My final Colombia excursion was out to the Guajira Peninsula, the finger of land curving over the eastern corner of Venezuela and pointing towards the Dutch ‘ABC Islands,’ Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. I travelled to this remote corner of Colombia with Germán Escobar (Casa Platypus in Bogotá) and an Irish trio, Patrick Fleming (the Aluna Hotel in Santa Marta), his brother Jim and Jim’s wife Berry.
▲ A dawn departure from Santa Marta, breakfast in Riohacha, switch from a minibus to a 4WD (the roads soon get bad and then very bad) and we spend the night at Cabo de la Vela. It’s a dusty one street town which has become popular as a remote beach retreat, we inspect the pretty bay at Playa del Pilón and retire to El Faro – the lighthouse – for sunset, but I’m somewhat less than impressed.
◄ The new day we’re really out in the wilds and then, in the middle of nowhere, we pull up at the delightful Restaurante Marlene and its abastos, a small shop. This corner of Colombia may be remote, but there’s excellent phone coverage, we’ve phoned ahead to order some very tasty prawns for lunch.
▲ The amazingly well stocked shop was like something out of another century.
▲ We continue beyond Punta Gallinas to check the amazing sand dunes sweeping down to the sea at Playa Taroa and then loop back to Punta Gallinas with its beautiful beach and cactus studded headlands.
The next day we continue to the actual ‘point’ of Punta Gallinas, the most northerly point in South America. From where it’s a long, rough drive to Nazareth, the entry point to the Macuira National Park at the end of the peninsula. It’s a reasonable sized little settlement – there’s a church, a hospital, even a library and a heavily fortified compound which we’re assured is the home of some local narco-profiteer – ‘three Hummers and a subterranean bunker’ we were told. Despite which I don’t think I’ve ever travelled down such lousy roads to reach a place of that size!
▲ And did we ever drink a lot of Polar Beer, this close to Venezuela that’s where the beer comes from and at rock bottom prices.
A return trip to Colombia was the final journey for my forthcoming book Dark Lands and while I was in the country I made the trek up to Ciudad Perdida, the ‘Lost City.’ The ancient Tayrona capital was principally built between the 11th and 14th centuries and then, its population wiped out by European diseases, it disappeared until its rediscovery by guaqueros – tomb raiders! – in the early 1970s.
It’s now firmly on the tourist map, but getting there requires a couple of days walking into the dense mountain jungle. Which keeps the visitor numbers down! Trek organisers in Santa Marta and Taganga on the Caribbean coast organise four or five day treks at a cost of around US$350 per person. I’ve recently joined the board of GHF – Global Heritage Fund – and I made the trek with Dr Santiago Giraldo (director of GHF’s operations in Colombia) and Vincent Michael (GHF’s Executive Director in the USA). Click here to read Vincent Michael's report on Ciudad Perdida. Last year I visited another GHF project, the wonderful Angkor-style Cambodian temple at Banteay Chhmar.
The first day’s walk takes you through farmed land before you plunge into the jungle, but when you reach the lost city there’s no sign of modern habitation at all, it’s just jungle in every direction for as far as you can see. It’s this ‘hidden in the jungle’ feeling that makes Ciudad Perdida such an experience. It’s also big, the cleared parts of the city cover three times the area of Machu Picchu and there’s a great deal more still shrouded by jungle.
▲ The trail to the lost city can be very muddy (and this was the dry season), goes unrelentingly up and down and crosses numerous rivers and streams. It’s also amazingly humid, the temperatures were never that high, but you seemed to be dripping with sweat all the time. It was a pleasure to get into camp each night and put on some dry clothes.
▲ There are a series of refuges with bunks or hammocks along the trail where trekkers stay the night. I was pleasantly surprised how the temperature and humidity seemed to drop to comfortable levels every night and by how well we were fed. This is the last refuge before the Lost City.
▲ The trail follows the Buritaca River all the way and it’s dotted with wonderful swimming holes. It’s a real pleasure to arrive in camp, hot and sweaty, and to have an idyllic pool and waterfall waiting for you. Or along the trail if you just need a cool break. This one is right beside the Tezhúmake Refuge, where we stopped on our second night.
▲ GHF’s mission is to protect the archaeology, but also to engage the local community and it’s the walkers on the Ciudad Perdida trail with their local guides and using the locally run refuges which brings much needed cash into those communities. GHF’s work included a recently completed suspension bridge across a difficult stretch of the Buritaca River.
▲ There’s a final crossing of the Buritaca River just below the Lost City.
◄ And then you’re faced with more than 1200 steps as you climb nearly 300 vertical metres up to the city entrance.
Where you’re still not finished with steps – in the middle of Ciudad Perdida there’s another 300 steps up the monumental stairway which leads to the core area of the city. The effort is worth it, this is one of the most spectacular pre-Columbian sites in the Americas. ▼