Ghosts, the Rock Gods, and Colombian Climbing
On an overcast night in Suesca, Colombia, three climbers huddle around a campfire. The cliff is one hundred yards away and covered with hanging moss and web-like green vines. The wall cast a shadow from the only street lamp in front of Campo Base, the climber’s campground. Ricardo, the campground manager, Freddy who runs the climbing store, and me, a Canadian on a South America climbing trip, watch as two owls swooped out of the tree and fly over our heads.
“How long have you lived here in Campo Base?” I ask Ricardo, whose face is lit up by the firelight. “I’ve been here for two years,” he says. The lone structure behind us houses the hostel rooms and Ricardo’s living quarters. It is surrounded by quiet rolling hills and lush green pastures full of cows, donkeys, and grazing horses. Overhead, stars peek through the clouds. There is no other house within a mile of here. Ricardo’s favourite dog lies at his feet and snuggles up for a pat. “Have you always been here by yourself? Well, besides the dogs,” I add. Ricardo has four dogs; a cream coloured lab, a golden retriever, and two pit bull-boxer puppies.
“When I first moved here I slept alone,” says Ricardo. “There were ghosts that haunted my room. Things would move across the room on their own, and I would hear voices when no one was there,” he recounts. “One night was so bad, I had to leave the house and sleep in town. It calmed down when I got the dogs,” Ricardo says. “I feel safe and the ghosts are gone.” He leans forward and pushes a log deeper into the fire’s flames.
“I also had a ghost in my house when I first moved to Suesca,” says Freddy. “I would get woken up in the middle of the night by screaming and banging on my door. I went to the door and opened it, but no one was there. It only got better when I moved into a house farther up the hill.” Freddy is strong and stout, you wouldn’t believe he would be afraid of anything.
These were the first of many weird tales I was to hear about the Suesca area. Tales of ghosts, supernatural drumming, and flying witches are the norm on a Friday night. Colombia is a country full of legends and myths, and Suesca, just 45 kilometres north of Bogotá, has its fair share. Suesca is a popular weekend destination for climbers of all levels. It is the best area in Colombia for both traditional and sport climbing, and boasts over 400 routes from 5.4 to 5.14. The walls are up to 125 metres high and follow the railway tracks and a small river.
I arrived here a week ago, after an extended trip around South America, eager to climb after months of travel. I was immediately enchanted by the rock, the fairy-tale vegetation, and the witch’s hazel, a type of greenish-blue moss, which drapes over the trees and rock walls. Yellow and orange fungi decorate the rock, alongside ancient pictographs and teenage graffiti.
The rock of Suesca is of the hardest sandstone, so hard that on the rainiest of days, it is still possible to climb at the majority of the crags. This is not the grainy sandstone of Indian Creek, but sandstone as solid as granite. One of my favourites is an area classic, a crack climb called The Occult. It starts with a fingery layback in a corner and then gradually opens to hands, followed by fists to the first anchor, and then launches back into a vertical finger section. The first pitch is 5.9 and the second pitch is 5.11a. The Occult is named because of the stories of ghosts of dead climbers that haunt the railway tracks. By the campfire, Ricardo continues to recount his phantom tales. “Twenty climbers died on these walls since 1950,” he says. “Ten were inexperienced city people soloing, and the other ten were experienced climbers.” Ricardo is tall and thin, with a dark complexion and smiley eyes. He loves to tell a good story as much as he loves a good audience.
The next day starts at 7 AM with Ricardo blaring heavy metal music. I chose to set up my tent a few feet from his doorway for added safety, but this morning I am rethinking this strategy. Freddy shows up an hour later ready to climb. “What’s your favourite climb in the area,” I ask him. “The highest multi-pitch in Suesca,” he replies. “It is four pitches and is called El L.P. It goes at 5.7.” I pour him a cup of coffee as the dog’s crowd around us. “El L.P. has challenging moves and continuous movement. It was put up by Antoine Fafret over thirty years ago,” he tells me. “Well let’s go do it then,” I say. Freddy leads the first pitch, which is varied and hard for the grade. It starts with slab moves to bulging blocks, which are gained by fist jamming and finishes up an easy crack to a ledge. The second pitch starts with a traverse onto steep overhanging pockets, then moves into a hand crack, finishing in another pocketed roof. I start up pitch three by crawling on my stomach onto a boulder to stand up to reach a crack. The crack is four feet above the ledge, and I place a good fist jam and heave up to massive buckets. I set up the anchor in a crack in front of a tree. The fourth pitch is a mix of pockets and finger cracks and summits onto a flat tabletop.
The descent is a winding adventure called Zig Zag, and requires some scrambling. The trail takes twenty minutes to descend; depending how much time is spent stopping to admire the view of the rolling hills, the numerous crack climbs, or the weird cacti and plant life that cling to the rock.
Climbers usually have an affinity with the rock but Suesca is magical and mysterious for others too. Suesca was once the home of the Muiscas indigenous people. Suesca in the Muisca indigenous language translates as “Suica,” or “rock of the birds.” The leaders of the Muiscas, the prominent indigenous group who first occupied the area between 5500 and 1000 BC, would gather in Suesca once a year to make peace and worship the Gods. Like the Incas of Machu Picchu, the Muisca people paid tribute to the Gods of the Sun, the Moon, the Rain, and Water. The Muiscas believed that the rock was a local God and they performed human sacrifices at the Virgin crag, the most popular crag in the area.
“The Virgin crag was an indigenous power place, a place of human sacrifice, and worship of the Gods,” says Ricardo. “The Muiscas painted the wall under the roof in many varied pictographs. In 1950, a bishop came and saw the pictographs and declared that the site was full of evil spirits, Ricardo states. He had the wall painted white and the statue of the Virgin erected. The bishop was never seen again, but the statue and the white wall remain.” Ricardo pauses and reaches for a smoke. “Ghostly indigenous drumming can be heard from Campo Base some evenings,” says Ricardo. “The Muiscas are probably mad that their ritual site was desecrated.”
There is a geometric pictograph that still remains at the Zona de la Abeja, which is a crag to the right of the Virgin. The pictograph depicts a maze - many square corners interconnected in a chain leading to a symmetric design. One of the remarkable climbs of the crag is a finger crack through a roof, with a physical pull over the lip. The route is called La Abeja and goes at 5.10c. The ethics of the area call for no graffiti on the rock faces, however, graffiti scars the faces of many of the prominent routes, including La Abeja. The bishop’s full desecration in white paint of the pictographs under the Virgin roof did not set a good example.
The first routes in Suesca were put up in 1938 by Erwin Kraus, notably Libro Negra a 5.6, two pitch crack climb at the Zona Central crag. Erwin Kraus was a pioneer of mountaineering in Colombia, and put up three routes as training for climbing the Nevado del Huila, the highest volcano in Colombia. However, it was only later, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, that rock climbing became popular in Suesca. During this period, Gonzalo Ospina and Alberto Castro with their Club de Andinistas y Escaladores de Colombia (CAEC) came to Suesca with groups of climbers to teach and train. It was during this time that the much travelled 5.6 traditional climb called CAEC was first ascended.
“It was in the later 1990’s that the first sport route was developed,” says Freddy. “It is called Nuevo Era and is a three star 5.11c in the Zona del Poder del Silencio. Es muy volcano,” he emphasises, meaning very explosive, very great. The vertical route has very hard moves with only small hold at the start. However, this climb is not on Freddy’s top ten list. His favourite climb is a one pitch, classic, 5.9 crack called Euqasoluc. The climb is highly polished from all the traffic, and the beginning moves are wide and slippery. The right trending hand crack quickly squeezes out into cruxy moves involving shallow, crimpy tips, to a rock-over move onto slabby feet. The finish ends with a five metre under cling traverse to the chains.
On a sunny day, the group heads out for a walk to a near-by crag called the Valley de los Halcones. It is a forty minute walk from Campo Base, and has mostly sport climbing routes. The Valley’s vertical walls features cheese-like pockets and hard sandstone flakes. The Valley of the Halcones translates to the Valley of the Falcons, and Ricardo points to one as it flies over the crag. “The falcon was another local God of the region,” says Ricardo. “Which reminds me, he says with a twinkle in his eye, did you know that River Broaster delivers out here too?” River Broaster is the best fried chicken take-out place in Suesca, and they deliver during daylight hours to Campo Base. “De verdad, I ask, Is it true?” and Ricardo nods his head back and forth emphatically. “Another reason to visit Suesca,” he states.
The Valley is a round bowl with rock walls of 40 metres on the east and west sides. Boulders are scattered in the middle of the bowl, with bushes and trees mixed in to create a magical wonderland. An old, decapitated, stone shack lies a hundred metres from the crag. “That’s the witch’s house,” says Ricardo, as he prepares for a three star 5.11c face climb called Yema Ya. “A Bogotá group came and camped out here a while back. At night, they heard screaming, the witch scrapped its nails across their tent, and the zipper opened all by itself. If we come back to the witch’s house at night, we can see objects move through the house, and phantoms move across the room like shadows. The hairs on your arms stand on end and your whole body tingles in fear.” Ricardo lives for a good fear rush. He often goes out on these excursions by himself in the middle of the night.
The same can be said for Nestor, his best friend, who solos all the multi-pitch cracks in the area. “Nestor soloed an 80 metre pinnacle; 5.10b crack called Pulpito del Diablo, on the slopes of the Pan de Acucar peak in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, the Mecca of granite crack climbing in Colombia,” says Freddy who is slidding his rock climbing harness over his hips. “Cocuy is to the east of Suesca, 300 kilometres away, close to the Venezuelan border. No one else has soloed that route. It’s at an elevation of 4600 metres, he says.” Nestor is now climbing to the first sloppy crux of Yema Ya. The route requires a lot of core strength and pulling on small holds. The view from the crag Zona de Altaneria, which is situated at the upper part of the Valley, is of rolling hills and a large oblong lake in the far distance. The routes at Zona de Altaneria include one 5.9 and one 5.10b on large pockets, one superb 5.10c which is pumpy with a crux move at the top, a 5.11d and a 5.12a, one crack 5.10b, and Yema Ya at the end.
After Yema Ya, the guys line up to do the 5.12a Tropopausa, a one-move-wonder climb. The crux involves crimping tightly onto two nice knobs and jacking the feet up high on slopey ledges, then statically lunging for a tiny undercling with a right index finger at half pad, followed by a left hand that bumps to a good pocket. The rock is very grippy, new, and fresh, and skin sticks to just about everything.
“My dog Mateo got lost in this Valley,” Ricardo tells us. “We came up here to climb one day, and the dog disappeared. No one in the village saw him for that entire time, and then when we went back up here two months later, he appeared. The gnomes had got him. Mateo was not skinny, or hungry, or tired.”
“No way,” I say. This one, of all the stories heard so far, is the less credulous.
“Cows have also gone missing here too,” emphasises Ricardo. “The gnomes got them too.”
Once dusk hits and the sun goes down, the climbers head back to Campo Base. Walking along the railway tracks, fireflies illuminate the way. Of the four climbers; Ricardo, Freddy, Sebastian and Nestor, none are from Suesca. Ricardo, Sebastian and Nestor are from Bogotá, the big city, and Freddy is from the South. They have come to Suesca for the love of the climbing, the fresh air of the countryside, the magic in the air, and the slow lifestyle. I came for the good rock climbing, but friendship and the legends of Suesca will bring me back.
“In its grandeur, the Rock God was the most magnificent to the Muiscas,” recounts Ricardo. “It towered over their lives and demanded their respect. Legend has it that the Suesca rock was brought here by the Gods from the end of the universe.” Standing under the 125 metre walls, covered in green, blue and yellow hanging moss, we can feel the enchantment and charm of the area. Climbers have come to Suesca from all over Colombia, and the world, for the love of the climbing, the magic in the air, and the slow lifestyle. Like the Muiscas of old, they too worship the Rock God, through continuous motivation and dedication to the starred routes that make Suesca the best rock climbing area in all of Colombia.
- Location – From Bogotá 45 km north, take Autopista Norte, highway 55, towards Chocontá and Tunja. The highway turn off is at the town of La Playa.
- Transportation – Buses to Suesca leave the Bogotá bus station, Portal del Norte, located around C160. Many Transmilenio buses, an articulated city bus system, can take you to Portal del Norte from any point in Bogotá for 1500 pesos, or 0.75 cents US. When arriving at Portal del Norte, look for the department store Exito. Buses to Suesca can be caught in front of Exito. A direct bus company to Suesca is called Transportes Alianza, or take any bus heading to Chocontá or Sesquile. Get off at the town called La Playa, 400 metres north of the restaurant El Carajo, five minutes after passing the toll booth. From La Playa, cross the highway and take a bus to Suesca. Get off before the bridge to access the climbing by the train tracks, to get to Campo Base, or to the hostel El Vivac.
the climbing store, Monodedo, is right at the corner by the bridge close to the tracks and the climbing area. They carry all gear, and rent rock shoes, but do not rent ropes or other equipment. monodedo.com, cel: +(57)3162669399, +(57)3102168119, open on Saturday, Sunday and holidays.
Campo Base is 1 km from the bridge down the railway tracks, heading north, or left, as you face the tracks. They have private rooms and camping/tents for rent, as well as internet service, beer and snacks. Contact: myspace.com/campobasesueska, Facebook: Suesca de Regreso a Nuestra Imperio, tel. +(57)8563680 or +(57)3133781344, or email Ricardo at email@example.com. Hostel El Vivac is located in the village before the bridge and includes private and dormitory rooms. Check out their website at hostalelvivac.com. The four star Hotel La Esperanza is in the town of Suesca, past the bridge. Tel +(57)+(1)8563545, +(57)+(1)8563339, or check out their website at hotellaesperanza.com.co. Another choice is Posada de la Montana, +(57)+(1)8563142.
- Guide Book
Escaladas en Suesca y Valle de los Halcones by Grace Andrea Montoya (2007), available at Monodedo.
- Guiding Services
Contact Nestor Contreras at +(57)3114876834, +(57)3125062108 firstname.lastname@example.org, gatosuelto.com, or Freddy Giovan at +(57)3125794956, email email@example.com.
River Broaster fried chicken, +(57)3102735113.
- Rest Day Activities
Zipaquirá, 50 kilometres from Bogotá, and twenty kilometres south of Suesca, has a very deep salt mine which contains a cathedral, and most recently, a thirty metre artificial rock wall. The cathedral has been carved out of solid salt, and it is 75 metres long, 18 metres high, and can accommodate 8400 people. Occasionally massive dance parties are held within the cathedral. The mines are a 20 minute walk uphill and west from Zipaquirá centre.
Lake Guatavita, fifteen kilometres from the town of Guatavita Nueva, was a sacred lake and ritual centre of the Muiscas. It is also fabled to contain the gold of “El Dorado”. The Muisca king, El Dorado, was annually coated in resin and gold dust and then taken out on a ceremonial raft onto the lake. He was then dunked into the lake along with precious gold offerings. A small replica of the raft was found at the site and is now located in the Gold Museum in Bogotá.