Monguí and the Paramo de Oceta

Gabriel Goldstein
Jan 26, 2019 · 16 min read
image by Miles Gordon

The time stretches out here, in the highlands of Boyacá. I am sitting in the now-dormant riverside basement bar of the Calicanto Real Hotel. This was the screened-in patio seating area. The bar itself, which looks to have been a charming place to have a drink, is padlocked and dusty, but the screen door to this patio was ajar, so I’ve seated myself at one of the tables to write. From the looks of things, it may have been a long, long time since anyone else sat here.

It is dusk, which seems as of late to be the time that I write. There is some slow, meandering accordion music coming from a house up the hill, well accompanied by the sound of the Rio Calicanto below me. My friend Miles is resting in our room upstairs, not well, though I believe at least comfortable. My friend Dani from Argentina has left the traveling party. She accompanied us here yesterday, but went back to Iza after lunch. Her presence lingers — I am at this moment drinking some of the yerba mate she left me — but by now, she may already have flown out of Bogotá, on her way back to real life.

Miles and I remain in a place closer to the novel I’m reading from the 1860’s than to the modern world. I imagine it looked pretty similar a hundred and sixty years ago. Full of understated charm and eccentricities, Monguí was founded in 1601, set in a high valley at 9000 feet in the Cordillera Central of the Colombian Andes, sheer mountains all around. Other than occasional cars and people on their cellphones, it could indeed be a different century here. But then again, on our first afternoon, walking back across the grand plaza by the venerable Basilica, a church that is really more a cathedral, we witnessed the bizarre sight of a Google Maps guy walking the stone-paved streets with his full body camera contraption towering over his head. The future is here.

image by Miles Gordon

This hotel, once a colonial manor, sits just above the river and the Puente Real de Calicanto, the symbol of this little town-village, an impressive stone and brick bridge with an arch spanning twenty feet at its center. While in no way luxurious, this hotel might be the nicest place I’ve stayed on my journey. It is homey in a timeworn way, a certain faded elegance. We have a room on the third level: upon entering you have to take six steps down to a creaky wooden floor, thick wooden beams in the ceiling above.

This is my fifth day traveling with Miles, and I appreciate his company and observations of life, his steady rolling leisurely way of taking things. Last night he came down with some travel-stomach, which has slowed his pace even further. Our plan had been to climb the Paramo de Oceta, some kind of unique high desert environment, this morning, but after lengthy considerations, decided a day of rest and recovery was in order. Which we have been undertaking today with a fair degree of success.

You might ask why we need to rest from the vacation we’re on. Traveling can be exhausting, which fact I am well acquainted with. Yesterday we spent a good bit of the day riding busetas between towns and cities in a rural part of Colombia. We have been up and down to fairly high altitudes, riding over rough roads on oldish buses. Two days ago we were at El Lago de Tota, punished by sun and wind, at almost ten thousand feet. There is a certain wear and tear.

I have to say that the rest has done me some good. I’m so used to being on the road and to an ever-present state of general fatigue, that I usually don’t even notice that I am tired. I just carry on. This morning, we took our hotel breakfast in a strange den-like room with dozens of old radios and record players — the owner is a collector of them. Included breakfasts seem to be standard in this part of the world, which is lovely, though to be fair they’re often nothing to write home about. At best a piece of bread or an arepa, a small portion of egg, some cut-up fruit. It makes me realize how extraordinary the breakfasts were that we were serving at La Pacha. The point being, after our not-bad breakfast, we simply retired for a mid-morning nap. And after that, we opened the windows to let in a breeze, and just continued hanging about the room, reading and internetting and talking, sitting out on the terrace passage until the sun got too strong.

Finally in mid-afternoon we went out for a walk around the level part of the town — veer a few blocks, and you’re walking straight up or down a mountain. There are charming and surreal landmarks here, like the long high stone wall filled in fifty places with ceramic pots and dolls and other household items. The steep stone stairs above the plaza that lead to an arch, the way to the Paramo, inscribed with mosaic letters saying La Otra Vida, as if walking through was crossing over. We went up there the first day, to check out a villa-like hotel, with sweeping views of the whole valley. Life on the other side of the arch seemed to be much the same, just shorter of breath after the climb. Eventually we chose this more sheltered life, by the Puente Real.

The houses are whitewashed, mostly two-storied with time-stained terra cotta roofs, green trim, red and gold detail. Most of them have little wooden balconies above the streets, archways or flower boxes, some kind of character. Makes me think of the Alps, which I have never seen. Maybe Austria, though perhaps there are places in the northern mountains of Spain, the Pyrenees, that are like this. It’s chilly — I’ve been wearing three shirts most of my time here, and many of the people wear ruanas, thick wool ponchos that remind me of Peru, of Incas. Monguí reminds me of lots of places I’ve never been. The main industry here appears to be the fabrication of balónes de fútbol — soccer balls. There are all these workshops where they make them, and even more shops selling balls, most of which look to be made in factories somewhere else. We are unfortunately not in the market for balónes, but Miles is looking for a ruana for his partner Anthea, so we’ve been asking around.

We found a decent almuerzo at a restaurant looking over the valley. Miles, trying to keep it simple, just had patacones, fried plantains, while I had the menú del dia, an unremarkable plate of chicken and rice. The best part was the fine split pea soup that came first. Lunch in Colombia pretty much always comes with soup, but it’s often nothing to speak of. A thin chicken broth, big flavorless hunks of potato and yuca and green plantain. So to get a good savory pea soup felt like a gift. After some more strolling about, convincing a woman at a shop to cut me half of a gallina criollo to cook for dinner, this wildish hen with a rich flavor somewhere between chicken and duck, and looking into various shops, we came back to the hotel.

Somewhere in the mountains above here is the Paramo, the mysterious alpine desert that I have yet to see, though instances of this terrain can be found above both San Gil and Villa de Leyva. I have been in the vicinity of the Paramo for some time now, but not yet set foot on it. It’s apparently one of the rarest ecosystems in the world, and the majority of it is in Colombia. Down in the lobby there are old National Geographics with articles about this particular one, said to be perhaps the most beautiful, with many species of plants and animals that in all the world can only be found up there.

Our expedition is now slated for tomorrow, provided Miles can manage it. The trailhead is an hour’s walk and a thousand feet straight up from the town, and the beginning of the paramo a thousand feet above that. By deciding to stay here an extra day — originally we had planned on leaving tomorrow, for Bogotá — we had to give up our somewhat excessive itinerary. We were going to make the trip together to San Geronimo outside Medellin, where Miles’ friend has a hostel. This is seventeen hours away by bus, and seventeen hours by bus is never actually seventeen hours.

Although I was willing, I am secretly glad about it. I was going to break two of my traveling rules that have developed by this point of my journey: no super long bus rides and no night buses. Besides, Miles’ request upon arrival was that our time be leisurely, and we were about to contradict that in a significant way. Now, our destination is simply Bogotá, the big city, where he’s flying out of, but we’re going to take our time to get there. I figure I’ll make my way after up to Medellin, and maybe to his friend’s hostel after that. I’m also glad to stay here in Monguí. Left to my own devices, I might stay for awhile in this sleepy town, get some good writing done. But the finite amount of time Miles has will keep us moving.

It has long since gotten dark; people come and go across the bridge above, dogs bark in the distance. As Miles isn’t going to be eating dinner, I’ve been dallying in preparing it. But I think it’s time. I have some carrot and onion and potato to go along with the gallina criollo. Just off the breakfast room with the fifty radios is an old-fashioned but well-kept kitchen that we can use at night. I have cooking work to do.

✦✦

This morning around 9:30 we left the Calicanto for our expedition, feeling better after our day of rest. Miles was not a hundred percent, but he was going to give it his best shot. We’d been told we needed to register in the plaza at the Información Turistica, and we went in expecting to put our names on a list and be on our way. But the young man there asked us to please sit down, and told us we needed a guide to walk the Paramo. I responded that I knew many people go up there without guides. He looked displeased, and replied that this was true, but it was an obligación to have one. He also said that it was too late in the day to hire a guide, so we needed to wait until tomorrow. Sigh. I said we were leaving the next day, that this was our only day to climb. He just repeated that it was “an obligation” to take a guide, and I said I didn’t know what to say, and we sat there in a long awkward silence, and then I thanked him for his “help” and we left.

Straight out of the plaza, up the steep stairs where we’d walked the first day with Dani, through the archway to La Otra Vida, but right on the other side we had to stop to catch our breath already. Slowly, almost four kilometers up a dirt road past farmsteads and stray houses, dogs that barked fiercely at us when I’d say “hola perro” until Miles asked me to stop doing that, and others that just watched us with suspicion. Up and up, as the road turned to loose scree pebbles, almost two thousand feet, right about to the treeline.

Here we turned onto a path bounded on each side by barbed-wire fences, like some kind of cordoned way. The posts for the fences were made of split granite stone, sunk into the ground. I don’t think I’d seen granite fenceposts before. At first the plants weren’t so different from what you find all around the highlands of this area, mostly grasses, and we climbed and climbed along a deep-rutted dirt path. Eventually it began to follow a spine-like ridge from where we could see a long way down into valley upon valley on either side.

Soft squares of grass, green with crops, quilted with the dark green of coniferous forest and dark brown of tilled earth. We took a measured pace as the air grew thin, and after a rocky peak we came upon what for the first time we could clearly call the Paramo. Drier than below but somehow more full of life. The obvious marker was the sudden appearance and proliference of frailejones, named after friars, these strange cactus-palm trees that range from two to six feet tall, with soft furry leaves like lamb’s ear and a trunk like a palm. Rings where former leaves had been, a thick collar of dead brown leaves.

The Frailejones are a little like short Joshua trees, and the individuals are apparently very old, only growing one centimeter a year in this arid alpine environment. That would mean that the tallest here are about two hundred years old. And then there were all kinds of ground plants in silvery greens, others in deep green with purple flower stalks. None of which I’ve ever seen before. We passed into a valley crevasse of giant boulders, and here, protected from the wind, were the most frailejones, hundreds of them stretching into the distance.

There was something stark and mysterious about this place, with the world laid out far below, beaten by sun and wind and cold, above twelve thousand feet. The Muiscas, the native people of this land, held it sacred. In their mythology this was the place of the gods, the origin of life, and I could see why. It feels primeval and pagan, something Stonehenge-like.

We made our way to the top of this little valley until the path was suddenly blocked by four lines of barbed wire, and rocks painted with No Pase and Propriedad Privada. We’d heard about the dispute between a farmer and the government, private property vs. national nature reserve, and apparently it was too high up and out of the way to be worth coming here to resolve it. The farmer reportedly gets very angry with people crossing his land, though people do it all the time, and demands sums of money. I might have just climbed through were I on my own. It seemed absurd that one man could claim to own this unique part of the earth, and keep others out. And I have certainly crossed hundreds of barbed-wire fences in my time, having grown up in the country in Virginia.

image by Miles Gordon

Miles, however, was not interested in meeting this man, and said so. It appears he has a higher degree of respect for property than I do. And besides, he said he thought he was done climbing. We’d climbed more than half the day already, when we weren’t sitting on rocks and recovering our wind. So we sat there for awhile in the boulder-strewn valley, watching the fog passing by on its way down to the world. Now that we weren’t moving, the sun obscured by thick cloud, it was getting cold. There was more to discover above us, some kind of valley of spires, but I accepted that this was our turnaround spot. When the destination is a mountaintop, it’s nearly impossible for me to let go, but when it’s just more hiking, I can let myself say, this is high enough.

We started back down and it was only as we carefully chose our steps, weight shifting back against the steep so as not to fall forward, that we felt how tired our legs were. We met the only living creatures that we saw up there, other than a few birds: some Colombian hikers and much later, a young German guy followed by a country street dog. He had no idea where he was going and we tried to explain.

Near the lower end of the paramo there was a giant slab of granite like a watchtower along the path, maybe fifteen feet tall and thirty feet across. We had admired it on the way up, but now it demanded a stop. I figured out a way to scramble up without a good idea of how I would get down, found a seat in the center of the flat top. It felt triumphant somehow, like I had made it somewhere, a place without a name. It was like we had visited some prehistoric spiritual place then come back again, and this rock was the portal.

image by Miles Gordon

Before long we said goodbye to the paramo. It was uncanny how much faster going down was, and though we found ourselves on slightly different paths than we had taken up, soon enough we were back on the road. Here we discovered that the small loose rocks which had given us no trouble before were terribly treacherous on the descent. We had to take baby steps and take care not to fall every few paces. Walking became a controlled slide. By mid-afternoon our legs were aching, knees wobbly, and all the elevation change had worn us down. When we got back to town we sat for fifteen solid minutes on the steps above the Basilica, just above the arch signifying the passage to the other life, resting our legs, watching some workmen repairing cobblestones.

In the plaza, finally on flat ground, we were walking bow-legged, like old men who’d been skiing all day. We discovered that the bar at our hotel, above the breakfast room with the radios, was open for the first time since we’d been there. Apparently this was a Friday afternoon. This room was decorated with a lot of cowboy hats, hanging from the rafters. It’s one design strategy: just get a large number of something. We got a couple Club Colombia beers and there was some gentle late-afternoon sun so we sat outside on a low wooden bench, right next to the 300 year old stone bridge, and felt dumb and happy. The beer was an elixir, a certain quenching sweetness only achieved after vigorous efforts have been expended. By the bottom of our glasses it was six o’clock, and we agreed that if we went up to the room and stayed any amount of time, we might not leave.

So we staggered back up towards the plaza to the pizza/hamburguesa place we’d eaten at two nights before, which was just opening as we walked up. We ordered a couple of the latter, which in normal circumstances probably would have been average-at-best, but at this moment were quite satisfying. I was very glad we hadn’t been on buses all day. The buses could wait until tomorrow.

That night from the terrace of our hotel we noticed a bonfire down below in the garden, and decided to go investigate despite the state of our legs. It was a group of college kids, who we’d seen around town in the preceding days making some kind of a movie. They were burning bales of cut grass and green pine branches and there was a tremendous amount of smoke, but they welcomed us to join and it was good to be by a fire in the crisp night. There’s something very easy about socializing around a fire; you can just look at the flames and it doesn’t seem to matter if people talk much or not.

But we did talk, all in my halting Spanish — Miles being at the stage where he can understand more than he can say. They were studying film production at university in Bogotá and up here during summer break to make a short. There were a good number of them, maybe ten, girls and guys, and they were staying in tents on the hotel grounds next to the river. I told them that I had worked in film, and they were eager to learn about the industry in the states and tell me about Colombia. Apparently there weren’t a lot of jobs, and lots of people who wanted to work in production. That the only thing that mattered was who you knew. Sounded familiar.

They were concerned to hear we’d been up on the Paramo — said there was paramilitary up there. I’d heard that, and also that it had been true in the past, but they weren’t up there now. It had certainly felt away, like a place where people could conceivably hide from the world, but we hadn’t seen any signs of it. We talked about Bogotá, where we were heading shortly, the neighborhoods and things worth seeing, the safety and ways to get around. About Monguí, which we all agreed was something special. We inhaled a lot of green fire smoke and caught glances from cute college girls who giggled and whispered amongst themselves, and then it was time for us tired old men to retire for the night.

Up in the room we’d gotten the same email from our friend Annie Bacon in San Francisco, who we’d both played music with at different times. Annie and I were in a band together for some years, and collaborated on various projects after. Miles had played saxophone on a few tracks on her last album. She had just released a song, so he put it on his computer and we laid on our beds and listened, and when it was done we played it a few more times. A bright dreamy song, short and sweet and crisp. It’s inevitable on a long long journey to become rootless, for everything to feel a little random. Being with my friend, listening to our other friend’s music, felt like I was a part of some community, like my past and present worlds were connected.

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