Re-exploring the home of my youth with my brother by my side

My brothers, Fuad and Luis, and I were born in Colombia. For years, my mother worked at the American Embassy there, but her dream was to eventually move to the United States to offer her sons a better life. It was 1976 when her dream came true. We moved to Miami, Florida when I was 9. 

I became a United States citizen in 1985 while attending the University of Tennessee. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. And while I made the decision to become a U.S. citizen, I never forgot where we came from. Colombia has remained etched into my memory, part always of who I am, and returning there, even just for a visit, has always been my dream. It’s amazing how these things come full circle. 

Over the last several years, Luis and I have backpacked several epic locations across the world—Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Lakes in California; Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Escalante national parks in Utah; el Camino de Santiago in Spain, among others—yet all along we wondered about Colombia. When would the time be right for us to return? My trip to Spain last year with my Uncle Freddy reminded us that life is fleeting. I returned from that trip knowing what was next. I would head to our birthland in 2024, and Luis was on board to join me.

Through Luis’s contacts in South America, we connected with Tuto, a local guide, that would help make our dream a reality. We spent weeks planning with our new friend, ultimately deciding to backpack in a beautiful mountainous region called Nemocon, approximately two hours north of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, where we grew up. As kids, we dreamed of visiting this region. Luis and I wanted our hikes to be challenging, but also visual masterpieces. So we set off in search of our birthland and the memories that made up our youth.

Day one included a 16-mile hike as we followed an old abandoned train track over the mountains for most of the way. With an elevation gain of approximately 2,500 feet, the highest mountain we climbed peaked at roughly 10,000 feet. At approximately seven miles into our hike, we had to make our first major decision: Tuto asked if we wanted to take a shorter route or a more picturesque yet challenging route. If we were to choose the shorter route, we would have to cross an area where fighting bulls were kept. We would have to wait until the bulls were far from the crossing point and then hike (or run) as fast as possible for a little under a mile. We were each carrying 40-45-pound packs containing all of our food, clothes, tents, and water, so we opted for the longer route. We’d save challenging the fighting bulls for another day.

Our next couple of days took us across some beautiful backcountry scenery—rolling hills, steep mountains, stunning lakes, and countless breathtaking views overlooking our birthland. We hiked some established trails and other times found our way by following maps and consulting our gut. Tuto helped on that front. We also went on an eight-hour ride on horseback over the mountains that took us to places that seemed impossible to reach on foot. With a machete in hand, our 25-year-old horse guide cleared us paths just wide enough for our horses to saunter through.

The great majority of the time though it was just three of us and the mountains. Every so often we would run into a campesino, or peasant farmer, with his cow or burro hauling hay, water, or milk. It felt so far apart and separate from the world we are surrounded with everyday in the States. And I think that’s what made it that much more special. There was time to bond with nature, one another, and our memories. I was reminded of the weekends spent with my brothers heading off with my grandfather to his farm and spending several days in the mountains. I had forgotten how beautiful Colombia is. 

Colombia has often received a reputation for being unsafe, though it never felt that way while there. The country is beautiful, rich in food and culture, and the people are some of the most welcoming I have met. They are proud of their home—and eager to share that. I felt such a sense of pride in being there, but also grateful for all the blessings and opportunities that the United States has afforded my family. 

One thing that was very clear to me while there is that you don’t need a lot to be happy. One day as we arrived to a small village we saw a group of kids playing soccer on a dirt patch with something that resembled a soccer ball though it was far from it. They were happy and not concerned with needing anything else. I looked at my brother and said, “Look at that little girl holding that ball. She’s thrilled to have a ball. Meanwhile, we often aren’t happy with the ball that we have because it’s not the right color or brand.”  He nodded his head in agreement and smiled. It certainly put things into perspective.

This is just the beginning of our re-exploration of our birthland. We want to bring other backpackers to Colombia so that they, too, can experience all that we had the pleasure of experiencing. Colombia is a proud and beautiful country with amazing food, friendly people, and many things to do.

As we shared our photographs and stories with our mom upon our return, she kept telling us how proud she was of us and how brave we were for going on such a challenging journey. The reality is that it was my mom who was the brave one. She not only had the dream to give us a better life, but she actually made it happen. 

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.