The night before our hike I tossed and turned, I was anxious and excited about our trek. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be hiking in the Andes mountains. Yes, the same Andes from the terrifying movie Alive. The film that haunted my childhood. The 1974 film told the true story of a plane crash in the Andes and how the survivors resorted to cannabalism in order to survive.
I was keeping Ol awake with all of my worries. Would we be able to keep up with Ivan and our young native guide, Evan? Should we have trained more? Maybe we shouldn’t have indulged in as much of the Colombian cuisine as we have these past few weeks? The town of El Cocuy is 9,022 feet elevation, would we suffer with altitude sickness, since we were not acclimating slowly? How far was the hike? I didn’t want to over do it on our first day …. worry, worry, worry.
Before I knew it the 3:45 am alarm buzzed. It seemed I had just closed my eyes. Ivan knocked at our door and we all made our way downstairs and into the jeep where our driver Oscar waited. The ride up the mountain to the park entrance would take a little over an hour.
Ol, being “muy grande,” got the front seat and Ivan and I were crammed in the back with Evan and our gear. I was excited to be living my dream, but somehow in my head it had all seemed a bit more glamorous.
As we made our way up the rough mountain road, Ol gripped the hand rail above his seat and I jostled between the side of the jeep and Ivan. The diesel fumes were strong, so despite the cold I opened my window and was treated to a star filled sky and a view of the brilliant north star on the horizon. The headlights bounced off of cows and horses hurrying out of our way as we passed. While I was receiving a bruising, I was surprised to see Ivan was sound asleep. It would not be the last time I envied his youth on this day.
Just as daylight was peeking over the mountain, we pulled into a rather interesting compound. An assortment of ramshackle adobe buildings and makeshift farm structures with a rural church and a neglected community center. The residents were obviously struggling to eek out a living in this sparse mountain environment.
At first Ol just thought our driver was greeting a friend and then we found out that this was where we were to have breakfast. In an hour we had climbed considerably higher and as we entered the house, we could see our breath. Clothes hung from the ceiling and the room was partitioned with old sheets. It appeared as if the housing area also doubled as a roadside store. The ceiling and walls were composed of an assortment of materials and the electrical wires were exposed. The living room, consisted of a metal table and chairs.
We were told that we could sit at a long wooden table which had an assortment of benches and chairs. A middle aged indigenous man then served us a traditional breakfast of fruit, bread, cheese, eggs and hot chocolate. After we ate, our driver started bringing in our gear. As he spoke no english, the only word I could understand as he spoke to Ivan was “economical.”
I didn’t want to be rude to our host, but I was freezing and I didn’t see a fireplace or any source of heat. I am a girl who has no problem roughing it, but when we were shown the shed in the back that was to be our room, I looked at Oliver with sheer panic. I think it may have been a barn at one time and was now converted into two rooms, with a bathroom in between. A thin piece of tin was all that separated the rooms from the barnyard animals and their smell.
I knew I couldn’t do it. Politely, I tried to explain to our driver I needed hot water and was shown the bathroom with electrical wires hanging from the shower head. Ol, just shrugged and said we didn’t really have a choice. We knew the area was remote and we had no idea where the trailhead was, we needed to trust our driver. Reluctantly, we left our gear on the bed and we piled back into the jeep.
We drove a little over a mile up the road and we pulled in front of Hacienda La Esperanza (3,500 m) 11,480 feet, the place I had originally planned to stay to acclimate. Just as I started to protest, Ol shot me a look and said that we can stay here tomorrow. Right now we needed to focus on the hike ahead of us.