I was excited to leave Bogotá.
Don’t get me wrong, the city itself is vibrant and unique. With one of the best flea markets I’ve ever seen, street art-inspired boutiques like Cefiro Tejido and numerous museums (I especially enjoyed Museo Nacional), there’s always something new to do.
I hadn’t even been in Colombia for three weeks, but I knew I wanted to venture into the mountains surrounding the city and put my tent to use. Having planned my trip as an escape after a few particularly stressful months at work, the chance to depart from routine was a major factor in deciding to come to Colombia. I wanted to go somewhere far from anyone I knew to take a break from flat cities and email. I was already behind on my plans to do so, finding myself stuck in Bogotá with no idea where to find fuel for my camp stove. Propane/butane canisters that are relatively easy to find in other countries were almost nowhere to be found in Colombia and there would be no food for visitors to purchase in the national park I would stay in.
After my friendly hostel manager, Inbal, surprised me with his own spare fuel I strapped on my backpack and, following the advice of the hostel receptionist, took two sweltering buses to La Calera, a small town outside the capital.
Once I arrived, I was frustrated to learn that the bus I was supposed to take into Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Chingaza didn’t actually exist. From what I could tell, it never existed, and my hostel staff were confused. My options were to either take a bus back into Bogotá, or pay a taxi to drive me an hour to the park entrance, which would cost me twice my daily budget.
With my giant backpack buckled around my waist, I stood out. It was getting late in the afternoon and I couldn’t sit on the side of the road and hope for a miraculous solution. I had to decide where to go quickly, or else I would have to hope that I could find a guesthouse with a vacant room in La Calera. If one existed, I would undoubtedly be forced to overpay as an obvious tourist with no other options.
Begrudgingly, I took the taxi into the park, eventually relaxing as I looked out my window at vast valleys and mountains that were magnificent in their scale and silence. They were already beyond my grandest expectations for this place. Blue and green in the shadows, yellow and brown in the light; if not for the road, I would have thought them untouched. I was fortunate to have a perfect weather forecast that weekend. The chill of the mountains would be tolerable thanks to endless sunshine, the bright blue of the sky populated with lush clouds as if painted in place by Georgia O’Keefe.
After arriving at the gate at the outpost called Piedras Gordas, I paid the driver and went into the park service’s cabin to pay my entry fee, only to learn that the nearest campsite was an hour and a half further into the park. An hour and a half by car. And my taxi was already gone. I was at a loss for what to do. My internet research back home led me to believe that this national park would be full of tourists and Bogotános. After all, it is right on the edge of the most populous city in the country. However, save for one local family, I was the only visitor in the park that weekend, and the only one without my own car to reach the campsite.
I was exasperated, discouraged, and after trying to be a good sport all morning, my smile was starting to chip away. The three biologists that staffed the cabin began brainstorming. They didn’t want to disappoint me but mood in the room was pessimistic.
I could turn around and leave immediately, they said. A couple of their friends were going to drive down to La Calera for lunch, where I could wait for the next bus back to Bogotá. Or, one suggested, I could stay at this outpost for a few hours.
He explained that another group of national park staff would be driving in later in the evening. There would be space for one more in their pickup and they were going to the campsite I needed. I breathed a sigh of relief. This particular deus ex machina materialized as if from a fantasy. It seemed too good to be true, but unless I wanted to accept defeat I had to go with it.
I exhaled and removed my backpack. We couldn’t be sure when they would arrive, so I decided to wander the small paths surrounding the park entrance to pass the time. A muddy trail led away from the cabin into yellowish hills covered in strange plants called ‘frailejones.’ I had seen photos online of the half-cactus, half-palm tree-looking flora, but I was surprised to see how many of them were taller than me. Later, one of the park employees would tell me that frailejones grow about one centimeter every year. They didn’t feel especially tough or durable to the touch, but somehow many of them have stood there since before my great-grandparents were born.
The sky grew darker and the air colder. I turned around and went back inside. While I waited for the truck, the young park staff inside invited me to join them for hot chocolate and to try to watch the Simpsons in Spanish using their limited internet connection. They proudly told me that they know for certain that there are more than a dozen individual Andean Black Bears in the park (the only species of bear on the continent), as well as ocelots and condors. They explained what frailejones are and how important PNN Chingaza is in providing water to millions of Colombians. And then, before the episode finished, a white pickup truck carrying four passengers arrived at the gate.
A short middle aged man, a portly woman, a gangly man with shoulder length hair, and a woman with a bouncy ponytail stepped inside the cabin, launching into a round of hugs with their young colleagues.
We shook hands and introduced ourselves before Alejandro (the long-haired guy) tossed my pack in the back of the pickup. We piled into the back of the truck with Maria (the ponytailed woman) and were quickly on our way, winding through the mountains on a gravelly road in the dark.
Everyone was curious about me. Did I speak any Spanish? Where was I from? Why did I want to see this place? Could they practice their English with me?
This last question turned out to be our entertainment for the journey. I would ask them questions about themselves in English, and they would have to answer in English. Then they would ask me questions in Spanish and I would have to answer in Spanish. We stuttered, laughed, and broke the ice in minutes.
At one point, our driver pulled over to the side of the road and shut off the engine. Alejandro and Maria told me this particular spot on the road was where they could find half-decent cell reception and he needed to make a call.
We stepped outside the truck, and, with our surroundings mostly shrouded in inky darkness, looked up. The clear black of the sky allowed us (well, mainly me) to marvel at the stars filling it so densely—like glitter on paint. Back home in Chicago, the tiny lights that occupy the night sky come from skyscrapers, not stars. I didn’t want to blink.
Alejandro, Maria, and I spent a few minutes trying to distinguish Mars from Venus and I spent a few more trying to memorize that sky.
Before long, we arrived at Monte Redondo, where I would spend the weekend. Maria and the others insisted that it was too cold a night for me to sleep outside in my tent. She led me into their station to a room in the back with two bunk beds and zero bodies. This would be the only time in close to three months that I would have a room to myself. Although I had been looking forward to camping, I was glad for the luxury and promptly passed out.
The next morning I woke up, made myself a pot of oatmeal with my camp gear, and laced up my hiking shoes, ready to explore. I stepped outside to admire the mountains around me and heard the sound of small footsteps nearby. A doe was strolling across the dirt, maybe ten feet away from me. She looked up, unfazed, and slowly walked on.
I went back inside and excitedly told the others, who were entirely unimpressed. They told me a group of deer lives in the area and they’re always wandering through. If I was interested, however, I should join them for the day and see what they do.
There were six or seven us, so two of the guys hopped in the back of the pickup with backpacks and long rods that they use for harvesting seeds and nuts from trees. We drove maybe a mile before getting out of the car and heading toward a tiny path behind a building that housed staff from the water reclamation department.
The air was cold, but with the sun beating down on us, we stripped off our jackets as we walked uphill, then layered them back on once we reached the top of the mountain. We had to hop around sections of the trail that had become muddy streams—a task that proved difficult in sections that were especially shrubby or dense with trees.
Panting (at least I was), we made it to the top in no time and sat down in the yellow grass. We looked out over an enormous green valley framed by lush mountainsides that were both peaceful and commanding. The rare kind of view that is so beautiful, it shuts you up.
Alejandro tossed us a bag of oranges and trail mix and told me about his life in the park. He works 12 consecutive days at Monte Redondo, and then spends eight at home in Zipaquira, a town about an hour from Bogotá. Almost of all his companions were biologists with different professional interests. Ecotourism is increasingly popular, but he and Maria worked in conservation.
“For me,” he said, “this work is perfect. For me, the city is no good, but the mountains are perfect. I love it.” It was clear he did, and so did the others. Reclining against trees, one of which was Alejandro’s favorite species, or sitting in the dirt, they looked far more comfortable than anyone I’ve ever seen in an office chair. I admired their passion and satisfaction with their work.
They explained to me that we were at the edge of the boundaries of the national park. The valley that we were looking at has been owned by a few small families of farmers for generations. Each one depends on their land and livestock to feed their families and generate a small income. Everyone wanted to tell me about a boy who lives on one of those farms. He hikes up the mountainside to sell cheese and loves to play soccer with the park rangers.
“It’s a hard life in the mountains,” Alejandro said.
We walked back down the mountainside to where the water reclamation staff would treat us to lunch. I learned how delicious plantains are with guacamole, took the usual teasing for my vegetarianism, and hand fed the beautiful deer roaming around the building.
Over the next twelve hours, I watched a soccer match with the guys, saw the tiny bunks that staff sleep in, and helped Alejandro water his “babies” (the seeds and sprouts he would reintroduce to the park once deemed strong enough).
He and all my hosts were dedicated caretakers of the park. They had become a tiny community, consisting of only the people who appreciate the beauty of the mountains and the challenges its ecosystems and inhabitants face. While many visitors have walked the trails in Parque Nacional Natural Chingaza, I was fortunate to see it from the perspective of the people who call it home and work ceaselessly to protect it. I’m glad I made the decision to trust friendly strangers offering me help at the start of that weekend. I could have turned around and returned the hostel but from then on, I would never regret gritting my teeth and saying yes to chance, fortune, and the unknown. I never did have the solitary hiking and camping experience I had planned on in Chingaza, but I left knowing the mountains more intimately than I would have otherwise.