Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Trekking to the Lost City of Tayrona

View from the top of the town over the main Temple
A late afternoon view from the Lost City. The mountains at the end are the unexplored part of the Sierra, where white men are not allowed, and the Kogis still live like they have done for centuries, hunting with bows & arrows.
The view as we leave on the first day, almost at the top of the mountain at the back we will eventually find the Lost City

I am just back from a 5 day trek to the Lost City of the Tayrona in the Sierra Nevada National Park.
The area used to be called Green Hell, and now I understand why. I did not realise that a human body could sweat as much as I did.
I have been bitten to death by mosquitoes and managed to poison myself with 97% DEET that then gave me the runs. I was worried about snakes after a girl from one of the villages we passed got bitten by a poisonous one while we were there.
However it was, without a doubt, one of the best experiences of this trip. A great way for this year to come to an end. I have now decided that I am challenged out, I have had enough of pushing myself and for the next few weeks I am just going to relax.
All along the trek we came across the original stone path set by the Tayrona over a 1000 years ago

The trek starts at around 200 metres above sea level and finishes at 1300, in the famous Lost City that was only found by tomb raiders in 1974. Although it starts in an area mostly used for agriculture, and until very recently for growing coca, most of the trek takes place in deep jungle.
The first day we got a taste of what was to come when, after having walked for only three hours, it started to rain. From then onwards there was not a single moment when I felt dry.
We were lucky with the rain, the last hour of the first day was downwards......the path turned into a river of mud. Nonetheless we were lucky, another group's car had broken down on the way to the start of the walk so they caught the rain and the mud on the way up and on the way down.
Accomodation throughout the trek is in hammocks under a tin roof. The hammocks have got mosquito nets, but, by the time you get to bed, you are already covered with bites.
As the days pass you walk deeper into the jungle and the views just keep getting better. I had never been in a place like this, so green and lush.
Clearly it is not the Hilton

But then again, how many Hiltons have this early evening view
Or this early morning light
One of the unexpected side effects of the government destroying all coca fields is that a large part of the 'campesinos' that were working these fields decided to migrate to the cities and not work in lower cash crops. Now the government aims to buy as much of the agricultural land as possible and revert it to forest and to its original owners, the Kogis, descendants of the Tayrona.
A little Kogi girl in one of the villages

We did cross several Kogi villages. Sadly following the Spanish invasion, the Tayrona culture was lost, and its descendants are far from the heights of their ancestors. If the Tayrona built complex stone cities, the kogis live in rounded mud houses. They have now lost the ability to work gold, their pottery is extremely rustic and rough.
Kogi village
The Kogi use this machine, that is pulled by a donkey to crush sugar cane

Talking to our guide you lose the romantic idea of the life of the Indians. One thing that really shocked me was the raw deal women get in this society. Men do not work, except for two years when they work for their mother-in-law-to-be. Men need to rest so they can have meetings with their leader and chew coca leaves mix with sea shell dust.
Women on the other hand are meant to work the fields and breed. One child a year, or the husband has the right to take another wife. The same applies when women reach the end of their fertily life.

After three days walking, having crossed the river Buritaca nine times, completely soaked, and having climbed the final 2000 steps, we reached the Lost City.

They believe that there are around 1000 round houses in the city, and several temples, although only about 300 have been excavated.

Before the archaeologists arrived, the city had been raided for around 2 years by a group of 5 cuaqueros, until one got drunk back in Santa Marta and bragged about the city and the treasures they have found.

This has probably been the hardest trek I have done in this trip. Although not as intense as climbing Volcan Concepcion, it was longer, and the conditions are much harder. Humidity, heat, mosquitoes, all add up a Green Hell.

However, the harder the challenge is, it seems that the sense of achievement is greater. Once again, I felt like the old men in the group. And also the unfittest. It seems that everyone just raced ahead of me and left me grasping for air as we walked.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A Few Days in Cartagena

Sunset in Cartagena
Even here you will find a Hard Rock Cafe...sad

The light is just beautiful....sadly it is not my pic but David'sI love this street mural, a truly Caribbean piece of popular art
For once, there are a few pics of me....it is the good thing of traveling for a while with a friend

Double click on the pic, you can see a view of the town from the Spanish fort, and if you want the back of David's neck

My favourite pic...
Cartagena is an amazing city, with a simmilar feeling than Havana, though lacking on the feeling of security you get there.
You can walk in Havana late at night without worrying about anything. Here things are different. Then again, the reason Havana is so safe has a lot to do with neighbours spying on each other.
Cartagena is the typical town that has a gorgeous old town that has been refurbished, at least partly.
What makes it striking is that there is a new city built in a peninsula that has a Maimi feel to it.
It is not my cup of tea, but the mix of old and new has its beauty.
The old and the new...the walls from the old city, a man in a canoe, and the new miamiesque city in the background

Even the old city mixes its beautiful parts with the more decayed ones...the part where real people lives, where they seat outside enjoying the cooling breeze coming from the sea late in the afternoon.
Poverty is still rampant. Sadly, in some of the poorer parts of town, the smell of rotten meat and fruit is almost overpowering....it has just been left out of the tourist circuit.
As in any tourist town, touts are getting around. Some are harmless, not even irritating, others have to be avoided, offering drugs, girls, boys, whatever a tourist may want....they remind you that poverty is here and not going anywhere anytime soon

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Tayrona National Park and its beaches with some great snorkeling thrown in for good meassure

View from the main beach back into the forestSunrise in Tayrona

Double click on picOne the main beaches in Tayrona.
Double click on the pic
Taking a wee rest

David and I have spent a few days in Tayrona National Park, it is one of the more accessible and popular parks in Colombia, with both local and international tourists, and it is quite easy to see why.
The main attraction of the park is its secluded beaches set amongst dense forest, covered with palm trees, and with pristine waters.
Although a couple of its beaches are too dangerous to swim in, there is a sign in one telling you that over 200 people have died there, most of them are sheltered by a belt of rocks.
Some of the birdlife we had as neighbours in our days there

I was so excited to find a turtle grazing in the sea grass in the main beach and I just stayed swimming with her for a very long time.
There is not much in terms of infrastructure, and to get to the beach from the first accommodation area you need to walk for around 45 minutes carrying your bags.
Most people camp there will just sleep in a hammock, however, we decided to take a cabin. It is a bit expensive but this is a mosquito infested area and we both knew we were not going to sleep in the open air.
As you normally find when you are in a National Park, a man in a suit in the water

Although there are bins dotted around the park it seems that the staff who work there are not as concerned about the environment as they should be. Next to one of the eateries you will find a rusting fridge - a disheartening sight amidst this beauty.

Next stop on the trip, Cartagena.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva Cathedral in the Plaza Mayor

We decided to spend a couple of days in Villa de Leyva, which is meant to be the most beautiful colonial town in Colombia. Set in the lower Andes, at a similar altitude to Bogota, it has been preserved beautifully, with no modern buildings to disturb the white-washed, low rise houses and cobbled streets.

One of the little side streets, with David walking down the street all moody in black

The town is stunning, yet for all its beauty, the only thing I could think about was how barren the landscape was when we were arriving there. As we were getting closer to it the landscape becomes almost lunar. Pastures turn to semi-desert, and hills are depleted of all life.

View from the Plaza Mayor, the hills barren of all vegetation

The huge plaza, in the middle of the town, is a great place to have a few beers and enjoy the sunset. The town has been used as the setting for an El Zorro telenovela.

Panoramic of the Plaza, double click on the pic to enlarge

For all its charms, sometimes I feel that travel guides set your expectations too high. This is not the fairy tale land that The Lonely Planet or Bradt make you believe you will find. It is a pretty little town, worth visiting, but not much more than that.

The last few days have been early risers, and today has been no exception, getting up at 6am and enjoying the morning light. Walking around the town we've been followed by a dog that has adopted us since yesterday. He would stand outside every church we went in, every shop.

David and our little friend that followed us for two days

On our way back from Villa de Leyva we stopped in a town called Tunja, famous for its beautiful colonial churches. However, the thing that stuck with me the most were the pig's heads in the market.

Tomorrow we'll be off to the Caribbean, time to enjoy the beach and hopefully to refamiliarise myself with my new hobby...surf!!!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Bogota and La Candelaria

I love the colours of some of the houses in La Candelaria

Cathedral of Bogota

View over Bogota from the mountains, not a pretty sight ( double click on image )

I am really liking Bogota.

I had such low expectations of this town. I am not that keen on large cities, and Bogota has a reputation for crime, pollution, and having 8 million people.

Nonetheless the town has parts with great charm, especially the old town.

View from La Candelaria to the mountains

Its people are really friendly and welcoming, however visiting different parts of town you get to see the stark social differences that sadly pulled this country apart.

David and I went up to Unicentro, the big shopping centre in the North part of the town. The North is the wealthier, more European suburban area. Both of us clearly noticed the differences, especially from an ethnic point of view. You could be forgiven for mistaking this area for a middle class suburb in Madrid or any large Spanish town.

More than anywhere else I have been, wealth is related to race and background.

Leo, David and I at Montserate, the chapel on top of one the mountains overlooking Bogota

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The last Tona and the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira

Eeries pics of the main cross of the Salt Cathedral

It is funny how things can change so quickly when you are traveling, the places that you are, the environment.
Two days ago I was in Nicaragua, learning to surf, drinking Tona or Flor de Cana with Ashley.
Last Tona at sunset

Earlier today I was in the Salt Cathedral near Bogota, in a town called Zipaquira, saying a little prayer and hoping that my 36th year will be as good as my 35th, but maybe God can throw in a wee job, and some health for those who need it most.
Yesterday I got to Bogota, and managed to get into town on a public bus. I know believe that taking buses here is a new art form, the signs are just meaningless. However, people here are really helpful, even cab drivers will point you in the right direction for a bus, none of that ' buses are not running today or are dangerous' business I have seen in so many other places.
I am staying with a friend of a friend of mine, Leo. It has been really nice to know someone here to get around the town in the first few days. My friend David is arriving tomorrow, just in time for my birthday.
One of the first things you notice when you get to Bogota is how much more European people looks. Although I was still the tallest person in the bus, or in any of the buses I took today I have stopped feeling like Gulliver.
As Leo is got a few days off we decided to visit this cathedral that is not in David's list of things to do, and I won't need to do again with him.
The church is around 50 kilometres away from Bogota. It is has been carved into a salt mine that has been worked since the 16th century.
Funnily enough I had visit something simmilar, the Wieliczka mines, a couple of years back...exactly at the same time of year.
As in Poland there is beauty in this place, and the way it has been discretly iluminated gives a modern take on what is, essentially, a church. But you could also imagine being an amazing club.
Zipaquira from the hills where the mine is