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Lessons from Chingaza

I woke up early and prepared myself a solid breakfast of eggs, an Italian bread roll, and avocado all topped off with a nice warm cup of fresh Colombian coffee. Shortly later I was in Andres’ 4x4 with three other Americans on our way to Chingaza National Park’s páramo. While it was some one-hour and such away by car, our tour began well before then. Along the way Andres made sure to share his knowledge and delight use with some facts about the surrounding area.

If you know your flora, you may for instance be surprised to see quite a few pines and other foreign species hanging around the city as you gained altitude. The explanation is however relatively simple. Some 50 to 60 years ago the city dwellers were a little too exuberant in their use of firewood. As such, what now is a lush forest of 40-50 feet trees and underbrush was nonexistent back in the day. In fact the whole mountainside was razed clear. In an effort to reclaim the land they however put foreign instead of local species in their place. Luckily, while this may not be historically accurate, the local wildlife does not seem to mind all that much and have made this foreign forest their own in due time. This is only one interesting fact of a multitude that Andres made sure to impart to us.

Our first stop was along the side of the road roughly another 30 minutes from our destination. Rumor has it this unassuming roadside stop has the best arepas of the city and this place is teeming with locals during the weekend eager to get their hands on this prized treat. Luckily for us, it was only a Wednesday so we did not have any trouble. We each ordered an arepa con queso with some fresh juice or their hot sugar cane water, aguardiente, and dug in. This corn-based cheese filed delight was definitely more than worth the less than 1 dollar it cost and the best I have tried since here. Warning though, arepas are an extremely regional treat and will change from region to region. So, if you have tried them before do not be surprised if they taste differently and instead be sure to enjoy the variety.

Thirty minutes later we hit a sign that announced that vehicles were no longer allowed and that we needed to continue on foot. We were now some 3000+ meters in altitude or nearing 10,000 feet so my recently arrived Americans compatriots had to take a second to get used to the altitude. We gently made our way up to the park entrance to sign in and receive a brief summary of the park and its unique inhabitants. To our pleasure we discovered we were the first, and only tourists on this day. Regardless this entrance is limited to some 160 people a day due to preservation efforts. As such you are always sure that pristine nature awaits you.

Finally it was time to head off. Due to a weak rainy season, only 30% of expected rainfall at the time of our visit, the trail started off relatively dry. Over the course of an hour and through the power of altitude, this however quickly changed. As we ascended, the earth gradually felt softer on our feet and we started meeting little pockets of water. Frailejones, rosary shaped plants that are unique to the páramo, that were initially small and at ground level were now two to three meters tall. Instead of being sparse they branched out and dotted the landscape, marking their natural territory.

We were also greeted with an abundance of brightly colored lichen. While some forms look like moss, this organism is actually very unique. It is not a plant and has no roots. It is instead a sort of fungus without any actual cell walls. Due to this it is very sensitive to airborne pollutants. Thus the fact that our eyes had the privilege of being dazzled by this organism meant that we were now breathing some of the freshest air on earth.

The air was however not the only fresh and enjoyable aspect of this hike. As we continued just a little further we came across a small fresh water stream. Apparently the abundance of frailejones and other plants traps ambient water and rainfall and transfers it to the soil and various waterways. Due to our high altitude and lack of any developments or pollutants this meant that we could simply plunge our hands in and enjoy some of the freshest water I have ever tasted. In fact 100% of Bogota’s water supply originates from such streams and is collected by dams and aqueducts further down. After minimal treatment, one of the best tap waters in the world is ready to be sent to the city.

After crossing this stream the path was no longer soft but flat out mud and water. In high rainy season Andres actually has rain boots available to the hikers that join him. Due to strategically placed stones and by walking close to plant roots we were however able to avoid the worst of it. It does seem though that it is not unusual for somebody to accidently get a foot stuck for a few seconds due to bad placement. All of this is part of the fun and joy of the hike though and makes the upcoming reward that much better.

A little while later one of these rewards appeared as we came upon our first lagoon. Due to the high altitude that at times traps the clouds, we were however faced with a body of water to which we could not see the end or what we knew to be the surrounding mountains. Instead we were faced with a dense fog that blocked our view and let us wonder and imagine how big this lagoon really was. Fortuitously for us in such altitudes and winds the weather quickly changes. After a few minutes of chatting and hydration the cloud quickly dissipated revealing the full beauty and expanse of the lagoon. In that instant and due to the ephemerality of this sight we could in some measure understand the religious significance that indigenous populations place upon these bodies of water to this day.

To our delight two more still awaited. Due to my verbosity in this post I will however abruptly stop here and let you imagine the rest. Not mentioned were numerous bird sightings including some incredible hummingbirds and a plethora of anecdotes and nuggets of knowledge from Andres. I hope that from these few words I gave you a little peak and sense of the joy and wonder that this tour brought to me. In reality however, words cannot do it justice. To really understand this unique ecosystem and know what comes next, you have to experience it for yourself.

I hope to see you soon and until next time, Matthew

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