In the Foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta


Boulicault, Marion

Dates of Trip: 

January 8, 2019 to January 26, 2019

I had big plans for 2018. Having finished my PhD coursework and also completed my first ever self-organized short backpacking trip (in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho) the previous year, I felt finally ready to attempt longer and more challenging backcountry trips. Maybe a week in the Cascades? Or section hiking part of the Appalachian Trail? Or maybe even a trip up to Alaska? I couldn’t wait to get outside.

All my dreaming and planning came to a quick halt in February 2018 when I crashed my bike. I was on my way home from class, and thankfully I was going very slowly so the fall was gentle — I was barely even bruised. However, as I fell, my leg must have got caught on the pedal because I felt a sudden and excruciating pain in my left knee. An X-ray and MRI later, I got the news I suspected and dreaded: a torn ACL. The ACL (which stands for ‘anterior cruciate ligament’) connects the femur and tibia bones, allowing you to do things like change direction without your knee giving way. Unfortunately, ACLs are not able to heal themselves, and so treatment requires surgery and a year or more of intensive physical therapy.

I felt my heart sink. Not only would there be no national parks or hikes of any kind that summer, I was also going to be on crutches for a month and a half, and wouldn’t even begin to start activities like jumping or running till the winter. My surgery was scheduled for April 2018, and the week following surgery, I began an intense regimen of twice weekly physical therapy sessions at MGH, and daily at-home exercises aimed at rebuilding my atrophied leg muscles. The rehab was monotonous and grueling, and feelings of anger and frustration intensified as the days grew warmer and I watched my friends leave for weekend trips to the White Mountains while I slowly crutched around my apartment fetching ice packs.

ACL rehabilitation isn’t just about ice packs, endless single leg squats and hamstring curls (although, to be honest, it is mainly about those things), it’s also about finding the motivation and energy to keep going, even when things don’t go to plan (which they rarely do — for instance, about two months after surgery I fractured my patella during rehab). There were many things that motivated (and continue to motivate) me — my amazing physical therapists, my friends and family, achieving small goals. But one thing that definitely helped was having something exciting and new to look forward to and work towards. That was what the Sean Collier Adventure Grant gave me.

When I was awarded a Sean Collier Grant, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to embark on the kind of intense adventures that many other grantees attempt (and that my pre-accident self would definitely have wanted to do!). So instead I started thinking about different ways to experience the outdoors. After much research and thought (and after I was cleared by my PT) I embarked on my Sean Collier Adventure to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia in January 2019, almost exactly a year after my accident.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are one of the world’s highest coastal mountain ranges, rising almost directly from the sea up to snow-capped peaks at 18,700 ft. Yet rather than hiking up near the snowy peaks or heading deep into the dense forests, I decided to explore the more gentle foothills of this incredible mountain range — soaking in the warmth of its villages, coffee farms and cocoa plantations, and focusing on shorter day hikes on stable terrain that didn’t stray far from people and roads.

The trip began in the town of Cartagena, where I met my two travel partners (particularly good things to have when you’re recovering from injury!): my sister Daphne and my former college roommate Rachael. After a 5 hour bus ride from Cartagena to the town of Santa Marta, the three of us took a 45 minute taxi up to the small and peaceful village of Minca, which became our base camp. From Minca, Daphne, Rachael and I spent five days exploring the trails and waterfalls of this incredible region, stopping in at coffee plantations and keeping our eyes peeled for toucans, hummingbirds (44 species are endemic to the region!), parrots, and howler monkeys. Each day, we would fill our backpacks with snacks (bought at Minca’s shops and markets), water bottles and a water filter, a map, sunscreen, bug spray (so much bug spray - the Sierra Nevadas are rife with these biting flies that can wreak havoc on your legs), and a first aid kit.

On the first day, we hiked an hour or so up from the town to a series of waterfalls and pools known as Pozo Azul. Clambering (very slowly and carefully!) over rocks to reach the further away waterfalls, we would stop to cool off from the intense jungle heat in the pools. On another day, we hiked up beyond Pozo Azul to Finca Victoria, a coffee farm founded in 1892, where we took a tour and sipped freshly roasted coffee. The hikes to and from these places were usually on small roads or dirt trails, which we sometimes end up sharing with horses or mules. What I loved best about the hikes was the sounds of the forest —the hum of insects, the constant cacophony of birds, and the occasional intense squawk of a parrot (I had no idea these birds were so loud!).

Although I had originally imagined my Sean Collier Adventure as involving a more ‘intense’ trip far off the beaten path, these few days in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada had a gentle kind of magic. We took things slowly, did shorter hikes on well-trodden trails and stayed closer to town. In doing so, we also made some new friends (Minca is a small town!) with whom we ended up sharing dinners and exploring swimming holes. I was especially grateful for the opportunity to spend time in a place so distant (geographically and otherwise) from the doctor’s offices, physical therapy clinics and gyms in which I’d spent a good chunk of the past year. It was exactly the kind of adventure I needed to help me through some of my recent challenges, and to give me motivation to keep going now that I’m back in Boston and continuing to work towards recovery.