Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Valley of the Sun

Mongui town
Five years ago the Colombian army ousted the guerrillas from this magnificent valley that the local indigenous people call 'Sugamuxi', the 'Valley of the Sun.' The area here is largely unexplored and there is almost no foreign tourism. There are so few tourists here, and only one place to really stay, so when we approached the line of waiting taxis at the bus station when we arrived the taxi was calling out the name of our hostel and getting into his driver's seat before we actually even approached his car.

Sogamoso, which is the town about 2 km from the 'finca' we are staying is by far the least touristy town in Colombia we've been in. Locals look at us with interest and want to say hello and ask how we are. The restaurants are much cheaper and the ice cream on a stick is actually the price that is written on the package!

Paramo Oceta
There valley is packed with cute colonial towns for wandering, Colombia's largest lake- 'Lago de Tota' which has its very own white sand beach at 3015m, the highest (in altitude) vineyard in the world and a unique and rare glacier-formed tropical 'paramo' ecosystem.

The Sun Valley has been one of our favourite stops in Colombia. The temperature is cooler, there's a delicious vegetarian restaurant in town, the other people staying at the hostel are great and there is lots of hiking on the menu. The superstar of hikes was a spectacular 8 hour trek called 'Paramo Oceta.' Juan, the hostel owner, pre-prepared an early morning muesli breakfast for us and left the two-piece silver coffee mechanism out on the stove for us to make our own coffee when we got up. I'm sure its a super easy process and it was probably all set up for us to just turn on the stove. Unfortunately, since I've only been a coffee drinker for approximately 17 days I have absolutely no idea how to actually transform coffee beans into coffee. My knowledge after growing the beans, harvesting them, drying them, peeling them, roasting them and grinding them extends as far as to know that it has something to do with the coffee machine- and that it's my mom's job. Considering the amount of milk and sugar I insist on adding to my coffee- its probably better this way. And so the morning began without caffeine.

Juan drove us to an adorable town named Mongui. It's a typical quaint, white-washed, red roofed colonial village. What makes it stand out is the red and green that the townspeople have used to paint all their doors, windows, shutters and ornate wooden decals. Wandering down the cobblestone streets is like being in a time capsule. The huge town square contains the massive sandstone church, the ice cream shop where I would later forget my fleece jacket, and all the local action.

There was a bit of a glitch when we arrived in Mongui in the morning. The guide for the trek that Juan used many times hadn't shown up. He sent his son, who appeared to be about 10 years old, and a girl, who didn't seem to be much older instead. 'He had gone somewhere,' was all the information we seemed to be able to glean. Juan was really upset with the guide and there were some curt conversations on the cell. It's crazy how someone would be willing to sacrifice his long term future as a guide, by being so unreliable, just to get the money in the short term moment. In the end Juan said that we could decide on our own if we wanted to go on the hike with the guide's son, who had done the trek many times, or get another guide for the next day. Assured that we wouldn't get lost- our group of seven opted to follow the 10 year old off into the mountains.

We climbed up, up, up and up some more. The town got smaller and smaller behind us as the mountains stretched further and further all around us. It was gorgeous. It was sunny but the cool breeze us comfortable- temperature wise, at least. Our legs were getting the workout of the month. The 'paramo oceta' ecosystem is really unique, existing between 3000m-5000m and consists of plains, peat bogs, lakes, wet grasslands, shrubbery and patches of forest. It exists few places in the world and thrives here in this region of Colombia. and we saw lots of plants that are super interesting and don't exist anywhere else in the world. Super soft pale green bushes with tall cylindrical bunches I guess you could call them,small ferns and ground coverage, bright red flowers, and the most fascinating of all- the sacred Especie de Frailejones (I think that's their name). These 'trees' are small- very few taller than myself. However, as they grow only 1cm/year than a tree 6ft tall would pretty much be ancient. The tops look like something between a pineapple top and a cabbage and are soft and cotton-y. Their trunks look like palm trees and are so fragile that a good shove could uproot them and their decades of slow growth. What makes these trees so  crazy is the fact that unlike every other tree that takes water from the ground to grow- these trees actually make water and put it into the ground! The cotton-y tops gather humidity from the air, and make water which travels through the trunk and into the ground. The ground around the plants is wet and boggy. These plants create rivers!! Walking amongst the trees was as photogenic as it was interesting. After 1000m of elevation gain we finally made it to our 4000m lookout over Lago Negra- the black lake that far down below us, was nestled into the hills like a rare gem, framed by the multitude of abnormal plant life.

Our guide led us from the lookout over Laguna Negra and suddenly his tiny  body was squeezing through a crack in a massive rock. 'Are we supposed to go through there?' I start to panic, claustrophobic-nightmares creeping in to my mind. Yup, we are. I lower myself down into the crevase, both hands clinging to the rock sides, which are little more than shoulder width apart. What an adventure! Once I realize that you can immediately see light from the other side of the rock tunnel- I love it! After having managed to get into the crack, its really quite roomy in the middle of this massive rock! We follow the stream of light through the rock,  partaking in a little bit of strategic shimmying and one leap over the dark unknown and are back out in the sunshine before we know it.

We are merrily winding our way though a canyon type passageway lined on either side with steep rock sides about 40 feet high, laughing and chatting- when we hear it. A gunshot. Our young guide stops dead in his tracks and motions for us to be quiet. My heart is in my throat. This is not a good sign. More gunshots. Bang! Bang! Bang! There we are, a 13 year old guide, his female assistant and 7 tourists standing wide-eyed in a canyon in Colombia as gun shots echo from somewhere just on the other side of the rock. Oh. My. Gosh. I instinctively, and perhaps irrationally, scan the top the surrounding rocks for snipers- just in case this is like in the movies. We'd be like shooting fish in a barrel. There's no where to hide. Sure these fantastic plants can make water- but they probably aren't bullet proof. Its the perfect spot for an ambush, really. My imagination is on a roll. I start thinking about that story Ted told us when we were out sailing about the ambush at Little Detroit in the North Channel of Georgian Bay. Don't quote me on the details but back in the 1700s something along these lines happened: the Ojibway sent their women and children out in canoes as bait for the Iroquois that they knew where near by. When the chase was on the women led their pursuers through a narrow channel, much like where we were now, only on water of course. When the Iroquois were right dead (pun) in the center of the channel, with little hope for escape- the Ojibway stoned them all to death. Nice bedtime story, really. Anyways, back to 2013 in Colombia. It's not a movie at all. This is real life and we are in Colombia. The poor boy who has been stuck with us clearly has no idea what to do. He's young and he's scared. We don't know what to do. If we were at home, of course and there were some friendly people out shooting skeet or something (which hopefully they wouldn't be doing in a nature area where people are hiking- but anyways) it would be a safe bet that if we made a bunch of noise, to alert the shooters of our presence and the whole misunderstanding could be cleared up. Here its not quite so straight forward. And we're pretty much in the middle of no where. No where. We stand still and listen. Still a few periodic shots -but it doesn't sound like there is return fire, or confrontation of any sorts. The 19 year old boy in our group scales up the steep path to peer over the rock cliff and see whats going on. Oh, to be young and stupid again! The people in our group who speak the best Spanish try to get information out of the boy. Could it be hunters? There's nothing to hunt. Could it be the army? Maybe, but why would they be practice shooting where they know there are tourists? The boy tries to call someone on his cell- presumably his dad. Our scout reports back that he can't see anything. The shots end. We wait a little while longer and then slowly make our way out of the canyon and into the open field. I can't help but do a sweep of the valley we're headed down into. It's so vast and there are so many things that look deceivingly like people. So many place to hide. Oh boy.  Here goes my imagination again. The trees start looking like assassins wearing pineapples as hats! I swear that tree down there just moved! The path is covered in loose rocks and i need to concentrate on not slipping, which gives my imagination a rest. As we carry on further through the valley our guide reports that he can see a few army guys up in the distance toting huge rifles, walking the same direction as us. So perhaps it was the army having a bit of fun? As we continue along the beautiful, rough path the fear and excitement start to dissipate and conversation  turns to ice cream, cold beer and much happier topics.

We follow an old dirt road back into town, past real Colombian cowboys and gawking locals. No trigger happy army guys, no guns. We head straight to the ice cream shop to replace some of the calories we had burned. Ice cream shops are always safe, anyways, right? The shop owner lets us taste this popular local drink that is apparently really good for you- and really fermented. It was thick and white  and strong and not sweet as it looked like it should be. J liked it quite a bit. Myself, I'll stick to the ice cream.

Where we stayed: Finca San Pedro- 70,000COP for a private room with ensuite and big windows overlooking a tree tomato plant and a lush garden. Also includes breakfast and free filtered water. Juan, the owner, is super friendly and really helpful. Awesome place!

Best Veggie Restaurant we've found on the trip: Salud y Vida, Calle 13 #13-42, Sogamoso 5000COP for a set lunch, soup, and huge plate of tasty vegetarian food.


Parentals said...

I'm thinking we should plan a 'travel log' when Karly is home around Easter. You provide the entertainment (pictures & stories) and Karly will provide the food!! All are welcome!

Anonymous said...

Hi J. and K,
Thanks for another interesting Blog . Columbia turned out to be very different and you made it sound as if we were there with you. The wee 12 year old must have been an intelligent boy to lead such a group. I am glad no bullets came your way ! I reckon you will soon be home again and both your families will be greatly relieved.