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Colombia Guest Review: "Blown Away By It All!"

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Cay and John had traveled on five Wildland Adventures to South America and when they saw we opened up new trips to Colombia they called to plan a week-long sojurn to the rugged and beautiful Caribbean side of the country. Hikers and bird enthusiasts, we set them up with expert birding guides and planned a custom trip from the isolated Santa Marta Mountain Range chock full of endemic species, to the lowland Caribbean jungles of Tayrona National Park and historic city of Cartagena. Here is their report...

I am perched in a round bungalow fashioned after Kogi constructions with white-washed adobe walls and a thatched roof. Actually, there aren't many walls. Instead, there is a sweep of glass and right now I am looking out at clouds. Whatever direction they part are views of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Word is, we can see all the way to the Caribbean and Santa Marta, the town we flew into. 

El Dorado Lodge is built in the indigenous Kogi style.

Santa Marta is the second oldest town in South America. It is where Simon Bolivar (the great liberator) died. For those two reasons, the town is beloved by Colombians and foreigners alike. Of course, it helps that it is a beautiful harbor, hugged by a ring of mountains and sporting a beautiful beach. People flock to it to vacation.

The road out of Santa Marta was paved but it was winding and climbed quickly. We got to Minca mid-afternoon and soon thereafter left the pavement to bump and bump up a heavily rutted road to Sweet Harmony, our hotel for the night. We changed into hiking boots and headed back toward Minca, watching birds on the way. Nothing was familiar. The tanager is blue-gray. The warbler is huge. Scarlet tanagers are red as they should be but they have starkly white beaks. The Great Kiskadee is boldly yellow-bellied with a dramatic black eye stripe. The riot of color continued. There is the Crested Oropendola who is related to crows but has bright yellow tail stripes and a white beak. They nest in long pendulous sacs that remind me of knotted string bags I used for shopping for dinner in France. A pair of Orange-chinned Parakeets preened one another high in a tree top. Wowsers. What a treat. We dined early at Crazy Kat and walked home in the dark. 

El Dorado Lodge

Heading further up the road from Minca we were traversing huge potholes, even huger ruts, avoiding small landslides and fording little streams. We stopped to watch birds: an indigenous hummingbird, a crew of Red-lored parrots who walked along branches looking for fruit (not a fruitful enterprise since the branches were absolutely bare), a squirrel cuckoo who was russet with a raccoon striped tail so named because he behaves like a squirrel. The hit parade continued with more hummingbirds and a delightfully multicolored Blue-naped Chlorophonia. After walking and sometimes riding along the road we had 5 more kilometers of purposely unmaintained road to get to our aerie for the next 3 nights: The El Dorado Lodge. We are in the heart of bird watching now in the highlands of the rugged and isolated Santa Marta mountains chock full of exotic and endemic wildlife. I will try to keep track of all we see. Ah. We have seen moths who are as colorful and as dramatic as the birds. A blue morpho who does not have blue pigment but rather appears blue because its wings reflect blue like a prism, and an owl-eyed moth that darts and weaves and indeed looks like a gigantic owl eye

Off the Grid in Santa Marta.

Talk about being off the grid, just after returning to our dinner interrupted by a troop of night monkeys outside, the lights in the dining room went out. The lodge has a generator so we were able to eat in light but had to wend our way back up the mountain to our Kogi hut with torches. We lit a candle, prepared for the next morning and went to bed. 

We rose at 4 am to total darkness, dressed and wended back down to meet Cristian our guide and Eli our driver at 4:30. Off we went with the intent to see the sun rise over the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. I thought the road on Sunday was bumpy. This took the cake. We are bruised and battered by what they seem to find typical rides into the wilds. Thank heavens our backs are currently stable. People with back problems either could not do these outings or would do them in excruciating pain. 

But glory of glories the sun broke through and we were able to gaze on and photograph the mountains with their few dwindling glaciers. Bird watching was rich this morning. The birds were small but vivid, endemic to the area. We enticed a tiny bird to eat crumbs from our hand. The highlight was seeing Scarlet Throated Parakeets building a nest in a skag that seemed in reaching distance.

 After lunch, Cristian gave us a lecture on the violence in Colombia starting in 1948. I don't know why anyone thought of becoming President or being a politician for that matter. They were all assassinated.12 years ago more peaceful politics began with the end of the drug lords' stranglehold, and 2 years ago a peace was struck between the military, the counter military and the guerrillas. It is fragile and corruption still exists, but there is great hope for a secure future.

Cristian also gave us a history of the indigenous peoples, their ancient knowledge, their faith in goodness and good stewardship. Four groups still live the old ways and spread their wisdom. We will get to see their lands and at least one of the groups when we move to Tayrona later this week.

Today we rose to a glorious sunrise out our sweeping 270 degree window. Off to breakfast and a day of birding with our new guide, also named Cristian. This Cristian measures 5 feet tall and is as sweet and informative as can be. He can mimic any of the bird songs from around here. We saw a few new birds on our walk and asked him to turn around when the sightings got fewer and fewer. He spent an hour with us distinguishing the horde of hummingbirds that are flocking to the feeders at the lodge. We then took a loop around the grounds. Birds were still on strike so we got a lesson on the flora. There are ferns galore (tree sized to dainty little ground covers) and bromeliads growing on trees and land, pine and palm. There are flowering bushes like azaleas. Plenty of orchids. It rains almost daily so it is LUSH lush lush. We fell in love with El Dorado Lodge and their staff. They must have fallen in love with us as well. The cook, the desk attendant (Jennifer) the housecleaner and others all came outside to hug and say goodbye. Eli, our driver, took us back to Minca on the camino mucho malo complete with potholes big enough for a cow and ruts deep enough to swim in.

Off to Tayrona

We returned to Minca to find the Museo de Cacao. A fellow our age who reminded me of our hippie friends gave us an explanation of coffee, cacao, marijuana and cocaine; how they are grown, how they are processed, their chemical properties, and how they affect the brain, cognition and mood; I suspect we could buy what we wanted but stuck to cacao for our kids to make cocoa with and us tea. We got to Villa Maria hotel and Eli left us. We were early by 3 hours to check in and thus cooled our heels on the veranda surrounded once again by hummingbirds. Cooled our heals is a misnomer: with temperatures in the high 80s and humidity at 95%, we sweat through the wait. A short snooze and then we walked to the beach.

To Pueblito by Horseback

Our new guide the next day, Jaruen Rodriguez, was there promptly as planned. The torrential rains that had been recurring each night had made our planned trip impossible. The recommendation was to skip the hike from Pueblito to the beach but rather ride horses to and from the ancient archaeological site. Gulp. What unfolded was an experience of a lifetime. John mounted a horse and I a mule owned and operated by Julio. Julio and Jaruen walk alongside our mounts instructing us on what to do. Mostly in the beginning we were simply to hold the reins and sit. At first we were on flat land and the experience was reminiscent of riding beach horses when I was a kid. We soon learned to hold on tight as the road became as rutted and potholed and muddy as the day before. For over a kilometer we went up and up and up. We held on for dear life.

We got to the top of the climb and had some juice freshly squeezed by the proprietor of a little trailside establishment. The house had murals painted on the wall and a curtain made of bottle caps. From there we walked to a Kogi village. Talk about a walk back in time!!!!! These are among the remaining indigenous people of the Santa Marta region. They live in round huts with thatched roofs. They bought back the land having survived in the mountain after the Spaniards burned their lowland communities. Somehow, they also survived the internal wars that plagued Colombia here until 2005. Their feet are bare, they all wear white. Men wear white pants and a simple white shirt. They carry a handmade bag. Women wear white sarong-like tops over a simple white skirt. I think their costume is designed to allow for pregnant bellies and breastfeeding. All the kids wear white sacks. Everyone has long hair. You distinguish the girls from the boys by the beads worn by girls and bags carried by the boys.

Bigger sibs take care of little sibs. We saw 3-year-olds hauling water. Everyone works, tending crops, drying coffee beans, cooking. The women are forever making bags using agave thread and a simple blanket stitch. The kids do not go to public school. There is a boarding school that teaches the culture and language of the 4 remaining indigenous groups in the Sierra Nevada. I saw the part of one toy truck in the hands of a 7-year-old boy. Jaruen and other guides contribute to the community by building more homes. Stunning. Simple. Generous. Loving people.

Pueblito Sacred Ground

These are ancient sacred grounds built around 3rd century ACE, still used for ceremonies today by the Kogi. The area is terraced and mounds are encircled by more rocks, creating platforms for ceremonial houses and homes. There is a sewer system to drain off rainwater. It was inhabited by a few families who rotate the responsibility of keeping the ceremonial grounds functional and free of grave robbers and damage by touristas. Normally, they live in villages in the hills. The area is closed periodically for ceremonies to which all Kogis attend. Governance is performed by a secular political leader who often speaks Spanish in order to deal with Colombian officials. The second parallel level of leadership is performed by Shamans who are selected for training at age 3 when they go into total isolation except for training from the elder Shaman. These Shamans-to-be take on leadership roles commensurate with what they achieve in training. There are women shamans as well as men and they train their own gender. Blown away by it all. It was as spiritual a place as Machu Picchu, but was made 1200 years earlier. We had an experience of a lifetime on the horses!!!

We had a long day in the car driving from Tayrona to Cartagena. We were supposed to lunch at a restaurant in Baronquilla that was frequented by Marquez Garcia and other intelligencia. It was closed because the electricity had been disabled in construction.The proprietor let us in to simply look and dream of what was discussed there. There was a stage with a grand piano, places for other musicians with a backdrop of a mural depicting plants and animals of the wet forest (or dry?) of the region.I blurted out that it seemed like a place Hemmingway would haunt.Indeed, he had.

Cartagena

On to Cartagena and our final stop. The hotel is in the old quarter, built in the colonial period with thick walls, interior courtyards, beautiful foliage and cool dark bedrooms. Cartagena pops with young people, foreign tourists, people of all shades of brown and gringos like us with sunburns. The beaches are plentiful and the sea Caribbean. There are walls that surround the old city that were intended to keep the pirates out. Piracy was rampant when Spain held the territory. They stored the gold, silver and gems in Cartagena before shipping them to Torre de Oro in Seville. Among the pirates was Sir Francis Drake, pirating Spain's spoils in the name of the British crown. We walked the old town for as long as we could tolerate the humidity and heat (both in the 90s). There are squares in front of Catholic Churches and where slaves were sold. Slavery existed until the 1820's but black and brown people seem more integrated today than in the US or other countries in South America.

The next day we toured the Spanish fortification before it got too hot. Rafael was another great guide. He was instructive about how truly clever the Spanish were in the art of defense. Guards were placed in strategic posts on ramparts and in tunnels to protect the fortress. If the person passing did not know the code or if their boots did not sound like Spanish boots they were summarily killed. Walls were built on angles such that cannonballs shot at them would roll off. Ramparts were built so that if lower ones were breached the higher ones were well positioned to defend.

Dumbstruck by Personal Stories

As we moved from ancient civilizations to current ones we learned more about the impact of the internal conflicts on the people, economy and position of Colombia in the world. 2005 was the first breakthrough in an impossible morass of at least 2 parties with their own armies, drug lords with their "protection", assassinations and corruption. One side of the conflict with its own army finally ceded and turned in their weapons. The peace was tenuous then but took a light hold and grew slowly. Drug lords are being tried in the US and the effects of drug trafficking have abated. Further progress was made two years ago with the containment of the FARC guerrillas but the most recent election raises political tensions. Despite that, the citizens of Colombia seem upbeat and cautiously hopeful. The country is rich in resources and could be self-sustaining and profitable. Corruption continues but it doesn't seem so steeped in the drug trade.

Our guides all spoke in some way or another about the impact of the conflict on their lives. Cristian talked about the conflicts originating in 1948. He had left Colombia because of love, hope for an opportunity for his wife and him in Australia when there was no hope for a future in Colombia. My first reaction to Cristian's reporting he had 100 friends die in the conflict was that must be hyperbole. As our knowledge expanded I suspect 100 is an understatement.

Jaruen talked about being raised by his uncles when his grandmother died. We never learned what happened to his parents. He also talked about the chaos caused by the militias. If they ordered the national park be closed for whatever random reason, he motioned that you "zipped your lip and kept your head down", and hoped they don't notice you. The young Afro-Colombian woman who escorted us on a food tour on the final night continued to flesh out the picture. She grew up on a farm in a community not far from Cartagena. Her mother was an artist and her dad a cultural leader. Her dad was outspoken and refused to allow drug traffickers to cross his property. Their lives changed dramatically and permanently when one night her dad had to leave to save his life. Her mother and brother followed. They made it to New Jersey and citizenship in the USA. It was decided that she would remain on the farm with her grandmother so the property could be retained by the family. Another younger brother was born. She did not see her family for 16 years. I was dumbstruck by her story. She said it wasn't so bad as for others who had no idea what happened to their loved ones who simply disappeared. She at least knew her family lived, and she was cared for by a grandmother. Since "the end of the conflict" she has been able to travel to the states and her family has visited her in Colombia.I am struck by my question if stories like that only occur in the tourist industry or if all families were similarly disrupted or destroyed by the chaos and cruelty of the conflict. 

For more information about trips to Colombia give our Colombia director, Grettel Calderon, a call at 800-345-4453 or check out all of our Colombia blogs.

Colombia's Cowboy Region: Los Llanos
Colombia's Big Cities: Medellin & Bogota

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