It would be easy to lose weeks and weeks in the north of Colombia – a steamy land of colonial cities, tropical rainforest, deserted beaches, wilderness deserts, mountains, coffee plantations, and lost civilisations. I only had two weeks to make the most of it, which meant a lot of difficult choices – but pretty nice choices to have.
At the end of my last post I was in Capurgana at the end of the trip through the San Blas islands. Leaving Capurgana is not the most straightforward proposition, as there are no roads connecting the town with anywhere else in Colombia. Our best route was to get a speedboat (yes, another one) to Necocli on he other side of the bay, and then a bus onwards to Cartagena from there. I set off with Francis and Shiv, two of my San Blas companions, with most of the rest of the group following the next day as they were keen to spend another day around Capurgana.
After paying a pretty extortionate amount for the boat/bus combo (well, we were literally a cornered market) we boarded the speedboat, which turned out to be by far the bumpiest of the lot. After 90 minutes of having my lumbar spine reconfigured, we were all happy to get off and board a bus. (We were lucky – our friends who got the boat the next day sat at the back and got drenched!)
By the time we arrived in Cartagena it was around 9pm and I was pretty ready for an early night. The hostel we turned up at, El Viajero, was pretty buzzing though and I ended up joining a group of people to a rooftop bar until 2am. We had great views over one of the squares, and it was a nice introduction to the city.
By daylight, I got to see it in all its glory – a Spanish colonial town painted in spectacular colours, with an enviable location on the Caribbean coast. The old walled city hosts most of the tourism, and is full of cobbled streets and random squares, a perfect place to get mildly lost.
The first day in Cartagena involved a lot of walking, largely due to my failed attempt to guide us to the fort (as a result of a mistake on the normally excellent maps.me app, I managed to lead us to a private naval club instead). We did get some great views along the waterfront though, so I didn’t feel too bad.
We also joined a free walking tour to see some of the city, which wasn’t the most informative one I’ve been on but was good for getting bearings. I also had my first experience of a Colombian supermarket (the ubiquitous Exito) – it had a free cheese and meat tasting platter! Sadly, I’ve not seen this repeated in any Exito since…
Evening saw a bunch of us head to a bar overlooking the sea at sunset, where a group of old Colombian guys were playing some sort of salsa/jazz/cumbia thing. A filling if unexciting typical Colombian meal (usually rice, lentils, an ungenerous amount of salad, plantain, and meat or fish overcooked into oblivion) set us up for another good evening in the old town.
The next day, I met up with some more of our San Blas mates who had made it to Cartagena – Aussies Harry and Lucinda, Katie from Scotland and Rob and Charlene, an English couple from London who I would end up seeing a lot of over the next two weeks! With the benefit of better research we actually managed to find the fort, which was a vital defence for the Spanish against invaders. We spent an hour wandering around the labyrinthine tunnels and ramparts – mainly the tunnels, as it offered a respite from the brutal Caribbean heat and humidity – we were pouring with sweat just walking around, it was insane.
The rest of the day was relaxed, and we had some pretty good Colombian food – a cut above the standard fare, though they still destroyed the meat!
The next morning I set off for Santa Marta, a few hours east along the Caribbean coast. The city itself is large and not especially appealing, but its tremendously popular with travellers as a base to explore the natural wonders of the surrounding area. We stayed at the Dreamer, which is basically backpacker heaven: practically a resort, with a pool, a good restaurant, the best breakfast buffet in hostel history and a bar serving great happy hour cocktails for most of the evening.
The first adventure was to Tayroma national park, a beautiful bit of coastline, with rainforest pushing right up against pristine beaches battered by fierce waves. From the entrance, it’s a two-hour hike through mud, trees and sand to Cabo de San Juan, the most popular beach for budget travellers.
The quieter beaches are unswimmable due to rip tides, which I absolutely do not mess with after me and 3 of my friends rather embarrassingly had to be rescued from one by surf lifesavers in Australia. Cabo de San Juan is safer but unfortunately rather packed with tourists, especially as Colombia was coming up to one of its innumerable public holiday weekends (18 public holidays a year!). The restaurant serves overpriced, underflavoured food, but it was still worth staying the night to see the dusk fall and then to wake up in our hammocks the next morning to a stunning view of the beaches before the crowds set in.
We hiked back the next morning and returned to Dreamer for a good night’s sleep before heading off on the most hyped adventure in northern Colombia: the trek to Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City of the Tayrona civilisation), an archaeological wonder deep inside the rainforest of the Sierra Nevada.
It’s a 4 day trek, 50km in total, which doesn’t sound like much – but the stories I’d heard were of mosquitoes, mud, downpours, endless sweat and exhaustion. Of course, everyone said it was worth it, and this would be the last big hike of my trip so I was looking forward to it.
There are 4 tour companies that run the trek, but the experience is essentially the same regardless – same food, same accommodation, same route. We had a group of 13 or so plus a guide and translator – I was hiking with 3 of my friends from San Blas (Rob, Charlene and Shiv). Day 1 involved a jeep down an incredibly bad road to the starting point, where we had lunch and set off for a relatively gentle 4-hour hike to the first camp, only mildly hilly but quite exposed to the baking afternoon sun.
At the camp we had the chance to cool off by jumping into the chilly river, before settling in with an early dinner (traditional Colombian fare as described above – not massively exciting, but no one could say it wasn’t filling) and an early night. As usual with long hikes, we had early starts and there wasn’t much light in the evenings, so we were usually in bed by 9 or 10. There were industrial-sized rows of dorm beds at each campsite – we’d heard horror stories about bed bugs, but managed to get lucky and avoid them throughout.
We’d been warned that Day 2 was the toughest. It didn’t start too badly, and by lunch we were wondering what all the fuss was about. The hour and a half after lunch was pretty brutal, relentlessly steep and uphill and definitely the hardest section of hiking I’ve done on this trip.
We had a long wait at the rest stop waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, and while we were waiting the heavens opened spectacularly. It didn’t stop for the rest of the afternoon, and we got increasingly drenched as we hiked down through thick mud towards our camp. Just when we thought we couldn’t get wetter, the path led us to a wide, fast-flowing river (the Buritaca, which we’d been following for most of the way) and ended abruptly. We all looked at each other in disbelief for a moment before the realisation sank in that, yes, we were meant to walk across it…
The guides told us to keep our shoes on because of the rocks, and so our walking shoes became little oceans as we stumbled awkwardly across the river, trying not to get overbalanced by the current. We all survived it, albeit wondering if we’d ever be dry again, and it wasn’t too much further to camp. Once we’d got into dry clothes, we were able to look back on the afternoon with a bit more fondness – some of the views had been spectacular, although I didn’t get any photos as I didn’t want to risk my phone getting wet.
That evening we learned a really good Colombian card game called cambio, taught to us by our translator Oreio. He was only 17 and still learning English, so his translations sometimes came out a bit like Google Translate (the word “conquistadores”, which doesn’t really need translation, becoming “the conquest Spain people” was my favourite), but he tried really hard and was great company on the trek.
Day 3 was the big one – where we finally got to see the Lost City that we’d sweated so much for. It started with another river crossing (this time we took our shoes off!) and we then ascended around 1200 steps to the start of the settlement.
Our guide Pedro explained the history of the city – in a nutshell, built around 700 AD and eventually abandoned around 1600 around the time of the arrival in the region of the Spanish. The Tayrona people inhabited the valley for a remarkably long time, much longer than many more famous civilisations such as the Incas lasted, though they never sought to expand their territory much.
The city itself is narrow but towers over the valley, ascending in stages up the hill. At each level there were family homes and meeting places. When a family line was extinguished their home was deconstructed and new structure built. The Tayrona did not keep written records so most of what we know is implied from stories passed down generations, the way that current Indigenous tribes in the region have developed, and the more complex methods used by archaeologists.
The four groups (15-20 people each) had the site to ourselves – Ciudad Perdida gets around the same amount of visitors in a year as Machu Pichu gets in one day. The view from the higher levels was honestly stunning, made even better by the fact that we had a picture-perfect morning to explore the city.
In total, we had about three hours to see the site. On the way out we got a chance to speak to the lead archaeologist currently working on the site, which was really fascinating – he told us about the methods they use to excavate and to infer information about the civilisation, the challenges of working in remote, humid, mountainous jungle, and what they know about the Tayrona civilisation so far. There are more than 25 known sites, with many more thought to be as yet undiscovered, and while the Ciudad Perdida is though to be one of the larger and more important settlements, its exact importance is still to be determined.
We had lunch at the camp and then headed back the way we had come – which meant more waist-deep river crossings! Keen to avoid a steep muddy downhill stretch in the inevitable afternoon downpour, a few of us pretty much sprinted ahead with Oreio the translator, and made it to camp just before the rain, about an hour and a half ahead of schedule.
The final day was a little shorter, as we got to our starting point in time for lunch, though the mud made the going very treacherous and arduous at times. We were all pretty keen to get back, and eventually made it back to the comfortable haven of the Dreamer well in time for a massive dinner and a well-earned caipirinha or three.
After the trek, our final remnants of the San Blas group splintered apart; my final couple of days in the north were spent in the very lovely setting of El Rio hostel, a “destination hostel” in the middle of nowhere about an hour and a half east of Santa Marta. Apart from a fun tubing trip down the river, the main activities are eating good food, drinking and socialising – it was the perfect place to relax after four days slogging through the jungle, just good times with good people.
Where I am now
I headed for the airport for a flight to Medellin after my stay at El Rio, and after the best part of a week there I’m now in the hill town of Salento, very close to the end of my trip! I’ll recap all of that next time.