MM Collection
Checking in from the Condor's Nest on Illimani, Bolivia. MM Collection
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July 31, 2017

The Tough Guy Killer: Adventures in Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

In the shade underneath the thatched roof choza, I looked one last time at the bottom of my coffee cup. This was day two of our expedition in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, and it was spent arranging passage from the local Kogi shaman into their lands of overwhelming green, wildly steep mountain sides, and equatorial glacier-clad peaks. After some lengthy negotiations we received a hand-written permit for us to journey into the indigenous Kogi tribal land. Time to pack.

Preparing breakfast underneath the choza.

Mateo working out the details of our passage with Kogi leaders.

Packing up.

Like stepping out of a stormbound tent and into a wicked, cold blizzard, I left the cool shade to face an altogether different extreme, one also of undesirable discomfort - think hot yoga, but with the equatorial sun beating down on you. We were about 10 degrees north of the equator at about 1,200 meters, so to think in six days we'd be walking on glaciers, climbing Colombia’s highest peak at almost 19,000 feet, seemed implausible at best as we melted in the sweltering heat and humidity.

Kogi village with the mountains high above.

But, with permit in hand it was time to move on. Stepping intothe lush tropical forest with a few machetes in hand to occasionally clear the trail we begin the arduous hike to Colon. We said our goodbyes to the Kogi villagers and children we'd met and started what would be a lot of walking on some challenging, unrelentlessly steep trails. What lay ahead was about 15,000 feet of elevation gain, including what locals referred to as the amanza guapos- the “Handsome Killer,” or what we decided to call the “Tough Guy Killer.” Whether or not we would be tough enough was to be determined.

Where's Waldo?


Kogi children hanging out with Mark.

Our team consisted of Colombian climbers Juan Carlos and Mateo, both of whom work with Mountain Madness in El Cocuy National Park; and four porters, Vincent, Minjo, Oscar, and Benedict, all from the small town of Palmor. Carrying large bags of coffee beans and working in the fields in the mountainous terrain more than qualified them as tough guys for sure, and three of them had been up the  Setai Valley to high camp for Colon, so we had a solid team to take on this amazing challenge, an expedition maybe more about the journey than the goal.

Getting ready for the Tough Guy Killer.

Town.

At 18,700 feet (5,700 meters), Colon is the world's 5th most prominent peak; which is as defined in wikipedia as, "the height of the peak’s summit above the lowest countour line encircling it but containing no higher summit within it." Clear as mud that definition, but in the company of the top four most prominent peaks of Everest, Denali, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Separate from the Andes, this relatively unknown range has stayed out of the imagination of climbers, explorers, and trekkers alike for numerous reasons. Impenetrable forests, indigenous tribes denying access, and armed guerrillas roaming the range made it a less than appealing, if not an altogether dangerous place to visit. But, with locals' trails more known, the wars over, and some patient negotiations over the years by Juan Carlos with the Kogis, the time was right for this adventure to happen.

On day three, we walked along raging rivers strewn with huge, brilliant white boulders; the bubbling waters collected from the convoluted, twisted topography of the mountainsides that drain into these beautiful rivers and eventually flow into the Caribbean Sea. Butterflies, hummingbirds, oropendulas, parrots, toucan, and birds too numerous to name glided through the dense understory among giant ferns standing 30 feet high, groves of Birds of Paradise, and exotic plants too diverse to identify. 

Dense tropical forest down low on the trek.

Crossing rivers.

As we climbed higher we passed through slash and burn sites where Kogi grow corn, bananas, and other crops that sustain them. Eventually we reached the cloud forests and our camp near a mamo, or shaman hut. Here, as would happen every day of our trek into the alpine zone, we encountered different flora, all unique to the different altitudes and ecological zones we would pass through. It is within this altitudinal gradient that one begins to realize the incredible number of different species that exist here and the incredible diversity that lies within this vast sea of green. 

Camp for the night, with the “Tough Guy Killer” up and to the left.

It was a difficult, eye-opening day to what lay ahead. In the evening an almost deafening, but pleasant sound of frogs croaking and lightening flashing on the distant ridges gave us a surreal, magical feeling as we dozed off for the night, exhausted from the first of many 3,000 foot days of hiking into the alpine zone. 

Day 4: The Tough Guy Killer – I learned most recently from an expedition in the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda that locals' trails generally go straight up; on our nine-day trek there we encountered only four switchbacks - I kid you not! In the Santa Martas I expected the same, especially on the Tough Guy section, which consisted of no switchbacks, tunnels of bamboo and other uncompromising vegetation, all in swetlering tropical heat. It was, for lack of any other way to describe it, the real deal…

In recent years the trail was used by FARC guerillas, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, who moved through this wild terrain finding hideouts, running from the military, and connecting a network of trails that allowed occasional visits to villages where they would resupply from Kogi’s food stocks and recruit unwilling villagers, including children, to join their forces. Unimaginable.

Getting into the business of the “Tough Guy Killer.”

We survived the Tough Guy, which notably lived up to its reputation, and arrived at the Dove Camp, another shaman encampment. Here, a slightly leaning hut built on centuries old Tayrona rockwork, gave us shelter and a certain mystique. The clouds swirled over the rocky ridges and peaks, as the sun sank below the distant ridges. The Kogi are descendants of the Tayrona, an advanced civilization that evaded Spanish colonial expansion until 1599. Unlike the relatively quick work the Spanish made of defeating the Incas, the Tayrona held back the Spanish for years before finally becoming subjects of the Conquistadors. Some Tayrona, however, fled into the highlands; leaving the coast and subjection to Spanish in favor of a life in the foothills in the great, but challenging, Santa Marta Mountains.

The Dove Camp.

Evening at Dove Camp.

Having travelled throughout South America over the years, and being immersed in the prolific prescense of the Inca Empire in tourist attractions, it was fascinating to see another facet of ancient culture on the continent. The ever-knowledgeable Juan Carlos filled me in on the details of this magical place, ending an amazing day exhausted and intrigued as much as I have ever been on my travels across the globe. 

More blogs to come. In the meantime, here is a link to the new trip: Caribbean to Glacier Climb & Trek