3:30 am and laying in bed with throbbing, pulsing legs. One of the reasons people visit Salento, Colombia is for a hike through Cocora Valley. I woke up yesterday and decided that as long as I was close, I would go and check it out. I love to hike, but I have a terrible habit of being underprepared and going walking far beyond my means. What drives me crazy, is that I have done this at least ten times…left for a hike without enough water, not having proper shoes, and walking to exhaustion and forgetting that I have to turn around and walk back. There have been night hikes that I started in a small jacket and flip flops, only to find that others were prepared with hiking boots, headlamps, and coats. I tend to overestimate my ability while underestimating my need for supplies and this trip would be the same.
The first step to get to Corcova was a jeep ride from my ecofarm La Serrana to catch another jeep to the park entrance. As I prepared to leave, one of the volunteers here mentioned that four boys were also going and we could share the jeep ride. He also swayed me from wearing my flip flops and suggested that I rent a pair of rubber boots instead.
I boarded the van with the four boys and did the usual traveler chat…where are you from? where are you coming from? traveling to? I learned they were from Australia and spending the next months exploring Central and South America. They were traveling with surfboards and exploring some amazing sights. They had plans to do some volunteering in Peru and hoped to make it down to Patagonia. On our short ride into town, I enjoyed chatting with them, and we wandered to the grocery store to buy a few essentials before our hike. This would have been a good time for me to purchase more water, but I didn’t. I also figured the crackers in my bag and the half a roll I wrapped in a napkin because I didn’t want to waste it from breakfast, would provide a solid snack.
When we arrived at Corcora, we got started and I was immediately happy to have the boots. While they were VERY heavy on my feet, they offered dry and warm protection from the mud… sometimes up to six inches of mud that we climbed through. My feet sank and pulling back out of the mud gave an extra pull on my legs. I was also immediately happy to have travel companions and vowed to keep up with these guys who were almost half my age. We climbed over river stones and walked across many rickety “bridges” made of logs where I put my weak balancing skills to the test. We traveled straight uphill for about four hours…I was dying! The elevation made it harder…I had to conserve my water…and those boots that offered great protection, felt like ankle weights when covered with mud. I kept walking uphill, praying and counting my steps the whole time. In rough hikes, I always figure I can take 50 more steps, so I walk for 50 and rest for 10 seconds. That keeps me moving and provides achievable mini goals to celebrate. I felt slower than the guys at times, so when they stopped to rest, I kept going so I could get ahead. We were a live version of “The Tortoise and Four Hares” with me remembering the moral of that tale…”slow and steady wins the race.” We heard the hike was five hours in total, and after our four hours uphill, we had yet to see even traces of the beautiful wax palm valley that we had heard so much about. Four hours in, and we saw our first posted map. With some collaboration, we decided we missed a turn and had to head in another direction. We got back on track, and found that walking down the muddy trails challenged a whole different set of muscles as well as our ability to balance while walking down the slippery slopes. I was keeping up…for the most part…but had the sense they might have traveled faster without me. The guys were funny and gracious and always there to give me a hand up a hill when I needed it. Sometimes, we would come to a fork in the road where they could take the daring path sliding down steep and hidden hills while I took the regular downhill route. I would always beat them to the bottom so I could see the daring adventures that often left them sliding on their butts down the mud.
We walked downhill for about two hours and that felt great. Then, to my horror, we found that we had one more mountain to climb. I was out of water at this point and as soon as we starting using those “up muscles” again my legs were a cramped mess. It was raining and became quite chilly, and the cool air changes helped to make my legs tense up. About 18 months before leaving for the trip, I started going to the gym every morning before school. This act has change my traveling experience for the better in many ways. There is no doubt that being on the road tests my endurance and stamina. I have found that the gym routine has increased my confidence for hard tasks and minimized that “out of breath feeling and aching legs. But this last mountain tested all that. It was so hard, but eventually I struggled to the top. When we reached the summit, there was a place to sit and my twitching legs enjoyed those minutes. There was a family who built a house on the mountain who told us we had one more hour to walk and it was all downhill and the beat best news was that we would be walking on a road. We headed out..me leaving a few minutes early for a head start, and after all that uphill walking, I was actually able to spend our seventh and final hour doing a mixture of walking and jogging. It felt great! I reached a gate and before deciding to climb it, I sat down and waited for my team, and enjoyed about 20 minutes of quiet time before they arrived. We walked a bit more and finally saw what we came here for…the valley filled with wax palms. These are the tallest palm trees in the world and each one grew so tall that the tips were covered by clouds. I have never seen anything like it, and the pictures just don’t do them justice. We stayed in awe for a bit before making the final push back to the area where we could find a jeep back into town. As we walked, we passed a field filled with roaming cows and horses and enjoyed a 360 degree view that was purely amazing. Seven plus hours of hiking…mostly uphill…all worth it in the end, but as always, I ended the journey saying I would be better prepared next time.
Those Aussie angels were a Godsend and I felt really glad to be along on their walk. I am not sure how that whole trip would have shaken out if I was alone, but I’m glad I don’t have to find out.