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taking a stroll in the hills

El Cocuy National Park: I’ve left it too late to try to record this experience in words – sitting in an apartment in Bogota with swish of cars on rainy streets. The hum of fridge. Static of florescent lights. Wi-fi.

The silence is gone.

A never empty silence filled with the seep and trickle, the rush and roar of water. Constant movement. The teeth and bones of the earth exposed. Those peaks, too, are fluid, plastic, the forms curved and moving still, settling and shifting, rising, falling. Immense but fragile. Contingent. The ice caps shrinking, receding.

Blue curve of sky above – intense, brilliant. A soaring wide winged bird circling high.

A sudden plunge into glacial water. Then stretch, shivering, out on sun-warm rocks.

The rumble and crack of falling ice. The night illuminated solely by starlight. Fog. Clouds above, below. Stony windswept vistas and glowing valleys. Still pools of water gathered in stony bowls. Reflections and light fill me to the brim. Tiny plants curled around boulders, clinging to life in sheltered nooks and crannies.

Thin air. Step following step, climbing, descending.

Clouds swirl, snaking up valleys and spilling upwards in defiance of the gravity that rules the earthbound, blocking out light and warmth  transforming the world in an instant into a cold grey eerie place. A shifting, writhing, insubstantial, disorientating place in which sudden fissures open onto the incandescent sunlit world lying in a parallel universe that exists only inches away and yet totally unreachable.

Leaving Guican, at 3000 metres, at around midday. My plan is to walk up the road to about 4000 metres and camp for the night in order to acclimatise to the altitude but I'm not too worried as I was cycling at around 4000 metres a day or two ago.

Walking on the road, the world is still inhabited.

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This women, who runs a small roadside shop where I stop for a drink, is enthusiastic in the face of my interest in her work and demonstrates a fine poncho she has made of hand spun wool and dyed using lichen and other natural plant dyes. If I wasn't on bike tour, I'd get one.

Roadside colours.

First stop is at the Cabanas Kanwara at around 4000 metres. Most people get transport up here and then spend a couple days in the cabins acclimatising, but at 38 000 pesos for a bed I camp across the road from the cabins as the more economic alternative. It is cold enough to want to get my tent set up and my cooking done before sunset. I'm still proud of my homemade wind shield which is made of Panamanian beer cans cut up and stitched together using copper wire from the inside of a piece of electrical cord. A nod to 'coke can' stoves without sacrificing the functionality of a Primus omni-fuel.

In the morning I set off. I have a choice between a more or less unmarked trail and the road for the first leg of the walk. Guess which I choose?

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The first pass - Paso de los Frailes - at 4365 metres.

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It gets cold up here. I've never seen a woolly faced sheep before.

The first camp site is by the Laguna Grande de los Verdes...

... where I acquaint myself...

..., intimately,..

... with...

...frailejones. I love these plants.

In the afternoon, fog draws in. I am the only person camping by the lake but these horses pay me a visit.

In the morning the fog rolls off the lake...

...where a pair of ducks disturb the almost perfect surface.

Zooming in on...

... the details...

... and zooming out to the massive. There is no way I can fit it all in.

Laguna de la Isla sits at around 4455 metres and I am high above it.

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Second pass - Paso de la Sierra - at 4650 metres - affords a splendid view of the next campsite at Laguna de Avellanal. The scale is so massive it's impossible to read accurately; it took a couple of hours to reach the lake.

It is true that the islands of moss on a boggy peat base prove somewhat more challenging to negotiate that rocky mountain passes.

Frailejones, again.

I was particularly intrigued by this vivid body of bright aqua water...

... and so braved the murky treacherous sphagnam moss...

... for a closer look.

Incredible.

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Cloud loom momentarily...

...but it ends up being a clear and icy cold night. Perversely, I chose this setting to try out my new(ish) Big Agnes Seedhouse in its fly only configuration. The tent is certainly lighter than the bigger Emerald Mountain but there are definitive trade-offs in that - the most problematic of which, I'm finding at the moment, is excessive condensation.

Dusk.

Dawn.

And another stunning clear day...

...in which to explore the Valle de los Cojines - named for those innocent looking cushions of emerald green moss.

I stop to spread out my tent and sleeping bag to dry and a campesino, the same one who passed by my camp last night with a herd of sheep, wanders on by on his horse. I thought I might pass six days, on this trek, without seeing another human being but in fact only one day goes by entirely unpopulated. This man lives far, far down below...

... and the impression I got was that he and his companions were on their way to Guican for their fortnightly shopping expedition.

They live down at the bottom of this trail which descends steeply from the left hand side of the Valle de los Cojines. It's worth dropping a few hundred metres...

...to admire the spectacular waterfall that pours down from Los Conjines' swampy ground.

There's a pool tempting enough for me to jump into but the water is not a temperature that encourages one to linger.

Then it's back to the bog... which is hard work...

...and up the rocky Paso del Castillo, at 4530 metres,..

...where the next valley, a much more barren and rocky affair, is revealed.

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Clouds gather for the afternoon...

...and stubbornly refuse to lift in the morning.

Initially the lack of vista serves to draw my attention to ever smaller details:...

...these plants remind me of the hattifatteners of Moominland*...

...and these of some aquatic plant.

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But eventually the enveloping cloud produces a dank gloomy world of suddenly claustrophobic dimensions.

It is disorientating...

... and, ultimately, when I completely mislay a large lake, a little frightening.

After scrambling about on a slick rock face, slimy with algae, I retreat to a cave and contemplate the ignominy of a potential search and rescue by the park officials I blithely assured that I would be fine traipsing about in the mountains on my own without a guide.

Then, within minutes the scene is transformed...

...and the lake reappears.

But the situation is still unstable...

...and my little cave seems pretty cosy, so I hole up for there for the night.

Next morning the valley is brim full of cloud but I am in sunshine for long enough to negotiate the tricky, slippery trek around the lake's edge.

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The planet's giant teeth.

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Captain of an alien horde. Frailejones are a little like daleks, but friendlier, I think.

The internal structure of the beast.

Another spiky headed creature.

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Another pass...

...and the last valley...

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...and then there it is, a fence, a gate: the end of wild places.

Once on the road, I am not tempted to linger. I walk and walk and walk... all the way back to Guican. The total trek was around 70 kilometres, 30 of which, I walked, in about 12 hours, on the last day.

* A series of books, possibly for children, by Finnish author, Tove Janson. Any other Moomintroll fans out there?

{ 11 } Comments

  1. Cesca | March 17, 2013 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Absolutely wonderful photos of an amazing place! Lucky you took that side trip (and didn’t get lost in those mountains).

  2. Tony | March 17, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    My goodness. How do you do it? Each entry just blows me away. Firstly you have the courage, the audacity to go on these amazing journeys, then have the conviction to write beautifully with one stunning photo after another. What a treat for us here living our routine lives.

  3. anna | March 17, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Cesca and Tony, I think you two must be my most loyal followers!

  4. Peter Blume | March 17, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    What can I say. The prose and the photos are stunning!!!
    I am trying to get my overland visa this week and hope to cross at Cucuta also. I will send you my cell # separately when I get it ( if you use such modern items)
    Peter

  5. James | March 17, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Anna – beautiful photos! Thanks for the virtual tour of the bits we didn’t get to see. I think the Cocuy loop is first on the list for when we are next in Colombia, whenever that may be…

  6. Michele L. Appel | March 20, 2013 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Anna! Your email encouraged me to get back to your blog – and my oh my am I glad. And, somewhat frustrated. Tony is right, you are an incredible example for those of us stuck in a world without Frailejones. Thank you, thank you, for continuing to open up the world for me/us! (But please, be careful out there!)

  7. Alan | March 22, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Hi Anna,

    A good little program for stitching pics together is called Microsoft ICE, off the MS site. Free, small and very effective. http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/redmond/groups/ivm/ice/ Your camera takes good quality shots and it would work well with it. Those big mountain scenes go well with it. Just make sure you leave enough overlap between shots.

    I’m assuming you use a PC here…….

    Cheers,
    Al

  8. Liron | March 25, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the wonderful photos. Can’t wait to see more.

  9. Michael VV | March 26, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Simply stunning. Some of the most beautiful images I’ve seen. What an incredible place. Thanks for sharing Anna.

  10. Adam | March 27, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Simply stunning pictures, and epic journey. I hope I’ll be able in the future go that altitude on a bike… This year Alps, will see ;-). Big thumbs up!

  11. Marian | July 2, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Magical. Generous. Thank you for the depth and breadth. I went to Isla Navarino on the Dientes Circuit Jan. 2013. Remote, harsh but maybe somewhat tame in comparison. You give me courage and caution to consider this alone. Safe and beautiful travels adventurous one!

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