Friday, September 30, 2016

Colorful Colombia Part VI: Tayrona National Park aka PARADISE!

So after the 4-day trek in the jungle and a night of mojitos and roof-top partying in Santa Marta, we decided to set up camp in Tayrona National Park. We heard that taking the bus to the entrance was a rather long affair since this also involved hiking through the park with our bags to finally reach the beaches, so we decided to take the boat from Taganga that drops you off directly at Cabo San Juan. It is more expensive but the speed-boaty ride was totally worth it. However, if you are not a fan of riding speed-boat like on a not really speed-appropriate boat, the bus might be a better choice. The park itself, as a national park, is a whooping 42500 COP entrance fee (while only 8500 COP for students....). However, everything is perfectly clean and well-organized so I won't complain.

Upon arrival at Cabo San Juan we jumped into the turquoise sea, bought some beers and sandwiches and then got in line (!) for the hammocks at the beach. While there are a lot of hammocks at the campsite there are only 20 hammocks at the mirador on top of the rocks pictured below. I was a bit sceptic about sleeping in a hammock but the prospect of sleeping in one directly at the sea with the breeze rocking you to sleep was just too good an opportunity to miss. And it didn't disappoint!

The views from the mirador. Cabo San Juan has two beaches that are, admittedly, quite crowded in the afternoons since the boats also drop off quite a few day tourists. In the mornings and late afternoons though, you can call them your own.  There were only a few vendors selling beers and snacks but they weren't any pushy so it still felt all very relaxed.

The second hammock from the left was mine for the night - surprisingly comfy and watching the sun rise from a hammock listening to the waves crashing into the rocks - simply perfect!

One could easily escape "the crowds" and follow a little trail at the end of the Cabo San Juan beaches and have a whole beach to oneself. We spent a good bit of time just sitting there staring at the sea, all of us lost in some thought or other.

Shades of blue.

So, when the sun finally settled we decided to just get a few beers and crackers and sit on the deck on the mirador for an improvised "dinner" with our trekking friends Riet and Sarah. With the stars above us, we just sat there in the dark, recounting traveling tales and discussing politics. It was perfect.

Seriously, these are the moments I pack up my bags for and go traveling. New friends, shared adventures, inspiration and motivation - this is what traveling is about for me.

The next morning, after  my first night in a hammock with the sea breeze in my face and the rolling of the sea in my ears, my brother organized the BEST breakfast with fresh maraca and papaya juice and warm chocolate bread. I guess I don't have to say more....

And now, well, just a few more pictures of this perfect place, I just couldn't help it ;-)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Colorful Colombia Part V: La Ciudad Perdida

Be prepared for a rather picture-heavy post! Our trek to La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) in the Colombian Sierra Nevada was clearly a highlight of the trip - and I couldn't narrow down the pictures.

The archaeological site of La Ciudad Perdida was only discovered in 1975 - a few farmers accidentally stumbled upon the ruins of the old Tayrona city while searching for hidden Tayrona gold in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada. The Tayrona, an indigenous tribe living in the mountainous region of the Sierra Nevada long before the Spaniards arrived, still live in small villages of few round huts scattered around the Sierra Nevada mountains. Until now, they do not speak any Spanish and live according to their traditions, with a "Mamu" being the political and spiritual leader of each tribe. Their cultural heritage is protected by Colombian law nowadays and in order to preserve their traditions and culture, special regulations for tourism in the Sierra Nevada mountains have come into place. Tourists can only access the national park with accredited agencies and stay in the designated camps. The indigenous people benefit from the tourism industry on a financial level through payments from the government, all the agencies also have to employ a certain number of local people (both indigenous and locals from the area), guaranteeing an important source of income in the area. This government initiative has created a substantial source of income and employment that substitutes the coca plantations that were abundant in the area beforehand. Since this is a quite recent development, one can still see patches of burned ground where the coca plantations used to be. Locals and indigenous people alike have commented positively on this development and it made the whole area a lot safer as well.

In total, the trek to La Ciudad Perdida is a 4-day trek and costs about 250 USD per person including food, accommodation and transport to and from the park. Given the fact, that you are on a guided trek and all the sustainable work that is done in the area, I thought this was a reasonable price.

Anyway, on our first day we started trekking from El Mamey and were greeted by a scorching tropical heat. Almost 100% humidity and a good 35°C are not the most welcoming hiking conditions, the first ascent of 600 m to the first camp was, in hindsight, the hardest part of the trek. Within minutes, you were covered in sweat, a mixture of repellent and sunscreen running down your skin, while you were still trying to fight off the mosquitos. However, the views were even more breathtaking than the hike itself.

Lush green hills with the clouds rolling in in the late afternoon. In the beginning we were still trekking through farmland with the occasional farm on the way, the further we advanced on the path, the wilder the vegetation got.

A Kogi boy on his mule. The Kogi are a sub-tribe of the Tayrona that live in the area.

Suspension bridge to our first camp.

The camp. Simple but clean. The mosquito nets allowed for a relatively bug-free night. And, it was surprisingly "cold" in the jungle at night.

A quick refreshment after the first day of trekking.

The next morning. The morning fog is slowly rising above the hills.

And then we dived deep into the jungle...

Fruit break. Always welcome. Every two to three hours we would stop for some fresh fruits, mostly water melon or oranges to keep up the sugar levels and our motivation.

Further along the trek....

Kogi children around the Kogi village that is close to the trail. One family lives in one round hut but usually has two ore three huts in different villages since they live self-subsistently from the crops they crow around the villages. So one family moves from one village to the other depending on their food supply. The Kogi live in big families with 10 children. All children wear the same with cloth shirts, boys carry little bags around their shoulders, girls wear colorful necklaces. The Kogi living close to the trail are used to the tourists, the children requesting some "dulce" (sweets) when you ask to take their picture. I always have very mixed feelings about this and only took very few pictures of the natives on this trek.

Further down the road...with the heat and humidity, the mosquitos and the countless river crossings, the trek created a real expedition feeling. I had to think of the books I read about the expeditions in the Congo basin, when the first Europeans had to fight their way through the thickest of jungle with machetes, succumbing to tropical diseases, isolation and the heat. While the trek itself was well prepared and relatively easy to do, the heat definitely took its toll and made this hike the most challenging one I have ever done. In the afternoons it usually started to pour down on us, turning the trail into a muddy river and the river crossings got a lot more difficult when a once calm and clear stream turned into a rapid muddy river within hours. The expedition feeling was real.

Wet boots after the river crossing - and they stayed very wet for the rest of the trek. Nothing ever dries in the jungle. If anyone plans on going, carry enough dry clothes in water-proof bags :-)

On the third day eventually, we got up early and climbed the 1000 steps up to the Lost City. The farmers who stumbled upon those ruins on their search for Tayrona gold could't contain their excitement, one night, after a few beers, they boasted about their discovery which lured a lot more gold miners into the jungle. A lot of the ruins were destroyed before the site was claimed by the government and archeologists started to work on the site and rebuilt the damage done by erosion and gold mining.

While the site is not comparable to the ruins at Macchu Pichu where one can still admire the houses and temples of the Incas, the fact that one can only reach La Ciudad Perdida by foot after a three-day hike through the jungle, made this a clear highlight of the trip. I just loved the expedition feeling and the challenge that the jungle put on me.

 Since we had an early start and were a great group walking at a rather fast pace, we arrived early on the top and enjoyed unspoiled views on the main square. A great feeling of achievement up there!

Sheets of rain coming down in the afternoons...

All in all, I can only recommend this trek to anybody who seeks a little challenge and is prepared to camp in the jungle for a few days. While we didn't have any issues with the food or the supplied chlorine water, quite a few people had stomach problems and/or diarrhea which can turn the experience into a nightmare. The sanitary facilities in the camps are quite simple and although they were clean upon our arrival, a few upset stomachs turned them into a mess quite quickly. Furthermore, while I didn't expect to have any electricity on the whole trek, a lot of people got upset that they couldn't charge their phones in the middle of the jungle. I don't know what people expect from the jungle nowadays but this is still a trek, the camps are simple and just a place to sleep after a long day of hiking, not a luxury resort.

So from my side, a clear "thumbs up" on this trek and thanks to the whole team for making this such a fun and memorable experience. We had a blast!