I don’t know how it ended up that we both don’t have a watch. Since none of our phones were working in El Cocuy, we had to leave the TV on while we slept to help us wake up at 5:30am in order to catch the lechero at 6am.
After a sleepless night, I woke up and checked the clock on the news channel that was on and immediately jumped off bed as soon as I saw that it was 5:45am. We hurriedly changed and packed our remaining items and tried to step out of La Posada Del Molino but the doors were all locked. We had no choice but to knock on every door to try and wake up the manager so he can let us out. He wearily stepped out of his room, checked his phone clock and grumbly told us that we were an hour early. He said we were probably watching the news from a different country. We embarrassingly and apologetically went back to our room and waited for the right time we can bother him again. One of us really needs to start wearing a watch.
Hikers in El Cocuy hitch a ride with the lechero, or the milk truck, up to the fork on the road and decide whether to go along the Rio Lagunillas to Pulpito de Diablo or trek up north via Güicán. At exactly 6am, we were in the center of town where we informed the lechero driver that we will need to hitch a ride from him. The town was just waking up. Deliveries were being made and store owners were opening up their shops. The driver wasn’t hard to find at all. Besides the fact that his truck is the only one filled with blue vats in the back, he usually looks out for hikers to give them a ride. When the 6:30am bus pulled in from Bogotá–the same bus we were on just the previous day–he greeted the exiting passengers carrying large backpacks.
Off we sat on the floor with the milk vats. The ride was bumpy but it was very cool to witness a slice of Colombian life like that. The driver made several stops along the way to pick up small pails of milk from local farmers. His assistant transfered them from pail to vat at each stop. At one point, a young boy joined us and took over the job. The view up the mountain was beautiful, too. We saw how green our surroundings were; the morning mist slowly moving out of the way to reveal small plots of vegetables and herbs.
About an hour or so later, we were let off and we started our hike. I was very excited and distracted by the feeling of being in a new country again that I quickly forgot we were on high altitude. What should have taken less than two hours took us almost four because I was weakened by the shortage of oxygen. I felt like I could not lift my left leg up, and with a 30-pound pack on my back, walking was very challenging even with the help of two poles. I wasn’t dizzy per se, but my stomach definitely felt funny. The Dr. kept looking back to check up on me. He was very encouraging, but we both knew I wasn’t bringing my usual game. All those nights of swimming laps for naught. I was disappointed in myself and all I wanted was to get to camp and rest but the trail just kept going.
We stopped at the first cabin we saw which was the other Parque Nacional Natural office. We had already registered in El Cocuy, so we didn’t need to do anything there except to catch our breaths and confirm that we were going the right way. After a few more back-breaking minutes, we passed by Cabañas Herrera. We sat and watched other hikers prepare for their next move. We realized that if we had a few more days of hiking, we would have camped here too to acclimate before continuing on to Laguna Pintada. That is really the way to do it: split a few hours worth of day hike into two to get used to the high altitude.
I managed to look around us and take note of the river along the way. The brown trouts would swim away whenever we approached. Cows, sheep, goats and rabbits were omnipresent. The land looked healthy, but as soon as the trail turned sandy and almost volcanic, the animals and the shrubs disappeared and the frailejónes started to pepper the landscape. Resembling hooded friars, or frailes, the plants are native to Colombia and live in high altitude. Their trunks are thick and because their leaves are marcescent (when dead plant organs remain intact versus shedding), they are protected from the cold weather. It was a little eerie to be walking among so many of them, but relief was soon visible when we saw their yellow daisy-like flowers.
Up a small hill, we asked if it was Cabaña Sisuma. After we received confirmation from the three small children running around the cabin, we climbed down the foot of the hill and began to camp. Señora Marta soon joined to welcome us. We told her about our stove problem which she solved by telling us we could come up to her kitchen and cook whenever we needed to. Camping was US$2 a day if you use the cabin’s kitchen and bathroom, but it’s otherwise free since El Cocuy is one of Colombia’s national parks. It was only 10:30am–one of Señora Marta’s kids told us–but we were already famished since we have been up since 4:30! Using our camping pots, we boiled water in the cabin’s kitchen and cooked the first cans of Korean tuna and white rice we brought with us.
After we ate, we took a quick walk around Laguna Pintada, only to retire back to our tent and sleep for three hours. For the rest of the afternoon, we hanged out in the cabin writing in my journal or reading our books. It wasn’t any warmer in there than in our tent, but it kept us from going stir-crazy because we were at least surrounded by other people. I still don’t know how those three kids survive day to day without the distraction of a television or a phone. Other hikers came in, but most of them only stopped for a home-cooked meal and then kept going. A group of four Germans actually stayed for the night on the bunk beds upstairs.
Unlike the cabins we stayed in in the Pyrenees, Sisuma was bare-bones. One long table was shared among the overnighters and the campers but because they paid more than we did, we basically had to wait until the kitchen was free to cook our meals. For the next two nights, we hanged out by the stairs since there were no more chairs in the dining room to sit on. Weirdly enough, Señora Marta had a washing machine but no heater. She herself slept in a small room in the other wing, while her three children slept in a tent in the living room. I liked hanging out with her in the kitchen while she prepared meals for the overnighters. We communicated just fine with my crooked Spanish, and a few times during our stay, she offered us this sweet hot drink made from a block of cane sugar.
What sticks in my head when I think of our trip to Colombia is how the people were so hospitable and helpful. From the bus agents in El Cocuy who tried to help us book our bus ticket backs to Bogotá to Señora Marta treating us like we were paying her to keep us warm and fed, the Colombians we met were always trying to make us feel like we belonged there. So many places we’ve been where we had to explain why the likes of us were in their country, but the Colombians just spoke to us in Spanish as if we’ve been living there for as long as they have. We never felt threatened, nor was there ever a time in the mountains we felt like we were lost and without care.