Saddle Sores and Visions of a Soothing Spa

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Friday, December 1, 2006

Could it be that our short term memories are fading with age? Only two short years ago, an eight hour horseback riding excursion around the hills and valleys of Vilcabamba in Ecuador left us with numerous aches and pains, and yet here we were signing up again. Oh, but this one would be different. After all, who could resist a trek through the Valle de Cocora where the mighty wax palms - growing at the highest altitude in the world - stretch mightily upwards above the cloud forest? With our guide Alex, and horses Gaviota and Cuarenta-y-cuatro, we sloshed through knee-deep mud, across streams, and through verdant valleys lush with all manner of tropical trees and flowers. Then began our slow ascent up through the clouds to over nine thousand feet where the horses were given a well deserved rest. We meanwhile were treated to hot aguapanela with slices of local cheese, and occasionally caught clear glimpses of the mountain peaks wreathed in clouds high above.

Alex's genuine love of this stunning valley became apparent as he meticulously provided us with tons of information - primarily about the awesome wax palm. In its average life span of some two hundred years, this particular palm can reach the amazing height of 75 m, and thus contributes to a landscape not found anywhere else. Surprisingly, the 50,000 or so seeds produced annually by each palm are not the source of the wax, but rather it apparently originates from the powder located just under the bark. Although Gaviota and Cuarenta-y-cuatro were as slow as molasses, we still found it rather difficult to straighten our legs after the trek, and eagerly anticipated our planned soaking in the natural hot springs of Santa Rosa.

But not so fast - Santa Rosa was still a two hour drive away, and there were a couple of interesting towns to pass through along the way. With a population of only 3,500, Salento is one of the smallest towns in the Department of Quindío, and is also one of the oldest. The brightly painted buildings on the main plaza provide a perfect backdrop for the legion of Willys Jeeps - the transportation of choice for many of the inhabitants as well as visiting tourists. We climbed Alto de la Cruz at the end of Calle Real to get a birds-eye view of this colourful town, and to gaze back at the Valle de Cocora which was now fading in the distance.

Although a heavy drizzle was permeating the air, we decided to continue on to Filandia, since it was touted as the best-preserved town in Quindío. Perhaps our expectations had been too high, or possibly it was just the rain and cool temperatures that clouded our impressions, but we found the supposedly brightly coloured houses somewhat drab. But what better way to warm up than a cup of that ubiquitous Colombian coffee and several freshly prepared empanadas, especially when accompanied by a rousing conversation with the cook and waitress!

Ah, but by now we were really anxious for a luxurious soak in the thermal springs. Several people had suggested we bypass the built-up, touristy Termales de Santa Rosa, so we opted instead to drive another 18 km on a steep and rocky road to Ecotermales San Vicente. And what a disappointment it was. The advertised 'camping zone' was not available due to heavy rains, the hot springs appeared somewhat murky, the prices were highly exaggerated - and what's so "eco" about hamburgers and hotdogs anyway, and we were the only visitors to the site. The continuing rain made us feel even more despondent, so we decided to move on even though it was now dark. Returning to a nearby junction, we thought we would quickly check out a reputedly more natural hot spring that was just one km up an even rougher road. Deep and muddy ruts made the road almost impassable, and after driving two km without seeing anything, we decided it wasn't worth the risk and turned back.

That should have been the end of the story, but just before we reached the junction for the second time, we hit an exceptionally muddy section of road to avoid some large rocks on the left. The right front wheel slid easily into the ditch, and all efforts to free it simply put us deeper into a rut. At an elevation of about 8,000 feet and well after dark, we spent the next hour or so working under the van with our trusty MEC folding shovel and collecting rocks to build a ramp in the ditch - but all to no avail. We saw no one during the entire ordeal, so had more or less reached the conclusion that we would spend the night right there in hopes that the morning might bring some assistance. One should never give up though, as our last try brought success, and DC3 was back in action!

We had noticed a camping sign near Santa Rosa, so carefully made our descent towards the town and headed for Hospedaje de Cortijo. Yes, camping was written on the sign but no, camping wasn't permitted at this time of year. In spite of our pleas for simply a level spot to park the van inside the gates, the gatekeeper had no sympathy whatsoever and turned us away. But as seems to be the norm, the angels were watching over us - this time in the form of Sara, Oliva and Fabio. Owners of a nearby hospedaje, they kindly invited us in and showed us where we might camp for the night, offering us excellent toilet and shower facilities. Insisting that we accompany them to their own home, they prepared coffee and a snack and we visited together as if we had been friends forever. Yet another example of the superb hospitality of the amazing Colombian people!
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