They are the children of the high Andes. So high, in fact, that they touch the cold, grey mist of the morning sky with their bare hands and damp faces. At 4,000 meters asl, the children of the El Potosi rural district live just a few kilometers away from the edge of one of the main craters of Colombia’s highest volcano, the Nevado del Ruíz.
The Nevado del Ruíz volcano, which has been dormant since 1985, is not only the highest volcano of the Andean volcanic belt, but also one of the most feared. It last erupted on November 13 1985, causing one of the country’s worst natural disasters, when hot ash and lava from the Arenas crater ran into the waters of nearby rivers, and caused a huge avalanche that fell onto the nearby Magdalena river valley. It buried the town of Armero in mud and claimed the lives of 23,000 inhabitants.
Yet few of these children or their families, who live near the volcano’s edge high in the Los Nevados national park, have even heard of the Armero tragedy and for others, it is only a distant and fading memory.
There are three rural schools at the edge of the volcano near the La Olleta crater, one of three of the Nevado del Ruíz. Although La Olleta is inactive, for the 68 students who attend the El Bosque, El Potosi and Aspar schools, it is still a constant reminder of the potential fury of the mountain.
Many of the students arrive at the crack of dawn for their lessons, after walking for hours through a treacherous terrain of winding footpaths and steep slopes, some without even having had a decent breakfast.
At the Aspar School, the smallest of the three, the students excitedly crowd into a single whitewashed room for their morning mathematics class. They are accompanied by volunteers from EcoAndes, a Colombian non-governmental organization based in Manizales, whose mission is to help the children who live at this altitude understand their environment and the reality of going to school in one of the most seismically active regions of Colombia.
According to geologists, the Nevado del Ruíz ha erupted 10 times in the last 10.000 years, but is regarded as “very dangerous” by volcanologists, and the impact zone of an eventual eruption could extend for along the Magdalena River valler, triggering mudflows, as much of the mountain’s ice cap has remained intact throughout centuries.
Another of the main objectives of the EcoAndes team is to help subsistence farmers make better use of their land, since the soil tends to be rocky and covered with dense natural vegetation. In addition to offering subsistence farmers advice on what to plant, the NGO educates to preserve local flora, which includes rare endemic plants such as the frailejón, a treelike, hairy-leafed Espeletia, and others which form part of the food cycle for endangered animals as the Oso de Anteojos – Spectacled Bear – and the Andean condor, which has returned to the area, thanks to conservation efforts of environmental groups.
They also teach the children and their parents about the importance of protecting local streams and lagoons, which suffer from contamination partly caused by tourism and are also affected by climate change as glaciers retreat some 25 meters, or 80 feet, each year. The Nevado del Ruiz is a harsh environment for these small farmers who cultivate potatoes and yams. Sunlight is scarce and the climate at this altitude unforgiving to their crops.
EcoAndes and its team of young men and women visit the students every three weeks. When they enter the Los Nevados national park they stay for up to a week, during which they go from house to house offering free medical and dental care to the children. They are the first line of defense for those who live in the shadow of the volcano.
The National Park of Los Nevados covers an area of 58,300 hectares of rugged terrain, rolling hills and deep valleys. It is the size of a small country and straddles four of Colombia’s most picturesque departments: Caldas, Quindío, Risaralda and Tolima. On a clear day, the Nevado del Ruíz can be seen from as far away as Bogotá. It is one of the main sources of water for the region, and its creeks and streams flow into the Cauca and Magdalena rivers. Three million people depend on the water the volcano produces with its glacial sheets of ice and snow.
Los Nevados National Park is popular with tourists, since it contains some of the few mountains in Colombia whose summits are perpetually covered in snow. From the highest point of the glacier, experienced climbers can ascend to the summit at 5,300 meters above sea level. The climb is tough, and should only be undertaken by experienced climbers. It can take up to seven hours from the 4,050 meter mark. Guides are available for tourists wanting to hike within the Los Nevados, and obligatory for those who wish to climb to the crater.
The National Park Los Nevados is a safe destination for foreigners when the volcano is dormant. It is also well-patrolled by rangers, and the only real dangers the visitor may face are altitude sickness and the harsh effects of the cold, damp climate.
The trip from the center of Manizales to the entrance of Los Nevados Park takes around two hours. It is advisable to make an early start to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the place. Dress warmly. The drive to the park entrance is very picturesque, and tours can be arranged in advance at your hotel in Manizales.