In the previous post, I’d just discovered that our tour bus to Los Nevados National Natural Park was on the opposite side of a fresh mudslide, thick with vegetation and impassable.
We go back to the coffee plantation ranch house to get our gear for the day. While we’re there, a crew from the plantation hacks a path through the vegetation. We are once again given knee-high rubber boots. With our shoes and cameras in hand, a line of men helps us across the tangle of broken bamboo and mud. On the far side is a puddle of accumulating water to wade through, then more mud, and finally the tourist bus, where there is somewhat less mud. We change from the boots to our shoes, balancing on one foot to avoid having muddy socks for the remainder of the day, and climb aboard the bus. Our guide for the day, Milton, introduces himself and we’re off.
The bus growls up the muddy road, sliding around corners. Given the state of these roads, it’s no wonder that busses in South America are often associated with the verb ‘plunge’. As we drive uphill, my mind is constantly devising escape plans, involving a brave leap through a tiny window to safety as the bus and all of the other passengers slides off the side into the green abyss. But my plans are for naught, as we reach the top of the road safely.
From Manizales we drive uphill, making our way towards the volcanic heights of Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados. Along the way we pass numerous other slides. Most are a small mound of mud on the road, but about an hour out we encounter a slide that has traffic stopped in a line winding up the hill as far as we can see.
Milton tells us that if we wish, we can walk up the road, so long as we watch for traffic to start moving again and we’re prepared to jump onto the bus as it rolls past. Dan, Sorin, the two Michaels and I jump off and start walking up the road. Milton follows along. We wave to trucks as we pass them, and people seem amused to see us walking. We clown around, we walk some more. The clouds seem to be hovering a few feet above our heads, blessing us with a steady drizzle of cold rain. The scenery is incredibly beautiful.
We pass a corner where a muddy stream crosses the road. Milton explains to us that a year ago, this stream was blocked by a landslide upstream in the hills. Water backed up behind the mud until it formed a small lake. When mud dam blew out, it sent a wall of water rushing down the canyon… this wall crossed the road just as a large bus was coming around the corner. The bus and it’s 60 passengers were swept down the canyon and into the river below where the bus was torn apart by the swollen river and boulders. There were no survivors. On the hillside by the creek were crosses for each person killed, including a row of smaller crosses for the children.
You see crosses like these often in Colombia. Sometimes there will be a single cross with a name, and sometimes there will be an ‘estrella negra’, a black star painted on the road or on the a roadside wall. The black star will often contain an image showing who was lost. On one stretch of road we passed a black star containing the classical figures of dad, mom, and child. They’re a constant reminder to drive carefully.
Eventually we come to a small restaurant alongside the road where the road crew has made its base. There are a few women inside, cooking for the men working on the road. We stop and order some steak and eggs, and when they come, they are the most delicious food we’ve tasted in a long time. The eggs are perfectly cooked, and the steak is tender and wonderfully marinated. Just as we’re finishing, traffic starts moving and our bus appears. We jump on and continue on to Los Nevados.
At the entrance to Los Nevados park, we stop at a small food stand. We all order a cup of coca tea to fortify us for the heights. It’s good… the tea is prepared very sweet, which counters the bitterness of the coca leaves. I have a slight buzz, but I’m not sure if it’s from the coca leaves or the altitude.
We continue up the dirt road that climbs the mountain in Los Nevados. The road is made of cinders, and the bus slides through it easily. The scenery is amazing… different than the verdant lush below. This is a starker landscape, but still rich. There are some very unusual plants growing here. One is a deep green moss that looks softer than silk, but feels like rock. Milton explains that this moss is like coral… as it grows, it leaves a hard ‘skeleton’ behind, and so constantly expands as a rock-hard mass. On this one, a few small mushrooms grow.
At about 4,000 meters (13,000′) I see a crest in the road, rising two feet and then quickly dropping down three. “This won’t be good” I think to myself. I imagine the bus teetering on top of the ridge of cinders, wobbling back and forth slowly. The bus plows over the ridge and down the other side, to my amazement. And then it stops. The read wheels spin, but we’re not going anywhere. The driver tries backing up, but the bus just digs itself deeper.
Everyone gets off of the bus. Dan and Milton inspect the situation. It’s not good.
The driver gets out of the bus. He looks concerned. He walks around the bus to the other side. He looks more concerned. The rest of us stand on the hill looking down on the bus. The driver looks down at the partially-buried tire, looks up at us, looks down. “¡Empujar a todos!” he says. “Everyone must push!”
From the hillside, there is a palpable sense of skepticism. Muttering to ourselves, some of us line up behind the tour bus and push. The men strain against the back of the bus, muscles bulging, their breath steaming like plow horses. Wheels spin, but nothing else moves. The bus could have been set in concrete.
Inevitably we turn to cannibalism to survive.
Burning in the dark disapproval (and unfulfilled hunger) of his passengers, Milton suggests we walk up the road to see the view of the volcanic crater. I think he was being ironic… we’re standing in the middle of a cloud. Visibility is less than 50 feet.
About half the group shrugs, turns, and trudges uphill. A Los Nevados ranger follows to keep us out of trouble. We switchback upwards, breathing heavily in the thin cold air.
Four switchbacks up, we come to the snow line. Ten feet later, wet icy snowballs are flying through the air. Twenty feet more, and everyone has gotten that our of their system, and we continue upwards.
At 4,500 meters (14,800′) we lose track of the road. We’ve scattered across the snow field trying to find the path when Milton calls us through the ranger’s walkie-talkie. “Perhaps you should all come back now” he suggests. “There are very unhappy people here. They are wanting to leave.”
We glissade downhill just in time to see the bus become unstuck. It’s still facing the wrong direction, and the driver performs a frightening three-point turn. At one point the rear end of the bus is dangling over the drop, and the rear wheels are beginning to slide over the edge. From the bleachers, we all shout “Stop! Stop!” as if the force of our voices could pull the bus back from the brink. The driver shifts into low gear, the bus pulls forward and disaster is averted, for now.
The journey back is uneventful, but there is a little drama. The travelers who stayed with the bus are unhappy that Milton didn’t call for help. Milton is upset that they didn’t trust his judgement. There is a little shouting back and forth, a bit of British arrogance, a bit of Latin temper, but it soon settles down. In a few hours we’re back at the Hacienda, drinking espresso. Life is good, and interesting.
This has been a very long post, so to reward you for reading this far, here is a photo of a hot guy from the hacienda: