The following morning we woke early to hike up to the glacier on top of the Santa Isabel volcano, at 5,100m. It’s one of the less famous of five volcanoes which include the Nevado del Ruiz, a live volcano that erupted back in 1985, causing the mountain’s glaciers to melt, sending a volcanically induced mudslide at 30 km/hr down the mountain, killing 23,000 of the 29,000 people living in the town of Armero. The Armero tragedy could have been avoided – there were warnings just a month earlier that such a thing was likely.
Anyway, our ascent was of the Nevado del Ruiz’s neighbour volcano, Santa Isabel, a couple of hundred meters shorter, but still capped with a glacier and a much easier climb. We had a 5 a.m. pick up. There were three other couples in our jeep, plus a guide, and for the first time since La Barra I was the only gringo around. In Bogotá people would already be heading to work to beat the morning traffic, but here in Manizales the streets were empty.
As we drove up the the Santa Isabel volcano all we could see were lone lights in the darkness. These were farms, spaced out to perhaps two or three per mountain. Below, Manizales became a distant web of street lights. The morning twilight revealed the Nevado del Ruiz on our left, a grey cloud of ash and gasses rising above it. The sun rose and burned away the morning mist.
Sun coming up over the Nevado del Ruiz
Greenhouses clung at impossible angles to ever steeper slopes. Cows grazed on land better suited to mountain goats. We passed farmers on horses, thick grasses, lush forests, all living on the rich volcanic soil. Soon, broad leaved trees gave way to ferns and scrappy shrubs. Overnight frost turned to dew, grasses shrank, rocks appeared, and the air thinned making distant peaks seem clear. Larger flora disappeared altogether, yet still much of the land was cultivated. After an hour or so of driving we stopped off for a hot meal in a farmhouse on a plateau.
What you might call “base camp” – here they give you tea and eggs to prepare for your hike
Once on foot the climb was steep, breathless, and included headaches almost all the way up. By the time you’re at the dizzying height of 5,000m (actually dizzying – you feel dizzy most of the time you’re up that high), you’re emotionally ready for a heart attack. Every time I stopped to take a photo of the flowers, kneeling or bending over would make me wheeze for a minute afterwards. The photos were worth it though.
Anyway, after a few tears and a fair amount of tired grumpiness we made it to the glacier. It was a depressing sight – to get to the ice you walk through a cavernous rocky trench carved out of the mountain by what used to be a massive amount of ice, now melted.
A waterfall created by the melting of a neighbouring glacier made an interesting sight, seemingly falling faster and dissipating less than you’d expect from a water falling through air. I think it’s because there was little air to stand in its way. Lily and I took a selfie and sat around for a few minutes feeling proud. Meanwhile, the glacier continued melting around us, as it has done for the last decade.
The air is so much sweeter on the way down. We even got to enjoy it, looking out for birds where possible. This volcano is home to the Andes condor. The bird is large, monogamous, lives for 70-80 years and there are 4 established couples nesting here, having babies. We saw none. We did, however, touch a furry cactus.
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The painfully bumpy drive down to Manizales hammered home how bad the roads were. We even applauded when we got back on tarmac. Now exhausted, I fantasised about being comatose as we walked through the entrance of the Estrela Hotel. But, the man behind the desk had other ideas, ideas taken from the same manual of banter all hoteliers must read. “Are you tired,” he asked, with forced interest and a “this is just a pleasantry” smile. Somewhere in a central office, his supervisor, seeing him engage me in this way on a hidden camera, ticked two boxes marked “obsequious” and “eager”, and let him keep his job another month.
That night, with the last of our energy, we met Pipe, his wife and daughter again for dinner at a rustic, roadside fritanga seller. It was worth the effort; these strange, thick, furry, black stalactites hung from the tin roof above the grill. Fat and soot had congealed to create a furry black coating. It was grossly marvellous. I ordered a hot “aguapanela”, which sounds amazing but is really just brown sugar in hot water, served with more cheese than you’d expect to find on a large pizza.
Fatty black fur on the roof
In bed on our last night, while Lily slept beside me, I fidgeted and read and wrote (these words) and tried not to think of work. Looking around at the snacks on display, the oversized TV set and the 50-shades-of-red wall art, the polyester duvet, the hotel magazine and all the other cheap, hotel-ready crap in the room, I longed for La Barra and its simplicity.
I can understand why people travel to Ibiza and Cancun. But I’m happiest where the consistency of a town’s identity hasn’t been ruined by modernisation, globalisation, tourism, whatever you call it. They are less confounding, despite the obvious language and empathy barrier. They don’t make me feel stupid, like museums and ruins and historical tours. Nor do they make me feel like a conquistador – especially if I get to pass through quietly, uncatered for, knowing nothing, leaving nothing more than what I’ve paid for a cheap bite and place to stay.
But instead I was in a shitty hotel in a boring city and the holiday was over. Probably for the better, as I was getting travel weary and grumpy about everything around me (like these words). We woke the next morning, ate the bland self-serve hotel breakfast, went to the airport and walked to our plane. Before boarding the guy in front of me looked back to his family in the terminal, crying, waving at them with an freshly tatted arm protected in plastic wrap.
In Bogotá, our taxi driver’s phone kept buzzing. It was suction-cupped to the windscreen, so I could read the messages: “I need you”, “I want you” and “come to me” his admirer was texting. Thankfully, he didn’t speed up.