Archive | Colombia

Four months of South America in photos

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu

The second part of this year-long around-the-world trip (after a three-month stint in the USA), was South America, a continent I had never visited. It had always seemed so far from South Africa, so I felt like a normal-length two-week trip would never cut it. I saved up South America for a time when I had months to see as much as possible.

In four months, I travelled the length (and some of the breadth, minus Brazil) of this amazing continent, learning Spanish and tango in Buenos Aires, trekking the spectacular peaks and glaciers of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia, getting soaked under the spray of Iguazu Falls, hiking the otherworldly landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert, where I stood under huge steaming geysers and floated in salt lagoons, 4x4ing through the desert of Bolivia’s altiplano and seeing the sun rise over the world’s largest salt flat, bird watching and piranha fishing in the Bolivian Amazon, exploring Machu Picchu,  snorkelling with sea lions and communing with marine iguanas in the natural Disneyworld Galapagos Islands, walking through mists in the beautiful cloud forest of Mashpi on mainland Ecuador, trekking for four tough days through the Colombian jungle to reach the ancient ruins of the Lost City and learning to dive on tiny Providencia Island.

It was one adventure after another – a wild, wonderful journey that I will never forget.

These are my favourite places in photos.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina-1Las Torres hike in Torres del Paine National ParkPerito Moreno glacier trekking, El Calafate, PatagoniaMoon Valley, Atacama Desert, ChileLlama and Licancabur VolcanoEl Tatio Geyser field, Atacama Desert, ChileSalar de Uyuni, BoliviaLaguna Blanca, BoliviaLlama, BoliviaMadidi National Park, BoliviaSarah Duff Machu PicchuView from Wayna PicchuSarah Duff Machu PicchuSarah Duff Galapagos Islands-11Sarah Duff Galapagos Islands-1Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorHiking at Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorColombia's Lost City or Ciudad PerdidaProvidencia Island, Colombia




Providencia Island: Colombia’s secret Caribbean paradise

Providencia Island, Colombia

“Welcome to Providencia, where everything come in slow motion”, said our taxi driver, Jerry, as he coasted down the gently winding road along the coast of Colombia’s tiny Caribbean island. Jerry hooted and waved at just about every scooter and car that passed us: “I don’t know everyone on the island, but I will do soon.”

Providencia Island, which is closer to Nicaragua but belongs to Colombia, is a beautiful atoll home to white-sand palm tree-lined beaches, lush jungly hills, around 5000 people who mainly speak a unique form of English Creole, and a handful of small hotels and guesthouses in Caribbean-style wooden buildings the colour of fruit sorbet ice creams. There’s just one 17-kilometre road around the island (the best way to get around the island is by renting a golf cart) and not a single resort. It’s so under the radar that not even that many Colombians know about it.

The island is surrounded by the world’s third largest barrier reef, so the snorkelling and diving is amazing (I did my five-day open water PADI certification with Pichi – the most chilled guy in the world – at Felipe’s Dive Shop, and dived with sharks every day). Apart getting into the warm water to dive or swim, there’s not much else to do on Providencia Island, other than drinking pina coladas out of coconuts, swaying on hammocks, dancing to Bob Marley being played by beachside reggae bars, and watching the sunset each day. It’s honestly one of the most laidback, relaxing, friendly places I’ve ever been to.

My favourite spots were Cafe Studio, a little restaurant near Freshwater Bay that serves the most amazing crab stew with coconut rice, tamarind juices and coconut pie (which I still crave) and Roland’s Reggae Bar at Manzanillo Bay, where you can sit in old wooden boats and drink cold beer, with the ocean four steps away, or swing into the sea on buoys hanging from palm trees. I couldn’t get enough of the crab pizza at the Blue Coral Pizzeria, and the toasted crab sandwiches and homemade lemonade at Miss Elma’s, right on the beach in Freshwater Bay. I loved hiring a golf cart for the day and exploring every little beach on the island.

By end of nine sunshine-filled, wi-fi and stress free, heart-rate slowingly relaxing days on Providencia Island, we felt like we knew half the island (including its packs of stray dogs). People hooted at us from scooters and the back of pick up trucks as we strolled along the road. It didn’t take long to feel part of this tiny island community – it’s easy to see why many of the people who end up here never want to leave.

Providencia Island, Colombia

How to get to Providencia Island

There are only two ways to get to Providencia – by boat or plane from nearby San Andres Island. The boat ride is a seasickness-inducing one, and trips can be cancelled if the sea is rough, so it’s best to fly (flights don’t cost that much more).

Where to stay on Providencia Island

Posada Mr Mac, Providencia Island, Colombia

The most expensive hotel on the island, Deep Blue, has a lovely view but it doesn’t have a beach and it’s on the eastern side of the island, so you’ll miss out on sunsets.

We stayed at Sol Caribe, which was overpriced but had a great location on the beachfront of Freshwater Bay (which, having driven around the island, I think is the best area to stay in, with a great dive shop, restaurants, golf cart rental place and a few hotel options).

We also stayed at Posada Mr Mac – a very basic little guesthouse in Freshwater Bay. The room was cramped and stuffy, but super cheap – and it had a pretty unbeatable setting right on the water, with hammocks stretched across the deck, so you could sway gently watching the sunset.

Freshwater Bay, Providencia Island, Colombia Hiring a golf cart, Providencia Island, Colombia Diving, Providencia Island, Colombia Providencia Island, Colombia Diving, Providencia Island, Colombia Snorkelling, Diving, Providencia Island, Colombia Snorkelling, Diving, Providencia Island, Colombia



A jungle trek to Colombia’s Lost City

Colombia's Lost City or Ciudad Perdida

Sweat ran in thick rivulets down my back, soaking through to my heavy backpack. My face felt as hot as a pizza oven. My thighs burned and my dodgy knees were aching. My breath came out as an unpleasant sounding rasp. I was less than two hours into a four-day trek through the Colombian jungle and I was on the verge of giving up, turning back and heading for the beaches of Caribbean coast, an hour’s drive away, to do nothing but drink cocktails.

What kept me going was the thought of reaching the Lost City – the reason I was on this tough trek. Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu, the Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida in Spanish, is a 1200-year-old city that was abandoned four centuries ago when the Spanish arrived in Colombia, and remained a secret to the outside world until it was discovered by gold hunters in the 1970s. There’s no way of accessing the ruins other than by hiking 23 kilometres through the steep, muddy, mosquito-infested jungle of the Sierra Nevada.

Once I’d conquered that first gruelling hill on the first afternoon of the hike, I’d like to say that it got easier, which it didn’t. The rest of the hike was tough (mentally and physically) – brutally hot, humid and endlessly hilly. There were lots of river crossings and slippery rock clamberings and fitful sleeps in tiny crammed together bunkbeds at the rustic camps along the way, and scorpion sightings and sore legs.

River crossing, Lost City trek, Colombia

Despite all of that, the Lost City hike was spectacularly beautiful, a lot of fun and a pretty adventurous introduction to Colombia. We walked over ridges above misty green valleys and through stretches of dense forest, with parrots and butterflies flitting between trees. To cool down, we dove into the clear water of rivers and jumped off waterfalls, and ate strips of juicy watermelon and slices of oranges as pick-me-ups after sweaty hill climbs.

From our knowledgeable guide, Wilson, we learned about how the area had been full of marijuana plantations of a strain called Santa Marta Gold 25 years ago. When cocaine became popular, the marijuana was replaced with coca plantations. The cocaine was manufactured in laboratories deep in the jungle, and transported in bags on mules to the coast, where it was sent by speedboat to the Caribbean and the US.  A few years ago, as part of the US’ War on Drugs campaign, the coca plantations were destroyed by the Colombian government. According to Wilson, there used to be 900 people living in the area, but after the crackdown, only around 50 remained. The rest moved to the city of Santa Marta to look for work, but with the decrease in cocaine smuggling, the whole city’s economy was depressed. Wilson’s insight certainly gave me a new perspective on Colombia’s drug trade and how many peoples’ lives it affects.

Scenery on Lost City hike, Colombia

The cocaine trade is an association many people make with Colombia, and the second is with guerrillas and kidnappings. In 2003, a group of tourists were kidnapped from the ruins and held hostage for three months by Marxist rebels. After that, visits to the city were suspended for a few years, but since the route was re-opened in 2005, there haven’t been any incidents. For the protection of the area there are now two army camps – one on the hiking route and one at the city –  filled with gun-wielding, cigarette smoking recruits who all look about 16, and love posing for photos.

Army camp, Lost City hike, Colombia

I had begun to really enjoy the hike by the time we reached the Lost City on the morning of the third day, after the thorough workout of a climb up 1200 narrow steps, and the trek had become as much about the beauty of the scenery, the meditative experience of walking for hours every day, and learning about Colombia as it was about actually reaching our destination.

The ruins themselves are undeniably atmospheric, although not nearly as dramatic as Machu Picchu (though, on the plus side, there were about 30 people in total at the ruins at the same time as us, as opposed to the thousands at Machu Picchu). Surrounded by mountains streaked with cascading waterfalls and flanked on all sides by trees, the series of stone and grass terraces rises out of the jungle like something from an Indiana Jones movie. We had arrived early in the morning, before the sun had risen behind the peaks, and stood on a hill, watching in silence as the light went from blue to golden over the lilypad terraces.

While gold hunters introduced the Lost City (which was originally called Teyuna) to the world in the 1970s, indigenous local tribes had actually known about the ruins all along – the site is sacred to them, and they wanted to keep it hidden from outsiders. Much of the city’s history remains unknown (including the meaning of a boulder etched with carvings which may be an undecipherable map to the area’s concealed gold mines), and sadly, many of its treasures were looted by gold hunters to be sold on the black market. It’s believed to have housed between 2000 and 8000 people, and may have been a political centre. The site is spread across 86 acres, and is one of the largest pre-Columbian settlements discovered in the Americas. Most the city, however, is still covered in jungle, and there are no plans to clear it.

Mysterious boulder that could be a map at Colombia's Lost City

Teyuna is certainly not lost any more, especially as tourist numbers increase every year, but the air of mystery that hangs over the site, its isolation and spectacular jungle setting, and the fact that you have to sweat and toil for three days to get there (and then return on the same hilly slopes) means it still feels gloriously adventurous.

How to do Colombia’s Lost City hike

There are a number of different tour operators offering four, five and six-day hikes to the Lost City, starting in Santa Marta, a two-hour drive away from the start of the hike.
We chose Expotur (based on the good reviews), and paid $380 for the four-day trek, which included a guide, accommodation in bunk beds in camps on the route, three meals a day (the food was tasty, plentiful and healthy – fish, salad, rice for dinner, eggs and arepas for breakfast) and fresh fruit as snacks.
You need to carry everything you need for the hike (other than food) in a backpack so try and bring as little as possible. Keep in mind that with the humidity and frequent rain, nothing dries properly, so keep the clothes you want to keep dry for sleeping in a plastic bag. Bring a travel towel for showering – there are cold showers at the camps – a first aid kit and some energy bars to keep you going when you hit some low spots.
There are a lot of mosquitoes on the hike. If you wear shorts, you will be bitten. I used my eco-friendly baby-safe citronella insect repellent cream on my legs, which did absolutely nothing to protect my skin. I was feasted on every day, and by the end of the four days, my legs were covered in dozens of bites. (My boyfriend sprayed himself liberally with DEET multiple times a day and only had a few bites.) Two weeks later, when I was in Costa Rica, I came down with either dengue fever or chikungunya (the blood test was inconclusive). Both are horrible mosquito-borne illnesses where you have high fevers, severe joint pains and headaches. I felt terrible for nine days, and learned my lesson about the kind of insect repellent I should be using.
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