This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel.
Our guide pulled up to our building in a Land Cruiser at 4:50 AM. I was a little surprised he was punctual since being late is always fashionable in Colombia. Nevertheless, I piled in with my boyfriend and his cousin– who was visiting from New York City. We are all avid hikers and were on our way to hike to the Santa Isabel Glacier in Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, a trek arranged for us by Colombia Eco Travel.
As the sun rose and the long 3 and a half hour drive continued, it became clear that our bilingual guide was not exactly bilingual. But between his broken English and our broken Spanish, we managed to communicate. For an expat living in Colombia learning Spanish, it was great practice, but I was disappointed on behalf of our visitor, who was briefly visiting and had to put up with my poor translating skills that sounded like, “something, something, graphite, something, volcano, something, snow, something, glacier.”
After picking up two more companions, we stopped at a tiny store in Villa Maria for pastries and coffee. Here you could also buy bottled water or snacks. After an arequipe-filled doughnut, we were off again. Our guide patiently and slowly explained everything we passed in Spanish. Halfway through the drive, we stopped for photos (at what seemed like a random location), but we were happy for the chance to get out and stretch our legs. Around 8 AM, we made it to a small farm for a breakfast cooked by a local family. We gathered in a humble dining room and were served plates of scrambled eggs, fruit, and arepa. There were also generous portions of coffee or hot chocolate. It was a classic and delicious Colombian breakfast perfect for the hike ahead.
We continued driving another hour past the entrance to the Park to the trailhead of the Route of the Condor. Our guide told us to keep an eye out for the Andean Condor, the largest flying bird in the world and the National bird of Colombia. As we parked, we saw another large group of foreigners and locals headed up with another guide. We were provided with walking sticks and the hike to the Santa Isabel Glacier took around 3 hours. This was my first high-altitude hike, and the trail was moderately steep. The distance wasn’t far, but we had to stop every 10-15 minutes to catch our breath.
During the hike, I saw dozens of new to me plant species. My favorite plants were the frailejóns, a rare plant related to the sunflower and the bright orange Ojos de las Poetas, or Eyes of the Poets. We weren’t so lucky to spot a Condor, but thankfully the fog let up towards the end giving us an expansive view of Swan Valley. The higher we got, the colder it got.
When we reached our destination, the Santa Isabel Glacier, the three of us looked at each other awkwardly. We didn’t want to say it, but we were all thinking it: “Is this it?” The glacial recession was more than obvious. I had ironically shown the documentary Chasing Ice to my students the week before to show the effects of climate change on glacial environments, but to see it in person was more powerful than any statistic. Santa Isabel is one of the last tropical glaciers in the world, and according to Jorge Luis Ceballos in Annals of Glaciology, “In the past 50 years, Colombian glaciers have lost 50% of the glacier area.” This trek became more than just a pretty hike in a unique landscape; it was an experience in ecological history. I’m thankful I was able to see this deeply threatened ecosystem before it was too late.
The idea that travel changes us is nothing new, but it’s easy to forget we choose where we travel. It’s tempting to seek out the wow factors and epic photographs, but what about the places that are dying? Being forgotten about? Being destroyed? They can just as powerfully motivate us to change; it’s not as easy to dismiss my carbon footprint when I’ve seen first-hand the effects it’s having on the world. It’s sometimes the experiences that don’t impress us that inspire the greatest epiphanies.