In this, the second of my posts about my recent visit to the mountains of Colombia, I’m going to digress from my usual topics of trekking and mountaineering to talk about flora. This isn’t unprecedented. Last year I managed to write an entire post about phallic rhubarb. I’m not an expert on this subject, but every so often I stumble across some plant life so odd that I simply have to mention it.
Today I’m going to talk about the páramo – not the outdoor clothing manufacturer, but the high altitude alpine grasslands of the northern Andes. It’s a landscape renowned for being cold, damp and windy, and “similar to Scotland”, as the aforementioned clothing company describes it on its website.
“Similar to Scotland”, I’ve noticed, is an adjective used worldwide by people of many different nationalities, many of whom have never even been there. Everybody understands it to mean the same thing, though: somewhere green and wild, where the weather’s a bit shit, a slur on Scotland perhaps, but not all of the time.
The cold and windy conditions in the Andean páramo made it the ideal testing ground for Nick Brown when he set up his outdoor clothing business in the 1980s, so he named the company after it. Think of huddling into your waterproof and windproof jacket and trousers and walking into a headwind as sideways rain pummels against you and you begin to get the idea (try not to think of Scotland as you do this). The humidity means the landscape is rich in plant life – tall grasses, small shrubs and stunted trees, as well as a colourful profusion of wild flowers – but in order to survive the harsh conditions the plants require some peculiar adaptations. Two of the strangest I came across in Colombia were the frailejones and cojines. Let’s examine both.
Frailejones (pronounced fry-lay-ho-nez)
The word fraile in Spanish means monk or friar, and this particular plant got its name because in a thick mist and from a distance it’s believed to resemble a hooded monk (and presumably only after you’ve been drinking as well). Other people have likened them to triffids, but personally I think they look more like Beaker from The Muppets with his narrow head and crazy mop of a hair.
Anyone who has climbed Kilimanjaro may remember the giant groundsel plants that sprout at around 3000m, and will begin to get an idea for these strange tree-like things, with trunks growing up to three metres in height and crowned with a rosette of light green leaves. These leaves are soft and furry, and one of my guides Victor told me that they’re ideal for toilet paper. Sadly the mountain range we were exploring, the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, is within a national park, which meant that tempted as I was to put this idea to the test I had to refrain from picking anything at all, never mind wiping my backside with it.
Despite its tree-like appearance, the frailejones clearly don’t have a very extensive root system, and if you need to give yourself an ego boost by pretending to look like Superman, it would be quite easy for a comparatively puny man to push one over. I’m hardly Arnie myself, and a couple of times when tripping up through bogland nearly made the mistake of resting my hand against one to steady myself, which in the event of a fall would likely have produced the comical result of my landing in muddy water while straddling a tree trunk.
Cojines (pronounced co-hee-nez)
The frailejones are pretty weird, but I think the cojines top them. You probably imagine swamp and glaciers go together like a Big Mac and fine wine, but the Valle de los Cojines halfway around Colombia’s Cocuy Circuit does just that, a large area of damp green swamp right underneath the giant cliffs of Ritacuba, sporting the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy’s largest system of glaciers.
Cojines is the Spanish word for cushions, and various species of cushion plant can be found in many alpine and arctic areas all over the world. Most have evolved separately, but have certain characteristics in common, spreading outwards at ground level as compact green mats. The ones in Valle de los Cojines are as hard as rocks and spread out across the swamp as firm a set of stepping stones as can be imagined. It’s easy to imagine the whole of the swamp as a single organism growing underwater, and producing these verdant boulder-like protuberances above the surface.
They grow extremely slowly, and some are believed to be hundreds of years old. While the mature specimens can be trusted for a running leap, the younger ones are softer and more spongy, and a stray footfall can find you being sucked into the mud and water. Most of us found our boots getting swallowed at some point, and although we made up stories about being sucked into the swamp and slowly digested over the course of many decades, until only our bones and trousers remained, emerging from the swamp and getting swept over a waterfall many years later, these can be dismissed as outpourings of a twisted mind. The cojines are not carnivorous plants like the Venus fly trap, and should be regarded as allies in your journey across the swamp, rather than some sort of lurking terror.
I enjoyed my crossing of Valle de los Cojines and the many frailejones forests we passed through. Mountains and glaciers are some of my favourite landscapes, but the strange páramo grasslands are what make the Northern Andes unique. Discovery of the weird and wonderful things nature produces is one of the many reasons I enjoy trekking every bit as much as climbing.
And if you’re still not convinced, here’s a little video I’ve put together of our crossing of Valle de los Cojines to whet your appetite.
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