Adventures at Altitude

After leaving Medellín I headed south to the region known as the “coffee triangle”, for this is where all of the famous Colombian coffee is grown. In addition to coffee, in recent years the area has taken on growing flowers for export (a huge business), plantains, bananas, asparagus, and adventure tourism. There is also a lot of bamboo around (beautiful!) – I think some is for harvest and some is just naturally growing. The triangle is formed by the three cities of Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia. I headed first to Manizales.

Manizales has the most number of universities per capita in Colombia. Fully 1/4 of the residents are students, with females outnumbering males 3 to 1. All this youth around gives a nice vibrancy to the place, but it also makes me feel old! The city has “abrupt topography”, meaning lots of steep hills and great views. The main avenue is at the top of a saddle, and the neighborhoods fall sharply down away from it. The city is building a network of cable cars (aerial trams) similar to Medellín’s, which is nicely progressive and forward-looking. It’s also a bit higher elevation than Medellín, so I’m back to chilly nights and daily rain showers. My hotel is a few blocks from the public market which is fascinating to wander around. A sea of chaos.. dozens upon dozens of vendors shouting their wares (“3 avocados for 1,000 pesos!” ad infinitum), mystery meat entrails dangling from hooks, street children and mangy dogs running around, piles of unidentifiable exotic fruits.

Mom asked me what I do on a daily basis.. good question. Well, I start at 5am with calisthenics, followed by an hour of meditation, then an hour of studying Spanish. Oh wait, that’s what I SHOULD be doing… what I actually do is wake up around 8, go find some breakfast (more on this later, but I’m getting really tired of the same food over and over.. it’s impossible to find variety). I usually catch up on the news over breakfast by reading articles I’ve downloaded to the iPhone – The New York Times, BBC News, and Huffington Post all have good iPhone apps. It’s ironic that I’ve become more informed about U.S. politics since leaving the States. Then I’ll spend anywhere from a few hours to most of the day just walking.. exploring the town, finding sights or neighborhoods I’ve read about.
During all of this walking I’m listening to podcasts, which cheers me up and keeps me connected to the world I left behind. Some of my favorites: A Prairie Home CompanionThe Rachel Maddow Show; Countdown with Keith Olbermann; PRI’s America Abroad, Science and Creativity, and Studio 360; The World’s How We Got Here; Real Time with Bill Maher; TED Talks; This Week in Tech (actually, almost all of the shows on the TWiT network are excellent); The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Sharpling; Seven Second Delay; and assorted yoga and Spanish language lessons.
I usually pop into a net cafe or find WiFi to check my mail and blog a bit. Then it’s evening, the time when it’s most difficult being alone. When I’m feeling self-confident, I’ll find the Zona Rosa and maybe wander into a couple of bars or clubs. But I don’t usually stay for long, since I don’t have that kind of extroverted personality that can just walk up to random strangers and strike up a conversation.. particularly with the language gap. So I might watch a movie instead or just chill in my hotel room.

I have to say honestly that the charm of being in a foreign country has worn off. I’m finding myself more and more annoyed by things rather than enchanted by them. But perhaps all I need is a change of country. I only have a bit left to see in Colombia (Cali, mainly) before crossing over to Ecuador, which I’m looking forward to. Although I will only have three weeks in Ecuador, because I’m aiming to meet some friends in northern Peru the last week of June. Not sure if I mentioned before – my friends Jessica and James Chance, whom I met at Spanish school in Guatemala and then traveled around with for a bit, have been hired by a group of Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries to shoot their 10 day mission trip way up in the mountains in Peru. Jessica wrote to ask if I would like to meet them and provide a bit of atheist foil after all the piety they’ll be immersed in. Of course! So I’ll breeze through Ecuador faster than I probably would if I didn’t have this date, but it will be worth it to see those guys.

Anyway, back to describing the past week..
Besides the coffee farms (which I wasn’t that interested in seeing, having seen a few in Guatemala and Nicaragua), the big thing to see around here are the massive mountains of Los Nevados National Park. I signed up for a day trip which took in a number of different sights. Waking up at the ungodly hour of 6 am, I looked out my window to discover cold rain and terrible visibility. Hoping against hope that the tour would be cancelled, I went down to the front desk who informed me cheerfully that it was still on. Huh.
There were about 12 of us on the tour, I was the only gringo. I met a group of friendly Chilean women in town on business.. I think the others were mostly Colombians. After a couple of hours drive we stopped for a traditional breakfast. The woman next to me proceeded to take the cheese from her arepa and stir it into her agua panela. Yuck. Piling back into the van, we drove up and up, finally entering the park proper and edging closer and closer to the massive volcano Nevado del Ruiz.

The volcano erupted in 1985, completely burying 25,000 people and the entire town of Armero as 10% of the ice core melted, causing landslides and mudflows 60 metres thick. From Wikipedia:

The night the volcano erupted, a fluidized mass of rock fragments and gases fell into the Lagunilla river, creating a megatsunami of mud, ash and water. It is estimated that the wave was traveling at 300 miles per hour as it hit Armero. Traveling through the narrow Lagunilla river, it gained speed and power as it hit the plains of the city. It took less than 15 minutes from the time of the eruption to the time when the city was gone.  The city was buried in ash and mud and remains buried to this day, much like the city of Pompeii.

We drove past the Olleta Crater, Moon Valley, and the Black Lake. The landscape was surreal. I don’t think we were actually above the tree line, instead it was earily barren due to all the lava flows. One “bridge” we drove across looked like it was just built on solid land, not bridging anything.. and then I realized it was originally built across a river which had since filled with lava, so it only recently became solid land. Fortunately we stopped for coca tea frequently, since it got colder and colder the higher we drove. Finally the road ended and we started hiking.. or more accurately, panting. By this point we were up at 5,000 metres (16,400 feet), which is by the way just shy of the height of the Mount Everest base camp! Many people in our group didn’t even attempt it, choosing instead to hang back at the safety hut. But you know me, I was determined. The lack of oxygen was surreal. I would take 20 slow trudging steps forward, then have to stop for a minute to catch my breath. I felt lightheaded the entire time, occasionally even nauseous. Some people got raging headaches. The guide and our military escorts, of course, were hardly affected.

On the tour with us was a classic girly-girl who wouldn’t be out of place living in the Playboy mansion. She kept posing for the boys everywhere we went. She had an outfit for every activity. But I have to hand it to her, she tromped through the mud in her pristine white boots, and was the first one up the mountain. Although she lives in Miami now, she grew up nearby, so I guess her body can handle the altitude. She reminded me of the character in Legally Blonde – at first you judge her by her cover, but after a while come to respect her.

The fog and clouds were pretty and strange – one minute you couldn’t see 20′ in front of you, the next minute the wind would shift and you’d suddenly notice that crater over there you hadn’t seen before. No wonder all the warnings – between the white-outs and the gases, one could easily get disoriented up there. The volcanic ash caked on my shoes looked like concrete, it took a good scrubbing later to get it off. After playing in the snow, we came back down for more tea before piling back into the van.

The terrain we drove through is a unique ecosystem called the páramo. It’s a type of tropical alpine grassland that supports over 5,000 plant species, the majority of which are endemic, “adapted to the specific physio-chemical and climatic conditions such as the low atmospheric pressure, intense ultra-violet radiation, and the drying effects of wind.” The cute (and weird-looking) mountain tapir lives up here too.

Next stop: hot springs! There are a number of thermal springs in the area, and we stopped for lunch followed by lounging in the hot pool at one of them. It was heaven. I’ve always loved a nice hot spring, particularly after freezing my butt off. Hot springs have that wonderful ability to act like a hot water bottle inside your body long after you get out – it keeps you warm for hours afterwards.

That evening the Chileans and I hung out for a bit which was nice, although challenging since our conversation was entirely in Spanish. They were very patient with me. The next day I headed down the road to the second of the three cities of the coffee triangle, Pereira. Pereira (pronounced “peh RAY uh”) is about the same size as Manizales, but feels a bit more modern. Partly this is due to a large earthquake in 1995, in addition to the tragic earthquake of 1999 in the neighboring town of Armenia. Like Rotterdam reinventing itself after the war, Pereira had the opportunity to rebuild using modern designs. They have modern plazas and malls, a bus system like Bogotá’s with dedicated lanes and elevated stations, and a lot of palm trees and flowers planted in the medians. The downtown has a nice vibrant pedestrian feel to it, less clogged with traffic than most other cities. Pereira is also home to a lot of universities and the zona rosa is likewise filled with college kids.

My last night in town I went out with a local woman I met through Couchsurfing. Isabel was wonderfully gracious – she took me to two bars that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own – exactly the reason I’m so excited about Couchsurfing. Although her English is pretty good, she refused to speak it with me, telling me (correctly) that I needed the practice. I never realized before how much I zone out or drift off during conversation – this was an excellent excercise in being 100% present in the moment. Since I had to concentrate on every single word in order to comprehend her (and still only got about 80%), I had absolutely no room to let my mind wander. It was exhausting, but a really fun evening. We talked about everything under the sun – traveling, living, friends, passions, art.. she is an artist herself.

Tomorrow I’m meeting up with Eloisa for another fun-filled weekend.. this time to hike and stay in cabins in a national park. Stories and photos to follow…


Written by in: Colombia | Tags: ,


  • Say says:

    Not a fan of weird-ass sculptures, apparently. Me, that is. Definitely a fan of you sharing them, though. I’ve been insanely busy, not realizing how much I’d missed your writings until I had a moment to return to them today.

    As usual, I NEVER tire of the thrill of knowing you are out there in the world, following your heart in a way most only dream about.

    I miss you, and the rain…

  • Eddie says:

    Amazing terrain–stark– and I love the contrast to the sculptures in city– a great page to read.
    Thanks to your links, I now know what “arepas” are– We will not serve you our local truck’s pupusas when you come back, nor sugary, melted cheese floats. Promise…

  • […] figured out how to listen to my favorite podcasts again, even after having the iPhone stolen. My Palm Treo (which was my backup, now my primary […]

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