Secrets of the Páramos, Guatavita

Before climbing up to the higher regions of Colombia, I’d never even heard of páramos, the neotropical alpine tundra which work like giant sponges, providing fresh water to millions of Colombians. High altitude páramos ecosystems only exist within a handful of countries, the majority of which are found in the Colombian Andes.

Perhaps the most striking feature of páramos is the frailejón, a bizarre but beautiful plant variety with many different species. They grow only 1cm per year, meaning even a shrub-sized frailejón can be several hundred years old. Their beautiful flowers are related to the sunflower, but have a velvety, almost frosty texture.

On our way into Guatavita, we linked up with WarmShowers host Daniel, an avid cyclist, climber and a veritable páramos expert. We have Daniel to thank for our introduction. His interest in these ecosystems and in frailejones inspired him to set out on his own year long bicycle tour through Colombia exploring its many different páramos. His story was covered by Colombian media, who referred to him as ‘el hombre de los páramos‘ (the man of the páramos).

More recently, Daniel and his partner Mabel have launched Senda Nativa, an outdoor adventures company based in Guatavita, Cundinamarca. We had the pleasure of joining him on a pilot run of his new ciclo-expedición of Páramo Alto and Pantano de Martos near Guatavita.

We were also accompanied by Lise, a Danish rock climber and tough cyclist, who seems to enjoy climbing hills on her bike just as much as she loves scaling the nearby Rocas de Suesca. She’s competed in the Yolosa a la Cumbre in Bolivia for three years running, a 63km bike race with 3500m climbing. We watched her gobble up the hills above Guatavita without a wince.

GPS track from our ride from Guatavita to Pantano de Martos (Strava ride posted here)

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We followed the lecheros over winding dirt roads towards Páramo Alto and Pantano de Martos.

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Lise couldn’t resist stopping to give this puppy a cuddle…

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… before a little hill climb…

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Rolling hills scattered with papas and vacas

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Páramos expert and backroads cyclist, Daniel was our guide for the ride…

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We walked amongst the frailejones, the otherworldly mascot of the páramos ecosystem …

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They grow about 1cm per year, making this one over 200 years old!

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Daniel pointed out plenty of interesting features …

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… like the velvety flowers …

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… and the quiche de agua which stores water in its nest of leaves.

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The flora of the páramo ecosystem serve as little water reservoirs, like a giant saturated sponge.

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A few eagles flew over us at the 3200m summit, but they were too quick for our trigger fingers.

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We descended into Pantano de Martos, a strange flat valley which used to be a lagoon before Señor Martos destructively drained all the water in an effort to find gold! Satisfyingly, he failed!

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The lagoon was previously known by the pre-Colombian Muiscas as Laguna Guanbita (young) and later as Laguna de Guasca (a nearby town)…

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… the pantano (swamp) is now home to many younger frailejones.

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Lise stretching out the legs as we try to creep up on some curí (guinea pigs)…

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… before following a side road …

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… across the waterway which Martos dug in order to drain the lagoon.

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 … where we continued on foot, gawking at the captivating array of beautiful plantlife …

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… the mosses and lichens literally drenched in water …

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… and some orchids colorful foxgloves (thanks to EarthKnight for the correction).

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Daniel brought a mini tripod for our obligatory mid-ride group shot…

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…  and then we were back on the bikes heading to the main road…

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… across Martos’ drainage canal once again (photo courtesy of Daniel) …

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… followed by a steady climb back to the mirador. Foolishly, we forgot to bring any food on what turned into a 7 hour ride …

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… with our blood sugar levels at rock bottom, we staggered for a few minutes at the summit …

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…. fortunately, Jenny had a tiny box containing 2 pieces of chicle (chewing gum) which she generously cut in half and divided amongst the four of us.

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We finally made it back to the house where Mabel had prepared ajiaco, a hearty bogotano soup with chicken, several different types of potatoes, guascas, corn, capers and cream.

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Our bikes deserved some love after all the muddy adventures…

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… and so did our clothes.

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