Our climbing tour of Colombia started in a place called La Mojarra, located just south of Bucamaranga on the Mesa de los Santos. We had read about this place on the internet and had seen pictures but when we followed the directions there, we were at first thoroughly confused because all we could initially see were lots of tobacco farms, no rock walls. Because it was getting dark and we could not find what we thought we were looking for, we decided it was best to just look for a place to sleep and continue our search in the morning. After several unsuccessful dirt road camp spot missions we decided to just ask the guy at the gas station if it was alright if we parked out back. “Of course” was the reply. We have found, through the help of our Australian friends, that out back of gas stations are a great option for camping for a night. They are generally run by families, who live there as well, they have bathrooms, it is free and they typically have all night security.
In the morning we asked the woman in the gas station about the climbing nearby. She gave us the first of many directions she would explain to us over the next week as Jed would continuously return to ask her questions, insistent that she had a crush on him.
Our problem with finding the place the night before was; one, that we had not gone far enough and two, that we were up on top of the mesa already above the cliff. We spotted a hostel, El Refugio de La Roca, a little ways down the road and stopped to check it out hoping to find some information on the climbing.
This place was recently purchased by a young Colombian couple and is a working progress, but the location and the work they have done so far is amazing. It is located right on the cliff line above the climbing and the beautiful valley below.
Our plan for La Mojarra, a sport climbing crag with only about 130 routes was to spend a week or more there and get some strength back before heading off to the big mountains of El Cocuy. Unfortunately, after only two days of climbing we both caught a bug that knocked us on our arses. Jed caught it first and had a long night of the feverish haze, but mine hit me hard and took me out for three days. Lucky for Jed, it was now the weekend and local climbers had arrived so he was able to still climb and make some new friends.
We met one couple, Giovanni from Colombia and Christine from New Hampshire, who were living nearby, just below the mesa. In a friendly gesture they invited us to stay the night with them on our way down from La Mojarra. I think they were a little surprised when we actually called them up three days later and asked if we could take them up on their offer. After being on the road for six months I think we have lost all bashfulness when it comes to offers of hot showers, internet and beds.
I am glad we did take them up on their offer though, because it led to getting to know some great people. And with a sudden change to our immediate plans of heading out to Cocuy the next day, turned to waiting for the Australians to arrive so we could all go together, we had the weekend to kill. Giovanni and Christine had heard word of a new climbing area, La Florian, being established approximately 5 hours south of us and had been wanting to check it out. The pictures we had seen were amazing. We were in!
We parked the truck and camper for the weekend and hopped in with them. What was supposed to be a five hour drive ended up being around ten and we didn’t actually arrive in the town of La Florian until midnight. We rolled in to the small town, found a hotel and went straight to bed. Nevertheless, somehow word got out that “Gringos” were in town and by 7:30 the following morning the mayor of Florian and entourage were downstairs to welcome us to town. We were officially the first gringos in Florian!
As it was dark on our way in, we hadn’t seen anything of the climbing area the night before, so we were blown away when two minutes out of town we looked up and saw a tall limestone wall with a cave in the middle of it and a two tier waterfall flowing from the cave. It was beautiful! It would have been worth the visit even without the climbing. But the climbing was spectacular as well, albeit hard. All the routes that have been put up so far are 5.11 or above running along the stalactites on the overhanging walls along the inside of the cave.
It was a great weekend and we were glad we got the opportunity to check out this amazing spot that we may have never otherwise found. And to meet a great group of Colombian Climbers.
Back in Bucamaranga we met up with the Australians in order to partake in our typical back roads caravan out to Parque Nacional El Cocuy. The roads took us through a maze of elevation and landscape changes, ranging from sweltering cactus strewn hills to freezing mountain passes.
Being so close to the equator Colombia has little for seasonal temperature changes. You pretty much know what you are going to get every day, but dependent on your elevation this could mean year around cold, year around hot, or year around spring! We traveled through a mixture of all three on the road to Cocuy.
Finally arriving at nightfall at the beautiful national park, we set up camp right at our trailhead. We were already over 12,oooft, and the plan was to hike approximately 3,000 ft more the following day up to our climb, the Pulpito de Diablo (Devil’s pulpit). We packed to spend four nights up in the mountains. The hike in was shorter than we had heard, but nevertheless with gaining elevation that quickly it was a struggle. We set up camp in the designated camping zone about 500ft below the Pulpit.
It was beautiful! However, after five months at sea level in Central America, driving up to elevation in one day and hiking in and setting up base camp at around 15,000ft turned out to not be our most brilliant idea. After a night and most of the following day spent combating fierce to debilitating headaches and nausea, not to mention freezing cold weather with spurts of rain, we decided around 3pm the second day that retreat to the lower elevation was critical.
This was my first ever taste of elevation sickness and it is definatley nothing to mess around with! Luckily it was nothing that a walk down, a warm camper, hot tea and some mac & cheese couldn’t fix.
Waking up the next morning to more inclement weather, we decided that a second attempt was an unnecessary endeavor and chose to head off towards our next destination, Suesca.
But first a warm camp next to a cool river was in order. “Puffies to bikinis” was the order of the day as Jed so eloquently put it.
The road to Suesca was surprisingly beautiful! We hadn’t heard much of anything about this area and we were blown away by the landscape. (If you can’t tell we are loving being back in the mountians!)
We arrived in Suesca, a place we had heard to have some of the best climbing in the country, a label that usually implies gorgeous scenery, and were at first dissapointed by the dumpy town that greeted us with the backdrop of a huge cement factory. A local, when asked, pointed us to a free place to camp up on top of the cliffs outside of town, which we learned was a lucky invite as they usually don’t like people to camp there. The next morning, waking again to a dreary drizzle, we decided to direct our efforts towards acquiring clean clothes instead of climbing. In town for merely half an hour and the Australians, with their cute accents, had us adopted by a lovely family they had met on the streets and asked about a laundry mat.
The family invited us back to their finca (farm) to do a couple loads of laundry. We sadly learned that the large Colombian family of 5 children all now grown with families of their own, located all over the world, had gathered back home because of the recent passing of their mother. Despite the circumstances, they we very welcoming to us and interested in our journey We spent the afternoon with them, were treated to a wonderful lunch and exchanged stories of our travels with their lives growing up on this farm, originally dedicated to growing flowers for export. It was a wonderful experience to get to know such an interesting and widely diverse family. I can only imagine that the mother was an amazing woman to have raised such.
We finally got around to climbing the next afternoon, getting to reimburse the Australians for all the over our head surf spots they treated us to throughout Central America.
With the fun climbing and the great locals we met, the town was quickly redeeming itself from our first impressions. After a week there we had grown to quite enjoy it and if you just looked out from town in the opposite direction of the factory towards the green valley and the cliff faces it actually was a beautiful place.
We spent one day climbing with a friendly local we met, whom in conversation on our walk back to town humbly mentioned in response to a question of work that he holds conferences. Confused, we asked what kind of conferences. “Oh, I show pictures and talk about climbing Everest without Oxygen”
You know just typical work… for maybe a handful of people on earth!
After our time in Suesca we spent about a week more cruising through the rest of Colombia. The National Park de Nevados, our next planned stop was unfortunately closed due to volcanic activity, but in skirting around it we drove of Colombia’s scenic coffee region and picked up a bag of the best coffee so far on this trip!
We stopped for a day in the Valley de Corcora, on a tip from our new botanist friend, and we knew instantly why she recommended this place. Towering through this beautiful valley were hundreds of wax palms, Colombia’s national tree.
Colombia was definitely one of my favorite countries thus far. It is chock full of wonderful people and beautiful landscapes. It has us very excited for the rest of South America!
Not to mention the fact that Jed finally found a country where he is in style!