We began our journey up to San Pedro, a small mountain town about three hours from Santa Marta, in the same Indiana Jones vehicle as we had taken up to San Lorenzo, where we would stay at Daniela’s abuelas house. About 20 minutes in, we almost died when we rounded a curve at 60 km/hr (at least) and a motorcyclist had pulled out in front of the blind curve. Our driver swerved around the motorbike cursing “hijueputa!” (son of a bitch), while we all slammed around in the back. For a second I felt like the car was going to roll to one side…It definitely caused a fright (for me, the Colombians just got a bit wide-eyed and then resumed their normal non-amused expressions). Afterward, I figured that would hopefully be the worst of the trip. After two hours of bumping along another dirt and rock road, we made it to sleepy and rainy San Pedro, a town that has maybe 200 inhabitants. During the ride I felt a bit crampy, but otherwise was fine.
The first thing we did in San Pedro was eat. During lunch, I immediately noticed the birds. We saw maybe 20 species within the first hour of being there, something I had not experienced in San Lorenzo. It was incredible the hues of greens, yellows, and blues, all buzzing back and forth between their perches in the tall trees to the sweet fruits the women had left out for the birds. Afterwards we journeyed down the one road in town to Daniela’s abuelas house. From there we walked to the end of the road which brought us to the abandoned school on the bottom of the hill/town. We heard a weird crying, I thought it was a bird, while Chris guessed it was a small child (please god no). We decided to check out where the noise was coming from and I found a tiny puppy dreaming on an old potato sack. Once we woke the puppy it was apparent that it had some deformity or had been injured as it had difficulty walking on its right side. It was beyond cute and followed us up the road, like so many other animals do here when they’re given the slightest bit of attention. It is generally hard for me to turn a blind eye to all the stray animals when I travel, but it is impossible to get attached because around every corner there is another mange, worm-filled critter, waiting to find a home.
|A view from lunch|
|Daniela's abuelas house- all the diplomas of all the women in the family, so cute!|
|Futbol field viewing|
|Sleeping puppy, had troubles walking :/|
On the way back up we spoke with some local people and asked them if they had seen the Toro (I carry laminated pictures in my backpack because I am cool like that #roachesNrats). Some said they had seen a similar species, but it was café (brown), 4-5 hours away on a finca. It is hard to know if these people really have seen these animals, but again this sighting was confirmed from another man up the road. I believe they may be referencing another type of arboreal tree rat in the family Ollamys, although I can’t be certain. We spent the night sitting and chatting with Beto and the students. This was during the NBA finals game 7 and Jose Luis, who had cell phone service and data, was able to check the score for us. I was very upset with the results and everyone started laughing because of how quickly my mood changed once I found out that the Warriors had lost….although good on you Lebron, now can we all get over him needing to win for Cleveland? He did it, it’s Warriors time…. But I digress… Our plan was to wake up the next morning at 4 am and hike thirty minutes up to the top of the town, where we would meet our guide and mula (mule) that would carry all of our food and equipment.
At around 10 pm, I felt a little funny. I went to the bathroom and lo and behold Aunt Flo had paid me a visit, finally. I KNEW this would happen, so luckily I was prepared with my diva cup. Freaking A. A three day trek into the jungle with my first period post IUD. Remember, in jungle, for 3 days, with no bathrooms, or soap, or water. Mind you, this was also my first backpacking trip EVER.
So our journey began at 5 am the next day, although we didn’t really get on the trail until after 6:20 am because our mula and guide were late. Beto said it would be a four hour walk. Four hours later, we weren’t even 1/3 of the way there, according to William, our guide. We climbed at least three mountains before stopping to eat lunch outside of a ganaderia (cattle farm). We filled up our water with the hoses people run from the streams to the farms. Beto luckily had iodine tablets for me and Chris to purify our water, even though he had no idea if and when they expired. The only people we saw on the trail were children from a local school in the middle of the mountain. They were very intrigued by us and followed us with sheepish grins. At one point all the children were running around screaming and playing tag or futbol. There were a handful of indigenous children at the school, you can differentiate them by their clothes (sometimes all white), skin and hair - which are usually darker than most Colombian mestizo children, and their mochillas (or bags) that they keep on at all times. The children here are so sweet and happy, it is nice to see such young innocence, while I am literally panicking like OK if I die, how will I get out of this damn jungle? How fast can the mula move? We also saw a Kogi* man briefly after the school.
*The Kogi are one of the four indigenous groups that live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, they seem to have one of the biggest presences on the mountain.
Once we made it up another couple of mountains we heard we were over halfway there. Finally, closing in on eight hours of grueling upwards hiking we made it to the finca. The finca, or rather a shack with a wood burning stove, and one bedroom with dirt walls (covered in crummy photos of women from magazines) and floors with three board/beds (beds that are made from 3-4 planks of wood), was inhabited by a young man named Roberto and his timid and skinny dog Leon. I came to love Leon, but at first he would growl at us and was very unsure about our presence on his land. Roberto was a very nice guy, he had been alone on the farm, with his 14 cows for three weeks. I mean seriously, I would go insane if I was alone for three hours let alone three weeks. Leon, the dog, actually understood Spanish fairly well because Roberto talks with him often. We set up our tent for 4 on the grass on the mountain top of the finca, even though Beto said it would be cold, I would rather be mas comodo on the grass than the rocky dirt ground. Beto, Jose Luis, Chris and I were to share one tent, while Daniela and Jefrey shared another (they’re bf/gf y’all). Beto had forgotten a sleeping bag for Chris, but luckily I had purchased one for $23,000 pesos at the home center (~$6 USD).
From around 6 – 9 pm everyone napped. I wasn’t tired so I stayed up reading my kindle and chatting with Roberto. It turns out Roberto wanted to learn some English so I wrote down four pages of English words that he was interested in learning and went over them with him for an hour or so. Words ranged from cows, pasture, lion, dog, mom, and dad, to bad words in English- shit, bitch etc, to basic phrases like “what is your name?”. I don’t know if Roberto has every spoken an English word in his life. His best pronunciations were beans and beanie, although he started to confuse them after a while. I ripped the sheets out of my notebook and gave them to him as a keepsake. He probably won’t remember how to say any of the words, nor be able to read my handwriting, but it was a nice hour.
After eating a bunch of yucca with mantequilla (the first of our many yucca meals), we spent the remainder of the evening looking for frogs in what I call “Atelopus Alley”. The stream below the finca was crawling with frogs! It was incredible. There were so many breeding pairs of endemic frogs mostly Atelopus lettisimus and one Atelopus carrikeri. We also found a few undescribed species, including one that I found! Although Beto kind of laughed at me when I asked him if I found a new species, and was like no, not really. Dammit. The Atelopus males, which are about 1/2 to 1/3 the size of females, will find a female to mate with and literally hold on to her back for dear life for up to three months. Talk about an ole’ ball and chain, it’s like the five-stage clinger you can’t get rid of! Beto and his group of students collected frogs to take back to the lab, this is my least favorite part of science - killing for science. I have never been a fan, I understand the necessity of it, yet I do not like to watch. They also collected tadpoles and invertebrates for various types of studies that they conduct in their lab. I bumbled around trying to take pictures of frogs on my Iphone, the only camera I brought with me to Colombia (because I am an idiot), while Beto and Jose Luis took vastly better pictures with their cameras. They have their photo methodology down. First they look at the frogs with their headlamp, get the frog into focus, then they turn their headlamp away from the frog, and take a picture in dark with a flash (but picture was already focused so it looks very nice).
|Mama and calf|
|View from the finca|
Daniela, Jefrey, Jose Luis
Frog pile! Atelopus laetissimus: 3 males fighting for the reproductive rights for 1 female
Atelopus laetissimus (supposedly)
|Leon, smelly because he had killed a skunk|
I started to get cranky at 10 pm. We had walked 12 miles straight up four mountains, I was hungry, and sleep deprived, and it was getting very cold. Jefrey had flooded his boots and so the four of us- Jefrey, Daniela, Chris and myself walked up the steep hill towards our tents. I put on all the warm clothes I had and hopped into the tent. I laid my sheet down on the bottom, used my dry bag with my extra clothes as a pillow, and unzipped the sleeping bag for Chris and I to share. We slept between Beto and Jose Luis, because I thought this would be a good strategy for keeping warm. Not only was I wrong, but Beto and Jose Luis didn’t come back until 1 am. I was freezing. I could hardly sleep and I felt like I kept peeing myself. Oh wait, I was having the heaviest period of my life right now. I had to slip out of the tent twice to go pee and re-group (if ya know what I mean, ladies). It was bloody awful, pun intended. I mean being a female field scientist is difficult for a handful of reasons, but dealing with your period in the field is probably one of the worst parts. I tried to get some sleep and finally fell asleep at 4 am, when I felt warmer and succumbed to exhaustion. Six o’clock rolled around and I was up again. I refused to wake and stayed in the tent until 8 am. I felt like complete crap. We ate yucca and mantequilla for breakfast, remnants of dinner the night before, and I went back to sleep around 10 am until 1 pm.
We then attempted to hike down to the stream and up to a waterfall, building a path for a night hike we would take later, while looking for the Toro. Well in true fashion, nobody had communicated this plan with each other, and Chris and Beto took off while the rest of us collected tadpoles. We tried to follow the machete marks up river, but got confused by what the actual plan was. Instead, we sat on a rock and ate our sandwiches, cookies, more saltines with jelly, and chatted about frogs and other forest animals. Jose Luis attempted to bathe in the freezing cold stream, stripping down to his skivvies, to rinse off. I am not sure how much of a bath it was, because his clothes were back on within one minute. We decided there was no point in waiting there, so we hiked back up to the finca to wait for Chris and Beto. They arrived 45 minutes later, starving and filthy. We ate a late almuerzo around 4 pm and then took naps again. Eat, sleep, and search. That is kind of the life of a field biologist. I enjoy being in the field because I get the opportunity to read for pleasure. I finished Lab Girl in 24 hours and I started a new book called “Short walks from Bogota”, where I am hoping to learn more about Colombian culture and history (although it is written by a Brit, so maybe I should jump on the 100 years of Solitude train).
That evening we left around 8 pm to make our way back down to the stream to search for the Toro. The search went slow as we mostly were dragged down by the herpetologists who had to search for every frog. It was actually quite cool because we saw so many more Atelopus species hanging out on leaves or breeding. They were everywhere. These frogs are critically endangered and endemic (only found in this part of the world), so it was a real treat to get to see so many up close, and to see them breeding for future generations of the Atelopus family! After Chris and Beto had cleared the path, it was a quick walk to the waterfall. We spent only a few hours out searching, of course we saw nothing. The canopy was incredibly dense and it was difficult to forge the rocky river while trying to look into the trees for a rats eye shine. We did see some nocturnal type birds that were clinging to rock walls at the waterfall, a very cool find. I need to look those up…..
We retreated to our wet, cold lair where we again attempted to get some sleep. This time Chris wrapped himself in two plastic ponchos, making him look rather like a homeless man who sleeps in garbage bins or Bradley Cooper’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook” (still not a huge fan of that movie). I would wake up in the night with all of us trying to huddle together for warmth, Beto was cocooned in his flimsy sleeping bag and I would feel his knees or head on a part of my body, while I would try multiple sleeping positions to get warm and would end up knocking into the back of Chris’ plastic sheets. For three days I never took off my sports bra or tank top. I wore a buff (head wrap) under a beanie, a lululemon windproof long sleeve, and a hooded jacket. On the bottoms I wore wool socks, leggings, and my field pants on top. I laid both rain jackets under my sheet as to insulate it…. Which did not work so well. By this time there was feces everywhere. I tried to disappear beyond ridges and bury that shit, literally. However, there was cow and mula poo, weird grey poo that could have been Leon’s or human, and the smells were at times overwhelming. The calves were tied up inside the finca, so they wouldn’t drink milk throughout the night and Roberto and William could milk the mums in the morning. The babies spent half the night moo-ing for their mothers, and the other half was spent with Beto’s reenactments of the babies. The mother’s would come and lay outside the barbed wire fence diligently watching over their kin.
|Our tent and mula|
We woke up at 5 am the next morning to begin our journey down the mountain. Our driver was picking us up at 11 am we didn’t want to be too late. Feeling like donkey piss, I drank café, ate some granola out of a bag, and stuffed a piece of white bread into my mouth and one in my pocket for later. We had run out of food and we still had a 4-5 hour hike ahead of us. After packing up the wet tent and all our remaining gear, we had a photoshoot at my request. I wanted pictures with Roberto and William, our “guide”, although he didn’t really end up guiding us anywhere. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day on the mountain. We began our journey down and saw many more people than on the way up. We encountered an indigenous Kogi woman, weaving a mochila as she sauntered down the mountain, cattle farmers, men on horses bringing up two cows. The school was full of more children and this time they had a futbol match going. Jose Luis and I joined for a kick, without taking off our backpacks. I took some more pictures of the children and they all smiled sheepishly but with a burning curiosity and kindness in their eyes, obviously just as curious about us as I was about them. We made it back to town in a little under five hours. I was starving and cranky and slept partially on the bumpy ride home.
|Roberto and I|
|Gangs all here|
|Kogi woman on the walk back to San Pedro|
I had just survived three days 1) without showering 2) pooping outside 3) dealing with my period with no bathroom 4) not washing my face or hands… very often 5) probably consuming a lot of people’s feces 6) not getting diarrhea, although I did get a weird stomach bug the day after…but I think the exhaustion and heat from Santa Marta that did me in, 7) freezing my ass of in a wet tent with three smelly dudes, oh, and 8) hiking just under 30 miles in 48 hours.