A high-altitude hike in the Andes

When we planned our recent trip to Colombia, I knew I wanted to fit in an overnight hike. I had never been on one before and I was really curious and excited. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to hike at high altitude. I wasn’t sure how my ankle would hold up. Would I get bored?   It was something I wanted to try. I knew it was a great fitness adventure and I wanted to have a go.

andes hike

The Day Before

We had done research and knew there were some scenic hikes in the Andes accessible from a beautiful town called Salento in the coffee region.

We flew into Pereira airport  and took an hour long cab ride to Salento. We stayed at  La Serrana, a gorgeous dairy farm about a 20 minute walk outside of town, and I’d recommend it a thousand times over. On clear mornings you can see glaciers peeking out from the clouds, nestled in the Andes.

View from La Serrana
View from La Serrana

We headed into town to set up our hike.

After some back and forth, we went with a company I’d highly recommend called Salento Trekking. We walked into their shop and spoke with Diego.

Diego is both all business and a lot of fun. It’s a great combination in a trek leader.  An Olympic cyclist and Salento native, he got into hiking to help with altitude training for biking. He had just gotten back (moments before) from a hike and he was still dressed in his gear, his dirty pack on the ground. He runs Salento Trekking with his girlfriend, a Swiss woman named Vanessa, who is also a cyclist and brought with her a set of Bluetooth vibrators.

We sorted logistics and planned to meet the next day bright and early.

Salento Trekking
I took this photo of Matt because I liked the building, I’m only realizing now it’s the storefront for Salento Trekking

Hike Day 1

After a delicious and hearty breakfast at La Serrana (seriously good!), we met at the hiking office in the morning. We were joined by our guides (Vanessa, Diego) and a young Canadian couple. The couple had planned a 5-day trek but we shared the same first leg, and agreed to hike together.

We hopped into a Willy (basically a refurbished pre-Jeep Wrangler 4×4) and rode to the base of the hike at the Corcora Valley.

This is a Willy
This is a Willy

The town of Salento rests at 6,220 feet above sea level, and the Willy drove us to about 7,200 feet. The start of the hike was beautiful, tall wax palm streets rise high enough that have to strain your neck to see the top. A lush rainforest-like scene engulfs you as you hike steeply up and then back down toward a river, then straight back up for hours.

Wax palm in Corcora Valley
Wax palms in Corcora Valley
Matt at the start of the hike
Matt at the start of the hike

We stopped for a quick snack about an hour in, and then for lunch a little after noon. Lunch was delicious tamales with chicken, wrapped in leaves. It’s amazing what the right packing can keep intact.

My feet were blistering (I need different hiking shoes) and Diego helped me care for them when we stopped for lunch. Vanessa and Diego were both excellent at creating a open and fun atmosphere. I wouldn’t have volunteered that my feet were hurting but Diego asked so many times that Matt finally told him I had blisters.

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Matt captured me in Dr. Diego’s lunch time office

We continued on and finally rose high enough where you could drink safely from the river since the glacier runoff is unpolluted at this altitude. Which was great because I was constantly drinking water to avoid altitude sickness.

glacier water
Refilling my water bottle from the river
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photo op mid-hike

All told, on Day 1 we ad hiked about 9km in distance and to about 12,000 feet in altitude. This was a super steep hike though I have no idea what the incline grade was or any sort of fancy stat like that.  At about 4pm, we landed at our destination for the night, a very basic, active farmhouse called Finca Argentina. We could see the colorful rooftop in the horizon for about an hour as we walked along the the ridge and it felt like a mirage when we finally reached it.

Salento hike
Finca Argentina

Finca Argentina sits in my memory as a magical place. It’s a small, very rudimentary structure inhabited by a family who has lived in the area for generations. Diego and Vanessa sleep here often on hikes. We were welcomed like family, even though, none of the family members spoke much English. We dropped off our stuff in our bedroom for the night, a small room with 6 bunkbeds where Diego, Vanessa, the Canadian couple, Matt and I would all sleep. We changed into warmer clothes and headed to the small, but warm kitchen.

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the kitchen at Finca Argentina

The kitchen is a simple room with a low ceiling that I hit my head on countless times in my short visit. It’s the only room in the house with heat (from the stove) and we gathered around the warmth to eat and play card games.

The house is largely open air, with roosters resting on a ledge that’s both indoors and outdoors. Our bedroom wall was shared with the barn.

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Finca Argentina, inside outside

When we got to the house, we were all pretty wiped. We played games and had a delicious dinner and coffee. Dinner was chicken soup, rice, steak, beans and patacones  (smushed and then fried plantains that are on frequent offer around here). Everything was delicious.

Before we went to bed, Matt dragged me outside in the cold to see the most amazing moonscape. The night before had been a total full moon and the view from the side of the mountain was pretty fabulous.

Andes trek
Matt in the shadow of an epic sunset, I didn’t take  a photo of the moon

Exhausted, I fell fast asleep. It’s a very fortunate thing to sleep so easily at a high altitude. Matt wasn’t so lucky.

Hike Day 2

We woke early for breakfast (which was the same as dinner swapping the steak for an egg.) We said good bye to Diego, and the Canadian couple who were heading a different direction to reach snow-capped glaciers. I was thankful we had such a great group. For me, hiking is about the people and the views, in that order.

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the original crew

Vanessa, Matt and I headed out with Christian (a new addition to Salento Trekking crew) for a 10K pre-breakfast hike. The idea was to hike 5K up to 14,200 feet, 5k back down to the Finca for lunch, and then another 9K to the base of the mountain and Salento.

salento trek
my favorite part about hiking is that you never have to shower or change your clothes

The first 5K was a little tough, I definitely felt the altitude for the first time. What does “feeling the altitude” mean? It meant I felt a little slow and foggy. My footsteps took more effort than before to lift and lower.

I had been lucky so far with the altitude, and when others struggled, I had felt strong. I think it’s just blind luck.  I really know nothing about the biology on this, so I won’t pontificate. I just felt really OK on the whole hike up (ie: Day 1). It was the first time in our hiking careers I was ever in front of Matt, he is usually a stronger/faster hiker than me, but he was more impacted by the altitude.  He had to stop often to catch his breath and give his burning legs a break. But like they say in the movie Everest (my favorite), ‘It’s not the altitude it’s the attitude” and Matt never lost his positivity, to no one’s surprise.

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at the top with Vanessa and Christian

When we got to the top we took some photos, had some snacks and just enjoyed our accomplishment for a bit. The scenery had completely changed by now. It felt like we were in a Dr. Seussian desert with strange, dry flowery plants that felt like soft cotton. I associate being at a high altitude with being cold, but for the most part, the sun beat down on us enough for us to stay warm (and even get some pretty terrible burns).

We turned around to head back to the Finca and some where on that first 1K back I tripped on a rock, turned my ankle and fell to the ground. I was devastated. You may remember I sprained my ankle in Ecuador over a year ago, and I had instant flashbacks.

When you hike down from altitude, it’s meant to feel amazing and increasingly easy since you’re taking in more and more oxygen as you descend. But for me, it was a slog. My ankle was wobbly and weak and I was so nervous about turning it again. We made it slowly back to the Finca for lunch. On the way up, Diego and Vanessa had jokingly called the occasional horse we passed “a taxi” and over lunch we decided the only way I was going to make it to the base of the mountain before dark was on a horse.

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the meet and greet only went OK

I was hesitant at first because I wanted to complete the whole hike. But my decreased speed and general ankle weakness took that option off the table. So I rented a horse from the owner of the Finca, who has spare horses laying around since he is a farmer, I guess. Matt rented one out of solidarity, according to him, but I think he wanted to try it too.

salento trek
meet my horse. his name is horse. he hates when people ride him.

Fun Fact: Neither Matt nor I knows how to ride a horse. For some reason this wasn’t factored in. We hopped on our horses and Matt quickly got off of his because it was uncomfortable to anatomy parts of his that I don’t have, but if you ask him I’m sure he will get into detail.

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with Christian and our horses

My horse kept trying to lean off the edge of the mountain because I guess the most delicious grass was there. I squealed with fear. I can’t ride a horse. So riding a horse down a steep hike was terrifying. It felt like forcing the horse down a slippery spiral staircase.

Christian, who speaks no English is an old hand at horses and he climbed on Matt’s horse and then tied my horse to his horse and we made the 3-hour journey down that way.  I don’t speak any Spanish, and I tried to get Christian to go a little faster but we were totally lost in translation. So sometimes we’d go SUPER fast and other times a slow crawl. I bumped along downhill as the horse threw itself down the side of the mountain. I lost my sunglasses in the process but I was so eager to dismount and have it all over with at this point so I didn’t say anything. My butt bones were aching.

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close up of my trusty steed on the base of the mountain

When we finally got to the base of the mountain it was crowded. (Matt and Vanessa made it down in record time, attention record keepers.) Holiday season had brought domestic tourists to the mouth of the river and we had a hard time getting a Willy to take us back in to town.  So imagine: We were also filthy from two days of hiking (and in my case, horse riding) and semi-trapped at the base of the mountain.

We finally got a Willy driver but ending up hopping out because the traffic was at a standstill. We walked back to town and got our rolling bags from the trekking office.

The traffic prevented any Willys from coming into Salento proper so Vanessa found two motorcycles to carry us and our big bags back to La Serrana. Riding on a stranger’s motorcycle while hugging your suitcase is a special skill and Matthew is available for all tips and tricks on how to handle it while still having great hair.

We got back to La Serrana only to be informed all of the water in Salento had been turned off. Matt showed the man behind the front desk his dirt-coated feet and everyone agreed this was a good use of their reserve water. So then Matt and I quickly (and conservatively) showered off two days of hiking and I never felt cleaner.

salento trek

Have you ever gone on an overnight hike? Tell me everything!


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