There’s a tree in the central Andes of Colombia and Peru (and almost nowhere else) that grows higher than any other palm on earth — up to almost 200 feet. The national tree of Colombia, it’s known as the wax palm because a waxy substance covers its trunk. People used to cut the trees down to make candles. Stripping off its leaves for Palm Sunday services also killed a lot of them, and the fact that it takes 80 years for wax palms to reach a reproductive age hasn’t exactly enhanced their survival. In the Cocora Valley, however, not far from the hacienda where we stayed, the palms are protected, and they make the already glorious landscape even more beautiful.
We devoted much of yesterday to a pilgrimage there, hiring the same driver who picked us up at the airport Sunday. Because Stephanie unfortunately had tweaked her back, she opted against a hike into the valley. Instead she and Michael enjoyed it briefly and then were driven to the picturesque nearby town of Salento, while Steve and I struck off on a two-hour hike.
I felt inordinately happy. It wasn’t raining (once again contradicting forecasts), and the air temperature was perfect. The path cut through private farms that mostly seemed to grow happy cows.
For most of the hike, we saw no one, though several groups of horseback riders and/or local horse wranglers passed us.
The path ascended and descended at times, but the only real challenge was edging our way around the streams and mud holes that blocked our way a number of times. Once again I felt like kissing the portable walking sticks we bought last summer in preparation for our trip to the Himalayas. (They collapse to a size small enough to fit inconspicuously in a carry-on and cost only $20-$40 apiece on Amazon.)
I could have happily gone on to do a longer loop, and the hiking possibilities all around this place are bountiful. But the two-hour excursion was satisfying (and Steve still is battling some minor tumult in his guts.) So Orlando, our driver, picked us up and drove us back to Salento, where the five us of us (Steve, Mike, Stephanie, Orlando, and I) enjoyed more homey Colombian cooking.
Any account of this day would be incomplete without adding a few words about Orlando. A compact bundle of energy and unquenchable curiosity, he spoke almost no English, but I could understand most of his slow, clear Spanish, and he was extravagant in his praise of my command of the language. I’m happiest in this sort of linguistic situation, conversing with someone who has no choice but to rely on my imperfect Spanish and flatters me about its serviceability. So I gamely babbled away in response to Orlando’s constant comments and questions. The latter ranged widely. What kind of cars did we drive? (and which brand was better: Fords or Chevrolets?) What did we normally eat for lunch? How much did meat cost in America? (staggeringly more, we learned, than it costs in the Colombia’s coffee country, which also happens to be cattle country. Orlando said a kilo of excellent beef typically retails for about $2). Was it true that it cost SeaWorld a ton of money to maintain its orcas? What religions were we? And why? At a certain point, in answer to queries from Orlando, I found myself struggling to explain in Spanish the teachings of Buddhism! I felt like my brain was melting and dribbling out my ears, but a good night’s sleep was restorative, and the irresistible Orlando was in a great help this morning in getting us to the transportation terminal in Armenia and packed onto the non-stop bus to Medellin.
I’m now writing this post from the first class lower level of the Occidental Fleet’s double-decker “Emperor Elite.” It should theoretically pull into Medellin around 3:30 pm. Steve and I can’t ever remember being on a nicer long-distance bus. For less than $20 a person, we’ve got free wifi, head phones, blankets, electrical charging stations, games, movies, and hot lunch (that’s an extra $2.25.) And, oh yeah, fantastic views of the Andes out the windows.