Chimera couldn’t have chosen a better place to break down. Not only was El Cocuy full of kind and generous people, the local scenery was spectacular, and we were on the front doorstep of Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) El Cocuy. Taking a break from engine woes, we strapped on our packs and headed out into the beautiful mountains for a wonderful (albeit very cold) weekend in the Colombian tundra. On the way back to El Cocuy we caught el lechero (the milk truck) which was one of those amazing and unforgettable experiences where you get to see the colors of life in rural alpine farm country.
After only a few days in El Cocuy we fell into a comfortable pattern. We’d wake early, throw on yesterday’s (and last week’s…) clothes and slowly amble the few blocks from our hostel to the parking lot where Chimera hung out. If we were early enough we’d catch Carlos before he and his wife went out to milk the cows, but more often the gate would be locked again and we’d have to search out the very friendly mechanic across the street to open it for us. We’d say good morning to Chimera, then climb in and put the Aeropress to work making us a thermos full of premium Colombian coffee. As the delicious aroma filled the van, one of us would stroll across the street to the small panaderia, where we would buy two of the most amazing guava jelly-filled croissants fresh out of the oven for less than 35 cents each.
Once coffee, croissant, and crossword were thoroughly enjoyed, usually to an episode of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, or Car Talk, we’d get to work. At this point a day’s work meant making endless phone calls, sending desperate emails, and conducting internet searches to try to locate, purchase, and arrange expedited shipping for all of the parts required to get the engine rebuilt. We knew that Elizabeth would be flying to Bogotá in about a week and that she was our best chance to get new heads, a new timing belt kit, and many more important parts in any reasonable amount of time and without breaking the bank, so we worked furiously to get all of the orders together.
In the late afternoons we took advantage of the many muddy trails leading up into the hills and took Hobie out for long walks. The paths brought us along bright green pastures with huge, lazy cows, fluffy sheep, and sleek horses, and we often passed friendly locals in their hats and wool ruanas (ponchos) who all stopped to say hello and ask how we are, where we’re from, and how we like El Cocuy and Colombia in general. On these walks, and throughout our whole time in Colombia, we were continually captivated by verdant hills set against the bright blue sky dotted with fluffy, pure-white clouds.
El Cocuy is a charming old colonial town. Unlike in the more touristy areas, for the most part the buildings in El Cocuy have not been restored or rebuilt and some of them are severely decayed. This ambiance, combined with the fact that we were usually the only gringos around and rarely heard any English, gave El Cocuy the feel of a real Colombian mountain town, where people worked hard and lived close to the land and the animals. It seemed authentic, and we loved that.
When we were pretty confident that all of the parts required to get us back on the road would be delivered to Elizabeth before she flew out of Denver we took off for the mountains. We had been about halfway to PNN El Cocuy when the engine blew, so it was satisfying to pass the spot on the road where we spent the night and continue all the way to the park in someone else’s car. We caught our ride up to the park just after daybreak and arrived at the trailhead behind the awesome old farmhouse of La Hacienda Esperanza while there was still an early morning nip in the air. We were already at over 11,000ft and knew we had to take it slow, especially since this was the first time on the trip that we had put on heavy packs.
The trail started out by winding it’s way through a sheep pasture, where the curious fluffy onlookers stared Hobie down. Soon we came to large cascade, not so much of a waterfall as a wide rock slope where the river tumbled out of a high mountain valley and into the lower valley below. We slowly made our way up a gentle climb into the Valle de los Frailejones. We had seen some of these delightful plants on our way to El Cocuy, but here the valley was filled with them. Along the trail and in between the frailejones abundant wildflowers decorated the páramo (alpine tundra). Along one side of the valley was a huge, imposing cliff, while in the background the formidable Pulpito del Diablo stood proud and tall, surrounded by white glaciers that sparkled against the pure white sky. We couldn’t have picked a better day to hike.
Once we crossed the valley we started to really climb. We summited ridge after ridge, hiking slowly and stopping frequently to catch our breath in the thinning air. The higher we got the stronger the wind blew and the slower we walked. By the time we reached our destination for the night the wind was howling and despite the strong afternoon sun beating down on us, we had to layer up to stay warm. Our designated camping spot was in a large overhang of rock called La Cueva del Hombre – The Man Cave. The overhang of the cave shaded it from the sun all day long, consequently there were icicles hanging from the ceiling. Other campers had build low stone walls in an attempt to block some of the persistent howling gale, but they were only marginally affective. It was cold, and it was still only early afternoon, so we knew we were in for a bone-chilling night. Still feeling a little bit of pep left we hiked a little way past the cave to where we could get a full view of the glacier-covered peaks and the Pulpito Del Diablo. We spent most of the rest of the afternoon cuddled up in our sleeping bags.
It was a long, cold night. We all managed to stay warm by cuddling Hobie between us, half tucked into Emily’s sleeping bag and covered in Tim’s down jacket. Us humans felt the elevation (Hobie seemed impervious) and despite laying down for more than ten hours, we did not feel well-rested in the morning. We emerged from the tent to find a light dusting of snow, which sparkled on the rocks in the crisp morning. We had planned to camp for two nights, but since the wind had not abated we decided to head down rather than hang out in the tent all day. As soon as we dropped back down the highest of the ridges, the air calmed and warmed up significantly, and we could breathe deeper. We stopped for a snack in a small meadow and ended up sitting there for over an hour just taking in the scenery.
We stayed that night at the picturesque villa at the trailhead, La Hacienda Esperanza. Not only is La Esperanza a great hostel and restaurant with excellent hospitality, it’s also a 100-year old active farmhouse. After blissful hot showers we spent the afternoon slowly strolling around the land taking in the pastoral vistas.
In the morning we caught the local (and often only) means of transportation in these parts, el lechero – the milk truck. This is dairy country, which means that every morning each farmer rises before the sun and milks the cows. The bigger farms fill large metal milk jugs, but most of the farmers have only one or a few cows and fill whatever smaller plastic jugs they happen to have on hand. Then they bring the jugs out to the side of the road and every single morning (and afternoon in most places) the milk truck comes by to collect them. The milk is all dumped into one or more large vats in the back of the truck – ours collected about 2000L per day – and the assistant records how much comes from each person so that eventually they are paid a lump sum.
The lechero also serves as the mail and delivery truck, taxi, and a means of social interaction for the rural farmers. There were no questions asked when we hopped on at La Esperanza (along with a couple of German backpackers), since this is a normal way for tourists to get to and from the park. We’re pretty sure, however, that this was the first time they had taken a tourist dog carrying his own backpack onboard, and that drew plenty of gawkers. Hobie didn’t know what to make of the milk truck at first, and he certainly didn’t appreciate all of the bumping and jostling, but he soon discovered what was in the jugs and did his part to keep the bed of the truck clean after spills.
The milk truck was a slow and bumpy ride, but we enjoyed it thoroughly, taking in every second of the scenery and appreciating a glimpse into the lives of the farmers. At one point we stopped outside of a house that also served as a small local store. After a few minutes a smiling woman came out and handed each of us a small piece of hard candy. Bumping along in the back of the lechero and sucking on our sweets we grinned like school girls.
Thanks defective timing belt for giving us the opportunity to have such amazing experiences.