a week in the foothills of the sierra nevada

 Click the photo above for more photos!

Click the photo above for more photos!

On Sunday the 4th, we took the winding road 18.7 km from Santa Marta up to a little village* in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It is difficult to paint a proper picture of the bustling chaos of places like Santa Marta but it includes dogs and people running every which way, including in the road. And the roads, sometimes two lanes on either side, are congested with cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles and bicyclists weaving around each other and honking with communicative honks, such as “I’m passing you” and “you cut me off!” And with all of this chaos, stop signs are merely suggestions and people cross traffic constantly and seemingly, without injury. We’ve grown rather savvy at crossing traffic too—it is a must because no matter where you are, the thing you want is on the other side of the road. (Don’t worry mom and dads, we’re very careful!)

Leaving Santa Marta for the hills was like taking a long hot shower after an amazing weeklong camping trip. Each mile towards the village of 800 people sloughed off human impact giving way to exponentially more (breathtaking) nature. Though, the one-lane road up the mountain meant cabs, cars, buses and motorcycles utilized the opposite traffic’s lane to pass each other. As nutty as it all sounds, there is a magical flow to it all. 

We arrived in the early morning exhausted. We haven’t had a good night’s sleep for a couple weeks even though our place in Santa Marta was sanctuary-like, it was also very hot and humid keeping me from diving into a deep, restful sleep. And prior to that … Cartagena with its amplified music until dawn. Our first priority was to find a café to sit for a moment and get a dose of caffeine.

The cab let us out at the entrance to the village and we noticed the temperature shift immediately. As well, we noticed many more bugs than Santa Marta, but joyfully the air was cooler and far less humid.

We arrived too early to connect with our AirBnB host so we plopped down at an outdoor café (or so we thought) and asked for coffee. The woman cooking indicated that she wasn’t open but yelled to a round woman wearing a stained apron making coffee about 20 feet away, who quickly rushed over with two tiny plastic cups of coffee. I don’t like coffee unless it is over-sweetened but I imagine that by the end of our trek through South America, I will grow to appreciate it. Tea, my drink of choice, is far more available in Colombia than I anticipated, though not always and certainly not in the kind of spot we found ourselves the first morning in the village.

After John drank both coffees and paid the friendly woman who brought them to us from next door (when I say “next door” there are no doors and few walls—much of it is open), we headed up a rocky path to towards a house with no address. Our AirBnB host, a German woman who fell in love with this village after traveling the world for a number of years, wasn’t very thorough in her explanation of where to find her place. She said “go straight” when there was a very important left we had to take to get there. After hiking up an unpaved, uneven, somewhat steep grade—and going up a number of wrong paths— and just at the moment we both started to lose our cool, we heard “you who!” and saw a silver-haired woman waving her arms in the distance.

After an all-too-brief orientation and unexpected list of things she asked (oh so kindly) for us to do while in the house, and how to care for the two dogs and two cats, she and her partner ventured off for a week at the coast while we settled into a house with very few walls.

The photos make the house look far more luxurious than it was. A bath outside on a second story balcony. A big, beautiful bedroom with net over the bed. An amazing second story deck. Beautiful wood table in the main area. Of all these features, the best was the deck, where we sat when the bugs weren’t around and where our hand-washed clothes hung to dry. The bathtub is a fun idea but the effort to clean all the nature out of it, fill it with somewhat warm water and run the risk of running out of water didn’t appeal to us.

The bedroom was beautiful but other than some not-so efficient screens, it was completely open to the elements. As such, all valuables are left downstairs, where a locking door between the first floor (with walls) and the second provided some security. Though, security isn’t an issue at all. In small villages like this one, everyone looks out for each other, tourists too. The bug net was a Godsend and even though there were a million flying, creeping, crawling bugs, I only got one bite the entire time. I did, however, get a number of bugs flying up my nose and into my mouth once the sun set and the interior lights called these flame obsessed critters out from the jungle.

The sound of the jungle/forest in the middle of the night was out of this world. Nature comes alive at night in the pitch black and being surrounded by the hums, chirps, clicks, moans, rattles, hisses and knocks was unnerving and humbling. A couple nights, I struggled to get back to sleep after waking to the out-of-tune symphony of the Sierra Nevada, which seemed to grow louder and louder the harder I tried to sleep. 

We made most of our meals at the house. While there were cafés and bars in the center of the village, our house was far enough away that it wasn’t convenient. Most meals included eggs, chicken, tortillas and arepas. I fell in love with one of the house cats, Agatha, who returned the feeling and spent each evening curled up in my lap as I read or sketched. We had no internet which was a blessing and a curse (made planning the next phase of the trip a little tricky).

During the week we decided to hike up to a nearby coffee farm (finca), the La Victoria Coffee Farm. Working off a hand-drawn map, at about an hour and a half in when we thought we should have been there already, we soon learned we still had another hour and a half to go. The hike was steep and uneven. Technically a road, though not paved and only skilled 4-wheel drive vehicles or moto-taxis (motorcycles) could travel on it.

By the time we arrived at the finca, it began to pour. And of course, it was late in the afternoon, making us keenly aware that our visit to the farm would have to be short and sweet, so we could hike down before nightfall.

We had a delicious lunch and a locally made beer, then took a quick tour with the new owner of the farm who is a German guy about our age. We sat with him for a bit, enjoying a cup of his coffee (mine with lots of sugar) and then ventured off for our trek home. Going down is always faster, but not necessarily easier. My feet were terribly sore with each step and John’s (replaced) hip was a little achy. We were both drenched in a mix of sweat and rain but we made it down 5 minutes before nightfall. Of course, not without stopping at the café/tienda along the hike for a glass of pineapple wine (a fantastic excuse to rub my feet) and then at a café at the base of the hike for another beverage. We felt accomplished by the journey and promised ourselves that we will get much earlier starts to future hikes so we don’t have to rush any part of it.

The following morning John woke up feeling a little coldy. We took the day off from exploring to rest and rejuvenate. Unfortunately, our terrible sleeping luck continued in this otherwise tranquil spot. The owner’s dogs, who she required stay outside at night (so hard for us to honor this request) barked all night long. Ugh. One of the dogs, the owner’s favorite, Lola, was a bully to other dogs and seemed to pick a lot of fights day and night with nearby dogs. In spite of our junky sleep, John felt better by the afternoon and we went into town.

As we wandered to town, we noticed people cleaning their porches and preparing candles for the evening. It was December 8th which is a holy day the locals celebrate as the day of the immaculate conception, and which kicks off the holiday season. Prior to the 8th, there were no lights, ornaments or Christmas décor of any kind. We missed the photo opportunity to share how this little village marks the importance of the 8th, with candles—they call the celebration ‘Dia De Las Velitas.’

There is a very progressive non-profit in the village called Misíon Gaia “that works to increase the wellbeing of the communities of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. [Their] aim is to develop socio-environmental programs that help address the basic needs of the local communities and promote sustainable use of natural resources. [Their] work [is] in three principal areas: animal health and welfare, sustainable tourism, and environmental education.” We had the opportunity to talk with some of the people who lead the organization and decided to sign up for a bird watching walk that financially supports Misíon Gaia the following morning at 6AM.

Morning came quickly and John did not feel well at all, but he rallied. We were picked up by a small man in a big, old 4-wheel drive Jeep who said “Fidel.” We nodded and smiled (something we do a lot these days) when moments later when a man with a big personality, Telenovela-style dressed in fatigues wearing a vest with many pockets, a jungle rain hat and binoculars around his neck, hopped in the front seat and said, in a masculine voice, “¡Buenas Dias!” 

The Jeep took us up to the half way point we’d hiked on the way to the coffee farm where we got out and followed Fidel for 3 hours in search of birds. John and I were given high quality binoculars and we chased after Fidel as he tweeted (not online, with his lips) various bird songs. I am not sure how many beautiful birds we saw, but it was impressive. The list included owls, Toucans and parrots. Birds in Colombia are brilliantly painted and the songs are remarkable.

At one point in the process, Fidel decided he was hungry and stopped to have breakfast at one of the cafes along this path. This was hedging on the third hour and we were exhausted. We were probably supposed to join him as so many tours (anywhere in the world) lead people into places where they should buy something from the locals. We sat and watched birds while Fidel ate.  

Eventually, we wandered back down the road, not before a puppy adopted John and followed him all the way down the hill. By 9AM, John had a full-blown cold and it was time to get him back to the house and into bed.

John spend the next 2 days tossing, turning and coughing. He had a slight fever for a day, but we got it down quickly with lots of TLC. I took care of the house, pets, food and ran errands for medicine and the like. The last full day we were in town, I once again headed into town to add more minutes to our phone and get supplies for dinner and breakfast this time hoping to make it to the panderia (bakery) for a treat for John, chocolate bread.

A few days earlier we had been 100 pesos short at a fruit stand and the seller couldn’t make change for a 500 peso piece. So along the way I stopped off to repay him and thank him for his kindness. As I did, a grey cat with white paws walked by me brushing my legs (so many affectionate cats) and wandered into the road. Not an unusual event, as dogs and cats wander in the road all the time—some dogs even curl up in a ball and fall asleep IN THE ROAD. As far as we've seen, vehicles do an amazing job avoiding the animals in the road.

It was an unremarkable, pleasant moment that quickly changed.

I heard the putter of a moto-taxi coming up the hill and called the cat. The cat stopped to look at me and just as the moto-taxi drove by, the cat leaped the opposite direction (without looking) and into the moving front wheel of the motorcycle. My memory, which has been haunting me ever since, the wheel caught the cat’s face and left paw and flipped over with the turning of the front wheel. I yelled “No!” and “Shit” and “Gato!” The motorcycle, which wasn’t going fast, didn’t stop. I went for the cat, who was spiked on adrenaline and ran like lightening down the hill. I chased after him but he vanished nearly instantly into one of the million cracks in the village. I looked for him under cars, in nooks, ditches and in stores with no luck. Locals didn’t seem to notice the situation but they certainly noticed the crazy, white woman frantically calling a cat and clearly holding back tears. There were far too many holes in the village that I shouldn’t explore as a tourist, and my limited Spanish meant that I couldn’t explain the situation to anyone. I was crushed.

I still had to get water and a couple food supplies before I could hike the hill home where I could break down in tears. I felt like I failed for not being able to find the cat and get him medical help. And I felt accountable even though the motorcycle was fully responsible for not giving a wide berth on an otherwise empty road, to avoid the cat. (Had the cat not moved, the moto-taxi may still have swiped him—he was that close). In an instant, I went from feeling open-hearted and making connections with people and place, to feeling angry at the apathy of the locals (or my perception of it). Had this occurred in Portland, I thought, every single person would be searching for the cat with me.

Going up that long, uneven road was difficult. I was short of breath from holding in my wailing tears. By the time I got home, I collapsed. I managed to get the words “I’m okay” out to John, who pulled himself from the bed to comfort me. It’s been a week and every time I get close to relaxing or falling asleep, that moment plays on a very, very slow loop. 

I wondered, upon arriving to the Colombian coast, where animals roam freely in conjunction with vehicles, how cats and dogs don’t get hit (though, knowing the reality of things). I had put that curiosity into a little box in my mind labeled “don’t think about this.” Reality is painful—I understand why people avoid it. 

The next day we left the village. John was disappointed at having been sick for almost half the visit. Neither of us felt we embraced all we could/wanted to in the short time we were there. After scrubbing the AirBnB (we are over-achiever guests) we headed into the village to catch a Jeep called a “collectivo” into Santa Marta. This is a cheap and easy transport down the hill. Once 4 or more people arrive, they go. We had 9 people in our Jeep.

We are very glad we visited the village in the hills of the Sierra Nevada and we could have easily stayed many weeks more (in a different space). We missed a lot and I wanted to get involved with Misíon Gaia especially after the incident with the cat. But alas, the south is calling us. So off we go.

*Because tourism can vastly alter the beauty and culture of places with Google’s help, I won’t be listing names of untouched or somewhat untouched places we visit. If you are curious, please send me a note and I will be happy to tell you where we are referring to!