The rules go something like this:
1. Stand behind the line, 5 metres from the clay target
2. Hold the “tejo” in your preferred hand with your forefinger wrapped around the side and your thumb supporting underneath
3. Hurl the steel disc toward the target with the main aim of hitting, therefore setting off, the small package of explosives jammed into the clay
Well, that’s how we interpreted it anyway! Playing tejo in Salento was a night I won't quickly forget. I had read about Tejo, a sport only known to be played in Colombia, and was immediately drawn to the sound of a “sport” whose main components involved beer and explosives!
Photos: (L) Wade lining up the perfect Tejo shot and (R) Hanna and I putting on our best game face!
Tejo bars can be found in certain small towns in Colombia, Salento being one so when we arrived in Salento late at night, what better to do than dump our bags and head out for a night of Tejo! While our interpretation of the rules was not exactly perfect, we weren’t too far from the truth. It is free to play as long as you order drinks, and there are no soft drinks or juices here kids!
Each player takes turns in throwing their “tejo” or steel disc at the target. The target is a clay pit on a 45 degree angle and in the middle is a metal ring. On the metal ring, there are 4 packages of explosives so that when a tejo hits the explosives, they in turn press against the metal ring and set off the BANG! The best shot from each turn, wins the points for that round. Change ends and continue until someone hits the explosives. Simple!
Wade, Hanna and I had been given a crash course in the game from the Spanish speaking, 70 year old Juan who ran the bar. After showing us the ropes, Juan brought us our beers and then sat down and chuckled with his female companion at our pathetic attempts to hit the targets.
It was probably an embarrassingly long 30 odd minutes before Wade finally set off a BANG! We quickly instilled a rule where the losers must immediately down their drinks before continuing with the game. I think this was Juan’s favourite part of our poorly interpreted rules!
When we looked at the clock and saw that it was midnight, we made the executive decision to head home seeing as the real reason we were in Salento was not at all for Tejo, but in fact for the beautiful and unique Valle de Cocora.
Valle De Cocora is a place that needs to be witnessed to truly be appreciated. I had seen photos of it while we were planning this leg of our journey but photos only scratch the surface of what this place really has to offer.
We woke up early after our exhausting night of Tejo and walked into town to jump in the first Jeep heading out to the valley. I think Salento has commissioned every 1990’s Jeep ever made because they seem to be the only available transport in the entire town! The valley is a twenty minute drive from the pretty town of Salento but this stunning white washed town pales in comparison to it’s natural counterpart.
The valley can be experienced either on horseback or on foot with various walking trails covering the many different landscapes in the area. Wade and I had opted to walk the full seven hour circuit of the valley while Hanna, a natural horse rider, chose to join a convoy and ride in.
The walk begins by weaving alongside a river through farmland and small homestay accommodations. Before long, the countryside disappears as we were slowly surrounded by rainforest. The trees seemed to appear out of nowhere and suddenly we found ourselves crossing rushing rivers on poorly constructed bridges and hopping over wet, mossy rocks. The walk was more strenuous than we had anticipated and soon we were weaving our way up the wet rainforest gully and working up quite a sweat along the way. Some of these walking tracks continue on for days though the rainforest and surrounding areas but we chose to simply head to the Humingbird sanctuary, deep in the rainforest before completing a loop by climbing up out of the rainforest and being rewarded by the views of the valley at the end.
Photo: (L) The beautiful open views of the valley and (R) us ready to tackle this seven hour walk
The Hummingbird sanctuary was a lovely place for a short break and a hundred or so blurry photos of these ridiculously fast birds! Wade rested, while I became frustrated at the fact that the Hummingbirds would sit and sip the sweet nectar left out for them but the minute I picked up my camera, they were off again! The sanctuary is home to some eight different species of Hummingbirds, all native to the area and only attracted by the natural nectars provided by the local family living here. No bird are kept captive here which made it all the more special to spot so many different species in our short 20 minute visit.
As we took off again, we discovered that the worst of the walk was yet to come. It was all up hill for the next 2 hours but the view at the top was well worth it. As the landscape changed from rainforest to pine forest, we slowly emerged to find ourselves at the top of the mountain. The view was incredible and worth every hot, sweaty minute.
It was at this stage that we realized we had not yet seen anything that looked even remotely like the photos we had seen of Valle de Cocora. Not wanting to sound ungrateful for the magnificent views around us, we shrugged and took off on the descent that would eventually weaved back down to our starting point.
It was as we weaved around one such corner, where the pine trees gave way to the valley below, that we saw one of the most fantastical views I have ever witnessed. It was like something that only Disney could possibly create, in some land far far away. From the small grassy opening in the forest, we could see deep down into the open valley where hundreds of 50 metre tall Wax Palm trees littered the otherwise farm-like landscape. It was quite simply incredible.
Photo: It is a crazy and unique sight seeing these ridiculously tall wax palms popping up seemingly out of nowhere!
The closer we came to these trees, the more mesmerizing they became. I don’t know about you, but I generally associate palm trees with white sandy beaches and crystal clear blue oceanic waters, NOT countryside valleys in the Andean mountain range of central Colombia! The wax palms found in Valle de Cocora are unique to this area and the tallest known variety of wax palms in the world.
Even more interesting is that this valley is a part of the Los Nevados National Park, which we had also visited during our hike to Santa Isabel Glacier weeks earlier! Glaciers and volcanoes in the north, palm tree filled valleys to the south…. Colombia you amaze me!
Photo: (L) Sarah in Santa Isabel Glacier in the north and (R) Wade in Valle De Cocoa in the south. The differences between these two areas of the same National Park are simply incredible!
As we had now made our way into the valley and amongst the palms, the last hour of our walk was spent craning our necks to look up at the trees rather than our previous view from high above them. Unfortunately the clouds came over right as we had the perfect photo opportunity but at the end of the day, as I said earlier, photos don’t quite give this place the full justice it deserves. It is an incredible and varied landscape that consistently amazed us throughout the day.
We spent the night back in Salento, enjoying the local specialty, Baked Trout along with a few friends we had met earlier in the day. We would have loved to stay in Salento for a few more days, but sadly by this stage, our extended time in Colombia was beginning to eat into the time we had allotted for our next destination, Ecuador.
Salento was also where we sadly bid farewell to Hanna, who we had now travelled with for over 6 weeks! While Wade and I are more than content with one another’s company, travelling with Hanna provided a new perspective on our journey. She brought new conversations, opinions and ideas to our adventure (not to mention plenty of laughs!) and we loved every minute of our time together. Wade was also going to miss an almost daily conversation whereby he and Hanna compared things such as the cost of living, taxes, house prices and general life perks in both Australia and Switzerland!
Our plan from Salento was to make our way more or less directly to the border between Colombia and Ecuador. It was nostalgic realizing that our time in Colombia was almost over, but we felt great satisfaction with the amount of ground we had covered and all of the wonderful places we had visited.
Crossing into Ecuador meant that within a few days we could get to work planning our trip to the Galapagos Islands, so really, moving on wasn’t going to be so hard after all!
We arrived in Manizales late in the afternoon on a day of equal importance to the locals as Independence Day. Colombia was facing Brazil in a football match in Miami which was to the locals, a rematch of the World Cup game that saw Colombia kicked out of the competition. We learnt of this match when, upon arriving in Manizales 90% of locals were decked out in Colombia jerseys and there was an air of excitement around the town.
Wade, Hanna and I checked into our hostel and decided to have a few beers while making our plans for the following day. Upon our arrival, the young guy at reception suggested two different day trips for the following morning. One was a full day trip to a volcano, hot thermal pools and an historic church while the other was a shorter trip involving a three hour walk up to a Glacier and breakfast and lunch on a local farm. Before even finishing our first beer we all agreed that the trek to Santa Isabel Glacier in Los Nevados National Park sounded much more interesting even though the guy had assured us that you don't get to go ON the glacier, just near it. After all, the volcano day trip was mainly spent in the vehicle and we were much more interested in doing something active.
That night we packed into an authentic Colombian "Irish Pub" to watch the football match. Sadly the two months since the World Cup were not enough to change the result and Brazil won again, 1-0.
Saturday morning came and our alarms sounded at 4am. We had all slept for around 4 hours after kicking on for a late dinner and beers after the football match. The tour guide would be collecting us from our hostel at 5am before heading out to breakfast on the farm. My hiking pants had what now looks like a trivial splash of mud on the cuff so I decided to get them washed along with our other dirty clothes and instead wear my denim shorts. After all, Manizales was in a reasonably warm and sunny region of Colombia.
We jumped in the car with a small bag of essentials, sun cream, water, a bag of nuts and a long sleeved top each just in case it got cold closer to the glacier, but hey we weren't going ON it, just near it so a vest and long sleeves should be plenty warm enough.
The first sign that something was wrong was when we noticed the bamboo hiking poles in the back of the 4wd. Secondly, our guide looked prepared enough to hike Everest, but we just figured that he was the pro and had all the right gear because this was his job.
We stopped off to buy some water and the guide reiterated how important it would be to stay hydrated during the trek. He mumbled something about thin air and lots of water so we grabbed a few extra bottles between us.
After breakfast as we sat around laughing and sharing stories with the other English speaking travellers in our group, our guide interrupted us to give us a bit of a rundown of the day. It was now 7am and we had another 1.5 hour drive "up the mountain" before arriving at the start of the trek. We would be walking a 6km round trip before returning to the farm for lunch and then heading back to town around 6-7pm depending on how long the walk takes us. The math didn't quite add up. 6km should take an average person around one to one and a half hours to walk even if it was up hill, not the 5-6 hours he was estimating! Next our guide explained how important it was to keep the car windows open for the next leg of the drive so we can acclimatise to the altitude. Alarm bells had been niggling at the back of my mind for a while now but this had the whole damn cathedral going off in my head loud and clear!
After a brief private discussion with our guide, Wade, Hanna and I established the following:
1. the walk would take around 5-6 hours NOT 3 hours
2. at "the top" we would be able to walk ON the glacier
3. we would be starting the walk at 4200m and trekking up to an altitude of 4700m (around 1500m higher than Wade or I have ever been)
4. The temperature could drop to below 5 degrees as we neared the top
And finally 5. Wade and I were ridiculously underprepared, under dressed and uninformed about any of this!
We explained our to our guide that this was all news to us and he laughed when he realised that neither Wade nor I had long pants or a jacket. I'd love to know where he thought we had been smuggling them all this time as our bag was barely big enough for the extra litres of water we had just purchased. He said he might have a spare jacket for one of us depending on the size and would check when we arrived at the mountain. Sorry Wade but I secretly hoped it was my size cause there was no way I was climbing onto a glacier without at least one more layer on my already shivering body.
As our 4wd climbed the steep and bumpy road to the National Park I started to get a headache. I assumed this was just the lack of sleep combined with a few beers last night and now the incessant bumping and shaking of the 4wd over a never ending unsealed road. The further we climbed, the more I wished I had brought my big, warm, waterproof jacket that I left back at the hostel…. Not to mention a pair of long pants!
After a long 2 hours of driving we arrived at a carpark and crawled out of the car. Our guide walked towards Wade and I like Santa Claus with two almost perfect-fit, wind jackets in his arms. Finally some relief from the cold and best of all, for both of us!
It was also at this starting point on the walking trail that we saw a sign listing the following (also previously unmentioned) precautions:
* If I had my way, I would also add that hiking in short shorts and summer clothing is also not recommended, let alone drinking copious amounts of beer the night before doing the trek but hey, who am I to correct the Colombian National Parks Rangers!
We all started commenting on how it didn't make sense that 6km would take us 5-6 hours and compared the time/distance to other walks we had done recently. In our well educated opinion surely it would be more like 3 hours.... MAXIMUM.
One of the girls in our group had a GPS watch and within the first 400m of the walk we had all come to a halt puffing and wheezing like ten-pack-a-day smokers. The air was thinner than I ever could have imagined. Almost all of us had ripping headaches and some were already feeling muscle and joint pain. I will happily argue with anyone who says altitude sickness is a myth as the five of us leaned on our hiking poles composing ourselves and trying not to waste oxygen on conversation.
One, then two hours passed. The breathing was becoming easier as we settled into a rhythm however every short hill climb was followed by a 2-5 minute break and our group slowly began to stretch out as some struggled more than others. It was becoming more difficult to remove my right hand from my walking stick as the cold was causing me to lose feeling in my fingers. As for my legs, they didn't hurt a bit because every bare centimetre of them was numb to touch.
The landscape was a breathtaking contrast of snow, rocky outcrops and sparse vegetation as we climbed against the turbulent winds scraping down the mountainside.
Wade and I shared what looked like an intimate moment as we hugged behind a rock for a few minutes in an attempt to warm up even a little bit. It was the only place we could find relief from the freezing cold wind and two hugely under dressed bodies contained more body heat than one!
As we started to see small piles of snow scattered amongst the rocks, the cold air intensified to the point where I was a freezing, coughing mess and Wade's nose was physically dripping without him even knowing due to a lack of feeling in his face. We pushed on in silence as a few members of our group threw in the towel and returned to the warmth of the cars waiting at the base of the trek. It was a shame seeing as there was one last summit before the huge white mass of the glacier appeared in front of us.
After three hours and 15 minutes of huffing, puffing and shivering our way up the mountain, we finally set foot on Santa Isabel glacier. It always amazes me to see glaciers so close up as they seem to roll down a hill before suddenly coming to a complete stop. My favourite part about glaciers is the cracking and groaning of the ever moving, ever changing ice underfoot. It is a hauntingly real reminder of the struggle these natural formations are facing with the everyday battle of global warming.
Everyone sat down for a short break and a few photos on the glacier. It was an incredible sight, but in reality our job was done and I think it was around 10 minutes before everyone agreed that it was simply too damn cold to stick around any longer so we began the slow climb back down.
Photo: Yay, we made it!
Now do the essentials such as take selfies, throw snow at one another and then get the hell off this freezing cold mountain!
The walk down was much easier on the lungs but presented a new pain in the knees and legs brought on by the steep slope and lose rocks. During the return journey, Wade and I unanimously agreed that we would need an extra day or two to acclimatise as well as a few more training treks before our upcoming trip to Macchu Picchu in October.
As the feeling returned to my fingers and legs and the cold wind once again disappeared behind the mountain, cheerful conversations began amongst our group knowing that the hard work was done and we were almost back at our starting point. It was during a conversation with our guide around this time that I was also told that the underprepared Wade and I were lucky we didn't book into the 2 day trek. Apparently that one involves ice-picks, cramp ons and an overnight sleep on the glacier. That wouldn't have been much fun in our shorts and t-shirts!
We all ate our words as we checked the GPS watch to discover that in total we walked 7.5km and as estimated by our much more knowledgable guide than ourselves, it took us a total of 5 hours and 55minutes!
By the time we ate "lunch" it was 5pm and everyone was exhausted. Warm soup and coffee were a sight for sore eyes and cold bodies!
Of course the day wouldn't have been complete with one final twist in our itinerary and as we pulled back into Manizales, the 4wd barely slowed down long enough for us to see our hostel, before heading back out of town in the opposite direction. If we thought we weren't prepared before, we were even less prepared now. Apparently as a September promotion, the tour also included a visit to the local thermal pools! This would have been perfect besides the fact that it was now 8pm, we were all exhausted and most importantly only one girl in our remaining group of 10 had been told about this and brought a bikini.
We all ummed and ahhed before agreeing that we were here now so why not. We stripped down to some less than ideal underwear and plunged into the steaming pools. I think I lasted 10 minutes in the scalding hot water before my body turned lobster red and decided that this was simply all too much for one day and I was forced to sit on the edge of the pool sweating up a storm.
Seeing as none of us had a towel in anticipation of the thermal pools we didn't know about, (surprise surprise!) we all dressed back into our dry clothes which soon became soaking wet and sat shivering for the 20 minute drive home.
Although in most ways the day had been a complete and utter (and vaguely life threatening) mess, we finished the night with a sense of accomplishment, an unquestionable need for sleep and best of all Wade and I had our first experience of high altitude in preparation for Macchu Pichu.
Climb Santa Isabel glacier in short shorts, without gloves, thermals or the slightest idea of what we were doing....Tick!
Hanna, myself, Wade and Sophie all tired but feeling accomplished, after having defeated Santa Isabel Glacier!
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.