Hiking in an Andean Paradise
While on one of the three microbuses I took to get to the cute little town of Salento from Manizales, I thought about engaging in some hiking. I’d heard that it was a major attraction there. I pondered: I’m in the Andes, there has to be endless trails that are incredibly worthy of hiking. I’d really like to get in touch with more nature, with my diverse earth.
What I didn’t know is that I’d end up going on four unique hikes in just over a week’s time.
After arriving in Salento and being brought to my hostel, I decided to take a stroll into the tranquil and idyllic Salento night.
Within minutes I found myself sipping straight rum outside of a small bar. I started talking to a few people that were already hanging out and shooting the fresh mountain breeze.
On the second morning thereafter, I met two of those people for what would be the first of three hikes I’d end up doing with them.
The first hike was a relatively easy one from Salento to the even smaller town of Boquia. I was shown lemoncillo or lemongrass plants, banana bunches sitting in trees, coffee plants and the therapeutic Ortiga plant. When this plant is rubbed against the skin, hours of mild itching occurs, after which time the skin becomes smooth.
I only sampled it on a tiny part of my hand while one of my hiking partners demonstrated by rubbing a leaf on an entire arm. For hours his arm looked incredibly ill. Bubbles were growing all over it. After rubbing a little bit on my hand I instantly felt the itchiness. I was also able to see the bubble effect for a few hours. However, as the itching and bubbles abated, my skin turned smooth.
The Salento native Daniel told me that Ortiga is cleansing and very good for enhancing circulation and alleviating arthritis pain and symptoms.
Like many areas of the Andes, the vistas looked as if they’d inspired fairy tales. This first hike was very easy. There were no verticals. We just ascended and descended mildly, walking past a coffee plantation, along the Río Quindío and up and down moderate mountain terrain. We crossed bridges and walked through and past a great abundance of flora.
This hike only took a couple of hours and was rather easy. It would prove to be a great warm up for the next two hikes to come.
The day after my first hike I was on my way to go to Salento’s main tourist attraction. Valle de Cocora is known for its unique nature.
By the time I reached the jeep to take me to Cocora, I was informed that the next jeep left in half an hour. While standing in the plaza brainstorming what might be the best way to kill that half hour, the two chicos from the hike of the previous day approached and asked if I was up for yet another hike that tourists can’t do on their own.
I instantly thought: I can do Cocora solo any time so I’m going to take these guys up on their offer. This is a no brainer. I came here mainly to hike. How can I turn down a proposal such as this?
Before setting off we stopped by an artisan’s traveling van that was parked in Salento’s square. Three of the six people from that van joined us. Adding to the two local chicos and myself, there was a Brazilian girl, a French girl, and a Japanese dude, all who were traveling jewelry makers and lovers of nature.
I’d quickly come to realize that they were all in great physical condition and excellent hikers.
The hike left right from the little town of Salento. The two chicos love to hike and want to share their amazing land with foreigners. As they’ve grown up in the area, they know it as well as anyone. They led us up and down steep, narrow paths and across the fast flowing Quindio River on a few occasions.
One of them led the way while the other hung behind the rest of us. I was often in the back. This was the first time I’d hiked with a whole group where everyone was so quick and agile. The two chicos even went barefoot.
All of us took spills at times but usually good ones as everyone kept both hands free. As high mountain weather changes constantly, rain usually falls daily, causing the trails to be almost always slippery.
During one part we’d have to walk along the river for a distance, while at other times we’d need to take our shoes off and cross the rough river over rocks, fallen trees and rapid water. One time the chicos had to help us all across.
After maybe three hours, I didn’t keep track of the time as I needed to focus on the trails, we reached a little makeshift home perched on a piece of land above and beside the river.
There was a grill set up outside.
Two gold diggers often slept there. They were happy to meet the four foreigners and hang out with us. There were also happy to teach us a bit about their gold excavation and trade.
After a couple of hours of relaxation, food prep, eating, sipping and shooting the peaceful Andean river breeze, the French girl explained that she’d really like to get back before nightfall. The chicos told us to relax, that the hike back would be much shorter, that we just had to cross the river again and and go up and over the mountain in front of us.
This time we had to use a tree that acted as a balance beam, to cross the mighty river below. I started the crossing, knowing that I could easily walk across. However, I couldn’t help but think about what would happen if I’d slipped: I’ll be hurt, that would really suck awfully bad.
I felt so uncomfortable looking down at the river that I opted to slow everyone down by sitting on the log and basically crawling on my behind while pushing forward with my two hands. Comsumed by the relief to be across, the idea of pulling out my camera to shoot the others crossing completely escaped my mind.
The hike up and over the open mountain was absolutely gorgeous just before sunset. Though exhausted, everyone seemed to appreciate the setting’s splendor. By nightfall we reached a dirt road that we easily followed back into super-chill Salento.
The next day after that heavy-duty hike I ran into Gustavo who exclaimed:
“Come to my house and stay overnight. I’ll show you my farm and we can hike Peñas Blancas.”
That day we traveled a short forty-five minutes to Armenia, the capital of Quindio. From there we took a short jeep ride to the city of Carlaca, and from there to the home of this chico, on his uncles farm in the village of Virjinia, at the foot of the mountain of Peñas Blancas.
That next day the other chico showed up from Salento. We’d planned on a hike that day but the torrential rains seemed to never want to end.
Peñas Blancas would have to wait until the next day.
First we walked along an easy stone path that inclined steadily but mildly.
After that climb, we walked across gorgeous green pastures before reaching the parts of the path that were close to vertical in many spots. Here we ascended on all fours, often grabbing on to roots and slender tree trunks.
At the summit we heated and ate mazamorra that we’d bought in the village that morning.
After taking in stunning views that constantly changed with the capricious clouds, we all napped before I realized that the sun was going down.
That’s all I had to say and soon we were on our way down a different path.
The almost vertical ascent that we’d taken from the pasture would have been grueling to get down. I was relieved to find out that we’d be going a different way down. Granted, that way was still steep and slippery, but nowhere near as precipitous as the one we’d climbed up.
We took a break at the pasture and admired the quickly changing sunset. The rest of the decline was an easy winddown. We got back and cooked more traditional food.
Too exhausted to leave the village of Virjinia to return to Salento, I stayed for a third night. That night, lying in bed, relieved to be closing my eyes and resting my sore legs, I thought: In less than a week: I’ve done three exotic Andean hikes. I used to only dream of becoming one with nature like this and now I’m living it.
Here are a few more pics:
With this view I was given a micro geography lesson on where I was. Down below and to the left you can’t really see it is the village of Virjinia. The small city that you can see in the distance is Carlaca. Beyond that you see the bigger city of Armenia. To the right and out of the picture is Salento.
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A couple of days later, still sore, I finally made it to Valle de Cocora and did that hike by myself. Stay tuned for a photo exploration and reflections post on Cocora. It’s coming soon…
NOTE: The two chicos, Daniel and Gustavo acted as guides for me on three occasions. Like most people, these guys are anything but wealthy and don’t have the kind of pocket money that a traveling foreigner typically has. Yet they won’t charge for their hikes. They do it because they genuinely love to hike and share the wonderful terrain that they know.
So, I basically forced them to accept meals in restaurants and premium Colombian coffee in cafes. I also purchased the food that we used to prepare typical Colombian food in Gustavo’s kitchen.
The above experience is an example of the kindness I keep coming across in this laid-back land.