Colombia - capital to coast...


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Published: August 22nd 2013
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Panorama of Ciudad PerdidaPanorama of Ciudad PerdidaPanorama of Ciudad Perdida

Hopefully this gives more of an idea of the wonderful location.
Sandwiched either side of my visa run to Venezuela, I was able to first visit the rugged interior in and around Bogota and then travel along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The stint around Bogota saw me visit some smaller towns which were hugely enjoyable and once again showed why Colombia has been the country I have enjoyed most on my travels so far. Places like San Gil and Villa de Leyva have the potential to become household names as the popularity of Colombia increases, given their natural beauty, variety of activities and relative proximity to the capital Bogota. In fact if I was to dish out sage investment advice, it would be that starting up a top notch hostel in either of those two spots would be a sound choice…expect that someone has got there first and beaten you to the punch!!

Renacer Guesthouse (http://www.colombianhighlands.com/) and Sam’s VIP (http://www.hostelbookers.com/hostels/colombia/san-gil/73399/) were two of the best hostels I’ve stayed at and were the springboard to my enjoyment of the surroundings. Villa de Leyva competes with Barichara for Colombia’s prettiest town and having visited both I’d give the edge to Villa!! It had the largest plaza in Colombia, a beautiful setting in the hills
Villa de LeyvaVilla de LeyvaVilla de Leyva

Colombia´s biggst square, and not a bad backdrop to boot!
and lots of exploring to be done. I spent one morning hiking up the mountains behind my guesthouse to get to some great viewpoints over the town and surrounding areas, and also completed the “Paso del Angel” walk (Angel Step), a hike that was nonchalantly downplayed by my hostel but took in a beautiful ridgeline walk between two canyons which at one point narrowed to just a few inches wide (the so called “Angel Step”). After this it culminated in a tumbling waterfall where the ridge ended and the two canyons collided and I was able to enjoy a superbly picturesque lunch!

I also hired a bike to head out and explore the (hilly!!) terrain in more detail. Unfortunately for me, the toughest cycle of that period of travel also involved the worst bike!! It was a machine that squeaked louder than a dozen families of mice at feeding time, and although it generated plenty of friction as I struggled uphill, the friction was sadly lacking when I jammed the brakes on fully and eventually coasted to a stop in a different postcode!!!

However, being on my own two wheels allowed me to enjoy a multi stop tour
Paso del AngelPaso del AngelPaso del Angel

Don´t look down!!
including lagoons coloured blue by a high mineral content, a dinosaur museum, monastery and also a vineyard. Colombia isn’t famous for its wines, and I was extremely sceptical when I arrived, but I have to admit that the wine was absolutely superb – fortunately having taking as its inspiration cabernet sauvignons from Chile which happen to be my favourite!! I have to caveat this glowing recommendation by saying it may also have had something to do with the fact I’d left the treat of the vineyard until last and slogged up a massive hill to get there – so by that point I was pretty much ready for a drink!! I’m not sure it’ll be appearing in a supermarket near you anytime soon, but if it does I’d recommend you give a glass of Colombia’s finest a go!! (http://www.marques.villadeleyva.com.co/)

I moved onto San Gil, which is known as the adventure sports capital of Colombia. My big wish was to try the rafting, given both how much I had enjoyed it in Ecuador, and the fact that the rapids on Colombia’s Rio Suarez were even bigger!! On the first day the trip was cancelled so I was offered the chance
Scenic lunch spotScenic lunch spotScenic lunch spot

The waterfall after Paso del Angel
to go caving instead. Not knowing what to expect it turned out to be a pretty extreme adventure, stomping around water filled caves for a few hours, including a couple of sections where the overhangs came down to the waterline meaning you had to swim underwater to get to the next section!!! It was really exhilarating stuff and made me think that the people that first explore these caves must have nerves of absolute steel as they take the plunge into the murky unknown!!

Luckily the rafting went ahead the next day and was a huge amount of fun. This time it was longer than the Ecuador experience with a couple of sections where we could jump out of the boat and swim through the most gentle of the rapids, which was a new experience – although the amount of river water I seemed to swallow in those short sections made me very glad for the boat!! The training from Ecuador also came in handy as when one of our team went into the drink I was able to leap into action and got them back on board with the minimum of fuss (or at least that’s what I
White Water Rafting, San GilWhite Water Rafting, San GilWhite Water Rafting, San Gil

I´m on the left hand side of the shot in the originally white (now brown!!) t-shirt as we take on the worst of the rapids!
tell myself!!)

The highlight of the day was the two sections classified as class five (the scale runs up to six and apparently at level 6 its only safe for kayakers to do!!). They were both huge adrenaline rushes with enormous holes that we plummeted into, and huge waves that crashed over the boat. Again it was an activity that I really enjoyed and will hope to do more of, and this time our group paid a little extra to have the experience filmed so you can see what I’m talking about!!



Bogota was also an interesting destination – although my first return to cold temperatures for a while which wasn’t so welcome!! I got a little unlucky with the weather when I headed up to the city’s main viewpoint Montserrat, so rather than a view of the city sprawling beneath me I got a view of the cloud sprawling around me!!

The hammering rain didn’t matter as much on my trip to the underground salt cathedral of Zipaquira, billed as one of Colombia’s big tourist attractions with a throng of visitors to potentially match the billing. However like an English football World Cup campaign,
Museo de OroMuseo de OroMuseo de Oro

Gold as far as the eye can see!!
that initial sense of elation and hope soon gave way to a dejected sense of being misled and ripped off! Given the name I had expected a huge cathedral constructed entirely of salt, shimmering resplendently in some kind of magical underground chamber. In reality someone had just had the bright idea of taking a played out salt mine and sticking a giant cross and some fancy lights at one end of the biggest (now very much salt-less) caverns and then charging people to visit it!!

A trip to Bogota wouldn’t be complete with visiting its (and possibly South America’s) most famous museum, the museum of gold, which had examples of the shiny stuff as far as the eye can see! I spent quite a lot of my time in Bogota on two wheels, thanks to a very progressive major (who also is a ex-commander of the M-19 guerrilla movement – another example of how far Colombia has come, as twenty years ago the thought of a person like this holding high office would have been as laughable as a Colombian taxi driver giving way to let someone cross the street in front of them!!). Every Sunday some of the
Coffee ArtistCoffee ArtistCoffee Artist

One of the alternative attractions included in my cycle tour of Bogota!
capital’s major avenues are closed down and turned into pedestrian and cycling streets, so I naturally hired a bike and had a good explore around the city.

Buoyed by this experience I then also booked onto a superb “alternative” cycling city tour run by a Californian journalist that has been resident in South America for the last 30+ years. Given that we were with someone that had the inside track we were able to visit areas probably off-limits to any sane tourists including hot spots of graffiti art and parts of the red light district that specialised in the “larger lady”. It was a really interesting perspective on the city, with the only irony was that on the virtually flat streets of Bogota trundling along at a slow pace I had the smoothest, most easy to ride bike yet experienced in my trip!! What I would have given for that when I was puffing and panting my way up the hills of Villa de Leyva on something that made a Boris Bike look like a carbon fibre racer!!! (http://www.bogotabiketours.com)

To break up the long journey back from Venezuela I was glad to stop at Palomino, an “undiscovered” resort
The sham of the salt cathedralThe sham of the salt cathedralThe sham of the salt cathedral

Just a big cavern with a cross and some fancy lights!
with a couple of backpackers, no shore-front development and a beach that was virtually deserted all of the time. I went one better when visiting Colombia’s coastal Tyrona national park and actually got a completely private beach to pass the night in a hammock. It wasn’t really a planned experience, but after deliberately jumping off the bus at the park’s secondary entrance so that I could hike in relative solitude (having heard that other parts of the park could be choc full of people) I spotted a hand scrawled wooden sign pointing to a vague path to “Playa Brava” and promising the fact that hammocks were available. When I double checked in my guidebook and all it said was “a path leads to Playa Brava”, I felt that a little adventure into the unknown could be just the ticket!!

Having arrived in the late afternoon after a surprisingly tough hike through the hilly terrain that leaps up behind the coast, I eventually managed to track down the family that owned the only lodging on the beach!! Space wasn’t a problem as I was the only guest, and the menu didn’t take long to decipher as the only option was
Playa BravaPlaya BravaPlaya Brava

The view of my hut and hammock from the derserted beach
fish – however they did have a ready store of cold beer to wash it down with!!

So it was that I got to spend the night playing dominoes with a family of fishermen and sleeping in a hammock completely alone on a deserted beach in one of Colombia’s national parks. It may not have been the most beautiful beach I’ve ever visited, but it was certainly one of the most memorable!!!

The next day I hiked on to the main area of the park and its main attraction “Cabo San Juan”. Here you can find a series of rocky coves with beautiful palm fronded beaches that, a rarity in this rugged coastline, are completely safe for swimming. It’s a picture postcard site and the image that adorns the front cover of the latest edition of the Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook. This kind of beauty brings in the hordes however, and the campground at the back of the beach resembled a British music festival – just without the mud!!

Another aspect of Tyrona national park, was the fact that it offered a cheap location to do a diving course. So I took advantage and got my open
Cabo San JuanCabo San JuanCabo San Juan

Probably the most famous view in Colombia!
water certification with Octopus dive school (COP 550,000). The jury is still out for me on whether scuba diving is a real passion of mine. To my mind what makes the crucial difference to the experience is the location, rather than the fact that you are scuba diving. I’ve had the privilege of snorkelling in some of the most amazing places in the world like the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands, and at the moment scuba seems like a much more expensive and faff laden way to see only a little bit more than you can see with a snorkel… However my future travels should take me to some of the most spectacular dive sites in Belize and Honduras where I may change my tune!

My travels along the Caribbean coast culminated at its cultural “jewel” – Cartagena (but there will be more on that in the next blog as it was a city I visited twice). However, one of my favourite memories of Cartagena was nothing remotely cultural – it was a trip to the very touristy mud volcano on its outskirts.

Here lukewarm bubbly mud rises (apparently from more than a mile below the
PalominoPalominoPalomino

Low key beach life
surface) and its density means that you have absolutely no chance of sinking no matter how hard you try!! It was a strangely crazy sensation to be “floating” in the mud and it was certainly unique! It was also memorable for the cattle like process that we went through as we first queued to get into the mud and then were man-handled into position to receive the worst massage in the world from a group of Colombian men with seemingly the world’s most calloused hands (or was it just that they decided to reserve their best efforts for the ladies that entered!!) Earlier we had given our cameras to a vouched for local kid, who had the incredible ability to operate seemingly every camera known to man from high tech SLR to basic point and shoot, and then associate this camera with its owner and take the requisite snaps. When done we were bundled down to the nearby “lagoon” – read brackish swamp – to a waiting group of ladies who then scooped bowls of muddy water over our heads in an attempt to wash the mud off!! I had heard rumours of the ladies peeled off your shorts and
Kogi youngsterKogi youngsterKogi youngster

Guillermo also came armed with snacks for the locals, and the kids were happy for us to take photos (not so the adults).
left you in your birthday suit in the lagoon while they cleaned your trunks, but I obviously didn’t look very appealing to my washerwoman as my trunks luckily stayed firmly on – although a friend on the tour said that her bikini top was nonchalantly prised from her and washed as if it was the most natural thing in the world!

Each of these “services” cost a fixed £1 per person, and added to the production line feel to the day, although I have to admit that it kind of enhanced rather than took away from what had been a fun and slightly surreal experience!!

However, my undoubted highlight of this section of the trip was the 5 day hike to “la Ciudad Perdida” (literally the Lost City). It was built by the Tyrona people between the 11th and 14th century, before they were wiped out by the Spanish conquest and the city was reclaimed by the jungle. Only in the 1970s did a family of graverobbers stumble upon the site, leading to quite a lot of violence as rival gangs tried to control the area. Eventually the government sent in troops to clear out the site which has opened the site up for tourists.

The city ranges from 950m to 1,300m in altitude, but sits on the fringes of the world’s highest coastal mountain range with mountains such as Pico Bolivar extending well past 5,000metres. These lands are inhabitated by two indigenous groups, and we were lucky enough that Guillermo, one of the members of our tour, had hired an additional Kogi guide to enhance his cultural experience.

The height at which the Kogi’s live mean that like other high altitude indigenous groups across the Andes they use coca leaves to help them walk many miles and work without pause. However the process is far more ritualised that my experiences in Bolivia and Peru, with men receiving a “poporo” at their coming of age – and this being the signal that they could start to consume the coca. Seashells are gathered, toasted and crushed into a fine powder, before being put in a gourd. The coca leaves are chewed and a small stick is dipped into the gourd to extract the powder, which is the catalyst to accentuate the effects of the coca leaves.The men lick the stick clean and any excess spittle is wiped around the outside of the gourd, where it hardens causing the gourd to grow and apparently symbolising wisdom. And like all men around the world, everyone wants to show they have the biggest! Having this explained to us by a Kogi, was a lovely side benefit to the walk – although its terrible to say that I can’t remember the Kogi guide’s name to give him proper credit!

The walk itself was probably the sweatiest experience of my life! Starting off at low altitude and climbing through the jungle heat and humidity meant that pretty soon I was virtually swimming up the trail! Luckily, I had opted to do the more relaxed 5 day version of the trip rather than the 4 day, so each day there was to opportunity to actually go swimming and cool off in a river, natural pool or waterfall along the route. Not only were these sites incredibly beautiful – they were also brilliantly refreshing replacements for showers! Occasionally however, our dips in the river were enforced as along the trail there were two wide rivers with no bridges that we had to ford – all adding to the adventure but luckily I managed
Mud VolcanoMud VolcanoMud Volcano

The very strange feeling of floating in the mud without a chance of sinking.
to stay upright!

Arrival at the city was via a huge staircase that felt like something out of an Indiana Jones film!! Although the wooden structures of the Tyrona people are long gone, the stone terraces and stairways are in remarkably good condition. Our guide John was excellent, and his stories were hugely interesting and had us all captivated – illustrated by the fact we were the first group to arrive at the site and the last group to leave! Unfortunately, even though I got to repeat a lot of the explanations twice in my role as one of two “translators” for the group, I think I’ve still forgotten most of it!!

The undoubted highpoint of the site was the view from the upper terraces looking out over the remains of the home of the Shaman and his wife. The well preserved nature of the stonework, the incredible jungle setting which would have made the walk worthwhile even if there were no ruins, and the fact that there are relatively few tourists, mean that this was a hugely rewarding experience. It may not be Machu Pichu, but like Colombia as a whole it has its own unique and
So they call them leaf cutter ants...So they call them leaf cutter ants...So they call them leaf cutter ants...

Our constant companions on the way to Ciudad Perdida
special charm!!


Additional photos below
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Nature photgraphyNature photgraphy
Nature photgraphy

I found this slightly strange scene wandering round the botannical gardens in San Gil


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