On the Trail of the Tayronas - Sweating it out in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

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March 17th 2020
Published: March 18th 2020
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A ctiy lost in timeA ctiy lost in timeA ctiy lost in time

Ciudad Perdida - the 'Lost City' of the Tayronas
With my first week in Colombia having been spent on the Caribbean coast, it was only natural for me to want to spend my second week in the mountains... and what better way to shake off the big city cobwebs than by joining a 4-day guided trek through the rainforest-clad lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – the world's highest coastal mountain range?! But having neglected to take my passport with me to the Expotur office in the centre of Santa Marta when I paid for the trip a couple of days prior, I first had to take a minivan into town on the Monday morning (9thMarch) to take care of this little aside... only to find that the centre of Santa Marta had lost power, so that not only was the office plunged into darkness, it was also impossible for the salesperson to take a photocopy of my passport!

As time went on and more and more trekkers turned up to drop off their backpacks (I had left mine at the hostel, to which I would be returning in four days' time) the scene both inside and outside the Expotur office turned somewhat comical – particularly
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View from the trail on day 1
as the lane-way outside began to fill with bemused tourists being besieged by the ever-present street hawkers doing their best to convince the trekkers that they didn't have enough water for the first day of the trek, and therefore needed to buy more... from their stand of course! Meanwhile, going to the bathroom in a neighbouring restaurant entailed the use of the torchlight on my phone and having to sit down sideways, as there wasn't enough space for me to adopt the 'western position'!

Eventually though all thirty-five trekkers were split into three groups and assigned their various guides and translators, before piling into one of the five 4-wheel-drives parked nearby with our packs strapped to the roof for the two-hour drive to the tiny campesino (farmer) village of El Mamey, which marks the trail-head for the out-and-back trek. After downing lunch at a local restaurant and slapping on as much sunblock and insect repellent as we could, it was finally time to shoulder our backpacks and hit the trail – which went up, up and up as we gained over four hundred metres in the first hour-and-a-half.

Sweating our collective asses off in the 30+ degree heat
Lush ValleyLush ValleyLush Valley

Passing an early campsite on day 1
and high humidity of the tropics, we were all thankful for the frequent rest breaks, as every twenty minutes or so we would reach another refreshment stall set up by the side of the dirt road by one of the many enterprising locals. While the track itself was dry and dusty – being used by motor bikes as far as the first campsite, after which it was shared only by trekkers and mules – the surrounding scenery grew almost imperceptibly from light green to darker green... all the while I couldn't help but marvel at the crinkled nature of the surrounding hills and ridges. After descending into an almost unbelievably lush valley where a tiny village and campsite was located, we then resumed our upwards climb for a further twenty minutes before eventually reaching our overnight accommodation at Casa Alfredo (Camp 1) after around three hours of arduous walking.

Having been under the impression that we would be sleeping in hammocks on two of the three nights of the trek – something I've never yet had to do, and at almost two metres tall can't imagine ever being able to do comfortably – I was pleasantly surprised to find
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A majestic tree covered in epiphytes beside the trail
that we each had a mosquito-netted bunk bed to sleep in; and another pleasant surprise came when dinner turned out to be both tasty and plentiful... the chocolate bar washed down with hot chocolate for dessert was the perfect end to the day! Not surprisingly, after the afternoon's exertions, almost everyone in the group slept soundly... at least until 5am the next morning, when Hugo (our translator) woke us up for breakfast so that we could be on the track by 6am – a timetable that we would follow for all three mornings on the track.

With the sun not yet having risen above the peaks on the opposite side of the valley, we appreciated being able to walk in the relative cool of the early morning (though it probably never got below twenty degrees on the whole trek) but with the humidity being so high it wasn't enough to stop us from sweating profusely as we tackled the steep climb up to our first high point of the day. From there we crossed into the indigenous sector of the national park (an area comprising over 400,000 hectares at the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains) before dropping steeply
River, Rainforest and MountainsRiver, Rainforest and MountainsRiver, Rainforest and Mountains

View from the trail, high above the Rio Buritaca
to the first traditional house belonging to an indigenous family on the trail, where we were given a demonstration from the mother of the household (her husband was away) of their traditional weaving process, which involves the man harvesting the large leaves from a particular species of palm tree and then removing the green outer layer of the leaf, before passing it onto the woman to isolate the individual strands and then dye and weave them together.

She also explained the process of growing, harvesting and drying coca leaves for the men to chew – a practise that is common to many indigenous groups throughout the Andes, and has about as much in common with snorting cocaine (an alkaloid that has to be isolated from the leaves and refined) as eating the flower of a coffee plant has in common with drinking a shot of espresso... a fact that has been sadly lost on the United States, who have both pressured and paid for Colombia to aerially spray insecticide on coca plantations throughout Colombia. Unfortunately it is not only the coca plants (some of which are intended only to be chewed by the locals) but anything else that happens
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Re-crossing the Rio Buritaca, towards the end of day 2
to be growing in the vicinity that gets bombarded with glyphosate – one of the most poisonous insecticides known to man. And while a Colombian court found this practise to be illegal and ordered the process to be suspended five years ago, a recent meeting between Ivan Duque (the Colombian president) and Donald Trump resulted in the US president telling his Colombian counterpart that the aerial bombardment would have to be resumed.

About four hours after leaving our first camp, we arrived at Camp 2 and were given the opportunity to cool off at a natural swimming pool ('la piscina') in the Rio Buritaca river, before digging into a filling lunch that had us wishing for a midday siesta afterwards. Instead we trudged on for another three hours through increasingly lush and beautiful rainforest – with the trail at one point hugging the cliff-side high above the river – before crossing the river on a sturdy suspension bridge and then tackling the final climb to our overnight destination: the Casa Teyuna Paraiso (Camp 3), beside which another lovely swimming hole in the Rio Buritaca awaited us... along with a dog that kept us entertained for ages by continuously pushing,
Ancient StaircaseAncient StaircaseAncient Staircase

Just some of the 1200 stone steps leading up to the 'Lost City'
prodding, dragging, flipping and barking at a rock that was just above the water line for more than half-an-hour! We were all in agreement that the dog had lost it's marbles completely, until we were told later that the dog had previously belonged to 'guaqeros' (grave robbers or looters) and it was therefore trained to identify, shift and overturn any rocks that might be harbouring archaeological riches underneath.

After another filling dinner we were all in bed by about nine o'clock – once again preferring to sleep in the mosquito-netted bunk beds on offer rather than the hammocks that many of the guides and translators chose – before rising before dawn for what would be the climax of our trek: the 1200-step climb on a thousand-year-old stone staircase leading straight up the mountainside to the so-called 'Ciudad Perdida' (Lost City) of the Tayrona civilisation. Much like the more famous Incas far to the south in Peru, the Tayronas' advanced civilisation was extinguished by the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. And just like the Incas, they left behind grand settlements that were subsequently re-claimed by mother nature: the most famous example, in the case of the Tayronas, being that
Hidden away from the worldHidden away from the worldHidden away from the world

The 'Canal sector' at Ciudad Perdida
of Ciudad Perdida (also referred to as Teyuna – meaning 'sacred city' in the indigenous language).

Believed to have been constructed between 600AD and 1200AD, the 'Lost City' is so-named because, just like Machu Picchu in Peru, the Spanish never discovered it during colonial times. In fact it's remote location hidden in dense rainforest within the Sierra Nevada mountains resulted in the city only being discovered as recently as 1973, when local guaqeros stumbled upon it. The following year the site's location was made public, and after seven years worth of excavations to clear the stone-built terraces and elaborate network of stone paths of the encroaching vegetation, the site was opened to the public in 1981. In another correlation with Machu Picchu, pretty much every image online of the archaeological site features a variation of the same picture – which as we would discover offers only a mere hint of the true extent of the site. Stretching over 16 square kilometres, our three-hour guided tour – provided, as with the rest of the trek, by our guide Dennis (a local woman) and translator Hugo – would take in around 4 square kilometres, broken up into four separate sectors: the
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Thatched hut belonging to a local moma in the 'Piedras (Stone) sector' of Ciudad Perdida
North Sector (La Gallera); the Canal sector (Mahecha); the Piedras (Stone) sector; and the Central Axis.

Having arrived at the site not long after dawn, and with mist and cloud swirling around not only the site itself but also the neighbouring mountain peaks, the overall effect was absolutely mesmerising; and a hushed reverence seemed to fall over our group as we slowly made our way along the network of inter-connected paths to explore the various sectors of the city. In the Piedras sector, there were two traditional thatched houses perched atop the circular stone terraces, offering an insight into what the city would actually have looked like five hundred years ago, when such buildings would have presumably stood in the middle of every terrace. In this case though, the houses actually belonged to the mamo (shaman or spiritual leader) of the local Wiwa tribe, and the rest of his family. For while the Tayronas are considered to have died out by around 1650, their descendants now form four distinct (but related) tribes that not only live in, but administer, the enormous indigenous sector of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park.

These tribes: the Kogui, Wiwa,
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The 'Central Axis' at Ciudad Perdida
Aruhaco and Kankuhamos are easily identified by their all-white clothing and circular, thatched houses that feature either one or two 'peaks' – representing the snow-capped summits of Pico Colon (Columbus), which at 5775m is the highest mountain in Colombia, and Pico Bolivar at 5560m... both of which sit tantalisingly out of sight in the virtually-impenetrable heart of the mountain range. And while it was a Wiwa woman from whom we were given the weaving demonstration the previous day, it would be a Kogui man (the political leader of his particular tribe) who would address the three Expotur groups later that night after we had re-traced our footsteps all the way to Casa Mumake (Camp 2).

Explaining not only the significance of chewing coca leaves in Kogui life, but also the way in which a wad of leaves is mixed in the mouth with lime obtained from seashells (for which the Kogui trade with coastal tribes; and the calcium from which reacts with the alkaloids in the leaves to magnify the stimulant effect of the leaves) using a narrow stick which fits perfectly into an elongated pear-shaped gourd. Together these items are known as a poporo, and each male member
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The multiple terraces of the 'Central Axis' at Ciudad Perdida
of the tribe receives his poporo (which immediately becomes his most treasured possession) when he is deemed to have come of age – at somewhere between fifteen and eighteen years old – at which time he is also presented with a wife, chosen either by his parents or the mamo, depending on the tribe.

As interesting as these insights into the man's tribal life were, it was his closing address to the group – in which he revealed the changes (both cultural and natural) that his people have been subjected to in recent years, and implored us to do everything within our power to protect the natural world upon which the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta depend – that really struck a chord with everyone present. The irony that these people are feeling the effects (such as rapidly melting glaciers and increasingly-unpredictable seasonal changes) wrought not by them but by the 'developed world' of which they take virtually no part, was lost on nobody. It is the same devastating reality facing indigenous people the world over. At least in this particular corner of the world – and much to our collective surprise – the indigenous
Paving PerfectionPaving PerfectionPaving Perfection

The 'grand staircase' leading from the lowest to the highest sectors of the Lost City
people seem to have full control over what happens in their homeland, with Hugo confirming that it is the local indigenous people, and not the government, that have not only limited the number of tour operators allowed to run treks to the Lost City (all trekkers must be guided by one of these six companies) but have also closed an alternative route leading to Ciudad Perdida from a different direction, so as to minimise the disturbance caused by this influx of tourists.

The reason they allow any treks at all, as both Hugo and the Kogui elder explained, is that the income derived from each of these treks (the cost of which is set by the government, and is the same for all companies regardless of the duration of the trek) allows the indigenous people to maintain a way of life as close as possible to their traditional lifestyle, as well as enabling them to send some of their children to school to obtain an education that was previously unattainable... though understandably they refuse to send all of their kids to school, preferring instead to raise many of them in the traditional way, so that future generations may carry
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Early morning view on day 4
on their traditions.

Hitting the trail at 6am for the final time on Thursday morning, we knocked off the remaining dozen or so kilometres to the trailhead at El Mamey in just under six hours – with only a brief snack break at Camp 1 along the way – where we washed down our hard-earned lunch with the ubiquitous Aguila (Eagle) beers that seem to be available everywhere. And then, after spending 72 hours of bliss in the solitude of the mountains, we had barely made it back to the highway when the French girl in our group managed to pick up an internet signal, and the Coronavirus madness that had swept the world over the preceding days suddenly injected itself into our lives.

Back in Santa Marta that evening, it was hard to reconcile the constant bombardment of virus-related news from abroad, being broadcast both on the foreign news channel at the hostel and on every backpacker's Facebook news feeds, with the peaceful existence almost completely shut off from the outside world that we had so thoroughly enjoyed being a part of for the past four days. But for those of us who weren't planning on going
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The infinity pool at Casas Viejas, high in the hills above Minca
home (which for the vast majority meant either Europe or North America) any time soon, it seemed as though South America was about as safe and unaffected a place to be as anywhere in the world. Still, I was already looking forward to spending my next four days out of WiFi range once again...

So after re-packing my bags the next morning – and once again leaving my big backpack in storage at the hostel – I hopped into a minivan for the half-hour ride up into the foothills of the mountains to the tiny tourist town of Minca; before hopping on the back of a moto (motorcycle taxi) for the steep climb up from Minca at 600m above sea level to my hostel (Casas Viejas) at around 1100m. With the road between the two alternating between hard earth, soft sand and intermittent stretches of broken concrete – and with blind corners at regular intervals – the ride was adventurous to say the least, and I loved every minute of it! Realising only later that I had never before ridden on the back of a motorbike – and in fact have only ever ridden one myself on two occasions
The perfect rewardThe perfect rewardThe perfect reward

Sampling a Happy Coca Pale Ale from Cerveceria Nevada - a 15-minute downhill walk from Casas Viejas
in Turkey many years ago – I arrived at the hostel sporting a grin from ear to ear, and was half-tempted to ask my moto driver to take me back down to Minca just so that we could come back up again!

If I wanted to treat myself to a couple of days of complete relaxation after the arduous trekking of the previous four days, I had come to just the right place: one glimpse of the communal dining/chill out area overlooking the infinity pool – which in turn overlooks a fertile valley walled in by imposing ridges on all sides – was all it took for my blood pressure to drop and the aches and pains (mostly in my knees) of the previous days to fade away into the background. And then just when I'd settled in and thought I couldn't possibly be any more relaxed, the bell rang to announce the opening of the bar – and I was able to sample draft beers from the Cerveceria Nevada, located only about a fifteen minute downhill walk away on the same property (the Finca La Victoria coffee farm) as the hostel! Slowly working my way through their (admittedly
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The upper falls at Pozo Azul (Blue Well) just outside Minca
limited) range of beers, I found an early contender for 'Best beer in Colombia' in the form of their Happy Colibri (Hummingbird) Coffee Stout, which when combined with one of the freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies from the kitchen upstairs was nothing short of a match made in heaven!

Perhaps the only disappointment for the day came when I finally decided to get off my lazy butt and hike up to the 'sunset viewpoint' above the hostel just before dusk, only to see the sun disappear into the hazy atmosphere before it had even reached the ridge-line of the mountains. I needn't have been surprised though – the coastline of Santa Marta was barely visible only twenty kilometres away, while the distant horizon was so blurry it was virtually impossible to distinguish the sea from the sky. I had first noticed this haziness in Cartagena, but have yet to find out whether it is a result of pollution, smoke from fires or some other cause. But whatever the case, the visibility (at least in this part of the Caribbean coast) is almost as bad as it was in Malaysia last year; and for someone who is used to watching the
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The upper falls at Cascada de Marinka
sun sink clear as day into the Indian Ocean every day on the West Coast of Australia, it takes a little getting used to!

Determined to get some exercise the next day, I tackled the steep route back down to Minca on foot, stopping off at the Pozo Azul waterfall – along with the entire population of Minca it would seem – for a cooling swim along the way. Climbing back up into the hills after stopping for lunch in town, I then stopped off at another waterfall, the Cascada de Marinka, before admitting defeat and hopping on the back of a moto-taxi for the long and bumpy ride up to a viewpoint known as Los Pinos ('The Pines') atop the ridge overlooking Casas Viejas. By the time I made it back to the hostel an hour later, my knees were completely shot and I felt like an arthritic eighty-year-old: the constant ups and downs of the past week (at gradients that I have only rarely tackled in the past – and with barely a switchback in sight) had well and truly caught up with me. Still, at least the bar was already open by the time I got
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View from the Paso del Mango trail between Minca and Caoba

Having enjoyed a better sleep than in previous days (I awoke at one point to discover the resident cat curled up beside my feet!) and devoured another delicious breakfast (during which the cat was again a constant companion!) I paid my tab, bid farewell to the friendly receptionist Arturo, and left Casas Viejas aboard another moto-taxi, this time heading first down into Minca and then halfway up the hillside to the east of town, to the cacao farm at Finca La Candelaria. This at least gave me a head-start for what would end up being a four-hike to my next overnight stop, the Reserva Biologica Caoba in the neighbouring valley. Using the off-line map I had downloaded from maps.me (without which route-finding on the un-signposted trail would have been impossible) I first followed a narrow road uphill until I crested the ridge, before turning off onto an obscure walking trail that in places was barely wide enough to fit one foot beside the other, which proceeded to plunge down the far side of the ridge through thick vegetation and beneath a carpet of leaf litter that made it virtually impossible to predict how my foot would land with
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Descending into the Manzanares Valley on the Paso del Mango trek
each passing step. On more than one occasion I would find myself questioning the viability of the trail, and if it weren't for the reassuring sight of my location following exactly the course of the trail on my off-line map, I very much doubt I would have kept going.

At one point on the trail I came face-to-face with an almost-perfectly white horse, who eventually stepped aside from the trail to let me pass. Soon afterwards I reached a house guarded by four small but ferociously aggressive dogs, who proceeded to charge at me repeatedly with canines exposed whilst barking and snarling wildly. Thankfully I had armed myself with a half-metre length of bamboo, which the dogs seemed to recognise as giving me the upper hand in our little face-off... particularly when I started swinging it violently towards them whilst shouting “tranquilo!” (relax) – an oxymoron if ever there was one! Sweating profusely and with knees once again aching from the hammering they had taken, I eventually reached the secluded sanctuary of the Reserva Biologica Caoba – a small, privately-run ecological reserve near the end of a one-way road through a sparsely-populated but densely-forested valley. If I had thought
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Kogui hut on the grounds of the Reserva Biologica Caoba
that Casas Viejas was quiet, this place took tranquillity to a whole new level! And I had made it with just enough time to take a cooling dip in the nearby river before sitting down to a delicious vegetarian lunch. Oh, the serenity!

Setting off to explore the reserve once the worst of the day's heat had passed, I paid a visit to the two resident macaws and the family of peccaries (wild pigs), before getting a close-up look at one of the two metre-and-a-half long crocodilians (I forget which species) that share an enclosure with various lizards and a scrum of turtles. Orchids, native cactuses and a labyrinth of medicinal plants were all featured in different adjoining areas, along with a pair of beautiful thatched huts and a traditionally-built bridge across the river that had all been built by local Kogui people. Further along the path three neighbouring ponds housed a small number of arapaima (also known as pirarucu): the largest freshwater fish in South America. Watching these red-tailed fish that are almost as large as me lying almost motionless just beneath the surface – to which they come to breathe air every 5 – 15 minutes –
The forest reflectedThe forest reflectedThe forest reflected

One of the arapaima (pirarucu) ponds at Reserva Biologica Caoba
was a surreal experience, and put into context by the knowledge that they can grow up to four metres long in the wild!

With just two other guests staying at the reserve that night, dinner was an intimate affair – even more so considering the lights weren't working so we had to resort to candles and head torches... and all the while one of the super-friendly resident dogs stood with it's chin resting on my lap hoping for the occasional head scratch! Then with a six-bed dorm all to myself (for the first night at least) and a chorus of cicadas serenading me to sleep, I could finally rest my weary bones without having to worry about the chainsaw-like snoring that had punctuated both of my nights in Minca. It would be twelve hours before I finally emerged from my slumber the next morning... only to discover that amongst other countries Colombia, Ecuador and Peru (the first three countries I plan to travel through) had all closed their borders to foreigners due to the threat of coronavirus.

I left my phone switched off for the rest of the day.

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 37


Relief at lastRelief at last
Relief at last

Cooling off in the Rio Buritaca, next to our lunch stop at Camp 2
So many shades of greenSo many shades of green
So many shades of green

View from our high point on day 2 - take one
So many shades of greenSo many shades of green
So many shades of green

View from our high point on day 2 - take two
So many shades of greenSo many shades of green
So many shades of green

View from our high point on day 2 - take three
Stunning SettingStunning Setting
Stunning Setting

Looking out over the 'Canal sector' at Ciudad Perdida
Not lost, just hard to findNot lost, just hard to find
Not lost, just hard to find

View from the top terrace at Ciudad Perdida - take one
Not lost, just hard to findNot lost, just hard to find
Not lost, just hard to find

View from the top terrace at Ciudad Perdida - take two
Not lost, just hard to findNot lost, just hard to find
Not lost, just hard to find

View from the top terrace at Ciudad Perdida - take three
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Fertile Slopes

The toad-shaped rock (a Tayrona fertility symbol) at the base of the main terraces
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Hidden in the Trees

More enigmatic ruins at Ciudad Perdida (guarded by well-camouflaged - and well-armed - soldiers from the Colombian army)
Who needs GPS..?Who needs GPS..?
Who needs GPS..?

The 'map stone' near the entrance to Ciudad Perdida
Roaring RiverRoaring River
Roaring River

Crossing the Rio Buritaca on the long walk back to (modern) civilization
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Infinity Pool

The stunning pool at Casas Viejas, early in the morning
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Forested Slopes

View from Casas Viejas' pool - take one
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Forested Slopes

View from Casas Viejas' pool - take two
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Forested Slopes

View from Casas Viejas' pool - take three

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