It rained all afternoon in a single tone. In the uniform and peaceful intensity you could hear the water fall, the way it is when you travel all afternoon on a train. But without our noticing it, the rain was penetrating too deeply into our senses.
— Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
It’s still dark when I awake in El Encano. The room is biting cold. Glenn is dressing, pulling on rubber boots, adding a second sweater. I can hear him, not see him. My feet touch bare concrete floor and instantly I draw back, and then fumble around the bedside table for matches to light a candle so I can find my socks.
Beside the candle, my journal is open to the previous day’s entry, May 12, 1976:
“Now that we have scouted the territory we want to explore, and know the position of the trail that will lead us to land that might be cultivated, Glenn intends to return to Risaralda so that he can climb deeper into the forest toward the Páramo de Las Juntas. I will accompany him.”
This is my first journey to the Andes. I am 22 and, except for tourist phrases, I speak almost no Spanish. To teach myself, I’ve brought along a Spanish-language edition of the García Márquez novel Cien Años de Soledad — which is memorably set in Colombia — and a Spanish-English dictionary that I consult constantly. To finance my journey — which takes Glenn and I through Mexico and parts of Central America on our way from Arizona to Colombia — I save up about $700 in tips from my restaurant job in Phoenix. Those funds are getting me a long way, but almost certainly before I leave Colombia I’ll have to sell some of my gear to pay my way back home. Levi’s, I’m told, sell for good prices. The fact is, I know almost nothing about South America except for what Glenn has told me and what I’ve read in reptile books and issues of National Geographic. Lately the South American Handbook has become my traveling companion and bible. All wise gringos carry a copy.
Glenn Murray, my traveling partner, is 23, a year older than me. Already he’s an old hand at exploring South America. A graduate of the University of Miami, Class of 1974, with a degree in Hispanic American Studies, Glenn for some years had lived in El Encano with Rafael and Elvia Narvaez and their children, and had partnered with Rafael in setting up the guesthouse and store. Glenn had lived in the Narvaez home long enough to be regarded as one of the family.
Thanks to Glenn, I now find myself the honored guest of this Spanish-speaking Quechua Indian family. In fact I do not know for sure they are of direct Quechua descent, though Quechua words are common hereabouts, and this sliver of the Andes in southern Colombia once was part of the Inca Empire. But one very cold night, the youngest Narvaez children, Willian and Lida, and their cousin Anival and I are warming up before a candela — a pot of hot coals — inside the family barn. Holding Willian on my lap, I ask him: “If I am a gringo (he always calls me gringo), then what are you?” He looked at me curiously, but had no reply. After a pause, Anival, who is normally very reserved, speaks up and says proudly: “We are Colombian Indians.”
Everyone in the Narvaez family helps till the land and grow onions, bunches of which they sell to passersby on the road in front of their house. They raise chickens, pigs, and cuy (guinea pig) for eggs and meat. They sell staple food items in the front room of their house, including fresh queso y pan (cheese and bread). They function as a general store, restaurant, and guest house.
A few hundred people dwell in El Encano. They’ve built their houses out of concrete, wood and brick. The walls inside and out are plastered and painted with a thin, white, water-based paint, pale and streaked as though from sweat, or crying. Each house has a gabled roof set with Spanish tiles, but many of the tiles are broken and streaked with a blackish-green moss.
Lorries, buses and private cars travel the rutted dirt road that passes through El Encano, heading either southeast down into the Amazon basin, or northwest toward Pasto. The Spanish colonial city of Pasto, capital of the Department of Nariño, is a place out of time, with cobblestone streets and ornate wooden balconies. The road from El Encano reaches up and over the lip of the valley, then winds down to Pasto’s bustling commercial center. Open-air markets line the main routes into and out of town. Horse-drawn carts vie with automobiles for access to the roads.
El Encano overlooks Laguna de la Cocha. Laguna means lake in Spanish, and La Cocha means lake in Quechua. So, the name is an oxymoron, The Lake of The Lake. Locals say, “Lago La Cocha,” or simply “La Cocha.” The first time I see the lake, I think I’ve never seen any landscape more beautiful. I’m riding in the back of a lorry and the wind over the cloud-capped mountain pass is fierce. Patchworks of fields disappear into the clouds on the upper reaches of steep hillsides. Coming from Pasto, we top the ridge overlooking La Cocha and I literally gasp. Nothing has prepared me for such magnificence. The lake stretches for miles, nestled in the bottom of a long, narrow valley ringed by volcanic peaks. The scene looks like a picture postcard from the Scottish Highlands, but here dense rainforest blankets the mountainsides, drenched in low-hanging clouds. It’s a magical, storybook, pastoral setting — something out of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. I half expect to see fairies and fauns.
El Encano is situated at the northern end of the valley, at about 9,800 feet. The surrounding mountains rise to more than 11,000 feet. The valley opens up at its southern extreme, allowing Lago La Cocha to empty into Rio Guamués. That river drains down the east slope of the Andes into Rio Putumayo, which becomes a major tributary of the Amazon River. Even in this so-called dry season, especially toward evenings, low-lying clouds settle heavily onto the mountain ridges, drenching the hillsides in fog and drizzle, obscuring the patchwork of farm plots that hopscotch across the steep slopes, lending the entire region a somber, melancholy air.
The purpose of our trip is to penetrate beyond the cloud forest in search of land suitable for settling and farming — far away from civilization. That’s what Glenn wants to do. I’m along for the ride.
Glenn believes in following as closely as possible the ways of the natives. That means traveling the way they do, eating the food they eat, wearing the clothes they wear. The only luxuries we pack for this expedition are a tent, our sleeping bags, and an Optimus backpacking stove. We eschew backpacks, which, to Glenn’s way of thinking, would stand out like beacons marking us as Gringos. The only staples we pack are those locally available: oatmeal, tinned sardines, rice, and cooking oil.
We feel our way down the stairs in darkness. Drizzle falls on the landing by the kitchen, next to the charcoal stove. Already Rafael and Elvia are up. Rafael, wrapped in a poncho, is preparing to go into the field to tend onions. Elvia shovels coals into the base of the stove, beginning the process of making coffee. An oil lamp flickers and sends ribbons of black smoke to the ceiling. Shadows dance around the kitchen and across the half-finished alpaca blanket on Elvia’s loom.
Outside in the darkness, on the front street, silence overwhelms me. Drizzle fills the brim of my straw hat and forms a miniature river that pours onto my poncho. Dawn’s faint glow begins spreading out along the rim of hills to the east. Against the glow, I spot the silhouette of a soaring bird large enough to be a condor.
From the Narvaez home, it’s half an hour’s walk downhill to La Puerta, the fishing and boating village. A path veers off the main road and runs down the slope, under eucalyptus trees lining El Encano River. Where the river passes through La Puerta, just before feeding into Lago La Cocha, the boatmen have dredged a narrow canal. It snakes beneath shaky wooden bridges, past houses set up on stilts, and runs out to the lake via a thick mass of reeds stretching from shore.
The boatmen and their sons — so far I’ve seen no boatwomen — run long, narrow wooden boats powered by outboard motors. The boats are banded together with strips of tin, and most boats sport a rounded tin rain shelter on the bow. For a few soles (the Colombian currency), the men carry passengers, mostly Colombian, but sometimes tourists, to various points on the lake, or for a pleasure cruise around the island. Other men run cargo boats, wider and flatter, without the shelter, picking up loads of charcoal and farm produce, and carrying drums of gasoline and bundles of food staples.
Beneath my poncho I’m warm. The walk to La Puerta in the growing light is pleasant despite the cold rain. There’s movement in the village as dawn breaks and fishermen climb aboard their boats. Glenn speaks with a couple of boatmen, asking for passage across the lake, but they’re busy, so we walk planks leading to the porch of another boatman’s house. Glenn knocks and we hear steps inside. A woman answers, and when we request her husband’s services, she says he is ill, but her son can take us out if we’ll wait half an hour. We do.
From the porch I can see the road back to El Encano and the few grass-roofed huts lining the way. Already smoke is filtering through the roofs from the cooking stoves inside the homes.
The boy who comes out to captain our boat is sleepy-eyed and silent. He fumbles with the outboard motor for a while, motions us in, poles away from the canal bank, then yanks the cord a few times until the motor starts and we head out beneath the bridges over the canal, past the mat of reeds and into the open waters.
By now the drizzle has turned to soft rain, very cold, and soon a breeze adds to the chill. Glenn and I huddle beneath the forward shelter, while the boy wraps himself tightly in his poncho, a cap pulled down nearly over his eyes, holding to the rudder.
Past the island, about midway into the lake heading south, the wind picks up. The waters become choppy, pelted by heavy rain. Whitecaps lick the boat’s sides. I can barely see the boy in the stern, huddling down, shivering and wet. At times the boat’s transom lifts so high on the waves that the propeller spins in mid air.
Just barely, I make out the shadow of a cargo boat cutting low through the waves near the coastline, heading in the opposite direction. A group of passengers is seated on sacks and barrels, bobbing up and down.
Our boat is leaky and unstable. The boy is an inexperienced pilot. I feel miserable for him enduring the slashing rain.
I can’t help thinking of the warning Elvia gave Glenn and me last night. She’s a curandera — a shaman of sorts, a believer in spirits, a maker of healing potions, and a practitioner of spells. So Glenn tells me, and so I’m beginning to understand. I have never encountered such a person before. My rigidly skeptical mind automatically rejects shamanism and superstition — but no matter, because Elvia possesses the kind of powerful conviction that sweeps away doubts and doubters. She glowered darkly at us when Glenn announced we were making the trip across the lake to Risaralda. She shook her head and cautioned us that spirits and demons inhabit the lake and the forest — and the villagers of Risaralda. They might do us harm.
Local legend has it that the ghosts of conquistadores inhabit Laguna de La Cocha. The Spaniards drowned long ago under the lake as they lay sleeping in the golden city they had ravaged. The water rose as they dreamed, and now they and the golden city rest on the lake bottom. The cruel and vindictive conquistadores guard their spoils jealously. They’ll grab whatever hapless victims they can and drag them to their submerged city to enslave them.
Finally, about an hour and a half after our departure from La Puerta — much longer than the normal passage — the boat hauls up on the shore of Risaralda. At last the rain begins to abate. A hint of sun shows. I jump out of the boat and pay the boy, who wastes no time hanging around. He promises to return in a week to pick us up, then straightaway launches back out and heads home.
Seven thatch-roofed huts and a tiny bodega comprise the village of Risaralda proper, with a few other huts scattered up the hill. I see no mules or horses, and of course, since no roads lead to Risaralda, no wagons or cars. A few locals are out and about. We’ve met them before. We say hello. They nod “adios” in return. I’d love to visit with them, but we don’t hang around long. Glenn, taking the lead, walks right on past and heads for the forest.
Río Guamués begins at Risaralda. A narrow, slippery log spans the navigable waterway where it begins its winding journey from Lago La Cocha down into the Amazon basin. Crossing the log is a real balancing feat since our weight is unevenly distributed. We’re loaded with duffle bags and assorted gear slung over our shoulders.
Once on the other side, the going gets tricky: mud a foot-and-a-half deep covers the whole terrain, relentlessly tugging at our rubber gaucho boots as we plod along. Each time I lift a leg, I feel my boot being sucked off. This sort of drenched, boggy environment is new to me. I grew up with cowboy boots and hiking shoes, not mud boots. Here rubber boots are a necessity.
For about a quarter of a mile, we wade through this mess. To avoid getting sucked into the muck, I try hopping from one clump of grass to another. The effort is futile. Before long, muck is slopping over the tops of my boots. It would almost be easier to walk barefoot.
Along one stretch of the trail, somebody has placed lengths of logs at more or less regular intervals on top of the mud. We hop, slip, and trip over these, eyes always to the ground, patiently making our way toward the edge of the jungle.
Before long we’re walking beneath a canopy of broad-leafed plants, bamboo shoots, and ancient, gnarled trees. The trail climbs uphill beneath vines and creepers. The vegetation grows so tangled that I must nearly crawl like a spectacled bear through a tunnel. I’ve been told this is spectacled bear habitat. I’m also told I’m unlikely to see one of the bruins since people hunt them hereabouts.
The further we penetrate the forest, the narrower becomes the trail. Glenn, wielding a machete, spends a good amount of time hacking at vines and creepers. Sometimes a stream crosses the trail. At other times the trail is a stream.
Though it’s cold, I’m sweating under my poncho. All around me are plants I’ve never seen before, that I couldn’t begin to name. I recognize epiphytes living on the surface of other plants, drawing moisture and nutrients from the air and the rain. The mora, or blackberry bush, grows wild and abundantly.
Once our eyes adjust to the dim light, we see blossoms everywhere, blazing with color even in the shadows. Some leaves are so large I could easily pull one around me to serve as a blanket.
I feel like I’m walking into Mirkwood, the enchanted forest harboring giant spiders and elves. The feeling is amplified when, after about an hour’s hiking, I look to one side through the undergrowth and glimpse a flame. Odd, I think, how could there be a fire in such a wet place?
I part the brush and gaze in on a clearing, in the center of which a heap of branches looking like a crude sweat lodge has been stacked higher than a man’s head. The pile is burning from within. It’s an oven. A charcoal oven. Someone must be making charcoal. I’ve read about the process in National Geographic. It’s amazing to see it in real life. To one side there’s a wooden lean-to with various household utensils and provisions scattered about, and a bit of laundry hung on spiked poles. No one is in sight.
My mind is reeling. So many sensations! I’m living an adventure straight out of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Only three weeks earlier, Glenn and I had been in the steamy hot tropics of Mexico and Central America, but this is very different — darker, thornier, eerier, and considerably colder.
At some point I become aware of fireflies blinking in the gloom, first over there, then over here. I’ve never experienced fireflies before. Their presence all around me is both magical and disorienting. It seems all the eyes of Mirkwood are watching us.
My stomach feels queasy. For a moment I consider turning back, then tell myself not to be silly, not to be weak.
Around mid-afternoon we come to the remains of a cabin rotting on the hillside. It’s not much to look at, just a few lichen-covered poles supporting part of a thatched roof and a few cross beams. Once we’ve cleared a space inside for our tent, we’re ready for lunch and a nap. Looking at our provisions, I wonder how we’ll stretch out a few cans of sardines and some oatmeal for a week. Glenn says no sweat. He’s an old hand at this. So we enjoy the first of our sardines. The midday sun has burned off the mist. No biting insects disturb us, so we strip and lie on the grass, letting the solar rays bake us. Birds are abundant all around. I hear them more than see them. The sounds aren’t tropical. I hear no parrot squawks. Instead I hear mountain calls — chirps, caws, whistles, trills and peeps. For a while, I gaze off toward the distant, cloud-forested Cordillera El Palacio, and then doze off to the bird symphony.
The rustling of leaves awakens me. I open my eyes to the sight of a man standing over me with a machete in his hand. It takes me a few fright-filled seconds to recognize the man. He had been our guide on a previous scouting trip, when we had come this way with several people. I didn’t know him by his real name. I had given him the nickname “Geronimo” because of his warrior look and bearing, and because he looks vaguely Apache. In fact he’s Quechua Indian, a local woodcutter and charcoal maker.
Glenn greets his friend warmly and they talk a while, apparently planning how and where to survey the land. If I’ve had a difficult time understanding the Spanish spoken by Rafael, Elvia and their children, I have no chance understanding Geronimo, for he speaks Spanish so rapidly I can’t catch a word. But I gather though that he would like Glenn to buy farmland nearby so that there would be a dueño — owner — to work for. He offers to show us around. It’s settled: In the morning, Geronimo will guide us up to the Páramo de Las Juntas for a look around. He knows a trail that will save us from having to chop our way through with a machete.
We spend our first night in the tent listening to the steady drip, drip of water falling on the tent from the cabin’s thatched roof, and holding one of those philosophical discussions that seem inevitable out in the middle of the woods.
Geronimo arrives early to our camp on the second morning, and we spend about an hour trekking up a relatively easy trail that leads out of the cloud forest and onto the Páramo de Las Juntas, a vast misty meadow of mystical, otherworldly beauty.
A páramo, I come to understand, is an ecosystem exclusive to the northern Andes. Its characteristics vary depending on the latitude north and the elevation above sea level. This particular one, the Páramo de Las Juntas, situated at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, is essentially a sub-Alpine meadow supporting a thick mat of sphagnum moss, laced with meandering, often hidden streams, and bearing towering frailejones or “friars,” a plant of the genus Espeletia. The only plant I can compare the frailejone with is what we call skunk cabbage in Arizona. The friars sport the same kind of fleshy, hair-covered leaves, but their stalked rosettes are taller, thicker, and sturdier. They look like pillars adorned with pale-yellow flowers. When fog drifts among them, they seem humanoid, an army of friars on the march across a misty, undulating plain.
The friars, true to their name, wear cassocks — sheaves of dead leaves. To show us how useful these plants can be in a region where everything is soaked daily, Geronimo spreads apart the outer, wet leaves of a mature frailejone. Inside each mature frailejone is a cavity of dead matter; when lit on fire, it burns like a furnace. Touching a lit match to the dry plant matter inside one such cavity, Geronimo ignites a warming fire. Amazingly, the flames in the organic furnace leave the plant’s outer leaves intact. This fire making has a practical application, since no other dry material is available with which to make a warming fire.
Geronimo enjoys showing us the secrets of the páramo. He spreads apart some of the moss we’re walking on to show us lavender colored berries growing within. They’re edible, with the flavor of cranberries. The moss is as much as two feet deep. We could walk over a stream without realizing it. I ask Geronimo if we are likely to see a spectacled bear in the vicinity, or perhaps a tapir, both of which are native to the páramos. He shakes his head, making clear that in this area, farmers and loggers like him have hunted most of the large animals to near extinction. But by taking a boat far down Río Guamués, he says, and then hiking a considerable distance across the meadows to the edge of the untouched cloud forests, it might still be possible to find wildlife in abundance.
The whole purpose of our trip, as I said before, is for Glenn to survey the land to determine if it would be feasible for him to establish a small farm. Out here in the beautiful wild, confronted with the abundance and the fragility of life, his spirit, like mine, must be soaring. And yet he must honestly assess the difficulties establishing a finca (farm) would entail. Enormous obstacles would present themselves.
For Glenn or anyone to live out here, they would have to be remarkably self-reliant and content to live with only the company of the mountains and the wildlife. It’s an appealing dream — the kind of dream the American pioneers no doubt envisioned. But it’s no dream to undertake lightly. It’s a dream of isolation and struggle, perhaps heartbreak.
The peril of living in so primitive a setting manifests itself when Geronimo comes to our camp the next day, seeking our assistance with a young girl who has cut her hand. It’s fortunate we’re able to provide bandage and ointment. The nearest doctor is in Pasto, at least a day’s journey away.
But perhaps the urgency has been feigned. I sense that the request for aid was made more out of curiosity than necessity. The Indians, I’ve learned from Elvia, have well-developed methods of curing involving the use of herbal medicines and witchcraft.
We dine for a week on the food rations we’ve brought, supplemented by a basket of beans and daily pots of fresh milk brought to us by a thankful Geronimo. We forgot to bring sugar to sweeten our oatmeal but we make it edible by adding milk and handfuls of blackberries collected from bushes growing by the cabin. The only trash we create is used toilet paper, which we burn or bury, and used sardine tins, which we carry out with us.
Finally he admits it’s more than he’s willing to take on, at least for the present. He would be able to hire laborers, which is what Geronimo would like. But even so, clearing the land, slashing away the jungle and uprooting trees, would require months. He’d have to construct a house, and that could be done only after trees have been felled and sawed into lumber. The land, a sloping mass of mud and vegetation, would have to be drained before it could be plowed. Then, too, at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet, the only really feasible crop he could grow would be green onion, for which he would have little market, or market access.
Above all, merely gaining access to the land would pose nearly insurmountable problems. There are no roads to Risaralda or the páramo, only boats and perilous trails.