to weigh their carry-on? All I would have to do is put the transmission in a backpack, and then pretend that the backpack weighed less than 20 pounds so that no official types would think anything was fishy. Then, I would have to ensure that I could lift the transmission over my head and place it in the overhead compartment, while not leading on that it weighed more than 20 pounds. And lastly, I would have to hope that the overhead compartment didn’t come crashing down, killing someone’s child. That would make all of my sneaky heavy lifting effort null and void. In the end I decided against it, but only for the children.
Finally the day had come. Sheena went on her merry way to United Airlines carrying two checked bags. In those bags were many illicit objects, including a transmission bell housing, a new starter, some new LED interior puck lights, new spark plug wires, a clutch master and slave cylinder, a new flyfishing rod, a spare alternator regulator, some new brake lines, and a few other odds and ends. Her bags were, in short, Customs lightning rods.
In my bags, things were looking no better. I went off to the Aeromexico counter carrying a transmission, two salvaged rear hub housings made of rusty cast iron, a slightly modified and very rusty catalytic converter, two stub axles, a fancy air filter, a timing light that looked just like a gun, and some corrosive/explosive fluids. All very used, and all very illegal. Well, the fluids weren’t used, but they were surely illegal. My bag containing the transmission ended up weighing 94.5 pounds. Just under the legal limit. When the nice Aeromexico ticket agent weighed my bag, she looked rather shocked. She told me, pity in her eyes, that I owed her $350. I nicely asked her in her native tongue if she would give me another 20 pounds for free, and she instantly obliged, knocking $100 off of my fee. Things were going great so far! Good thing we shot those guns!
The trip to Colombia went off uneventfully. My stopover in Hermosillo was too short to dart out to the taco stand like last time, but I did manage to gorge myself on tacos on my second stopover in Mexico City. Poor Sheena ate at an American chain restaurant in Houston, and nothing more.
When I stepped off the plane in Bogota, Sheena was waiting for me at baggage claim. She already had her bags full of illegal contraband, and waited patiently while I recovered mine. I found a note on my bag saying that US Customs had seized something from my bag. I unzipped it in a panic, and quickly found that they had only stolen my brake fluid and the cleaning agent for my new washable K&N air filter. I zipped it back up, swallowed hard, and Sheena and I coolly walked toward the exit.
“Don’t worry, Sheena,” I said, “I shot a gun before we left. We will have freedom.”
Everything was going great and soon enough we could see the exit doors; the rays of light streamed through the plate glass like bullets from a freedom gun. As we approached the Customs agents, a mere 50 feet from the exit doors, I whispered for Sheena to look straight ahead and be cool. I casually checked my watch, sighed, and pretended to see someone I knew outside. This gave me a reason not to make eye contact with the agents. And then, all at once, we were accosted. An agent stepped in front of us and pointed to the x-ray machine. His gaze said it all; “I know you’re smugglers, you sons of bitches!”
We pretended it was no big deal, and walked to the x-ray machine with our 244.5 pounds of illegal imports. Sheena put her bags on the conveyor first, and I helped her stand them on their sides in just such a way, so that the bell housing would be less obvious, and the starter would look less like a bomb. I hefted my transmission onto the belt next, followed by my hubs, axles, catalytic converter, and gun-like timing light. I stared at the agent behind the computer, trying to avert her gaze from the screen using extra sensory perception.
Look away … look away … look away … look-
“We have something here! We have something here!” She looked around, hand in the air, calling for backup. Sheena and I looked at each other; we had seen Broke Down Castle, and knew that these situations usually ended up with the smugglers spending the rest of their lives in an all-women’s Thai jail. The agent spun the screen around so I could see it. Sheena’s bags were still in view, but she was pointing at mine.
“What is this!?” She seemed angry, pointing directly at the transmission. I tried to think of something quickly that would make her believe that indeed this was not a car part. Anything but a car part. If she knew it was a car part, it would be all over. Our illusion of freedom would disintegrate like the crumbling walls of an all-women’s Thai jail.
“Uh…it’s a car part.” Doh! “It’s … um … it’s a transmission for a car.” Doh! Doh!
She moved the conveyor, burping Sheena’s illegal contraband out the end. “These are car parts TOO!”, she said, pointing at my next bag containing a whole gaggle of car parts. As the woman continued to call for backup, I gave Sheena the nod. She quickly snatched her bags and speed walked out the door and into the street. It had only been a few seconds, but I could no longer remember what freedom tasted like. Whoever made that gun sign was a liar and a moron.
A woman named Alicia, someone I would come to know all too well over the course of my Customs incarceration, led me across the linoleum floor to the DIAN office. “Everyone fears the DIAN,” Constanza would later tell us. “They are the IRS of Colombia. Everybody must pay the DIAN.”
I sat in an uncomfortable chair against the wall while I watched a young man being humiliated by a DIAN agent as he pulled illegal electric motors from his suitcase. “They are for my father’s business,” he said. “Your father can’t save you! You’re in DIAN now, son!” They didn’t say that, but we all knew it was true. I waited my turn, what seemed like hours. I would have to get used to waiting, as I was now a common criminal in the Colombian DIAN justice system. Just another scumbag smuggler, trying to outsmart The Man.
In my fourth year of engineering school I decided to do an independent study project. This meant I would choose a problem, and then engineer a solution to it while reporting my progress to my academic advisor. Initially I felt inclined to improve the aerodynamics of a rotating bicycle wheel; a problem that keeps us all awake at night, I’m sure. At the last minute, my advisor mentioned that an off-grid ranch near Flagstaff wanted to switch their power supply from a diesel generator to a hybrid of solar and wind power. They just needed a sucker to design the system for them. Wait a minute, I was a sucker, I thought. This would be perfect for me! I chose the ranch project and walked out of my advisor’s office with a stack of books.
I will wave my arm and say that many things happened, and at the end of the semester I had overengineered the process in a big way. In an effort to optimize everything, I had written a full library of computer code to do everything from product performance simulation, to weather prediction and statistical analysis. My advisor told me I should commercialize what I had done.
I will wave my arm again and say that many things happened and my social life suffered. A few years and several programming languages later, I had started a business and commercialized my software. A short while later my company was acquired, I quit my day job, and overnight I went from being a designer of medical products to being a renewable energy software engineer. A drastically simplified and beautified version of my software can be used here.
So what’s the point, and why am I not talking about our trip? Because I want to demonstrate that sometimes things happen in our lives that seem trivial, but they can alter our path in unexpected ways. This is what happened the day Nacho’s transmission went belly up three miles from the small Colombian mountain village of Susacón.
By our original plan we should have been sitting around a campfire with our friends in Villa de Leiva, laughing at things so funny that expensive cognac would be shooting from our noses while watching a beautiful sunset and looking so chic in our turtleneck sweaters. Instead we rescued Nacho from the grasp of a demented maniac, retreated to the safety of a gated farm, and spent the first night teetering on the ragged edge of a nervous breakdown. In Guatemala we were stranded for a week and it was devastating. A couple of fellow Volkswagen travelers suffered a transmission failure in Honduras and it took nearly 70 days to get back on the road. By all estimations we were in for a hellish time.
For starters, there are a few things to know about Colombia, Vanagons, and why breaking down in the latter while visiting the former is a bad thing. The first thing to know is that there are more unicorns in Colombia than Vanagons. In a place where Vanagon sightings make tabloid news, finding parts for our transmission would be virtually impossible. Next, the Colombian government recently passed a law prohibiting the importation of used car parts. New parts can be imported, but they are taxed as high as 50% of their retail value. yes, even if you’re leaving the country with said parts in a matter of days. The last thing to know is that new Vanagon transmissions don’t exist. They haven’t been produced in many, many moons, and so the only way forward is to buy rebuilt ones. When I say “rebuilt”, you should hear “used”.
After a couple of evenings we had identified three options for getting ourselves out of this mess.
Option #1: Bring our failed transmission to an inept local mechanic to be rebuilt, locally, and ineptly
When we got back to the farm and got settled in, I took a closer look at our transmission to see what had happened. The reason we stopped moving forward was immediately apparent. The input shaft, which connects the engine to the transmission, connects to the transmission’s gears by a grooved metal sleeve, held in place by a circlip and a threaded rod. Somehow, the circlip had come off, the threaded rod backed out, and the sleeve slipped out of the way. With nothing holding the input shaft in line, it had gone all willy nilly. This willy nillyness caused the input shaft to melt the main transmission oil seal and destroy the oil slinger. At this point, Nacho’s mojo leaked out and he voided his bowels, as you may recall.
After removing the bell housing from the transmission, I noticed that the ring and pinion gears were missing a couple of teeth, and the ones that remained intact were so pitted and cracked that it made a meth addict seem like a Colgate poster girl. To go the local rebuild route, they would have to import a new ring and pinion, input shaft, oil slinger, seal, and whatever else might have been wrong inside of the gear cluster. By my estimation, this would take a month and would cost at least as much as a new transmission stateside. Given the ineptness of the local mechanics, they would probably make all new parts out of beer cans and solder, and our transmission would fail again within a few hundred miles.
Option #2: Buy a rebuilt transmission in the USA, ship it to Colombia on a cargo plane
You will recall that ordering a rebuilt transmission and having it sent to Colombia is illegal. No problem, those are the rules, and rules are made to be bent. We would just buy the transmission from a rebuilder who could be coerced into lying on our receipt to say it was new. What are the chances a customs agent would be able to tell the difference? We found that Aeromexico had cargo planes going from LAX to Bogota, and could carry our transmission for the low cost of $330 plus import taxes. We would just have to figure out how to get it to LAX, and bingo bango.
Almost bingo bango. Turns out you can’t just go into the cargo port and pay your import taxes. That would be too easy. Instead you have to hire a professional customs broker to do the process for you. After calling around, I found that customs brokers only deal with freight forwarding companies, and not individuals such as myself. I considered incorporating my own Colombian customs brokerage for the occasion, but it seemed like a wildly inefficient idea.
Option #3: Buy a rebuilt transmission from the USA and put it on a drug lord’s motor boat
I’m being a little hyperbolic here, but the third option is a little on the shady side. We were told about a freight forwarder in Miami that could export used car parts to Colombia. I don’t know how, and I didn’t ask. All I would have to do is buy a rebuilt transmission and have it trucked to this company in Miami. They would then put it on a ship, which would take it to Colombia’s North coast. At this point it would go through customs, and would be placed on another truck that would take it to Bogota, where I would pick it up and bring it to Susacón on a bus. By my estimation this would take about a month, and would cost somewhere around $1,000 in shipping all said and done.
For a week Sheena and I weighed our options, I made phone calls to Bogota and the USA, spoke to customs brokers, posed questions on internet forums, begrudgingly spoke to Latin-American car mechanics, and generally tried to figure out what the heck to do. The more I found out, the less I liked our options. I just wanted it to be easy, but that was option #4, and so far we hadn’t identified that option. As the days passed, we became more and more comfortable at the farm.
Our accommodations were in a private cabin on the outskirts of the village, at the edge of a eucalyptus grove. Out our front door, beyond the eucalyptus trees were several varieties of fruit trees, heavy with fresh fruit free for the picking. Sheena spent much of her free time picking figs and figuring out different ways of making dessert out of them. Our patio overlooked a meadow of tall green grass with weeping willow trees, grazing dairy cows, and little frolicking baby cows. On our second day a baby cow was born a stone’s throw from out patio. For our little cabin we paid $25 per night.
Each day, our hosts Hernando and Constanza would show up at our door bearing housewarming gifts. Some days they would have a pitcher of fresh squeezed juice from one of their fruit trees, or a platter of fresh fruit. One day Hernando dropped off a bag of fresh coffee that he had just roasted using beans from a neighboring farm. Constanza dropped off a bowl of freshly ground beef from one of their cows so that we could make barbequed hamburgers on the wood fired grill. They brought over a bowl of dessert figs that Constanza made, lighting a fig fire inside of Sheena that would prove impossible to extinguish.
Once we discovered the bounty available from the surrounding farms, we began to subsist entirely on things that came from within the village. We bought peaches from the farm up the hill, raw coffee beans from the farm down the canyon, which I would roast in a pan, fresh honey from another farmer, and fruits and vegetables from the Monday market. After discovering that Hernando and Constanza had fresh beef from their cows, we kept ourselves in good supply of filet mignon for the grill. For around $30 per week we stayed stocked up on fresh local food and ate like kings. Well, a king and a queen.
Our evenings were spent barbequing, watching fireflies in our meadow, and curling up to watch movies. We woke each morning to sunlight filling our cabin through the curtains, followed by a tired stumble through the meadow to fill up our morning milk pitcher directly from the cow’s udder. Somehow, the importance of choosing an option for how to fix our transmission seemed a distant second to living the good life.
Each morning Sheena and I donned our running shoes and stole away into the hills surrounding Susacón. We ran out the back of the farm, up the cobbled track that leads past the pigs, under the giant willows, and past the monument to the revolutionaries who marched this way on their way to the Battle of Boyacá. We ran up a steep hill until we met the dirt road that wound its way through the forested hillsides toward Chicamocha canyon. We ran under cover of eucalyptus and willow trees, passed by raspberry bushes, agave, and prickly pear cactus. Each day we saw the same old woman with her bowler cap and woolen shawl, who asked us how we were dong, told us how wonderful the day was, and asked how we were liking Susacón. After cresting the hill, we descended into a meadow where the track wound past two large weeping willows before disappearing around a bend; a Monet painting in real life.
One morning, Hernando offered to bring us hiking in the mountains above Chicamocha canyon. To get there we drove the road where we took our morning runs, but this time continued until we reached the edge of the canyon. There, his aunt lived in a picturesque house with a commanding view of the Susacón valley. After coffee and a couple of shots of a local liqueur, we continued on our way along the rim of Chicamocha. When we reached a landslide blocking the road, we left the car and hiked to a peak overlooking the canyon.
After telling us about the area and pointing out the places where his family had historically operated farms in the surrounding hills, Hernando left us and headed back to town in his car. Sheena and I would laze about for a while, have a picnic on the edge of the canyon, and then hike back to town. As we sat, we talked about how much we’d fallen in love with Colombia. Being stranded in Susacón was really a blessing and we didn’t much care to leave.
On the hike down, Sheena and I begrudgingly brought up the topic of what to do about our transmission. Cycling through our options made my head hurt. Nothing was going to be easy, and nothing would be cheap. I thought about driving around the world with a transmission rebuilt by a deranged maniac and it made my stomach turn.
“Why don’t we just go home and pick up a transmission ourselves?” Sheena asked. The idea had come up before, but it was likely the most expensive option and it didn’t make any logistical sense. We reiterated this and put the idea away. We hiked on in silence. I turned the idea over in my mind as we walked through the eucalyptus and weeping willows, the raspberries and the stone fences. I thought about how much this place seemed like Northern California or Oregon.
It was true, going home would be expensive and there would be easier ways of getting a new transmission. But why not go home? It would cost more money, sure, but it would be refreshing. We could catch up with friends and family, reacquaint ourselves with American pizza, Mexican food, mountain biking and microbrewed beer. Colombia would be an easy country to come back to. In the end, which path would make us the happiest?
“So, what do you think about going home?” I said, to which Sheena’s eyes almost popped out of her head. “Let’s do it!” And just like that, we had created our own Option #4 and had selected it. Three days later we would be hopping on a plane from Bogota bound for Phoenix, retracing seven months of driving in a single day. It’s funny how one thing can lead to another.
As soon as I knew what it was to want, I desired nothing more than to be the commander of an intergalactic space shuttle. Later on I decided that I would make a better commercial fishing boat captain. For a short time in 5th grade, my best friend Nick and I decided that we wanted to be nefarious gang members. We even went so far as to form our own gang called The Bloody Devils; we designed a logo that we intended to get tatted on our arms (a dagger with dripping blood), and declared the Southwestern corner of the Heritage Middle School playground as “our turf”. My mom, ever the supporter, bought me a red bandana so there would be no confusion as to the level of my bad-assedness.
During recess we would defend our turf by staging shirtless wrestling matches against our rival gang members, who weren’t even prepared enough to have a gang name, a logo, or a turf on which to stage their own turf wars. However, after a few weeks of prepubescent territorial squabbling, our aspirations shifted to the NBA and our turf fell into the hands of Eric Seeley and his nameless, logoless cronies. These last few weeks I’ve been wishing to be Barbara Walters, or some other tough-talking interviewer. I wake up in the middle of the night waiting with anticipation for the Colombian mechanic to answer my question; why did you do it? I tried to get away from these mechanics, but they wouldn’t let me go. Why didn’t you just leave me alone? Answer the question! WHY DID YOU DO IT?!
We had left El Cocuy feeling that we had just experienced the greatest highlight of our trip thus far. What we hadn’t realized, however, was that we were driving in a ticking time bomb.
We followed James and Lauren out of town, intending to reach Villa de Leyva by evening . When we reached the town of Guacamayas I thought I smelled a coolant leak, so when James stopped his truck to take a picture, I ran out and smelled his engine. As I leaned over to stick my head in their wheel well, my eyes were drawn to the stream of oil gushing out of Nacho’s belly. I flashed back to my days as a gang member, and remembered that liquid gushing out of the belly could only mean one thing. Nacho’s nizzle had been shizzled.
Oh no – shizzled! My brain went into analytical mode to try to figure out what was happening, but my body took over and bolted like a newly dead chicken – a flurry of uncoordinated arms and legs. While I flailed around my brain tried to make sense of my train of thought: Nacho bleeding! Dark oil between engine and transmission. No oil trail – must have started when I stopped. When I stopped I turned engine off. Must restart engine!
Sure enough, restarting the engine caused the oil to slow down, and revving it to 3,000 RPM caused it to stop leaking. I wasn’t about to be stuck in the middle of the remote Colombian mountains – 9 hours from a big city – with a major mechanical issue. I would just have to keep the engine speed above 3,000 RPM until we could get to our next stop, where I could set up shop for a while to fix whatever was wrong.
Forty five minutes passed and everything seemed to be going okay. On occasion I would stop and run out to see if the leak had worsened, but it seemed to be holding. As we began descending into Chicamocha canyon, the transmission made a funny sound. Actually, there was nothing funny about it. The transmission made a sound scary enough to make a grown man wet his pants, but only just a little bit. I admitted defeat and pulled under a shade tree next to a grove of prickly pear cactus. A small stream of transmission fluid coated the dry grass while I sat staring out of the windshield. Sheena knew better than to ask what I was going to do. No, by now she knows that these moments of silence are my time to come to terms with the fact that I have no idea what to do.
By now it was clear that the transmission, and not the engine, was bleeding out. A small feat of German engineering called the “oil slinger” was keeping the oil from pouring out of what was probably a failed transmission oil seal – but it only worked above 3,000 RPM. What had caused the seal to fail was anyone’s guess. I decided to use our reserve of gear oil to refill the transmission and try to get to Villa de Leyva. We had long since, and perhaps foolishly, waved James and Lauren on, promising to meet up with them at the campground.
After the transmission refill – a procedure that takes close to an hour on the Vanagon – we finished the descent into the canyon, crossed the river, and then started the switchback ascent up the other side. By the time we reached the village at the top of the climb I was feeling more confident that we could make it. We were done with the toughest part and had reached a more frequently trafficked road.
It was in between the towns of Soatá and Susacón, while I sat there with a smug look on my face thinking I was so damn smart, that Nacho lost all power, came to a stop, voided his bowels right there in the middle of the dirt road, and started rolling backwards. My smug look evaporated and I stared out of the windshield. Sheena knew better than to ask what I was going to do. I cycled through all of the gears, but forward motion was not to be. Nacho had failed an epic fail.
After cursing our luck, we put our friendly hitchhiker faces on and tricked a nice Colombian man into helping us out. We roped up to his truck and settled in for the short three mile haul to Susacón. The alternative was our winchless self-recovery system, which somehow felt far under qualified for the job. Instead we just sat there, Sheena restraining from asking me the obvious question.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Latin-American car mechanics since starting this trip, it’s that 99% of them don’t have the faintest clue how to work on cars. They take things apart really fast until they feel like they’ve sufficiently destroyed whatever it is they were working on, and then they start putting things back together incorrectly, while leaving some things out and then tightening the bolts as much as their fingers or pliers will allow. I recently made a decree not to let anyone who isn’t me touch our innocent little Nacho ever again. A transmission failure, while a much bigger job than anything else that’s gone wrong, would be no different. I figured I would get the transmission out so I could see what was wrong, and to do so I would just need to borrow a jack. I asked the man to pull us near to the town’s mechanic shop so I could ask about renting a jack. He happily obliged, and we soon found ourselves parked on the street in front of a grungy dirt-floored hole full of rusty junk. We left Nacho parked on the street and set off to find a place to stay for the night.
In the morning I walked to the mechanic’s shop to ask if I could rent his jack to remove our transmission. One might try to defend the mechanic for his idiocy by suggesting that something was lost in translation, but no. The discussion went exactly as follows, except in Spanish. I know, because I’ve dreamt it over and over in my Barbara Walters dream:
“Hi, our transmission has failed and I’ll be needing to do some work on it. I prefer to work on my own car, but I don’t have a jack. Would it be possible for me to borrow your jack later so that I can work on my transmission? I’d be willing to pay you.”
“Yes, no problem. I have a jack that you can use. Just come and find me when you need it; I’ll be in my house.”
With that out of the way, I went off to the internet café to seek advice on The Samba and from my brother, who is a master technician for BMW. After almost two hours, due to a slow internet connection, I was back on my feet headed toward Nacho. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight I saw.
There, right in the middle of the street, the mechanic and the hotel owner from across the road were sprawled out under Nacho. All around them were mounds of nuts, bolts, washers, spacers, and unidentifiable doo dads. For some inexplicable reason the mechanic had taken apart my driver’s side rear hub, and my drum brake was hanging from my now bent hydraulic brake line. To remove the hub housing from the swingarm, he removed all of the bolts using vice grips. These bolts are tightened to over 100ft-lbs; needless to say he destroyed the bolts.
He wanted to remove my shift linkage from the transmission, but rather than removing the single nut that connects it, he first attempted to take apart the universal joint at the opposite end of the van. Unable to do so, he left the joint partially destroyed and instead disconnected the splined shift linkage interface – which you’re NOT supposed to touch!
Having successfully obliterated my shift linkage, he set to work on getting the actual transmission out. He started by undoing all of my CV bolts with a pair of vice grips, destroying the bolts in the process.
After incorrectly disconnecting the transmission from the frame, he let the whole engine/transmission assembly fall some unknown distance to his jack, which cause the air filter box to rip clean off of the engine compartment wall. He knew so little about what he was doing that, by the time I found him, he had already started trying to pull the drive flanges out of the side of the transmission while it was hanging there.
“SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSTOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOP!!!!! What the hell are you DOING!?
It was all I could think to say. For several seconds I reprimanded him, but since the transmission was lying on his chest he didn’t make much of an effort to move.
“I need to replace the clutch.”
“No, you need to get the hell out from under there!”
In a flurry of vice grips and oily hands the two of them, ignoring me, separated the transmission from the engine, unbolted the clutch pressure plate, and removed the clutch.
“Give me the new clutch,” he said, holding out his grease-covered grubby little hands. He actually expected that I would give him my brand new clutch so he could destroy it by covering it in grease and gear oil. Furthermore, I actually think he planned to install it and put it all back together so I could drive along on my merry way. Clearly this guy was a deranged maniac. I tried to think what I would have done if I were a gang member, but somehow taking off my shirt and wrestling him didn’t seem appropriate.
At long last, the deranged maniac got out from under Nacho, whereupon I continued to yell profanities and disbelieving questions at him. “What were you thinking? What didn’t you understand about my simple instructions? Did you know I used to be a nefarious gang member!?”
After the moron finished putting our hub back together, I grabbed our transmission and put it in the back of the van. I crawled under Nacho and placed all of the nuts and bolts in a plastic box and set them inside for later, and then I used several ratchet straps to hold the axles and the engine up, which he had left hanging without any support. Once Nacho was sufficiently buttoned up, I went back to our temporary home – Hospedaje La Violeta – and told our host, Luis, about what had happened.
As evening fell, Luis and I snuck over to Nacho by cover of dusk and hitched a tow strap to the front bumper. Without being detected by the deranged mechanic we slipped away to the relative safety of his gated farm. When we reached the farm, several of his farm hands joined in pushing Nacho through the wooden gate leading to our small cabin on the edge of a eucalyptus grove. With Nacho out of harm’s way, Sheena and I slipped into our cabin where, for night after night, I would dream that I was Barbara Walters chasing the elusive truth within the deranged mind of the mechanic of Susacón.
At 4:30 I dizzily stumbled out of bed. My skis waited in the car, and as I passed the table by the front door I grabbed the breakfast I’d set out the night before. By 4:45 I was coaxing my eyes open as I barreled through the snow, NPR on the radio, banana in hand, waking up to news of skiers who had been lost to avalanches in California. Unseasonably high snowfall this year. At 6:00 I climbed steadily upward in the dark, the cold mountain air burning my lungs with each breath, the ski slopes illuminated only by the snow’s reflection of the stars in the night sky. Through my headphones I was immersed in a podcast about traveling the world. This was part of the ritual.
After an hour of hiking in the dark, imagining travel to faraway places, I reached the top of the mountain. 7:00 – just in time for the rising sun to cast a shadow of the San Francisco peaks all the way across the high desert to the Grand Canyon, barely visible below the horizon. As I put away my climbing skins, pulled on my jacket, and kicked my telemark boots back into my ski bindings, I couldn’t shake the silly grin from my face. With a nudge of my ski pole I sent myself sailing down the mountain I’d just climbed, crouching into each turn and springing up again, laying down the day’s first tracks. At the “headwall”, half way down the mountain, I picked up enough speed to scare myself. Yep, still alive! I still couldn’t get that silly grin off of my face.
By 8:00 I was back in the car heading down the mountain, just in time for an 8:30 meeting at work. There’s just something about being in the mountains.
On our first morning in Colombia’s El Cocuy National Park I awoke to an unfamiliar crispness in the air. Having spent the last five months in Central America, we were getting used to stifling heat and humidity. We crawled out of our down sleeping bags and put the coffee on. It was going to be a long day.
James and Lauren emerged from the 4Runner bundled up like New York City hobos. Overnight their front tire had gone flat, causing the truck to tilt steeply to one side, so James had spent the night crushing Lauren against the low side of the truck. Another night in the life of a homeless person, I guess.
We donned our packs, bid ado to our new friend Jeni – a small red-cheeked girl who lived in the rock hut next to our camp – and set off toward the towering, snow-capped peaks to the Southeast. The doubletrack dirt road ended shortly beyond our camp, and gave way to a small singletrack leading up the valley toward Pan de Azucar and El Pulpito del Diablo, looming above.
The hike through the valley led us up grassy slopes and through fields of frailejones; the plants grow only 2cm per year, and are only found in this corner of South America. Before long the path turned upward where the thin air made each step a small victory. We had started the hike just below 13,000 feet and were climbing ever higher.
The trail rose higher and higher over mountains of shale, and before long we found ourselves scrambling over boulders up a steep rock fall towards the first pass: Paso de Cusirí. If all went well we would complete two 15,000′ passes before descending to the Laguna de la Plaza, a high glacial lake at 13,780′, where we would camp. We were told the hike would take about seven hours, and by the fourth hour dark clouds had moved in and cloaked the pass like a woolen shawl. The trail wound upwards in a series of steep switchbacks straight into the cloud.
In the early afternoon we reached the top of Paso de Cusirí, and in doing so found ourselves in the middle of a snowstorm. A mixture of snow and rain pelted us like horizontal pellets from an invisible army of rabbit-hunting boy scouts. We hid behind the summit sign, which announced that we’d arrived at the inhospitable elevation of 14,469′. We assessed the situation, running out from behind the sign to look beyond the pass to see what lay in store for us; the trail disappeared into a carpet of dark clouds and whipping wind and snow.
“Onward and downward?” I asked, hoping for dissenters.
“Uuuuh…It’s decision time, guys,” James said. Seeing the out, we decided to throw in the towel and head back down in the direction we’d come. We weren’t prepared for blizzard conditions, and some of the team were already experiencing numb fingers and toes. Nothing says “killjoy” like frostbite. Or pulmonary edema.
When we reached the rock fall on the way down, we discovered that the entire stretch had been turned into a freezing cold waterfall. I had a split-second daydream of me waking up dead, wrapped in my soggy sleeping bag at the bottom of a raging, icy cascade. I silently lauded our decision to turn back.
The best time of year to visit El Cocuy is December through February for its pleasant weather. Seeing as how we chose to visit in June, we knew we were playing with fire. With unpredictable weather in this part of the range, we opted to drive to another area about two hours to the North. Given the condition of the roads in these parts, this basically equated to us moving about 10 miles. I’m no meteorologist, but this sounded like a surefire way to ensure a drastic change in weather. The following day we picked up camp and moved to Hacienda La Esperanza where Marco, normally seen scurrying about his farm wearing a traditional wool poncho, cooked us dinner in his kitchen and showed off his antiques and old photos of the area.
In the morning we awoke to find a Kiwi named Joe lurking about our camp with his touring motorcycle. He was on his way to Alaska from Argentina, and decided to tag along with us for a while on our hike. We threw our things together and departed camp through fields reminiscent of Switzerland, interspersed with rocky spires jutting up through the grass while long-haired dairy cows moseyed about.
The hike took us through a low glacial valley filled with plants and streams before climbing upwards over a series of rocky plateaus. On our right, an enormous rock wall separated us from the sprawling mountains and the tiny towns we’d driven through to get here; Onzaga, Covarachia, Soata, El Cocuy, and the truck driver’s secret road. To our left, glacier-capped peaks shimmered above the rocky terrain, taunting me with their 17,000 foot powder bowls. Would it be worth it to come back here one day with my skis? I imagine that nobody has ever skied El Cocuy.
After five hours of uphill slogging we reached our destination for the night: La Cueva del Hombre, or The Man Cave. I had asked Marco why it was called the Man Cave before we set off from La Esperanza.
“Long ago, some men used to climb to the lake. Ducks would stop for a rest from their migration, and the men would shoot them. The ducks don’t come any more. The men would sleep in the cave after they shot the ducks, so it is called La Cueva del Hombre.” I noted that Marco should make up a more titillating story about how the Man Cave got its name.
Once inside the Man Cave we set up our tents, and then Sheena and I decided to hike up to the lake to have a look around while James and Lauren took a nap. We intended to spend the entire next day exploring the glacial basin, but we couldn’t stand the suspense. We bundled up and bounced out from under the overhang feeling light without our packs.
The trip from the cave to the lake took a damn, dirty long time, but once we crested the ridge and the landscape spread out in front of us, we lost our breath. Uh oh, pulmonary edema again? Nope, just friggin’ awesome! The mountain to the left was capped by an enormous bowl of untouched snow from top to bottom, where the glacier spilled over the edge of a vast chasm; a crashing calamity of building-sized ice chunks paused in suspended animation. On the opposite side of the basin, another glacier spilled down from the top of another 17,000 foot peak, terminating at the edge of a colossal shear rock wall. The ice composing the second glacier bore a map of its ancient history in dirty veins of ice crisscrossing its surface, and diving into its depths. Between the walls of the basin were a series of small lakes fed by the runoff from both glaciers. For minutes all we could do was stare in awe, a mixture of blood and adrenaline coursing through our veins.
“So, how was it?” James peered out of his tent as we ducked back into the Man Cave, having just awoken from his slumber.
I was at a loss for words. “It was so damn awesome… I felt like my heart was going to explode.”
As evening rolled around, we made a gourmet concoction of broken up lasagna noodles with canned tuna in olive oil. Soon, the shadows engulfed our cave and a harsh chill pressed the warm air into the valley below. We all huddled into our tent and passed the evening playing the travel-size board game, Trouble. You remember the commercials: It’s fun getting into TROUBLE!
The feeling as we unzipped our tent in the morning to discover the ground covered in snow was a stew of nostalgia, serenity, awe, surprise, and regret. The continued snowfall and resulting accumulation meant that there would be no more excursions to the glacial lakes. It also meant that, since we didn’t know how much snow would accumulate, we would have to make a mad dash for a lower elevation. We hastily drank our morning coffee and packed our things. James and Lauren, both having lost their gloves, fashioned mittens out of wool socks, and we all pulled plastic bags over our feet before slipping them into our shoes. Poor man’s Gore-Tex.
Hiking in the snow is about as close as we can get to a state of total serenity. The snowflakes absorb any stray sounds and create an unnatural silence, while the muffled crunch of snow under our feet creates a rhythmic soundtrack to our movement. As we silently descended through the snowy landscape my mind wandered to our winter camping trips to Durango, filling our tent with good friends and sleeping in the snow near the ski hill. I reflected on my regular hikes to the top of Agassiz Peak before work, the shadow of the peaks stretching across the desert, and the rewarding turns. I thought about our dear friend Mike who perished in an avalanche while backcountry skiing near his home in California. I had heard about it on NPR while heading up to the mountain before work, but never imagined it would be my friend who was lost. I remembered the discussion that Sheena and I had on the way home from his funeral, which ultimately led to us quitting our jobs and setting off on this very trip.
I liked that it was snowing; It put a silly grin on my face. There’s just something about being in the mountains.
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.