Don’t look down, I repeated to myself as the car wound skillfully up the narrow mountainside. One wrong move, and we would be sent tumbling over the edge. The usual dirt roads had been transformed into a slick muddy brown by last night’s rain. As we climbed higher, the trees grew taller, the ferns grew denser, and the emerald moss dripped from the mountain’s rocky shoulders. Hanging fog blanketed the damp, lush greenery, heightening my curiosity for what lay beyond at La Quinta.
At 8,000 feet above sea level, the car rounded the corner to a leveled shelf. The tires struggled to traverse the rocky mud until we finally reached a small, wooden barn off the side of the road. Outside stood the Colombian ranch owner, Carlos, and his young daughter, Laura. They approached the car, handing each of us a heavy pair of oversized rubber boots. I swapped my tennis shoes for the black boots and jumped out of the car. Instantly, the earth swallowed my feet in a mouthful of dark, heavy mud. To avoid sacrificing my boots to the mud, I grabbed the calf-high tops and tore my foot from the earth’s aggressive grip, making my way slowly towards the barn. Next to the barn, a line-up of Paso Fino horses stood, ready to accompany us on the remainder of our journey. At the end of the line stood a single, grey donkey to which our luggage was strapped. He barely flinched under the weight of my 10 cousins’ fat bags, packed for the weekend away.
As I waited for my cousins to make the journey across the mud, I examined my surroundings. To my right, the road we had been on rounded the mountainside and climbed further into the clouds. To my left, a distant, hair-thin waterfall fell against the expansive green. All around, the smell of horse hay and damp earth filled the air. In the sky, a dreary grey replaced the usual blue. Rain was approaching. In front of me, but out of sight, La Quinta awaited our arrival.
La Quinta, a typical Colombian ranch, sat cradled in the towering mountain range of Los Nevados National Park. The ranch was dropped into a shallow valley of rolling hills, hugged by the towering cliffs of the surrounding mountains. Thermal springs wound around the edges of the property, releasing humid steam into the open air. La Quinta’s remote location is accessible only by horse, so myself and my cousins were each given an elegant Paso Fino to carry us through the drizzling rain to the expansive property. In contrast to the surrounding greenery, the two-story home was painted white, with a ruby red porch that wrapped the entirety of the home. From the terracotta roofline hung baskets of multicolored flowers. Behind the home, a stone pool was set deep into the ground and held hot water that had been carried in from the surrounding thermal springs. Similarly, the interior of the home was naturally heated with iron pipes that lined the walls, carrying heated water from the springs.
Myself and my 10 cousins had rented out the entire ranch for the weekend, so we shared the space with only the ranch owners, cooks, maids, and farmhands. The home was decorated with hand carved, wooden furniture, cow skin rugs, and red shutters that opened out to a view of the surrounding landscape. The silence of the home was striking. The wildlife that lay beyond in the mountains’ rainforest serenaded our quiet afternoons.
That afternoon, we remounted our Paso Finos and set out in search of the source of the thermal springs. Carlos, the ranch owner, accompanied us, packing a basket with fresh eggs and small golden potatoes. The horses knew the route by heart, requiring no direction. We let them lead the way, traversing the pathless valley. Their ability to skillfully tiptoe around boulders and push through dancing rapids without hesitation showed their years of experience wandering these mountains.
When we reached the edge of the rainforest, we tied our horses to nearby trees and continued on foot through the dense foliage. Following a faint path of crushed leaves, we weaved our way through the quiet rainforest. Paying close attention to my footing, I hadn’t noticed that the fingers on my left hand were swelling. A sharp stinging made me aware of the inflamed skin that had begun to rise, and I immediately asked Carlos for help. In Spanish, he informed me that I had touched pringamosa, a stinging plant that is very common in Colombia. He pointed out the plant: a short, fuzzy, and unassuming looking weed. I kept my distance for the remainder of the hike, nursing my aching hand with the sap of another plant that Carlos shared with me.
The strong smell of sulfur wafted our way, letting us know that we were close to the thermal springs. In the distance, steam rose over the treetops and the sound of bubbling water traveled through the forest. We walked until the trees opened and we had a clear view of the moving waters. Carlos led our climb to the top of a nearby boulder. Here, he had built a 3-foot-wide stone platform that created a direct path to the source of the thermal springs. At the end of the platform, a small cave set into the rocky earth gurgled with boiling water. The steam from the water warmed our chilled skin, and the stone platform burned to the touch.
Carlos opened our wicker basket, exposing the eggs and potatoes. Out of his belt, he removed metal tongs, handing them to me – place one in the water. I fished an egg out of the basket and carefully dropped it into the cave of water. My cousins followed in suit, placing the remaining eggs and potatoes in the boiling water. Set the timer: twelve minutes.
As our food cooked in the earth, we sat in a circle on the soft moss and listened to Carlos’ stories about life at La Quinta. I took the most interest in his stories about Laura, his young daughter, who had grown up on the ranch. Unable to get to school by bus or car, she rode into town on horseback every day. Watching the, now, eleven-year old skillfully maneuver her chocolate-colored Paso Fino was like watching ballet dancers, perfectly and effortlessly in sync. They shared the same soul. I listened intently to each of Carlos’ stories, absorbing every detail about his countryside upbringing.
The twelve minutes elapsed, and it was time to remove our hard-boiled eggs and potatoes. I cracked the steamy, tan shell, revealing the soft, white egg that lay within. I was in awe. We passed around a plastic salt shaker, needing nothing more to feel that we were eating a gourmet meal. At the end of our mini feast, only a pile of eggshells remained on the mossy boulder. We gathered our things, and returned to our horses.
That night, we returned to the ranch before dark. The air chilled as the sun set, and the sleeping horses could be seen from my bedroom window, exhausted after the day’s adventures. I sat on the wrapped porch, allowing the humid air to slowly seep into my skin. In that moment, a fleeting feeling of sadness settled on my heart, because I knew that tomorrow couldn’t possibly be as beautiful as today was.