This weekend was made incredibly relaxing by the combination of a free day from work on Friday and a holiday on Monday. The fun started with a dentist appointment on Friday morning! A trip to the dentist is slightly more enjoyable in Colombia since the price tag of such a visit is a mere $1.25. Hooray for affordable healthcare! In the afternoon was the big soccer game with Chile. Every soccer game, of course, is a big deal, but this one was an extra big deal since it would allow Colombia to qualify for the World Cup. I went to a nearby sports bar to watch the game with a few friends. Try as I might, I just can’t get excited about soccer, but the rest of the bar patrons more than made up for my lack of enthusiasm. The soccer-induced bedlam was certainly not limited to the bars. I imagine one could have easily kept track of Colombia’s score without watching the game, but instead by counting the number of times the streets erupted in sonic explosions of trumpets and horns. I don’t understand the World Cup selection process, nor do I care to, but I do know that Colombia managed to tie 3-3, thus moving onto the World Cup. The evening ended early with a coconut-arequipe-cream oblea in the park; a dessert which can best be described as decadent.
On Saturday I taught my class in the morning and then high-tailed it over to a finca nestled in the hills of Floridablanca for the Lea Festival. This music festival is in its 4th year and featured Papaya Republik, Superlitio, Amigos Invisibles and local bands from Bucaramanga. There were also local vendors and lots of food, it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday. Sunday was a similarly lazy day, spent hanging out with friends and cooking a big lunch.
Monday was the date of a much-anticipated hike in the Páramo of Santurbán! What is a páramo you ask? Strictly speaking it is a “neotropical high mountain biome with a vegetation composed mainly of giant rosette plants, shrubs and grasses”. This landscape exists only in South and Central America. More loosely speaking it’s where I envision Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, or any other English 19th-century romantic novel, taking place. The Páramo of Santurbán is situated about 2 hours to the east of Bucaramanga on the border of Santander and North Santander. In addition to possessing breathtaking landscapes, the páramo provides water to over 2.2 million people in cities like Bucaramanga and Cucutá. Unfortunately these natural resources sit atop large reserves of gold and silver which have put them at risk in recent years.
A Canadian company called Eco Oro, formerly known as Greystar Resources, has been developing a gold mining project in the páramo called the Angostura Project for the last 15 years. Angostura would affect 30,000 of Santurbán’s 80,000 hectares. They have so far been unable to carry out the project due to various sources of opposition and the rejection of their Environmental Impact Assessment. Of course the environmental impact of the mining project would be huge with chemicals compromising the water supply and millions of tons of materials from the excavations that would need to be disposed of. In addition, it would destroy local small-scale mining projects in the area which have mostly been carried out on a subsistence level.
Many local organizations have mobilized against the mining project and the Andean Parliament formally asked Greystar to abandon the project in 2011. In January 2013 Colombia’s Environmental Ministry set out to protect this land by creating the Santurbán Regional Natural Park. Within its boundaries any mining titles would be nullified. The trouble is, though, that the government hasn’t set clear boundaries for this park, so they are at a loss to enforce any anti-mining policies. This November Colombia’s Minister of Environment, Luz Helena Sarmiento, is supposed to make a decision on how far the park extends, based on the scientific definition of a páramo. The hope is that she will choose the boundaries based on true scientific research as opposed to mining interests. But enough about environmental politics, onto adventure!
I was a little hesitant when I read that the hike would go up to an altitude of 3,950 meters (13,000 feet) given that I have a fierce history of altitude sickness. However, when I saw the photos of this picturesque ecosystem, unlike any I had visited before, I cast away my doubts and hoped that maybe the enchanted land of Colombia would imbue my body with the superpower to operate normally at high altitudes. As I would later find out, hiking at 13,000 feet in Colombia makes me feel just as terrible as 13,000 feet in Colorado. Rats.
I met the hiking group, Caminantes de Santander, at 4:30am in the park by my house. All 75 of us boarded our buses and were gifted with chocolate, fresh cheese and bocadillo (candy made from guava fruit) for the hike to come. [Culinary side note: Cheese and bocadillo are always eaten together. In fact, Colombians like to eat everything with cheese, the most peculiar combination being hot chocolate and cheese. The cheese just goes right in the hot chocolate where it melts and you eat it with a spoon.] After a nice long nap I arrived fully rested in Berlin, where I had an arepa, soup with potatoes and egg, and hot chocolate for breakfast. After 20 more minutes of driving and we were dropped off on the side of the road among many farms.
I instantly felt the altitude when we started climbing the first gentle hill. Lucikly/unluckily I was not the only hiker suffering from the throes of altitude sickness, so I had some company in the back (very back) of the group. Our hike began among potato farms, but ended in the foggy páramo, seemingly another world.
After perhaps 5 hours of hiking (?) we finally arrived at our destination: Laguna Negra! We sat around eating lunch (more like lunch #4 for me) and a few brave souls went swimming in the frigid lagoon. After that it was a quick descent to the buses which took us back to Bucaramanga. This hike was an incredible experience, I can’t say enough how much I’ve enjoyed the hiking groups here in Bucaramanga; along with discovering lots of beautiful sites in Santander I’ve gotten to know lots of lovely people.