Our connecting flight in Fort Lauderdale was delayed a couple of hours because of a snowstorm in the northeast, but we managed to get in Bogotá, Colombia before sunset. Señor Samuel was holding up a piece of paper with our names on it as soon as we exited the El Dorado Airport Customs. He was hired by my friend Evelyn’s aunt to pick us up from the airport and drive us around because we had a few errands to run before catching the 6:30pm bus to El Cocuy. He had planned our routes accordingly to put us back on schedule. Minus the part when he locked us all out of the car by leaving his keys in the ignition, he was a really good driver and guide. [Insert nervous laugh here.]
Our first stop was the bus terminal where Evelyn’s aunt arranged for our bus tickets to El Cocuy. Señor Samuel knew we still had errands to run but because we were pressed for time, he talked to the bus conductor to see where the next stop would be so we could meet the bus there instead of boarding from the main terminal. We tried to ignore that the conductor was holding a bottle of rum and only had one working eye; we wanted him to allow us to be picked up from another stop so we were in our best behavior when the two men reached an agreement and exchanged phone numbers.
Our next stop was at 104 Art Suites Hotel in Bogotá. We weren’t scheduled to check-in until four days later, but I had arranged to drop off our non-hiking luggage in the hotel for safekeeping until we were done with our trek. Then we stopped by the hiking store in the neighborhood. Because gas tanks are not allowed on any flights, I found the closest camping store to make sure they had the tank that would match our stoves. Everything seemed like a match online when I was researching in New York, but unfortunately, the thing that had to connect to the other thing wouldn’t, so we had to leave the store without any camping gas.
We didn’t have the time to try another store or buy a whole new expensive stove system we may never use again, so we decided to just go for it and try to survive with cold food for the next three days. The Dr. had no idea that he was participating in a very Filipino attitude of Bahala Na at the time. We just didn’t have the time to sulk about one mishap.
For the next thirty minutes, Señor Samuel zig-zagged through traffic to meet our bus at the next stop. He dropped us off at a mall so we can buy food to eat in the bus–Go Frisby!–and then walked us to the street where the bus was to stop. As soon as the clock hit 7:30pm, the bus pulled up with two empty seats in front. You’re the guys from the terminal? the driver asked us in Spanish. We said yes and he loaded our backpacks under the bus and led us to our seats. We paid Señor Samuel his fee and thanked him profusely for helping us with everything we had to do in the span of three hours before we boarded the bus, so we were a little touched when he suddenly showed up standing in our aisle: he quickly got on the bus just to make sure we were comfortable in our seats. He wanted to say good-bye one more time and he wanted to let us know that the driver will let us off in El Cocuy twelve hours later.
We left our New York City apartment at 2am that day and almost eighteen hours later, we were on our way to El Cocuy, Colombia, our home away from home for the next three days. The bus ride was uneventful but much more comfortable than our economy seats on the plane from the United States. It made a few stops for the driver to take a break and for the passengers to pee, and only one of them involved gun-toting camouflaged soldiers ordering all the men to get off for inspection. It was only when a rooster that had been sitting in a box on the seat in front of us crowed that we knew we had made it. The sun was starting to rise and it was time to get off.
We were disoriented when we got off the bus. We slept some, but no sleep on a bus can beat sleep on your firm mattress at home. There was some action in the center of town and it was obvious that people had just started their mornings. I opened my Lonely Planet Guide and picked out the editor’s favorite hostel in town. We walked about three blocks uphill and knocked at La Posada Del Molino. A guy let us in after we inquired for vacancy. He pointed to the stage and sound system set up outside the hostel and warned us that it gets loud at night because of the holiday festivities, but we were in no mood to find another hostel. We just wanted to put down our backpacks and catch up on real sleep.
Six hours later, we changed and sat in the courtyard to order some lunch. We were quite disappointed that there was no hot water in the shower as advertised, but we were in no position to complain as we would have to live without showering for the next three days anyway. We were famished and we easily devoured the vegetable soup and the beef plate that came with salad, corn and rice that was served to us by the kitchen staff. It was about sixty degrees, warmer than the temperature in New York City, but there was still a chill in the air. We have been in Colombia for less than 24 hours and we were already up 9,000 feet.
After lunch, we decided to walk around town and take care of the remaining logistics for our hike. We stopped by the Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) El Cocuy Headquarters on Calle 8 No 4-74 to check-in, finalize our route and pick-up a map. We also went to the offices of the two bus companies that run the Bogotá-El Cocuy route, Libertador and Concorde, to check if their buses were running on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The clerks in both offices couldn’t answer our question, so we put a deposit for a temporarily scheduled December 24th departure and planned to hike down the morning of.
With most of our tasks taken care off–there were no camping stores in El Cocuy so we were still sans stove–we walked around town to check out the scene. We visualized our hiking route using the diorama in the park. We paid our respects and visited the town church and we spent a few quiet minutes in the cemetery. We bought a kebab and an arepa-like patty filled with ham and cheese from two street vendors and we drank our first Colombian beer. Most of the locals were wearing the ubiquitous wool shawl; the men completed their looks with fedoras. Time was slower in El Cocuy and we were still trying to pace ourselves down and absorb our new surroundings.