“Shall we take Warren to El Cocuy?” I ask Grant. Warren is one of our friends we met on the San Blas trips and he is staying in the same hostel as us. ”Yes of course, awesome idea.” Quicker than we knew it, three amigos were on the road.
The plan, a bus to El Cocuy national park, a place right off the beaten track. This meant that a direct bus to El Cocuy wasn`t exactly possible. It took us at the end, a night bus to Bucaramanga, a full day in the bus to Capitanejo, and another bus to another small village.
We get off the bus, still enjoying the ridiculously beautiful views we laid our eyes on the last few days. The bus driver points us to a cafe on the square. We walk towards it and a kind, old man comes walking towards us. “We are traveling to El Cocuy, could you help us further?” I ask him. “Yes, you can take the bus, it is about four hours, or I can ask a friend of mine to bring you there.” The last option sounded much more appealing. We waited in front of the cafe in the sun for our hitchhike. The old man walks quickly back into his store and comes back with an old newspaper. “Excuse me miss, but could you help me with number 13, horizontal, four letters. I've been pondering for days, but got absolutely stuck on this one.” I look at the newspaper and chuckle; English word for 'travel'. I take the pen out of his hand, and write in the open blocks TRIP “Ah great! Thank you so much my child, now I can finally go on with my puzzle.” I look at Grant and Warren, who try to keep their laughter to a political correct amount. Amazing, ow how I love the country life care free feel of Colombia.
To our great surprise, within minutes a large jeep appears around the corner. “Ah, there is your transport”, the man says. We throw our luggage in the trunk and climb into the jeep. “You`re lucky” says our driver, “there are currently a lot of tourists in El Cocuy, so you`ll have a lot of friends.” “How many are there?” I ask him, not sure whether I should be happy with this news. “Ow at around 7” replies the driver (again I hear chuckling from the back seat) “Wow, seven, I had thought that there would be less after the shooting.” I say with the utmost astonishment in my voice. (a few days earlier were 12 policemen shot dead in the park due to the ongoing drug war). “Ow but that was very deep in the park, near the border with Venezuela.” “How far exactly?” I ask for my own reassurance. “Ow about four days on horseback, from the remotest `refugio`.” I smile, that is indeed very far.
“Here is El Cocuy. All the expensive hotels are here on the square and around the corner are the cheaper options.” Around the corner then. We see a wooden sign `Hotel` and go inside. Through a narrow, dark corridor, we arrive in a covered courtyard. It looks crowded with villagers whom all looked up with a face full of amazement from their plate with hot soup when we walked in. They are small, have a mountain hat and wearing sheep woolen ponchos. All of them are David Beckham-sunbed-brown and have deep, red cheeks. I feel like Gandalf in a tavern full of hobbits. A young, plump lady, about two heads shorter than me comes up to us “Can I help you?” “Yes please. Do you have room for three people? And what is the cost per room?” I ask. “Yes, you can stay for 12000 pesos (4 dollars) per person, we have a room available overlooking the street.” We look at each other. “Ask her directly how much lunch cost?” says Warren with his eternal appetite.
Less than 10 minutes later we dumped our bags on the bed and sit on the table with a cup of hot soup and a plate of hot food. All for the cost of 2 dollars.
The next morning we get up early. At 6:00 AM the milk truck arrives on the square. For a few pesos you can jump in the back and get dropped off at the entrance of the national park. We get a lot of attention in the square. Most villagers are already awake and waiting in traditional mountain clothing for the milk truck. An old man comes curiously at us. “Are you going into the mountains?” He asks. It takes me a while to understand his heavy accent, also the fact that he had only two or three teeth left in his mouth didn`t exactly contribute to his articulation. He introduces himself as Pedro and turns out to be of good help. He helps us to right milk truck (apparently there are more) and wishes us a good trip. Our backpacks are passed forward. The milk truck is packed with curious faces. We park ourselves between two barrels of milk and hold on to the side of the truck. We're going up. It's freezing cold. Frozen water drops form a Swarovski glance on the grass fields. Every few hundred meters there is a farmer waiting along the side of the road with a bucket of milk. If it is a big farm, he might have two. The milk truck `supervisor` pours the milk into the barrel and notes the amount in a `Barbie` notebook. The higher we get, the more children there are waiting along the roadside. Most on tough mountain ponies, when the farm is too far away. This also seems the same for the school, therefore, helping out on the farm is the only option.
After 2.5 hours we arrive at the entrance of the park. The ranger greets us kindly and ask for our papers. We give our passports and the reservation confirmation of the `refugio`. These appeared not to be good enough. We had needed to register at the office down in town. They just forgot to mention that when we reserved a room at a mountain lodge. We try to negotiate, but the park ranger stands his ground. The milkman proposes to take us down again, so that we can arrange our papers and go back up tomorrow.
The next morning we have better luck. In the village, we are greeted kindly upon return. It was also found an extra day to acclimatize to the altitude, was not a bad idea (the village of El Cocuy lies at about 2800 m. Our mountain hut is situated at 3800 m). We pass the entrance to the park and when we can look around the corner, we could not believe our eyes. It is a huge valley surrounded by snowy peaks. In the middle is a stream and the field is filled with colorful flowers. The boys are keeping up a firm pace and I try to keep up with them as good as possible. Warren and Grant carry way more of our stuff than me and yet I have trouble with the weight of my backpack. The walk is beautiful and (because of the altitude) literally breathtaking. After about three hours we arrive at the refuge. I throw my stuff on the floor, pull my sleeping bag out of my backpack and fall into a deep sleep.
“Sanne.... Sanne.... wake up, food is ready.” Slowly my sleeping bag is pulled down and displays the smiling face of Grant. The boys have cooked a hot pot of stir-fry. A lunch `warmly` welcomed with this freezing temperature.
We make beautiful walks and enjoy the national park to the fullest. There are no more trees on this altitude, but it's amazing how many plants still survive in these extreme conditions. Once we go into the mountains, the vegetation stops and there is nothing but rocks and snow. The water from the lagoons and streams is so clean that we can drink it without problems. According to the locals the water is nowhere in the world as healthy as in the mountains of El Cocuy.
After a day or two, slowly we are getting used to the altitude, we decide to go to a mountain hut on the other side of the park with an altitude of 4,200m. From here we can climb the mountain Sierra Nevada; the tallest in the park, 5,330m high. It is still dark when we leave, pitch dark. Unfortunately it's cloudy, so we cannot see the crazy star splendor. It strikes me that there are no birds singing, despite the fact that dawn is coming in fast. It is too high for birds. The air is still, I hear only the muffled sound of our footsteps and our heavy breathing. We’re walking in a quick pace and although I consider myself a good walker, everything costs me more energy here. With my flashlight I follow the blue sweater of Warren, who is running in front of me. It ended up costing us a generous two hour walk and a hitchhike of a local innkeeper to arrive at the new location. We are greeted by lovely farmers family and when we got a room, we crawl under a thick layer of woolen blankets for a beauty sleep.
We come back from a short walk. Bobby (a Jack Russel mix who joined us halfway the walk), the boys and I sneak in the dining room. It is a large dining room, which I still do most reminds me the most of an old viking hall. Large, long wooden tables, accompanied by long wooden benches, covered with sheepskin rugs. Two French boys have set up their tent at the end of the hall. “A lot warmer out of the wind.” Warren states as he gets some wood and builds a fire in the barrel. Bobby rolls up under a chair on a sheepskin and we push the chairs and benches as close to the barrel as possible to delight our frozen limps. We put big pots of water on the fire, so we can wash with warm water, instead of the icy mountain water coming from the shower. I'm going last. I carry the pan in the shower, close the door and squeeze my ski jacket under the crack of the door, in the hope that I can shower warm up the bathroom a little bit with the hot steam coming out of the pan. Shivering like an old Nokia that is receiving a call, I take off my clothes as quickly as possible and step barefoot on the icy tiles. It is -7 degrees Celsius in the bathroom. Quickly I throw a bowl of hot water over my shoulder. “Ah how sweet! Oh my god what is this nice!” Quickly I throw another over me, and another. I soap myself in and then enjoy each bowl of warm water to the fullest.
With warmed-up-bones I quickly get myself into the kitchen, it's my turn to cook. Almost three quarters of an hour later I proudly scoop food into the bowls and create two additional bowls for our French friends. Something which was very much appreciated by their taste pupils after having nothing else but canned food the last couple of days. As a sign of gratitude they share a bottle of liquor of which I put a decent twinge in my tea. It heats up the system so nice. We share stories while the fire crackles in front of us. One of the French boys, Jacque, rolls a joint which was also shared among the rest. Grant and I say wisely rejected, aware of the altitude and the danger that drugs and alcohol can have here. The evening progresses and we can barely keep our eyes open. Warren and Grant go to bed and I decide to drink a last cup of tea. The good conversations carry on till Jacque suddenly drops his cup on the ground. His body shoots in a cramp. His eyes roll away behind his eyelids and his whole body shocks regularly making him falling of his chair. Quickly I jump up and catch him to prevent his head from smashing against the barrel of fire. His friend is so in shock he can barely move, frozen to his chair while watching the ritual. “Please help me, I can`t hold him any longer!” I scream while I`m desperately trying to keep the shocking body away from the flames. The friend stands up. “Hold his head.” I tell him. I grab a ski jacket and throw it over the chair in order to prevent his head beating against the wooden railing. I grab his wild waving arms trying to keep them down like a cowboy would pull down a wild horse.
“What's happening? What's wrong with him?” Asks his friend with a desperate voice.“ I am not a doctor, but it looks like an epileptic seizure. Let's stay calm, he`ll get out of it.” The moment I finish my sentence, I see Jacque`s face turning as white as the snow on the mountaintop. His lips turning into a blue shade and the heartbeat of his wrist collapses. His mouth drops open and a stream of blood comes running down like a waterfall. “This is not good. Hold him down. I'm going to look for help.” I say to his friend, who nervously gazes at me when I run out of the dining room. It`s pitch dark. I run across the yard and punch my fist as many times on the door till somebody opens it. “Quick, call an ambulance! It's an emergency. One of the French boys has no pulse and loses a lot of blood from his mouth.” His wife begins to bomb me with questions and I lose my patience. I step past her into the farmhouse and cry to her children for help. They quickly get to action, suits their mobile phone and start making calls. The farmer and his wife follow me back to the dining room, followed by her son and daughter whom desperately trying to call someone with their mobiles.
The moment we return in the dining area the farmer and his wife put their hands in front of their mouth of shock. The farmer burst into tears. Jacque looks pale. His lips are blue, except his lower lip, in which the blood left a deep red mark floating down his chin dripping into the red pool on the chest part of his T-shirt. His friend is squatting next to him and cries; “I cannot get him to his senses Sanne!” I sit next to him and grasp the pulse of Jacque; “He still has a pulse.” I feel with my hand under his nose and his mouth and feel very gentle air current. “He's breathing!” “Perdon, hermosa” says the farmer, “I have found a jeep that can take him to the hospital, but it will take at least an hour before they get here.” I consider the other options, but quickly conclude that there is none. “If that's the only way then por favor.” I thank her for her help and translate the communication to the friend in English. Jacque meanwhile starts to blink his eyes. His friend starts talking directly to him, “Jacque, Jacque, can you hear me?” “Talk to him quietly, I'll get you some water, so that we can make him a little representable.” I state. When I come back with a pot of water, I sit down in front of Jacque. Jacque looks hazy to me. “Bonsoir Jacque. I'm Sanne, you probably do not know me. That does not matter. You were away for a little bit. But we are all very happy that you're back. Your friend will now wash up, because you became a little dirty.” Jacque puts on a smile with a touch of confusement. “Ah bien, merci`. I give a cloth and water to his friend. “I'll just write a letter in Spanish for the doctor so he knows what happened. I write my number there, if there are any questions, you can always call me.”
When Jacque is freshened up and the letter is written, Grant and Warren appear in the dining area awoken by all the fuss. They help the friend packing the tent and backpacks. Jacque had somewhat come back to his senses. “Hey Jacque, I'm Sanne. How do you feel?” I ask him. “I feel very light-headed ... but who exactly are you?" He replied. “You came here to the camp with a friend, like me, that is how I know you. You were just out of consciousness for some minutes, but you`re back again. To make sure you are alright we got you a jeep coming to take you to the hospital. They`re going to examine what happened. Your friend will come with.” Jacque nods, obviously only half aware of what is going on.
The jeep arrived and we wave them off. “Thanks for everything!” says his friend. “You're welcome! And let me know how things go at the hospital.”
That night I could hardly sleep. All sorts of images pass through my head. “Grant, do you think it will be ok to climb the top tomorrow? What if something happens to one of us? There will be nothing we can do….There is no phone coverage, nothing there ...” “Calm your farm Sanne, sometimes it is just bad luck. Let go of your fear, don`t let it affect your adventures.” He is right. The next morning we leave early for our mountain climb to 5330 meters in altitude. Every 200 meters, I treat myself to a break to catch my breath. It's heavy, but I do not give up. Even if it will take me 10 hours, I must and I will reach the top. It was foggy and therefore impossible to how long is left to the top. And then.... finally.... the snow. A sign from the mountain that the top will not be much further. One last ridge that doesn’t seemed to come to an end and then... “It's here!” Warren shouts from the fog. “You are almost there!” And with my last steps I walk toward him and Grant. I let myself fall on the ground and close my eyes. “Freaking well done chick!” I think to myself.
A few days later we arrive in Bogota. I open my email. There is a message of Jacque. All the results were good, it was indeed an epileptic seizure. He had bitten his tongue, what had caused the wave of blood. The scans didn`t show any signs worth worrying for. It was probably a combination of height, marijuana and alcohol. Fortunately, a happy ever after.
After a burn-out it was time for a change. I quit my job, sold my stuff and bought a one-way ticket to the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 4 month adventure turned into 2,5 years and counting......
Photo by: Vanessa Marques Barreto