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The Tough Guy Killer: Adventures in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

In the shade under­neath the thatched roof choza, I looked one last time at the bot­tom of my cof­fee cup. This was day two of our expe­di­tion in the Sier­ra Neva­da de San­ta Mar­ta in Colom­bia, and it was spent arrang­ing pas­sage from the local Kogi shaman into their lands of over­whelm­ing green, wild­ly steep moun­tain sides, and equa­to­r­i­al glac­i­er-clad peaks. After some lengthy nego­ti­a­tions we received a hand-writ­ten per­mit for us to jour­ney into the indige­nous Kogi trib­al land. Time to pack.

Prepar­ing break­fast under­neath the choza.

Mateo work­ing out the details of our pas­sage with Kogi leaders.

Pack­ing up.

Like step­ping out of a storm­bound tent and into a wicked, cold bliz­zard, I left the cool shade to face an alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent extreme, one also of unde­sir­able dis­com­fort — think hot yoga, but with the equa­to­r­i­al sun beat­ing down on you. We were about 10 degrees north of the equa­tor at about 1,200 meters, so to think in six days we’d be walk­ing on glac­i­ers, climb­ing Colombia’s high­est peak at almost 19,000 feet, seemed implau­si­ble at best as we melt­ed in the swel­ter­ing heat and humidity.

Kogi vil­lage with the moun­tains high above.

But, with per­mit in hand it was time to move on. Step­ping intothe lush trop­i­cal for­est with a few machetes in hand to occa­sion­al­ly clear the trail we begin the ardu­ous hike to Colon. We said our good­byes to the Kogi vil­lagers and chil­dren we’d met and start­ed what would be a lot of walk­ing on some chal­leng­ing, unre­lent­less­ly steep trails. What lay ahead was about 15,000 feet of ele­va­tion gain, includ­ing what locals referred to as the aman­za gua­pos- the Hand­some Killer,” or what we decid­ed to call the Tough Guy Killer.” Whether or not we would be tough enough was to be determined.

Where’s Wal­do?

Kogi chil­dren hang­ing out with Mark.

Our team con­sist­ed of Colom­bian climbers Juan Car­los and Mateo, both of whom work with Moun­tain Mad­ness in El Cocuy Nation­al Park; and four porters, Vin­cent, Min­jo, Oscar, and Bene­dict, all from the small town of Pal­mor. Car­ry­ing large bags of cof­fee beans and work­ing in the fields in the moun­tain­ous ter­rain more than qual­i­fied them as tough guys for sure, and three of them had been up the Setai Val­ley to high camp for Colon, so we had a sol­id team to take on this amaz­ing chal­lenge, an expe­di­tion maybe more about the jour­ney than the goal.

Get­ting ready for the Tough Guy Killer.


At 18,700 feet (5,700 meters), Colon is the world’s 5th most promi­nent peak; which is as defined in wikipedia as, the height of the peak’s sum­mit above the low­est coun­tour line encir­cling it but con­tain­ing no high­er sum­mit with­in it.” Clear as mud that def­i­n­i­tion, but in the com­pa­ny of the top four most promi­nent peaks of Ever­est, Denali, Aconcagua, and Kil­i­man­jaro, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Sep­a­rate from the Andes, this rel­a­tive­ly unknown range has stayed out of the imag­i­na­tion of climbers, explor­ers, and trekkers alike for numer­ous rea­sons. Impen­e­tra­ble forests, indige­nous tribes deny­ing access, and armed guer­ril­las roam­ing the range made it a less than appeal­ing, if not an alto­geth­er dan­ger­ous place to vis­it. But, with locals’ trails more known, the wars over, and some patient nego­ti­a­tions over the years by Juan Car­los with the Kogis, the time was right for this adven­ture to happen.

On day three, we walked along rag­ing rivers strewn with huge, bril­liant white boul­ders; the bub­bling waters col­lect­ed from the con­vo­lut­ed, twist­ed topog­ra­phy of the moun­tain­sides that drain into these beau­ti­ful rivers and even­tu­al­ly flow into the Caribbean Sea. But­ter­flies, hum­ming­birds, oropen­du­las, par­rots, tou­can, and birds too numer­ous to name glid­ed through the dense under­sto­ry among giant ferns stand­ing 30 feet high, groves of Birds of Par­adise, and exot­ic plants too diverse to identify. 

Dense trop­i­cal for­est down low on the trek.

Cross­ing rivers.

As we climbed high­er we passed through slash and burn sites where Kogi grow corn, bananas, and oth­er crops that sus­tain them. Even­tu­al­ly we reached the cloud forests and our camp near a mamo, or shaman hut. Here, as would hap­pen every day of our trek into the alpine zone, we encoun­tered dif­fer­ent flo­ra, all unique to the dif­fer­ent alti­tudes and eco­log­i­cal zones we would pass through. It is with­in this alti­tu­di­nal gra­di­ent that one begins to real­ize the incred­i­ble num­ber of dif­fer­ent species that exist here and the incred­i­ble diver­si­ty that lies with­in this vast sea of green. 

Camp for the night, with the Tough Guy Killer” up and to the left.

It was a dif­fi­cult, eye-open­ing day to what lay ahead. In the evening an almost deaf­en­ing, but pleas­ant sound of frogs croak­ing and light­en­ing flash­ing on the dis­tant ridges gave us a sur­re­al, mag­i­cal feel­ing as we dozed off for the night, exhaust­ed from the first of many 3,000 foot days of hik­ing into the alpine zone. 

Day 4: The Tough Guy Killer – I learned most recent­ly from an expe­di­tion in the Rwen­zori Moun­tains in Ugan­da that locals’ trails gen­er­al­ly go straight up; on our nine-day trek there we encoun­tered only four switch­backs — I kid you not! In the San­ta Mar­tas I expect­ed the same, espe­cial­ly on the Tough Guy sec­tion, which con­sist­ed of no switch­backs, tun­nels of bam­boo and oth­er uncom­pro­mis­ing veg­e­ta­tion, all in swet­ler­ing trop­i­cal heat. It was, for lack of any oth­er way to describe it, the real deal…

In recent years the trail was used by FARC gueril­las, the Fuerzas Armadas Rev­olu­cionar­ias de Colom­bia, who moved through this wild ter­rain find­ing hide­outs, run­ning from the mil­i­tary, and con­nect­ing a net­work of trails that allowed occa­sion­al vis­its to vil­lages where they would resup­ply from Kogi’s food stocks and recruit unwill­ing vil­lagers, includ­ing chil­dren, to join their forces. Unimaginable.

Get­ting into the busi­ness of the Tough Guy Killer.”

We sur­vived the Tough Guy, which notably lived up to its rep­u­ta­tion, and arrived at the Dove Camp, anoth­er shaman encamp­ment. Here, a slight­ly lean­ing hut built on cen­turies old Tay­rona rock­work, gave us shel­ter and a cer­tain mys­tique. The clouds swirled over the rocky ridges and peaks, as the sun sank below the dis­tant ridges. The Kogi are descen­dants of the Tay­rona, an advanced civ­i­liza­tion that evad­ed Span­ish colo­nial expan­sion until 1599. Unlike the rel­a­tive­ly quick work the Span­ish made of defeat­ing the Incas, the Tay­rona held back the Span­ish for years before final­ly becom­ing sub­jects of the Con­quis­ta­dors. Some Tay­rona, how­ev­er, fled into the high­lands; leav­ing the coast and sub­jec­tion to Span­ish in favor of a life in the foothills in the great, but chal­leng­ing, San­ta Mar­ta Mountains.

The Dove Camp.

Evening at Dove Camp.

Hav­ing trav­elled through­out South Amer­i­ca over the years, and being immersed in the pro­lif­ic prescense of the Inca Empire in tourist attrac­tions, it was fas­ci­nat­ing to see anoth­er facet of ancient cul­ture on the con­ti­nent. The ever-knowl­edge­able Juan Car­los filled me in on the details of this mag­i­cal place, end­ing an amaz­ing day exhaust­ed and intrigued as much as I have ever been on my trav­els across the globe.

More blogs to come. In the mean­time, here is a link to the new trip: Caribbean to Glac­i­er Climb & Trek