Jul 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 11 Comments

Solace in the Snowstorm

“I’ve decided I’m a mountain girl”

– Sheena

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.

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Jul 2012

Blog, South America


The Road to El Cocuy, Part 2: The Truck Driver’s Secret Road

Read Part 1 by clicking HERE>

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.

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Jul 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

The Road to El Cocuy, Part 1: Wookie Eye Road

Before we started our trip we were warned about Colombia.  Namely, we were cautioned about the possibility of getting kidnapped by the FARC.  We tried to ignore the stories, but when my beloved This American Life podcast ran a story about a Colombian radio station that exists for the sole purpose of communicating with the country’s kidnapping victims, our ears perked a little bit.  However, after speaking to people who had spent considerable time overlanding in Colombia, we were put at ease.  “Just stay on main roads and tourist areas and you’ll be fine.  The rebels operate in the remote jungles and mountains now.”  Easy!  We just hadn’t realized how easy it would be to wander off the main roads.  Soon enough, we found ourselves several days’ drive from civilization in the middle of the Colombian mountains, in what has historically been a FARC “red zone”.

Nacho had arrived on the ship at the port in Cartagena, and with it started my second round of hoop jumping to get our wheels out of the port.  A ride on an airliner, several taxi rides, various port and customs offices, and too many hours were spent sitting around waiting for things to happen.  I was denied entry to the port without proper footwear, so ended up spending a full day walking around the port wearing Sheena’s shoes.

To describe the convoluted, inefficient mess that we endured to get Nacho out of there would stir up far too many painful memories for me.  I’ll just wave my arm and say many things happened, and in the end Nacho emerged from the port being driven by a guy named Mark.  When it was all over, we happily putted away from the overheated city, looking for adventure.  Our research revealed that there was a mountainous national park on the Eastern end of the country called Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy, so we pointed Nacho’s big blunt nose Eastward and sat back for the long, slow haul.

The first two days of driving went off without a hitch, but by the end of day three it was about time for Nacho to break down.  After all, we hadn’t broken down in a few hundred miles.  Lo and behold, as we topped a mountain on the edge of Chicamocha canyon, our oil light started to flicker.  Usually it only flickers when it gets wet, because the water causes the decomposing sensor wire to short against the engine.  This time it wasn’t raining, and I pulled over to discover steam pouring out from under the van.

We hastily removed our belongings from the back of the van – shoe bin, Dutch ovens, my clothing – and opened the engine compartment.  Sure enough, the plastic nipple on the rear coolant bleeder valve had somehow broken off, causing our coolant to empty itself all over the engine.  The wet coolant had caused the sensor wire to short against the engine, alerting me to the impending disaster through the oil pressure warning light.  I knew there was a good reason not to fix that wire!  I whipped out the Dremel tool, created a new nipple, reconnected the coolant hose, refilled the coolant, and slapped on an additional pipe clamp for good measure.  Disaster averted, and we were on our way.

By the end of the day we made it to San Gil, where we set up camp for the evening.  Since leaving Cartagena we had been looking for a paper map to augment our GPS, but had found that the only places in Colombia that sell paper maps are the toll booths.  And so far, every toll booth gave me the same answer when I asked for a map: “no hay.”  In the morning, a quick search around town revealed no paper maps, so we reluctantly drove off the grid, mapless, towards the tiny mountain town of Mogotes.

The paved road to Mogotes switchbacked straight up the side of a mountain, and then descended the other side into a river valley.  We drove for an hour or so along the river as it wound its way between enormous mountains, until we reached the town.  A short distance beyond the town the road turned to dirt, marking the beginning of a multi-day dirt road drive through the mountains.  I had flashbacks to that fateful day in Guatemala when I graduated from boy to man over the course of 12 hours on the death highway.  This was poised to make that drive look like mere child’s play.  We dropped into first gear and started creeping, slowly, toward El Cocuy.

The road between Mogotes and San Joaquin started so sweetly, like Martha Stewart, but after winding through the foothills the gradient pitched upward and the road revealed her darker side.  We soon found ourselves plodding straight up the side of the mountain toward our first dirt road mountain pass.  While the horizontal distance between Mogotes and San Joaquin is only a few miles, we found ourselves feeling uneasy at how long it was taking to climb the enormous mountain separating the two towns.  The road narrowed and to our left the river valley spread out thousands of feet below us.

Near to the top of the pass, we encountered our first challenge.  The road steepened abruptly before crossing in front of a waterfall.  The road had been washed out, and subsequently repaired with concrete.  The water, rather than flowing over the repaired road section, had found its way under the concrete, and had since washed all of the soil out from underneath it.  The concrete remained, several feet of unsupported 4″ thick roadway suspended in mid-air, while the river had left a gaping chasm that funneled into a ravine.

We gunned the engine, Nacho let out a battle cry akin to that of a handicapped newborn pony, and we came to an uninspired halt in the middle of the abrupt uphill section before the waterfall.  A classic display of Nacho’s frailty.  I attempted to back up to have another run at it, but in doing so got us stuck in the ditch, wedged against the canyon wall.  Just then, as if to add insult to injury, the sky opened up in a magnificent downpour, further weakening our 4″ thick concrete bridge and my confidence in getting to San Joaquin in one piece.  After a while the rain stopped, we negotiated our way out of the ditch, and a few repeated attempts at the climb saw us safely on our way.

After reaching the top of the pass we rested for a moment before putting Nacho in first gear and lurching downward, toward countless switchbacks and dozens of landslides strewn across the road as it wound along the razorback spines of the mountain.  Each time we crept through the path of a landslide I allowed my gaze to wander over the edge to see what kind of carnage it had caused farther down the mountain.  On one occasion we spied a truck at the bottom edge of the slide, at least a thousand feet below.  Sheena and I shuddered.  Nacho shuddered.

We slowed down long  enough in San Joaquin to verify that we were traveling in the direction of Onzaga, the next tiny mountain hamlet, and then carried onward, skirting the river at the bottom of the canyon.  Our GPS had suggested that midway between San Joaquin and Onzaga there would be a road passing directly over the top of a mountain to our left, which would lead us to the town of Soata.  The road didn’t exist on any map we’d seen, but if it existed it would put us within a half day’s drive of our destination, and would save us a full day of driving.  As we approached the point where our GPS showed the road, we found a small bridge over the river to a dilapidated building.  I parked Nacho in the middle of the road and got out to investigate.

As I rounded the side of the building, I found several men sitting outside on benches, beers in hand.  Their eyes were all glazed over, and several of them had wookie eye – their eyes pointing off in different directions like the cookie monster.  The drunken glaze in combination with the wookie eye sent mild waves of fear down my spine.  When they saw me they all stood up and surrounded me.  Someone whispered something about what I was selling and another kept counting to ten in English, his wookie eyes staring off into the trees behind me.  After a while I ascertained that in fact the road did not go over the mountain, and that we’d have to get the hell out of there and drive to Onzaga after all.

A man and a boy seemed insistent that they were coming with us, but I pretended not to understand them.  Another man who had been shaking my hand continuously wouldn’t loosen his grip on me.  He stared at me, his wookie eyes burning holes in the sky to either side of my head.  I managed to squeeze my hand free, wave goodbye to the group, and quickly retreat to Nacho where Sheena sat wondering what was taking so long.  Our would-be passengers looked totally betrayed, their eyes gazing randomly all over the place.

More mountains followed and by nightfall we reached Onzaga.  The town was quiet and only a few souls stirred in the street as we pulled up to the first hotel we saw.  When we walked inside we found the owner and her friend, a truck driver, sitting around a plastic table.  We checked into a room – nothing more than a concrete cube with two rock hard beds – and came back to chat.  We showed the truck driver our planned route on our GPS, and although captivated by the touch screen, he was quick to inform us that our route sucked, and that he had a secret route that was way better.

“You see this part?  No good!  Totally mountains.  No good!  You drive to Covarachia, good! Your plan, no good!”

He spoke with a confidence that said I know what I’m talking about and you’d be a fool not to listen.  A FOOL!  He gave us some rudimentary directions to get to his secret road, but we were still leery.  I checked Google Maps, Google Earth, and our GPS, but the road didn’t exist on any of them.  Not only that, but we couldn’t even see a road on any of the satellite images.  What to do?  The man was pretty assertive, so in the morning we left at the crack of dawn toward the truck driver’s secret road.

Many days later while chatting with a local man, we told him of the convoluted route that we’d taken to get to El Cocuy.

“Yes, we definitely took a hard route to get there.  We passed through San Joaquin, Onzaga, Covarachia…”

“WAIT!” he said.  “You went to Onzaga?!”

“Uh, yeah.  It was pretty quiet.  We felt like aliens there,” I said.

“Didn’t you know that Onzaga used to be completely controlled by the FARC?  All of these little towns are home to the FARC.  Until very recently it was called The Red Zone.”

Looking back on the advice given to us about where to travel in Colombia, we realized that we’d done exactly the opposite of what we were told.  We somehow found ourselves leaving a former FARC outpost on a tiny mountain dirt road so small that it didn’t even exist on any map or satellite image.

Spoiler Alert: in the end we didn’t get captured by any rebels.  Maybe, just maybe, the danger in Colombia is as remote as the danger that we were supposed to have encountered while traveling in Mexico.

Next time: The Road to El Cocuy, Part 2: The Truck Driver’s Secret Road

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Jul 2012

Blog, South America


Uncovering Cuisine in Cartagena

I had rivers of sweat running down my legs and beads of perspiration dancing on my skin.  Growing up in 115 degree weather, I know what hot feels like, yet it sure didn’t prime me for the heat that rose off this cement.  If I had taken a shower in my clothes no one would have known the difference.  However, every morning I attempted to run along the promenade. And without fail, by 7:30am my run would turn into an unsteady trot and then into a sad limp.

After spending the morning recovering from near heat stroke, Brad and I would pop our heads out of the hotel in search of lunch.  On one particular day, as we walked around a corner in the Getsemani neighborhood, we were drawn into a packed comedor buzzing with a multitude of oscillating fans.  Not one table was left open; however we squeezed into a 2X2 table occupied by a lone female. A chalk board outside listed the options for the day.   As with most Colombian midday meals, it was two courses, starting with a bowl of soup.  As my internal temperature continued to overheat, I watched the locals happily eat their steaming bowls of sancocho, a thick stew of boned meat, herbs, yucca, plantain, yam, and corn.  It seems as though national eating customs don’t change just because you are in 112 degree Cartagena.  When in Rome I suppose… I ate the first course.  Love at first sip.

Next up was seco, literally the ‘dry’ non soup portion of the meal – rice, beans, patacones (mashed, fried plantain), a small salad, and meat.  After dozens of standard rice and bean lunch platters, I quickly realized this was something special.  The rice was stained brown in a caramelized mound, molasses in flavor and laced with plump raisins.  I vowed to search high and low until I figured out what I put in my mouth.  And yes, I did find it.  Secret ingredient for arroz con pasas: coca cola!  This one side alone brought us back to La Tertulia three more times, wanting more.

While we chowed down on food, Nacho claustrophobically waited on a ship inside a 20X40 container, waiting to transport him from Panama City, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.  In no time he’d be cruising past the Panama Canal and infamous Darien Gap.  Until then, we had to wait. Luckily, Cartagena was a gem of a city; a 16th century Spanish port on the Caribbean Coast.

Wandering the historic district within the 11 kilometers of city walls (Las Muralles) was an attraction in itself; beautifully cobblestoned streets, bougainvilleas draping from balconies, and plazas lined with food vendors.  The walls of the city, once used to protect the city against enemies were now a place of congregation.  Friends sat on top of the wall while business took place down below.  Shaded by the sturdy wall, a barber purposefully cut hair while a lady sat slumped back in a plastic lawn chair nonchalantly gave pedicures, client’s toes tanning in the morning sun.

Every evening along the wall an amateur baseball game began, with half the field in the grass and the other half spilling out onto the busy street; 3rd base painted on the asphalt.  Intense yelling battles occurred as opposing fans shouted accusations at one another.  Earlier in the day the PE teacher blew her whistle while students took turns running up and down one of the many ramps of the wall.  Across the street, the desire for more space forced the locals to pull their lawn chairs off the sidewalk and into the streets, cars whizzing by.  Cartagena was very much a living city.

Things slowed down midday as the sun relentlessly beat down, forcing everyone inside, to a shady spot, or to the juice stands.  Large fish tank like aquariums were easy to find on the streets, manned by a person with a large spoon, plastic cups, and a deliciously large amount of fresh juice.  Every flavor under the sun existed; watermelon, mango, strawberry, tomate de arbol; but limonada seemed to be people’s choice.  Other men pushed carts down the street filled with carafes of coffee.   Small Dixie cups were offered, filled with either tinto (black coffee) or café con leche (coffee with milk); a quick pick-me-up.  In addition to all of the drink options, there were plenty of vendors selling kebabs of meat or fried treats.  One popular greasy item was the arepa con huevo (a thick corn tortilla cut down the middle, whole raw egg cracked inside and then fried).

In addition, we tried many sweets found in the famous arcaded walkway known as El Portal de los Dulces.   In the adjoining Plaza de los Coches, which was formerly a slave market, you could watch traditional Carib dancing.  As a native Colombian such as Shakira would say, hips don’t lie.  These people knew how to dance.

In the adjoining Plaza de los Coches, which was formerly a slave market, you could watch traditional Carib dancing.  As a native Colombian such as Shakira would say, hips don’t lie.  These people knew how to dance.

Recipes from Cartagena (CLICK ON THE LINKS BELOW)

Arroz con Coco y Pasas (Rice Cooked in Coca-Cola)
Colombian Beans
Sancocho De Gallina (Colombian Chicken Soup)
Arepa Filled with Egg (Arepa de Huevo)

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