All the Way Up (almost)

June 20 – June 30, 2017

It started as most field expeditions start, I forgot to bring something important – my camera lens. We were hiking to 3500+ m, a once in a lifetime opportunity, why prioritize my camera? After a frustrating day preparing for the expedition and trying to navigate the language barriers I finally was “ready” to leave. OK, I cried pretty hard in the bathroom and had to throw water on my face before regaining my composure. My frustrations stem from language and cultural barriers including the feeling that my lack of fluent Spanish has led many to believe I am an imbecile (they always are saying “ella no entiende”, SI YO ENTIENDO UN POCO damn give me a break!). I am not sure if being a woman has something to do with it, but I definitely feel the inherent machismo that is bred into Latin culture (strong on the coast here) has stacked some cards against women.  

The first day we drove from Santa Marta to our base camp in San Pedro ~ 3 hours away. It is no small feat to get up to this mountain town. It takes 2 – 2.5 hours of bumping along a dirt road to get to 1400 m. Here we set up camp at our guides house. Our guides Nelson and William are brothers, their entire family lives in the same house (I think there’s over a dozen adults and kids living there) and they have a spectacular view of the valley beneath their coffee farm (I mean covefefe farm).

Naturally, I had been attempting to prepare my body for the ascent from 0 m asl to 4500 m asl. I had been drinking a ton of water for a few days prior and the night before our first climb (which was slated to begin at 4 am) I did yoga. While I was doing yoga, the Colombians were preparing for the hike by drinking copious amounts of beer and smoking marijuana…cultural differences I suppose.

I hardly slept the first night, I clocked about one hour of sleep, and I moved my colchon (mattress) from the lower area where I was sleeping next to 4 dudes, one who was snoring too loudly for me to rest, up next to Daniela and Jefrey’s tent (my field assistants who also are a couple). I had slept little when the roosters started to crow at 3 am. By this time, we needed to be up and packing our latest belongings to make sure we were ready for the journey to the paramo.

Re-organization before our 4 am departure 

The paramo habitat – or high altitude habitat (above the treeline) – in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM) is enormously difficult to access. The SNSM, being the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, has extreme topography that makes even the greatest athletes pant their way up the mountains. We were supposed to climb to 4500 m in two days, however once we were informed that we only had enough food to last our group of 12 for 4 – 5 days and that the ascent to 4500 m would take around 5 days, our plans had to change. In true Colombian fashion our original plans morphed throughout the week. Some of you may be shocked to hear, but I do try to go with the flow when possible… usually because I have no other choice.

The first day we began our hike at 4 am. I was panting by the time we reached the trailhead (30 min). Like clockwork, one day to the previous year when I climbed this mountain, my little red friend paid a visit. I swear to god, no matter what my body and mind are going through, my period has been my tried-and-true friend. Thankfully, this was not the horror of a period as it was last year, since I had switched IUDs in February and therefore it was a much neater (literally) experience. Anyway, again, hiking on my period into the wilderness for 7 days (fellas – deal with it.).

Cattle ranching is one of the main sources of livelihoods in the mountains

Second year, second photograph of these girls who go to the one school in the mountains

The first day we climbed 10 hours and about 13 miles to 2500 m. Our large group hiked in fragments, much like the forest patches we traversed through. We almost reached our first destination when we lost sight of the guides and the rest of the group. Six of us remained behind while the clouds began to roll in and rain splattered our plastic jackets.

Inside a cloud forest you can see for kilometers in the sunshine, yet seconds later your sight may be filled with white swirling smoke and you can hardly see one meter in front of you. It can be a bit of a scary experience, particularly if you do not know your destination. While we were searching for the trail we were whistling and hollering to the guides. I was blowing my built-in whistle on my REI backpack (about the only thing that backpack is good for). Finally, we heard a faint noise from the guides and tottered off in the supposed direction. At this point the rain and thunder had set in; now I am no stranger to getting caught in a thunderstorm, but I still do not particularly enjoy being outside while there is lightning. Call me old fashioned, but hell I ain’t trying to get burnt to a crisp, especially not before I climb the mountain!

We searched for the guides and kept whistling and yelling, all the while the storm raged around us and we got completely drenched (Naturally I took videos; the guides are really nice guys, but seriously what happened to the no (wo)man behind motto!?). Finally, the clouds parted enough for us to find the path up to the house where everyone had hunkered down. When we arrived, the rest of the group (dry) was huddled together, while we were soaked to the bone. We immediately took off our raincoats and proceeded to huddle together for warmth, like a couple wet mountain chickens.   
Dani always feels this way around me

Once the rain subsided, we continued on our hike. We didn’t have far to go and hiked for about 30 more minutes to an Arhuaco (indigenous) home at 2500 m. The SNSM has four indigenous groups living within the mountains, while they all have different languages and traditions, there usually appears to be a “mamo” which is an elder that is responsible for all the decision making and payments to the mountain for gifts (more on this later). The mamo was not present on our first stay. We waited out the rain under the overhang of the family’s huts. We were lucky enough to make friends with the kids who spoke some Spanish. They called us “yurkano” which translates roughly to “lazy ones” or “flojos or perezosos” in Spanish.

Dani in the Arhauco home - probably my favorite picture yet!
Six of us slept on the floor Arhuaco home. The two women who allowed us to sleep in their room had cell phones, radios, DVD players, and the walls were plastered with 1980s/1990s cutouts of women’s underwear ads. Again, I slept terribly. I should have blown up my little mattress but I decided to rough it like a true Colombian, plus I was tired so I would definitely sleep right? No, I slept 2 hours. Now I was going on 3 hours of sleep in the two days of our hardest hiking. The next day we woke up early again to begin our hike. We hiked 5 hours and about 8 miles to get to 3500 m. At one point, we spent two hours just climbing one mountain on a tiny trail, up, up, up, no end in sight. The answer to surviving all this hiking is: sugar. I now understand why the trails are littered with cookie and candy wrappers and why the coffee is just black sugar water. People living in the mountains thrive off of sugar to give them energy to sustain these intense hikes. I am currently chowing down on a coconut chocolate bar and a beer as I type this…My mountain sweet tooth has not abated.

We finally got to 3500 m, our destination for the next four days. It was incredible, the trees disappeared and the mountain opened up into a shrub-like landscape, cows littering the landscape. It reminded me more of Ireland or Iceland than the Colombian rainforest I had just climbed. We set up camp on a flat ridge, but not after eating a meal of tuna, squeezable mayonnaise, and tortillas. I have not eaten tuna in 3 years, but this trip I succumbed because half the meals contained tuna, I did what I had to do to survive…OK! I also do not eat pork of red meat. The Colombians bought me salchichon de pollo – which is basically a fake chicken meat like sausage in a plastic wrap. We cut off slices of salchichon and threw them into our ramen, pasta, lentils etc. It was gross.

The Field Crew and Guides (L to R: Dani, Jef, Me, Nelson, Ruben, Cintia, William, Fabian, Jose, Cristian, Beto)
Crowding around Giovanni for our delicious Tuna Tortillas

The first paramo lunch (rationing was the weeks theme)
We set up camp and I quickly realized we were going to be cold and wet for 4 days straight. Naturally, everyone had already made their sleeping arrangements except the gringa. I looked at the tent with Jefrey and Daniela (a couple and also my technicians – again another post on working with couples to follow) who had no tarp and no plastic to cover their tent and protect them from the rain, and another Colombian Ruben – who had no tarp but a rain fly; I chose accordingly. I am accustomed to sleeping in random places with random people, one of my many adaptable qualities, and I had no problem sharing a tent with a stranger. Last year, I shared a tent with three dudes including my poor friend Chris who used plastic garbage bags to wrap himself in since we only had one sleeping bag between us. I slept pretty horribly for the entire time. Ruben shivered and moved around during the night. I was so cold and damp I kept waking up, and each morning the sun rose around 5 am.

Orange Morph - Atelopus carrikeri 

During our stay in the mountains we searched for frogs – it’s what we came to do after all. We found streams abundant with Atelopus carrikeri – a species that is listed as critically engendered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The colors of A. carrikeri are splendid- orange, yellow, red, green, and black! The black morph of A. carrikeri is what my collaborator Beto had come to look for, he believed the black morph was the original species of A. carrikeri and that it persisted up at 4000 + m. Beto didn’t find one when he climbed to 4200 m, but I did, at 3500 m. On our last night of surveys, I came across an extremely dark Atelopus. I grabbed it and brought it back to camp to show Beto – he said maybe. In the morning, he declared it was morfo negro. Success!!! Of course, I got no glory in this finding, but I still think it’s pretty cool, especially since I have been made to feel like an imbecile with my bad Spanish and lack of “plans” for my research.

Over the four days we spent in the Paramo, we hiked to the sacred lagoons (amazing), fake bathed in the freezing streams (cold), ate lots of pasta, lentils, and fish in cans (yuck), and we encountered the more indigenous people, including the guardian of the land we were illegally camping on. He left us with a note saying without payment we basically could do absolutely nothing – no pictures, no camping, no hiking etc. etc. When we first encountered him, it was me (gringa!!!!), Jefrey, and Daniela; naturally, we sent Jefrey to talk with him first. Indigenous people do NOT like gringas, making me apprehensive to be the leader in these situations. The man had not eaten in a whole day, so we gave him all the snack bars, cookies, and sugary treats we had. We chatted with him and he seemed friendly enough. He told Jefrey he has made a payment to the mountains (gods? I am not sure how it works, I think it’s just payment to nature) to ask for no rain for 2 days. Needless to say, it worked. It didn’t rain for two days while we were there. The lack of rain actually made it much colder, combined with the blustery winds and intense sun, my nose peeled like a white kid trying to climb Mount Everest without sunblock.

Dani, Jef y yo

3500 m!

First laguna and waterfall that leads all the way to the lowlands and becomes Sevilla river

Amplexus between two Atelopus carrikeri - hembra (female on bottom) and macho (male on top). Males are usually much smaller than females, especially during mating season when they lose weight from being in prolonged amplexus. I think one of the records for amphibian amplexus in Atelopus is a few months at least! That is dedication!

Gorgeous yellow morph - A. carrikeri

All black errryyyyythang!- Black Morph A. carrikeri

Survival Strategy - consume loads of sugar always + wear crooked sunglasses 

Desending back down (subparamo ~ 2900 m)

Mula mula mula rockin everywhere
After a successful trip, we headed back down the mountain. To our (ok maybe just my) surprise, we would not have mules for the descent (what did I pay $400 for again?). Therefore, we had to schlep our bags (and my equipment) all the way down to San Pedro. The first day was 4 hours of hiking down back to the indigenous home. Beto had paid for two chickens to be slaughtered in the name of delicious soup. We ate the entire chicken (feet an all) and soup not knowing that the indigenous were supposed to share the same meal…. 1st strike. One of the team members – Jose – accidentally stepped on one of the chicks after consuming his meal, spilling its guts out and ensuring its untimely death…2nd strike. When the mamo finally got back and saw us all, we we’re definitely a no-go, Yurkano’s…3rd strike.

It rained ALL day. The Colombians sat for 8 hours chatting and laughing while the rain passed. I was so impressed with how cheerful everyone was in each other’s presence after a week together. No electronics, just sitting, talking, and joking. It was nice to watch and attempt to follow along. I did take one reading break because I was like, I can’t handle all this.  

When we consumed the entire chicken meal...Also to be noted Cintia (pictured above) was the most badass hiker of the group the entire week, this women is a beast!
The final descent was hard. The guides told us it would be a 4 – 5-hour hike, but oh I am no dummy. I knew it would be 6 – 8. It was. I came in 4th clocking around 7 hours, all three women in the group were in the top four out of twelve to finish the hike. I had a 30+ lb pack on and consumed 3 energy bars (like half of what I consumed the rest of the week) on the descent. We passed the school that was a 4-hour hike from the Arhuaco house we had left and saw some of the young boys from the same house running around in their rubber boots and mochillas (little bags everyone, man and woman, wear here) playing soccer. WTF. This kid had us beat by hours. Does he come here everyday? He walked at least 2 – 3 hours (one way!!) up and down mountains to get to this school.

It is truly amazing to see how the people who live in the mountains operate. Living primarily off their own land and trading goods, they have a simpler way of life that is completely family-oriented. On our descent, I encountered a mamo with our guide Nelson. The mamo asked if I was a gringa, Nelson responded with a hand motion of half and half. He told the mamo I was from Santa Marta. I decided it was best not to speak too much (accent is a dead give away amongst like a million other things) and kept my Spanish to “soy un estudiante de biologia”. I was all flustered with the distaste the mamo had for gringas, until a couple hours later when another in our hiking group descended and said “Did you see how drunk that mamo was? Ridiculous” and proceeded to re-enact his engagement with the drunk mamo.

What I learned this week was that 1) I can accomplish new physical and mental limits and 2) the SNSM is unpredictable, but you can usually find a friendly face or food when you need it the most.

The squad at the sacred lagoons probably getting sunburns


  1. Wow Nikki! You are so brave and strong (mentally, emotionally, and physically). This sounds waaaayyyy out of my comfort zone even with my knack for adventure and ability to go with the flow. I'm very impressed.

  2. Ok Nikki, starting with Puerto Rico, these blogs are off the charts. Fun, well written, exciting, and descriptive. I can literally feel the achey joints and muscles, the damp chills, the yummy sugar highs followed by exhausting lows, and taste the disgusting bean, mayo, and tuna tacos, hahahaha. But mostly, when looking at your massive smile and crooked glasses, I can see your pride and excitement as you achieve your goals, and experience awesome adventures that most of us just dream about ! You are very strong to be able to keep up with the locals who are acclimated to all things Colombia… You are one tough gringa my intrepid magnificent daughter. Forever proud.


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