Colombia is one of the most intriguing & memorable countries I have visited.
I heard many horror stories — but my experience there was wonderful. Friendly people. Great towns & cities. Wonderful people.
I travelled to Colombia from Venezuela.
Colombia? Why go to Colombia?
Colombia is the number 2 coffee producer in the World. Café con leche was available everywhere for about C$.10 — that is reason enough!
In Venezuela, I had heard of an amazing hike to a lost jungle city just across the border in Santa Marta, Colombia. But it was almost impossible to get there by land from Venezuela. The border rife with smugglers, kidnappers, paramilitary, banditos & crooked cops.
Colombia is poor, Venezuela rich — hence the tension.
Somehow I managed to cross a 50k no-mans-land on a series of buses and taxis. I would have been detained at at least one of a dozen check stops except that a businessman took me under his protection.
I was vastly relieved to reach a fortress of a hotel on the Colombian side of the border.
Santa Marta, the oldest city in Colombia (1525), is pretty & undeveloped. Backpackers love this place. Cobble-stoned houses, overhanging balconies, churches and military fortresses. Kids, dogs, pool halls, power failures and loud music.
It is the jumping off point for the Lost City trek.
I was psyched.
Six-day return treks to the ruins of La Ciudad Perdida are only allowed through a government agency. Guides arrange transport, food and accommodation — essential because the area is a significant marijuana and coca-growing region.
I, like the other backpackers in Santa Marta, was nervous about making the trip.
A selling point, however, was that hikers of all nationalities were allowed to trek except Americans — they make too attractive kidnap victims.
Our guide was most famous and experienced having made the trip over 500 times since the Lost City had been rediscovered in 1976.
I carried my tent on the trek, much to the consternation of my old guide. He insisted we sleep in hammocks in the South American tradition.
We visited a number of traditional villages en route. The guide was welcomed warmly everywhere we went.
A log bridge provides a crossing when the water is higher. As a gymnast I volunteered to walk across as if it were a balance beam.
OK. Not quite like a balance beam.
The Lost City is remote & difficult to access.
I was disappointed to see a sign showing the route. 🙂
Finally, atop the steepest coastal mountain range in the world, we reached The Lost City.
It is very Indiana Jones. Mysterious & enigmatic.
The site is pre-Hispanic. In fact some artifacts there date from 500 B.C.
It’s less a city, than an entangled net of tiled roads, terraces and small circular plazas supported by walls on the sharper mountains.
The site begs the question; why here?
Access to the coast is near impossible.
Theory is that the native inhabitants had a variety of climates, ranging from the hot to cold temperatures. Consequently, they had access to a great variety of game & wild fruit.
Rediscovered by grave robbers, the hundreds of overgrown stone terraces which once held a city have been restored.
Huts like these have been restored only in a few places.
On a king’s throne in the Lost City.
Colombia is strongly Catholic. I found these trees evocative.
On the return, in a native village, we were shown trees growing a date rape drug — borrachero, I believe it is called — a soporific often used too, in South America, on hapless tourists.
Oropendulas (related to blackbirds and orioles) are communal nesters. Each male builds its own hanging nest, which are then grouped together in a favorite tree. The same tree may be used for many generations. Their name comes from the gold (= “oro” in Spanish) color on their tails, and the pendulum-like nest..
A couple of days walk from the highway, a vendor had set up shop for our handful of hikers — the only gringos on the moutain.
On the trip up the mountain we were cautious & nervous — worried about narco-trafficers, slick trails, moss, suckers & vines, toads & snakes, thunder & lightening, mud & dark.
We removed our shoes at every creek crossing.
On the way down we were confident & relaxed, shirtless, splashing in every waterway to cool off. One of the hikers was savvy enough to bring a snorkel!
The Lost City was a terrific hike. We loved it.
The danger and adrenaline added to the allure.
At one point on the track, I stopped to watch a wasp paralyze a much larger spider, then lay her eggs on the spider’s back.
Just like National Geographic.
Survivors. Lost City trek, Colombia, 1997.
In 2003 a group of 8 hikers like ours was kidnapped. One escaped almost immediately, but others were held for over 100 days.
Colombia should be one of the world’s most exciting destinations. Unfortunately, guerrilla war, cocaine cartels & kidnapping scare most tourists away.
It was unsafe in 1997. But Colombia worsened in 2002 when the government cut off peace negotiations with the Marxist rebel organization FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
Colombia is charmingly undeveloped & non-Western. Many women in South America want to be voluptuous. They sashay sexy.
I was impressed with the confident swagger of the women. They need not turn down their eyes from every man who checks them out.
My hiking guide — who had finally convinced me of the advantages of a hammock over my tent — took me to the market to purchase an authentic, quality Colombian double hammock.
I still use it, even sleeping outside in minus 40 degrees Celsius Canada.
Hammock quality varies widely. Cheaper ones fall apart quickly.
From Santa Marta, I travelled down the coast to Cartagena, every tourist’s favourite spot.
You might be in Europe. Overhanging balconies are much photographed.
Cartagena is an old city with a big colonial fortress. The main tourist attraction is the clear sea.
I saw the movie The English Patient in a huge, beautiful theatre here. The locale added to the romance of the film.
Colonial architecture, churches & plazas are lovely.
San Felipe castle, Caragena, Colombia.
To connect to a flight out of the country, I travelled to the capital for a couple of days.
Bogotá is a city of modern architecture, a vibrant and diverse cultural and intellectual life, splendid colonial churches and brilliant museums. It is also a city of Dickensian waifs, beggars, shantytowns, drug dealers and traffic jams. This amazing mixture of prosperity and poverty, Maseratis and mules, makes it one of the world’s most chaotic, fascinating and aggressive metropolises.
I was totally impressed by the Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) which contains many relics of pre-Colombian history.
Colombia should be one of the prize backpacker destinations in the world. The people are terrific. The coast dramatically beautiful. The rainforests, mountains and beaches wonderful.
But drug kingpins and corrupt politicians have made it almost impossible. In 2003, more than 3000 people were abducted.
I would love to return some day. When it is safer.
Departing South America I was stung by crooked airport officials for about US$10.:-(