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Updated: Apr 3, 2018

An impromptu and unguided venture up the paramo of Villa De Leyva's hillsides.

October 11, 2016

You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved. (Ansel Adams)

It began with a disappointed walk out the door. I grabbed my hat and Coco was hot on my heels. I had been packed and ready for a final yagé ceremony and the whole thing fell through the morning of. I needed a walk. I needed to breathe fresh country air. I needed to venture off and find a place of solitude.

I started off down the road that went behind the property and headed towards the ridge. Quickly into the route, a path shooting off from the main road caught my attention. It looked like it would skirt between properties, but after trying to traverse the ridge through the thick, tall desert paramo, I was desperate for a simpler path.

I followed the property lines and passed through a series of open gates. One of the paths was marked with a long line of freshly dug dirt like something had been buried. A few steps along it, I was stopped by an unusual sound. I couldn't place its location at first, but it sounded like a gurgling noise. I could feel the ground ever so slightly vibrating and realized it was piping that had been buried and was either pumping water up or letting it back down. I was approaching a pretty decent watershed with thick foliage appearing within the mighty split between the two ridges before me.

About a week ago, while sitting awaiting a collectivo, a man with like six or eight dogs passed by on the dirt road. He looked like he had been on a hike and that the pack of dogs were a mess of panting, muddy sorts. He had asked if I was up at the river, to which I said no, that I was just there waiting. But his words were a clue to perhaps there being something good up a ways if one only knew the right steps to take.

His words kept ringing in my head as Coco and I were following those series of buried pipes. I was using my ears and eyes to try and see where the water might be. Where the pipes lead to didn't show any signs of having a river. So, I decided it must be running down to something and that the watershed I was headed towards had to be the most likely answer for where the water source was located.

We shimmied under loose barbed wire and I could now see the exposed six inch PVC pipe. One was cut, but another slightly smaller one continued down through the ground, still with that same gurgling, rushing sound. It was now a path cut through pines. There were dug out irrigation runoff swales conjoining to the water's direction.

Homesteads were on either side of us, but we were moving well and undetected inside the cover of the tree line. Coco liked to run up ahead as the thrill of discovering new grounds was driving him wilder and wilder. I used his excitement to keep driving us further out and closer to that forested divide. I was cautious about letting him get too far ahead as I was unsure if we'd come across any dogs capable of escaping past the simple barbed wire property lines.

I wondered how those properties were even accessed! The barely worn, dirt roads seemed to just start and end between houses and never go anywhere or connect to a road that would lead back into town.

We went through another laid open gate and were now stepping out into the terrain I had attempted to go up before. It was much less grown up here and I could see someone had cleared some of the dense, plastic-like ferns. It grows really thick and is the hardest part to traverse through. They were collected into piles, but had turned gray signaling it must've been a long time ago that they were cut. Also, because a lot of the cut growth we were walking through had returned to a substantial length.

It was still in the morning hours. As we stepped through the brush that was mostly waist high, but sometimes rose above my head, it was still wet from the clouds that hang low on the ridges during daybreak. We followed series of dug out ditches to guide us through the paramo terrain. We came to a pretty decent clearing that had a concrete box. Gushing and pouring down into it was the water that we had heard. We stopped to sniff out the lands and check out the views.

I could definitely make out a distinct watershed, but it looked tough to access as the adjacent slopes appeared quite sheer. If it in any way mirrored what our passage on this side of the ridge would be like, we would have a tough time. The vantage did have a remarkable view of Villa de Leyva and all the surrounding ridges. In this area, there's not much for "cliffs" or sheared ridges. So, I was a little taken back by the peculiarity of this particular ridge line we were traversing along.

Coco was anxious and whining to let me know he had a desire to go further. Let's see if we could make it down into that watershed and perhaps see this fabled river. We eventually made our way out of the high paramo. I was pleasantly surprised to see clearings of low-cut brush with foot paths leading into a steep, winding, mud and rock horse trail. You could maybe get a truck up it if you had the craziest of 4x4 vehicles, but nothing other than a horse, donkey or combination there of would be making it up this rocky scramble. I was still unsure how any of these houses could be accessed.

We followed the horse trail down a short ways before spotting a wet and rocky off shoot from the main trail. I thought this might be the way into the watershed, so we went for it. I could hear water now and webs of different sized pipes were running both down and along the slopes. We found a man-made concrete water flow contraption and it was in a cool, shaded part of the tree line. There wasn't much water running through here, but it was about four and a half feet wide and over a foot deep in some spots. It passed through a lot of rocks large river rocks, but for all I knew this could be the extent of the river. Coco got pretty excited by the noises and flowing water. So, I sat and watched him dig out sticks from the banks and then throw them up into the air for him to chase after. There must've been a metal grate, letting water flow down into the concrete structure, but it was pretty well covered by sticks and muddy leaves. Coco would paw and scrape up the leaves then bite and throw them all over. I tried to shield my eyes as he wildly flung muddy leaves in all directions, but it was too hilarious to not watch. He was pounding the slopes, grabbing every stick and tearing up and down, jumping up, on and over the rocks. He would splash out into the water before the grate and chomp and thrash his head around, pouncing and playing to fill all his playful and adventurous puppy desires.

After he had his fun and calmed down a bit, I figured we'd get back to the horse trail and follow it a bit further to see if it lead to anything bigger and better. A few more windy back and forth turns down its steep, stumbly slopes and we were then aligned with the cascade of water. The river had started to build as all the connecting streams were starting to unite. There was a big rock that was wedged up against a sheared side of the ridge. Beneath the big boulder was a bit of a swimming hole. We stood on the rock and gazed at the pretty blue, green water. We kept going down the trail and then the ground flattened out with a decent sized grassy clearing alongside the waters edge. Can't say I'd seen something like this the entire trip. It would be great for a picnic I thought. Heck, if it was secluded enough, I'd consider having the yagé ceremony here. That is, if the 85 year old Taita could get out here and back.

The trail had a few river crossings and as we were coming up over a slight hump, Coco started to sound. As I came over, I could see the top of a man, to then which I saw he was atop a mule and was the reason Coco was alarmed. I tried to bring coco back as the man consoled his slightly disturbed mule. The problem is Coco is too afraid to go past the stomping hooves of these beast animals, so he just barks and keeps backing up. I held him to the side and smiled to the man as they moved past. As we came around another bend in the trail, we entered into the greatest scene of all!

The river cut through the trail and on either side were high, exposed cliffs. Underneath one was a very cool and partial cavern. Water was slowly dripping off it in a few spots but there was a rock bench beneath it that was dry. Sitting here allows you to see directly across to the other cliff which is a cutting out, angled piece and stuck to its side is a tree where all of its roots can be seen. It looked like a creature from the movie Alien the way it was latched and growing to the side of the rocks. Along the other side, at this rock's outcropping, a thin but heavily flowing cascade was rushing down to meet the low, flat rivers edge. To the other side, back up the direction we came from, a smooth sensational trickling of water over rocks could also be heard.

It was perfection in every direction. This would be the spot to picnic. We had gone far enough, but I was just curious where the horse trail lead to, especially since we had seen someone coming up it. A minute further down the trail it came to a bridge where carved into the mud was a drainage ditch that was feeding the cascade. We walked up a ways and sure enough it just dead-ended at another property. A trio of dogs came running out, but tails were wagging despite the uproar. We snuck back down the hill, still trying to avoid detection. There was what looked like some facility for managing the water, but it was just a two-story building and not seated next to any water sources. Besides, all the water was just being run by tubing similar to what I'd seen on the rural islands of Palawan. We walked back down to the bridge where the trail had come to a T and went in the opposite direction this time. This was also the direction the river was headed and since the ground had flattened out considerably, might be another good spot for Coco to let loose his water chomping antics. But first, to explore the new direction on the trail a bit further. Not long after, the assumed and perplexing result came. It ran right into two properties, with no roads or signs of access! This makes for about eight or nine properties that are new and looked lived in, but seemingly disconnected from any roads. Bizarre.

We wheeled it around and went back to a little access I had seen to the river along this path. I walked down to it, trying to encourage Coco to get in and play. He whined to me that he was apprehensive about going down to it. There were a couple one foot cascades over rocks, so it sounded noisy and had good movement as well. Finally, his adventure needs took over and he was down to the edge and then paws in, thrashing and splashing trying to catch the rushing water as it passed. He got a little daring and tried to jump over to a rock, but didn't quite make it all the way. His back half slipped in and he quickly maneuvered himself backwards. He bolted back up the edge to higher, non-watery ground and said to me he was done.

And so, we ventured all the way back, retracing our steps. We stopped

again just before the high brush to take in the scenery one last time. I think I could make out what looked to be a dirt road, possible for driving up, but it surely wouldn't account for the access to reach all of the properties sprawled out along the way. We enjoyed the scene and Coco dug himself a little dirt nest to lay down in. He rolled about stretching out his paws and giving his still wet coat a nice mixture of dirt and mud. I wasn't worried as he was 10x as dirty when we first attempted to climb the ridge and I knew the high brush dried and cleaned him off pretty good.

Back through the pines and along those freshly dug lines of pipe, through all the open gates before returning to our very own special temporary property nestled up against that great, misty Villa de Leyva ridge.

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