Manizales, Colombia. A glimpse of Páramo
I’m barely awake, it’s 4:10am. I am in Manizales, Colombia. After traveling from Medellin the night before, I only managed 5 hours of sleep, but despite the lack of sleep I’m stoked about the upcoming adventure to the Páramo and an opportunity to get as close as possible to Nevado Del Ruiz, in PNN Los Nevados. I came to Manizales for only reason – to get up to this glorious and active 5,321 m (17,457 ft) volcano, but due to recent seismic activity, Los Nevados is off limits to everybody and has been so for the last 3 months. I figured, at least I’ll get to it as close as I can.
The chivas (a typical, colorful colombian bus) is broken down and the man at the bus stop tells us to wait for lechero (a milk truck) that might be able to let us (me, Kate [UK] and Thomas [Florida]) tag along an hour later, at 5:30am. So we wait. It’s still dark. Finally it arrives and we jump on the truck with some locals, which takes the usual morning route to collect milk from farmers in the area near Del Ruiz.
We’re bouncing up the mountain road in this steel horse, sitting tightly together shoulder to shoulder with locals. We’ve been on the road for 1.5 hours and the sun has risen behind the mountains, which illuminated the volcano with it’s glorious smoke. Massive tires of the truck break the thin ice film on brown water puddle in the road. The grass around each turn is still frosty from the cold of the night. We’re perhaps at 3,500m of elevation, so it has been getting progressively colder since leaving Manizales at 5:30am. We take our first quick break.
10 minutes pass and we’re back on the lechero, but I jump in the back of the truck to stand with a few local men, next to the large aluminum milk containers. Standing in the back of the truck on this crazy mountain road is harder than I thought and the romance of getting a “front row” seat has faded, but I’ve seen worse, so I hold on tightly to the frame of the truck roof and watch a beautiful mountainous area we’re in. The men are chatting up and I strike up a conversion. As we’re bumping around together with milk containers, they ask me why I’m here in this neck of the woods. “Tu trabajando aqui o estudio?” I tell them I’m traveling and am finding their country too difficult to leave. We share a laugh. I think they agree. Next stop is a bulky mountain right next to the road with many antennas on top of it. A middle aged man and a younger (16 or 18 year old) guy jumps out. They must be very close. Man hugs the boy and boy kisses the man on the check with a lot of affection. They exchange a nervous laugh and the man jumps back on the truck. I ask him if it’s his son. He responds “si es mi hijo!” I ask where is his son going. The man says he’s starting the 18-month long military service. I guess that big mountain boulder is a military base. Father will not see his son for a while, but I sense proudness in his voice.
After 2.5 hours of bumpy mountain roads the lechero comes to a stop near a house and turns around. We are at El Sifon at 3950m high. We all jump out and I go inside to ask if they have desayuno (breakfast). Lady says they don’t but looking at their gated tienda (shop with 3 shelves packed with chips and some sweets) I noticed a few cartons of eggs and asked if she could cook some eggs for us. Of course she can! We have an hour to kill before lechero heads back to Manizales. We sit at a wooden table, with morning still chilly, especially in the dark, rustic kitchen. Drink some tinto (a way too sweet black coffee) and eat delicious warm eggs. Lady’s kids run in and out of the kitchen to marvel at gringos : ) (us that is)
Outside the sun is now heating up the Páramo, an typical local eco-system in a limbo above tree-line but below snow-line. The frost now releases the grass and let’s water in the puddles relax for a while, until the night falls again. Kate and I start trekking on the road in the direction we came from, while Thomas somewhere at 3600m (we dropped him off earlier) is probably taking some professional pictures of birds (at this altitude??!!). You can feel the effect of altitude as it’s a bit harder to breathe and if you walk too fast, your body quickly tells you – “chill out buddy, catch your breath!” The truck will pick us up in half hour after the driver finishes loading the rest of the milk containers brought from the areas farmers, carried by their mules. 2 to 4 large, 20 or 30-gallon containers on each mule. They pay farmers 40,000 pesos (~22 for each container). Quite a bit of work for $22.
The three of us and the driver are back on the truck and bumping again down the same road, this time truck is full of milk. I think back and am very grateful for having shared a few hours with these friendly folks, as they nonchalantly went about their daily routine. Right before noon it starts raining. I think to myself – “that’s why they leave before the sunrise to make it out of the mountains before the rain”. I bet here, just like in most of Colombia, it rains everyday this time of the year (October is the most rainy month, followed by November). I fall asleep folding my hands on my knees, and the steel horse continues to bumble down the mountain road. All three of us are sleeping, uncomfortably, but it doesn’t matter. We are all content.