The Mighty Mighty Páramo

I was told that a long time ago a Japanese pilot crashed in the Colombian Andes, high up in the tropical alpine ecosystem known as the páramo. His plane crashed somewhere in the vicinity of the massive volcano Nevado de Tolima, or Dulima, as it was known before the Spaniards. The pilot survived and wandered the mountain highlands for years, perhaps decades, enamored by the beauty of the páramo, an ecosystem so unique, some say, we don’t even realize how fast it may be evolving.

Some people say the explorer never left the páramo and continues wandering, as a specter in the clouds, mingling with spectacled bears. Though his whereabouts remained a mystery, hospitable Colombian ranchers and mountain men eventually proffered mules and moved the airplane down, piece by piece, through the thick forest surrounding the páramo and into the valley.

Today, you hear more about Colombia’s páramos. The altitude and exposure to extreme swings in temperature and weather make páramos something like enormous islands, floating among seas of tropical jungles. Survival under extreme conditions have resulted in a population of plants finely tuned to shielding high levels of UV rays, trapping and managing water, resisting wind and freezing temperatures.

These distinctive alpine ecosystems play an important role in water conservation and only exist in a small geographical area, sandwiched between the glaciers, permanent snowline and the lush cloud forests below. Páramos are sophisticated sponges of volcanic layered loam that sustain the water cycle at an elevated capacity year round. In fact, over 90% of the water used and consumed in Bogotá originates in the heart of the Chingaza páramo, east of the city, and these same highland water towers are where the Amazon begins.

Páramo, My Son

I hiked through the páramo spread out around Nevado de Tolima for four days, on the way to the mountain’s 5000 meter glaciated peak. I had joined a crew of seasoned hikers and páramos buffs, including a gringo who goes by Beto and named his first child “Páramo”, a uniquely unpolished name that pays homage to the delicate ecosystem of a country where Beto has lived for the last 10 years. Beto crossed the Darien Gap on foot in the 90s, a time when Colombia’s ongoing conflict would’ve intimidated most explorers from such feats of daring do. Instead of kidnapped or dead, he wound up with a rare tropical disease called leishmaniasis, a parasite spread by sandflies that kills over 50,000 people each year. Months later, after traveling the length of the Andes, a Chilean doctor recognized the small skin ulcer on his hand and convinced him to go back to the US. For a short-time, he was the poster child for leishmaniasis and a celebrity in the division of tropical diseases at the CDC. Since then, he’s been on a mission to climb every glacier-capped peak in the Colombian Andes.

The páramo players (minus Juanito)

The rest of our páramo team included Beto’s brother Johnny, who came down from the icy, Maine winter to join the party and put his sea level lungs to test the quick elevation gain — from 2100 to 5200 meters. As children, Jonny and Beto once ran away from home with the intention of surviving in the forest. The plucky pair had a can of Spaghettios and some matches. Hunger and boredom soon brought them home, but the call of the wild never faded. Colin, a funny gringo who often spends his weekends on a bike pedaling steep climbs from tierra caliente to the Bogota highlands. John, AKA ‘Juanito’, a recent inductee to the world of high-altitude trekking and suffering. Perhaps mindful of the suffering ahead, Juanito checked his Tinder account at our starting point in Salento, Quindío, a popular corner of Colombia’s much visited eje cafetero, or the axis of coffee. Despite encouraging Tender results, no lonely love or transexual offer could keep Juanito off that mountain. Lastly, No trek would be complete without local representation, and we had Rico, a narcotrafficking expert who the government pays to tell them how to fix its illegal narcotic industry problems. While we waited to leave the musty air of Bogotá, Rico was busy trying to convince a local reporter that the government’s plan to eradicate 50,000 hectares of coca was unrealistic. He suggested investing in infrastructure, roads, and electrification, then the campesinos might decide to grow food instead of coca, on their own.

“There is a perverse inertia that moves the government to make rural development investments in the places where people vote and not where the coca is being produced,” he was telling the reporter while we waited for him in Beto’s garage. That perverse inertia is called campaigning. Coca has made a strong comeback in the vacuum of the peace process; Rico’s job is all but guaranteed.

Páramo People

The face of subsistence on the páramo

Despite the clear benefits of keeping páramos the way they are, the government is at odds with the population of campesinos who have migrated higher and higher due to the intertwined factors of lack of access to land and violence. Today, there are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people living in the páramo, dabbling in agriculture and living off ranching. As with other highland dwellers around the world, milk and cheese are the staples in the páramos. Farmers also grow a major portion of the onions and potatoes consumed in Colombia, activities that uproot native plants and are destroying the fragile ecosystem. To many of these families, the páramos provide economic subsistence so their children can live and go to school in the valleys below.

Under the law, any type of agriculture in the country’s páramos is illegal. Still, one out of ten páramo hectares is being plowed, but who has the time and resources to patrol more than 2.5 million hectares of páramo? In the Nevados de Tolima National Park, cows outnumber people, and Colombia’s National Park service has maybe five employees, on a good day. The government is currently trying to buyout ranchers living inside the park, but it’s a slow process.

And then there is mining, the golden goose of an incompetent government. Some 150,000 hectares of páramo are under concessions already in the hands of mining firms that may or may not move forward with plans to excavate, according to studies by the Humboldt Institute, a conservation outfit contracted by the current administration to provide the most comprehensive overview of páramos and humedales (wetlands) ever compiled in Colombia’s history. Humboldt’s next step is to survey the boundaries of Colombia’s 36 páramos. This will provide inconvenient data that will likely be ignored by the government at large.

The social ramifications of these highland havens are also significant. For decades, FARC, the leftist-guerrillas group, planned their strategy to overthrow the government and create a Marxist state from the safety of the páramo. The FARC’s hideout and operational center, La Casa Verde, was hidden somewhere high in the Sumapaz Mountains (the world’s largest páramo). It was hard to reach and easy to protect. In 1984, when the government and the FARC made genuine attempts at peace talks, negotiators hiked three days through mountain jungles and wetlands to reach the wooden shacks on stilts. Delegates dressed in thick sweaters and wool hats. They smoked pipes, sipped whiskey, and drank buckets of hot chocolate. But they also talked peace, according to photos from the time.

Ironically, the same weak government institutions that allowed the FARC to hide, is now more than anything else, putting the páramos at risk. Wild and isolated, ungoverned lands open doors for legal and illegal mining and oil companies to act with impunity, head faking communities with a school or two, and damaging overall conservation efforts.

Sumapaz páramo, a wet place for a dog

Queen of the Páramo

In the face of an atypical pattern of rainclouds for the month of January, we packed mules with everything except what we thought we needed, and set off through a cooler-than-usual jungle. The path slowly rose before turning into a steep puzzle of slippery steps along muddy ruts, carved out by the combination of rain, mules, and humans. We passed Colombian backpackers and day hikers, but none convinced me they were prepared for the weight of a downpour or the precision needed to move up the mire. Trekking poles were more than valuable. At one point, high on the mountain but still in the forest, we passed three exhausted hikers off to the side of the trail, with no poles and overloaded with gear. They said they were turning around, pre-páramo, their hopes caked in mud, sunk like oxen in a bog.

The jungle ends where the páramo begins. Pines and small oaks trees are abruptly replaced by the páramo’s open air prairie of ‘frailejones’, bunchgrasses, and cushion plants. As their name suggests, they look like giant pillows floating in a marsh, and on a rocky hillside, they make a great place to sit. Both the cushion plants and the frailejones have the unique ability to store large amounts of water and maintain warmer temperatures on the inside, evolution’s solution for protecting the plants’ buds from freezing temperatures.

Waking up to a treat at La Primavera

After a full day’s hike with tired legs, we arrived to La Primavera, a guesthouse and farm, run by Mabel and her family of mountain men, a compulsory pack of dogs, and an energetic six-year-old boy, who is truly a son of the páramo, growing up in this vast diorama of wind, water, and survival. At La Primavera, Mabel runs a tight ship. At the heart of the operation is her kitchen, where hikers huddle around a large wood-burning stove, while she shuttles them in and out, plating up hearty meals of soup, potatoes, meat, cabbage, rice, arepas, and a tall glass of agua-panela. Solar-powered lights stay on until 10:30pm, but only her favorite guides are allowed to sit in the queen’s court, delighting her with the latest news about their tours, the peace process, natural disasters, and local gossip.

The Queen Mabel

Mabel’s ascension to Queen of the Páramo is something of a technological coup. The farmstead’s privilege has more to do with the cell phone signal than the agua-panela. Walk down the trail 15 minutes and there is another farmhouse and another herd of cows, but no cell coverage. Since guides can’t call beforehand to make reservations, Mabel unwittingly cornered the market.

Before falling asleep in our bunkroom, we hydrated with green tea and rum, waiting and hoping the best for Juanito, whose eight hour hike ended up being 12 hours. Probably distracted by Tinder, he trudged in well after dark, conquered by the mud and the páramo. He gave everything to reach the La Primavera, but sacrificed the summit push and spent the next two days with Mabel, nursing altitude-induced headaches and lungs full of pneumonia.

Across the valley, the peak of Nevado de Tolima was visible in the early morning, its glacier a perfectly sculpted scoop of ice cream. We hiked through the páramo up to 4200m, the last stop for the mule train. Here we put everything we need for the summit on our backs. Rico, inexplicably, had three backpacks for himself, so we shared the load up to 4600m, to a picturesque basecamp high on the northeastern flank.

We feel asleep to the sound of the wind, a short distance below the ice. At 6 am, we stepped on the glacier, spiking our way up in two cordadas, or roped teams, led by the guides. Inspired by the sunrise, we moved swiftly, reaching the summit with a window of clarity that revealed the peaks of Santa Isabel and Volcano Ruiz, whose rising fumarola reminded us all that deep down, beneath the glaciers, the páramos, and our superficial lives, there is fire.

A selection of photos, mostly by Beto. Gracias Beto!

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