Our adventures during our final few weeks: Ciudad Perdida Trek, Tayrona NP and the San Blas Islands...
The end is most definitely nigh...so I'm afraid to say, this one is a little long! If it helps, it's mostly pictures!! ?
Ok so you thought our hiking days were done and dusted? Please no more tales of aching legs and blisters I hear you cry! Well, sorry to disappoint folks but with only 2 weeks left in Colombia, and of our trip in total, we decided there was plenty of time to fit in one final one - more specifically a 4 day hike to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in the Sierra Nevada mountains above the Caribbean coastal towns of Santa Marta and Taganga.
After a very bumpy ride in the back of a crammed jeep to our starting point for the trek, we met the group with whom we would share the next few days as well as our guides. The group seemed to be another good one, which was great. Our guide Luis, a stout little fellow with a rather sizeable pot belly who looked just like an overweight 'Super Mario' (giving us hope that if he can manage this trek, surely we'll be fine!) spoke no English whatsoever but seemed friendly.
After a lunch of stale rolls and processed cheese and ham (hmmmm, hopefully the food can only go up from here) we were off! The first days walk was understood to be a fairly short leisurely one (approx 4 hours walking time) so we weren't too worried...until about 5 minutes in when it hit us just how tough walking with backpacks in 35 degree heat and tremendous humidity is! Within a few minutes we were drenched in sweat (something that was to become a theme for the next 4 days) so it was a big relief when we hit our first 'swimming spot' - one of many natural pools/rivers found along the trek - and we gladly jumped straight in to the cool water.
Happily refreshed we set off again, only to be quickly greeted by a long and arduous climb that seemed never ending (hang on, no-one mentioned this was coming today!), meaning that our clean and refreshed state was very short lived.
Eventually we reached the settlement where we were to sleep for the first night, in a huge row of hammocks no less. Gladly this site also had a great swimming spot nearby (and this one came complete with a waterfall and necessitated a pretty high jump to reach the water, which was great fun) so we were able, once again, to sort of clean ourselves up and cool down. The hammocks were fairly comfortable here too, so we were sure we'd get a good nights rest here, well that was until Luis mentioned the snakes and scorpions that tend to come into the hut at night - yikes!
Day 2 brought an early start ahead of a long, tough days walking (approx 8 hours, most of which was uphill) to get us to the campsite which is closest to the Ciudad.
I don't think I have ever been so hot in my life during this day, however there were luckily a few more natural pools to splash about in along the way and the scenery was fantastic. We were now amongst the stunning tree covered mountains we had seen the day before and the path was a decidedly more rugged and jungley. Of course Shaun couldn't resist having a few Indiana Jones moments, swinging on vines and running across rickety rope bridges!
We also started to meet people from the indigenous tribe (the Tayuna) dressed in traditional clothing, along the path, and passed several indigenous settlements and villages. It never ceases to amaze me how basic some of the conditions are that these people live in, yet it's a way of life that they choose to maintain and fight to keep alive.
Our accommodation on this second night was, rather luxuriously, beds! Ok, so fairly damp and rather stinky mattresses placed in rows and built in bunk bed style in a wooden framed open fronted shell of a building with mosquito nets over the top, but beds nonetheless! The natural pool here was a 5 minute trek into the jungle and was truly a hidden gem if ever there was one.
So hidden, so secret, so beautiful. Clear waters surrounded by lush green tropical forest, hanging vines ready for swinging on, which Shaun duly tried!
Day 3 brought us to the highlight, indeed the purpose of the trek - after hiking for a further one hour into the jungle, we reached the base of the 1200 steps that would take us up to the Lost City. The Lost City was built in the seventh century by the Tayuna people and is a maze of over 200 terraces and structures, spanning 30 acres, and was once home to 2000 inhabitants. It was also a large trade centre and the Tayuna's prospered there for centuries until the Spanish invasion of Colombia. When the Spanish came to Colombia they brought with them European diseases, to which the indigenous people had no resistance or idea how to treat, resulting in the near extinction of the race. In fear of enslavement by the Spanish, the remaining Tayuna's abandoned the Lost City in around 1650 and, hidden so deep in the jungle it remained that way until it was discovered in 1976. Unfortunately many of the treasures that the Tayuna people left behind were looted but the city itself remains a very sacred place for the Tayuna people, who (along with machine gun armed paramilitary!) guard it preciously.
The steps were incredibly steep and it was certainly tough getting to the top of them, but we were rewarded once we arrived there with a view of the first set of terraces and the entrance to the city. We spent 2.5 hours exploring the city, which was fascinating (luckily a nice Argentinean in our group was able to translate Luis' tour into English for the majority of the group) and the views were incredible.
Whilst the centre of the city itself may not be quite as spectacular as Machu Picchu, it is certainly still a very impressive site to behold and the lack of mainstream access to the site, and resulting lack of other tourists, made it feel more secret and special.
This was definitely much more the Indiana Jones experience Shaun was after, although I'm not sure Indiana was caught doing a human pyramid at the temple of doom!
Following our tour, we returned to camp for a quick lunch, before setting off to start retracing our steps back, happy in the knowledge that, having done so much uphill on the way to the city, the way back would contain a considerable amount of downhill. We spent a last night in hammocks at another local settlement site, where much to our delight, we were fed a great meal of pasta - woohoooo "not rice" we cried!
On our fourth and final day, we completed the trek by around lunchtime, having set off at around 6am to miss the worst of the heat and having spotted some poisonous snakes, dodged some unruly cows and visited an indigenous cemetery along the way.
The drive back to Santa Marta/Taganga was even more eventful than the way there, since, owing to lack of room in the jeep, we watched with horror as our guide Luis jumped on the top of the vehicle and clung on for dear life as the jeep bumped its way along the unpaved mountainous roads! Luckily he, and we, made it back in one piece and in time for us to enjoy a slap up meal of filet mignon at the hostel (as you do!) before crashing.
Following this we had decided that it was finally time for some proper R&R so we headed to Tayrona National Park, famed for its stunning Caribbean beaches (not to mention being on the front of the Colombian lonely planet!) for a couple of nights. Tayrona can be reached by a 40 minute bus ride and then a 2 hour hike from Taganga, or alternatively you can take a short 1 hour speed boat ride there. Having finally had enough of walking, and with our blisters still fresh from the Lost City, we opted for the speed boat option without a seconds thought. However, the downside of this option is the incredibly choppy waters and swells along the coast that the boat must navigate to reach the park. It certainly wasn't the most relaxing boat ride we've ever taken, to say the least, and we arrived pretty bumped and bruised. Nonetheless, it all became worth it as we pulled into the bay of Cabo San Juan and saw the pristine beaches and clear waters that awaited us.
We quickly booked ourselves in to spend the night sleeping in hammocks in a hut that sits on the top of the rocks overlooking the sea - the prime spot. We had been warned it can get pretty windy and chilly up in the hut in the night, but we couldn't pass up the opportunity to sleep in such a perfect spot and see the sunrise over the bay, so we decided we would take our chances and it was definitely a good choice. After all it's not every day you get to sleep in such a setting for less than £10!
Our couple of days at Tayrona were spent very lazily, soaking up the sun, enjoying the sea and drinking beers - just what the doctor ordered! I think the photos pretty much speak for themselves.
After 2 nights, we took the very bumpy and incredibly wet boat ride back to the town as we needed to get ourselves back to Cartagena to board the last minute Caribbean sailing trip we had booked to finish our trip with a bang, which was departing from there the following evening....
Wanting to finish our travels with a spectacular grand finale, we had spontaneously decided to take a 5-night / 6 day sailing trip to Panama on a 9-berth 43ft yacht, the Perle de la Caribe, which sails via the idyllic San Blas Islands. We had looked at 3 boats in total, a catamaran (which would've instinctively been my first choice) which held 14 people at a push, however we were told (by the company selling the sailing trips!) "the 'El Capitan' is a pr*ck and crams the boat too full to make it an enjoyable experience". The other boat was a larger schooner type boat which slept 27, which was a straight out no from us. So we opted for El Capitan Fernando on the Perle de Caribe. And what a choice it was!!
We arrived at Club Nautico docks around 8pm where we met the rest of our fellow passengers and crew before setting sail at 9pm from Cartagena. I have to say, we lucked out massively on all fronts. Not only was the Perle de Caribe a great yacht, we also had a great crew and a good bunch of fellow sailors - we were all around the same age which meant any references to Natalie Imbruglia, Gameboys and any references to the 80's were immediately understood. Our crew were all Argentinian and were a great laugh, so easy going and easy to talk to. I don't think we could have picked a better crew.
Our journey started out with 3hrs sailing with the motor to get out of port, through the shipping channels and into the open sea. Given the time of year (it's windy season) Captain Fernando told us that some of the waves would be getting to 2-3 metres out at sea but fortunately we were going with the wind and not against it so it would be slightly smoother.
Now I'm not one for usually getting seasick but we were told to take tablets anyway as the first 2 nights and 2 days would be solid sailing on the open sea, no land in sight on the horizon and no stopping. Turned out this was great advice and was well heeded. Big swells and small boats don't do much for our stomachs. Neither of us were sick but when we went inside off of the deck, we felt so much more queasy. However, once we got into our double birth and were horizontal, we felt fine and quickly passed out, most likely from the drowsiness induced by the Dramamine. (This would also come in handy when we needed to sleep on our epic 36-hr journey home to the UK!) Doing the majority of the open ocean sailing at night was beneficial as it meant that we slept through most of it and would give us the maximum amount of time at the San Blas Islands.
After our first night, we woke up early to an amazingly deep blue ocean for as far as the eye could see in any direction - no land, no boats, nothing but the wind and the white sails. Sweeeeeeet!
Breakfast today was freshly prepared fruit along with granola and milk and tea or coffee! Much of this day was spent sleeping as there was little to do apart from this. Reading was a little too much. Although we no longer felt seasick, the swells were still pretty big and as soon as you tried to concentrate on reading, the queasiness made a reappearance. I swear I didn't see some of our fellow sailors at all that day. It was nice to get a solid 13-14hrs straight sleep though, something we've not had at all this entire trip. Travelling is great fun but it is by no means relaxing...
During the second night, we saw one of the most magical sights of our trip. Whilst sailing in the pitch dark, the only light we had was the blazing stars above in the clear night sky (so bright that you could see the cloud of the Milky Way) and the bioluminescent phytoplankton being churned up in the wake of the boat. If you have seen the movie Life of Pi, you will know the scene I'm talking about. We spent about 3 hours genuinely deciding which was better, the skies above or the waters around us. We still don't know...
Awaking on our third day, we could feel no movement from the boat, just a slight sway from left to right...this only meant one thing, we had arrived! Leaping out of bed, banging my head on the ceiling of our berth, trying it again a little more cautiously, we got onto the deck and saw what I can only describe as perfection all around. Turquoise waters, pristine white sand beach with hanging palms only a 50m swim away and water so clear that you can see the bottom despite it being so deep that you cannot reach the bottom. Our quest to finish our trip on a massive high was fulfilled. We had absolutely nailed it!
No time for breakfast today for me, I'm already in with my goggles and fins! The water was so warm, it was like jumping into a bath. El Capitan told us that just off of the starboard side of the boat was a small reef which everyone immediately scrambled to checked out. There was so much marine life down there - small fish, big fish, lobsters, eels, you name it it was there. One of our fellow passengers on the boat, Ben, had just finished his PhD in Australia in marine life so he was very handy to have with us pointing out all the different species. We called him Reef Man - seemed appropriate.
The remainder of the day was spent relaxing in the waters and sunbathing on the boat or beach - this proved to be a tougher choice than you might think - boat or beach? boat or beach? So hard! For me, it was boat everytime. The gentle rocking of the boat always sent you to sleep.
In the evening, by which time a few more yachts had arrived, everyone decided to head to the beach where a fire was started and time was spent sat around it, chatting, drinking (obviously rum, what else do sailors drink in the Caribbean?) and star-gazing. One of our group had brought his guitar so verses of Johnny Cash and Bob Marley came out too... Han and I immediately had a sense of being in the T4 show Shipwrecked, but with slightly less eccentric and stupid folk. The night inevitably ended when everyone had run out of booze.
Our plan for the next day was to head to a shipwreck for more snorkelling but our morning was a much more sedate affair, many feeling the effects of last nights antics - no more so than our very own Captain Fernando. When he rose from his hammock which he had hung from the boom on deck, around lunchtime, his response to why we were no longer going to the wreck today was hilarious - with a cheeky smile and still looking half asleep, he said, "today we were going to go to the wreck pero (but in Spanish) it is now too late to go today pero what is done is done..." Nobody minded in the slightest because we were already in a beautiful spot. So after lunch, which consisted of freshly caught fish, salad etc we set off to the next island for more snorkelling and our next nights destination. This evening was a more sedate affair with more chat, music and cards. Booze? Obviously! More rum and more beer!
Our next few days really followed the above format, moving from island to Island taking in the beautiful waters, beaches and reefs. The food we ate was incredible. It was hard to imagine that all of it came from the tiny onboard kitchen. I have to say, Fernando and Boatsmen Luciano and Ariel (yes, as in the little mermaid!) were great chefs. We had ceviche one night, sashimi another from the fish we caught from the line on the back of the boat (tuna, snapper, sierra(?) and some other fish I've never heard of) and on our last night, our last supper, a humongous meze table with homemade humus, quacamole, sashimi, olives, carpaccio, garlic bread etc.
We did get to visit the shipwreck on our final day, which was great to see and swim around, looking through all the different rooms onboard and seeing what was inside.
The highlights for us, as well as the pristine waters and stunning deserted island views, were that we got to see and swim amongst some big fish such as barracudas as well as what looked like small reef sharks, eagle rays (they look so cool!) and when on board, dolphins! What a way to end our incredible adventures.
There is little more I can add to this, I think a series of pictures probably say much more than I could...
On our last day, we said farewell to Captain Fernando, Luciano and Ariel and made our way by a much smaller speedboat to mainland Panama before a very hilly and speedy journey to Panama City (we both felt more sick after this journey than the 6 days on the boat) where we would spend the night before embarking on our 36-hr epic journey back to London via Florida(!?!), Colombia and Madrid. Fingers crossed it all goes smoothly.
Well, we hate to say it but that brings us to the end of our incredible adventures. We have had the most amazing few months, seen and done so much, met some amazing people and are devastated for it to be over, but all good things must come to an end I suppose... well unless this blog gets picked up by Lonely Planet, Rough Guides or Wanderlust and we snag our dream jobs as travel photographers and writers!
For now however, that's it from the Roundup. It's time for us to return to Blighty and plan our next adventures. We hope you have enjoyed this blog and we shall hopefully see many of you readers on the other side.
This is the Roundup signing off. Over and out.