Saturday, July 23, 2016
When you're trying to impress your Colombian girlfriend, this line works really well: "Hey, I've been assigned a travel story for the New York Times. Wanna come along?" If you want her to stay impressed, you should leave out the second part: "By the way, we'll be traveling for 12 hours through the mountains on an old bus, riding a scraggly, old horse up a mountainside and then sleeping on rocky ground in sub-freezing temperatures!" If your girlfriend stays with you after all of this, you may have wife material on your hands, which turned out to be the case for me. That's my wife Karen in the photo above, freezing her tropical behind off for love and journalism.
Despite the hardships involved, this story was a lot of fun. I was assigned to make photographs of Parque Nacional del Cocuy by the Times travel section (to accompany a cover piece written by Matthew Fishbane). After a grueling overnight bus journey from Bogota, we arrived in the high mountain town of Cocuy, gateway to the park, and the sleepy kind of place where a gringo arriving on the morning bus was big news.
We spent a day in town making photos and adjusting to the altitude, after which we arranged for a young guide to take us into the mountains to a high plateau surrounded by glaciers. Karen is from the hot and steamy coastal city of Barranquilla and didn't even own a sweater before this trip, so sleeping beneath a giant wall of ice was a new experience! (Colombia is a mostly tropical country, being near the equator, but if you get up high enough there is year-round ice and snow --- which was the case at 15,000 feet.)
After a night of fitful sleep crammed into our a tiny tent, we walked down the next morning, things getting warmer and greener with every step towards the valley floor. We took lunch near a clear running stream in a valley full of the strange frailejones plant characteristic of the South American paramo. By dinner, we were back in town staying in a small, rustic hotel that seemed the height of luxury after a night on the cold stone.