A Travellerspoint blog

A Gringo’s guide to Colombia

How not to look and act like a stupid foreigner

For those of you that are thinking about traveling to Colombia/Latin America and aren’t keen on being seen as the typical-drunken-dirty gringo, I have composed a list of suggestions and some advice to help you blend in with the locals, or at least be seen as trying to destroy the stereotype.

What to wear:
Guys:

1. Forgot about feeling cool and put on those pair of jeans- the thicker material, the better.
2. If you can’t bear the thought of jeans in 30 deg. plus humidity temperatures, wear shorts but sneakers not flip flops. Flip flops are only for when you are going to the beach.
3. Socks and shoes for any occasion.
4. Wear shoes, por favor! Barefeet are only for home or walking on the beach!
5. Even if you just going out to buy milk: wear a nice, clean, ironed shirt.
6. T-shirts are ok, as long as they have been washed and don’t look like they have been on a long journey, crumpled up in a backpack.
7. Holes in clothes are not a sign of “character”.
8. Please shower and brush your hair every day.
9. Shave. If you love the freedom of not having to shave, it’s ok, but all in moderation. The “Jesus” look is reserved only for Jesus; have some respect.
10. Going out: Wear a pair of trousers- and not trousers with a million pockets and zips and a removable bottom section that accompanied you in Patagonia. And even though you feel so comfortable in them and swear they are clean and ironed- they are not acceptable. The right trousers only have pockets in the normal place and aren’t water/wind/fire proof. Don some semi-smart shoes (grip and ankle support not needed, same goes for Velcro-strappy shoes), a nice shirt and you are good to go!
11. Leave the backpack at home, as well as the money belt.

Girls:

1. Whatever clothing size you are back home, forgot that number and buy jeans/shorts/skirts 3 sizes smaller. Can’t close the zip? No problem- suck it in and allow for the overflow. This is ok!
2. Clothing that you would wear in India is not suitable here.
3. Don’t wear t-shirts/tops that might associate you with any form of conservative moment. The more flesh, the better. Big boobs? No problem- flaunt them!
4. Of course you can wear long-sleeved tops- but make sure they are tight, and made from a synthetic material. Wear with your tight pair of jeans.
5. Barely-there-shorts and skirts are in demand and are the desired look.
6. Take your plain sandals and stick on some made-in-china sparkly stones/plastic flowers.
7. When going out at night- the tighter, the shorter, the better. Sparkly, shiny and glitzy are the things to throw on. (A tight black dress together with the shoes from no. 5= perfecto).
8. Decorate your fingernails with as much artistic flair as you can stomach: tiny diamante’s, flowers, multi-coloured stripes, tips in a different colour.
9. Wash and brush your hair every day.
10. Don’t pile all your hair on the top of your head and make it into a messy bun. Leave it long or in a neat ponytail.
11. Make up is great for all occasions.
12. A bikini top is only for the beach; don’t think you can get away with wearing a low-cut top that droops down below your armpits together with a bikini top.
13. Sandals that scream “I am so comfortable; you can run, trek and cross rivers in me” are not cool. Rather, opt for a pair of sleek sandals- the less straps the better. Stay away from Velcro!

In general:

1. Learn Spanish! Or at least know a few phrases, numbers etc.
2. Know the difference between salsa, merengue, vallenato and reggaeton music.
3. Play this music as loud as you possibly can.
4. When playing this music, grab a plastic chair, find some shade and just sit and watch the world go by. Don’t talk, don’t think. A beer(s) will help.
5. If you are hungry, forget about a raw carrot or an apple. Hit the streets and feast on fried goods- empanadas, arepa’s con huevos, or even some pig’s feet.
6. Feel like some coffee? Look no further than the men/women in the street shouting “tinto tinto”. The small shot of sugar with a touch of coffee with satisfy your craving. You can accompany your “coffee” with some white, sweet bread, great for the heart!
7. Once you have finished your coffee, don’t bother carrying the plastic cup anymore than needed: just throw it wherever you are- it’s somebody else’s problem now.
8. Fruit juice is not fruit juice without tablespoons and tablespoons of sugar.
9. For lunch on the hottest day eat a full, heavy meal consisting of rice, patacons (fried plantains), meat, beans and salad (a few lettuce leaves will suffice). Then have a siesta.
10. If you meet a vegetarian for lunch tell them “don’t worry this place has chicken”.
11. When going for a swim, don’t wear your bikini- just go straight in with whatever you arrived in; be it jeans, shorts or a long-sleeved shirt. Swim, and then go home soaking wet. Or even better: sit just where the waves break and get sand everywhere.
12. Guys: do not be afraid to say out loud what you think when you see a hot chick. Whistle, cat call, hoot,or say “hola mamacita”. Don’t be a douche and pretend like you haven’t noticed her walk by: stare as long as you like!
13. Girls: when a guy whistles or hoots as he passes- look at him, acknowledge him.
14. Guys: if you have a girlfriend, don’t feel guilty to have another girl or two on the side.
15. Girls: you are not allowed to cheat on your boyfriend. Remember to be possessive of him; whine, bitch about anything you feel like. He is going to cheat anyways- all part of “the culture” as one guy told me…
16. If you need to call someone, let it ring a few times then hang up. This will force the person to have to call you back.
17. Be 30 minutes late to meet someone, or just don’t pitch up. And don’t even think about calling them to tell them you will be late/aren’t coming.
18. Out of sight, out of mind is the attitude to have with people.
19. Don’t be bothered to do anything you don’t really want to do.
20. When someone asks you for directions and you have no idea where the place is, just act like you do and make something up.
21. Walk in the shade; use an umbrella to protect yourself from the sun.
22. Forget that you have peripheral vision, and don’t apologize when you bump into someone.
23. Give a disgusted look when you see a gringo barefoot, wearing dirty shorts, a crumpled t-shirt with the words “I survived the most dangerous road in the world”.
24. If you have a car, idling is the cool thing to do. Even if you know you are going to be waiting for some time.
25. Give money to beggars.
26. In your car turn the aircon to North Pole temperatures.
27. If you need to walk for more than 15 minutes take a bus/taxi/motorbike-taxi.
28. Know where South Africa is, and that it is actually a country. Not a name to cover the whole of the Southern African region. Don’t say things like “South Africa, cool? Which country?” Seriously?!?
29. Don’t sweat: dead-gringo give away.
30. If you have dreadlocks- none of the above will help and you are basically f#$*d.

Buena suerte y disfruta tu experiencia! :-)

Posted by piratejax 09:00 Archived in Colombia Comments (2)

Colombia through my eyes

Me encanta este lugar...

I only really know Santa Marta, so I can only comment about this city. It is very different in other parts of Colombia.

- The convenience to buy fresh fruit and vegetables right outside my door from travelling vendors.
- “Tiendas” on every corner, selling products sometimes cheaper than the big supermarkets. And they stay open late (around 9pm, or later)
- People are so industrious- they will try and make a living selling whatever they can: from fresh juices, to paintings, to plastic made-in-china toys. (There aren’t that many beggars and everyone works hard to get by.)
- They are proudly Colombian!
- They loooove dancing and music is played everywhere.
- Excellent musicians, artisans-- they are all born with a creative soul.
- Only in Colombia would I get “ass-bumped” out the way by a guy dancing. Colombians are all born with a rhythm that I can’t imitate, no matter how hard I try or use the fact that I’m African!
- They are loud and have no shame about it.
- They care about their appearance, and even the poorest of the poor will wear a clean shirt. (This is one of the reasons why they hate gringos- we (not me!) walk around in dirty shorts and washed-once-in-2-weeks-t-shirts (I only leave it for 1 week ;-)). To Colombians, gringos are all dirty-hippies and they don’t like “us” very much. I try very hard to be excluded from being labeled as a “gringa”, so I do take care in my appearance. For eg. I have started combing my hair every second day now ;-p
- They live for the moment.
- Relatively, they are good drivers. Absolutely insane risk-takers, but they have really good reflexes! It counts for something, right? Taking a mototaxi (motorbike-taxi), is a cheap and effective way to get an adrenaline rush! And to find belief in a god you can pray to!
- Time is not really an issue. The job will get done, eventually, maybe after lunch…no, after a siesta… ok manana!
- Safe public transport, cheap taxis
- There’s always time for a chat.
- The bus will stop wherever you want it to stop.
- They swim with all their clothes on, then go home wet, carrying their shoes.
- I don’t fear for my life as I do in Joburg: no fear of being hijacked at every traffic light.
- They all seem to have an understanding about life; that this is it, so make the best of your time: live, laugh, dance and just have fun. Stop worrying so much!
- Women: are proud of their bodies and aren’t embarrassed by what they look like. Whatever they have, they excessively flaunt it. There’s no place for a stick-thin-I’m-on-a-diet kind of woman. They have the attitude “this is me- either you like it or not. I don’t care”.
- Men: “appreciate” what women wear/look like and have no shame in letting us know by either whistling, hissing or hooting. In the beginning I hated this, but now I kinda like it!. I am sure some of you think that it’s cheap and makes women feel like objects when guys hoot and cat call, but if you take it as it is and just enjoy the compliment- there is no harm.
- Status/class exists. It is very uncommon for people from different classes to mix on a social level. People marry within their class/wealth bracket.
- People from the interior cities think they are better than the coastal ones. And the coastal people hate the interior. (Like the “love” that occurs when Vaalies trek down to Durban over the holidays, or how much Cape Townians “just love” us people from Joburg and vice versa! ;-P Hahaha, inside joke, only for South Africans ;-) ).
- They way they eat mangos: squish and squash it, then bite a small hole on one end and suck out the juice. When you can’t get anymore out, peel it open and devour the rest!
- They have profound respect and love for the native Indians living in La Sierra Nevada.
- Life is just cool and tranquilo when you are around Colombians. They are excellent company and can be optimistic even in the direst of situations.

So, I suggest that Colombia is next on your list of places to visit.... :-)

Posted by piratejax 08:19 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

Un nuevo comienzo

From cheap and nasty to sparkling and white

Lonely Planet describes Hotel Miramar as “cheap and nasty… grimy hippies eating greasy burgers for breakfast at 3pm…” Well, I never saw any burgers, but the place does attract a particular kind of traveler. But these days are now over as I now have a new home! I was helping out in a friend’s restaurant last Friday night and I got talking to Andrew, who has turned out to be my saviour! He is British/Dutch and has been living in Santa Marta for 3 years now and is married to a Colombian. He speaks fluent Spanish and works at a local university as a documentary filmmaking lecturer. I mentioned I was looking for a place to live and he was looking for someone to live in their spare room… Voila! :-)

I was actually living in the worst street in Santa Mart; infamous for prostitutes and drug deals (no need to worry, I never become that desperate for money ;-P), and where I’m living now is far away from “calle 10” in a very safe area (actually near the military base). I have my own, spacious room and I’m 30 seconds from the beach. I have never appreciated a cupboard before now, and I’ve enjoyed cooking and just living well. I’ve been going for jogs up and down the beach in the early morning and evenings and I can’t wait to bake a cake!

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It’s true that when your environment is “cheap and nasty”- these become your thoughts and this effects your everyday disposition. Last week I was feeling pretty low, but today I can feel the difference in my attitude to my jobless situation. I’m in a better frame of mind- so I can see things more clearly. And with this, I’ll be able to see opportunities that have been in front of me the whole time.

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Yesterday I got somewhere in my job search. Firstly, Andrew introduced me to a lady who works in the language department and she is going to personally recommend me to her boss! And secondly a friend, Karlina, talked to the director of the International Business to see if they need a Business English lecturer. Getting a work visa seems like it’s going to be a b^%*h…
The world is so small and funnily enough Karlina also did an internship in Ostrava a year after me and we know the same people! I was put in touch with her through a mutual friend. It’s been really nice hanging out with her, reminiscing about the good old Ostrava days… :-)

The majority of you have a preconception of Colombia as being dangerous, backwards and poor. And most of you I doubt would ever think to come here, let alone choose to live here! Well that’s why I am here to change your mind :-)
Of course it is poor and in some places backwards and dangerous, but for the most part, in the bigger cities, it’s developed and modern (with good technology infrastructure). And for a comparison: I feel safer here than in my own home in Joburg. Colombia has just come out from some seriously bloody years, but right now is Colombia’s time to shine! If I had the finances, I would most definitely invest in Colombia, especially in Santa Marta. There are so many business opportunities popping up as Santa Marta gets cleaned up: from the restaurant industry to hotels to property development. I am currently looking for rich business partners… any takers?? ;-P

Colombia has been compared to South Africa in many ways (from development to technology) and maybe that’s why I feel at home here. Everyone here is trying so hard to make a good, decent and honest life. The tourism industry is just booming now and the whole country knows that they have to be on their best behaviour in order to attain repeat tourism (but of course it’s not all honky dory all of the time, as in any country). I have only ever been ripped off once, every other time I pay the locals price. The people here are so keen on changing what the outside world perceives Colombia as, and I will help them in their mission! So, please, I want you all to stop thinking that Colombia is this terrible-kidnapping-murderous infested country. But rather a country that has so much to offer from beautiful natural sights, to exciting modern cities. But the best thing about Colombia and the reason why I want to stay here: the people are just amazing! So generous, helpful and always keen for a chat (ok, most times its old men who want to talk to me, even propose to me! Either way, I get to practice my Spanish). Colombians know how to enjoy and take full advantage of their free time and we can all learn from them and just take a break…or two :-)

Hasta luego

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Posted by piratejax 10:38 Archived in Colombia Comments (3)

What the hell am I doing here?

Unanswerable questions and other tales

I realized today that I hadn’t written a blog about what I am doing right now. Maybe some of you are wondering what the hell I am actually doing in Colombia- I have asked myself this many times, and I still haven’t come up with a legitimate answer. So to avoid a philosophical discussion, I will update you with what’s been happening lately.

I am living in a hostel in Santa Marta, a city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I paid upfront for one month, so it worked out to be $4 a night! $4 a night, you may ask, provides what kind of accommodation? Well, it is not The Hilton or anything remotely similar, and the only stars it has are from pin-up posters of pop stars from days gone past. I have my own room- double bed, side table, a desk (but no chair), a mirror and a small shelf. I have a window overlooking a wall (of the kitchen). Whenever someone showers a generator comes on and a high-pitched hum flows into my sanctuary. The fan could probably take off if allowed to, and I am sure it’s derived from a small airplane. There is free wifi- and if I want to use it in my room I need sit on the edge of my bed, if I sit any further up on the bed- no connection. My cupboard is a box, along with the other half of my bed. I brought way too much. There is a kitchen where I can boil stuff (that’s as far as my culinary skills have gone) and I keep my food in the drinks fridge. I hand wash all my clothes. So I have a competition with myself to see how long I can hygienically (and publicly acceptable) go before an item of clothing needs to be washed (well, more like dunked in some soapy water for a minute). My shorts are winning so far- 3 weeks and counting (they are on their way of getting that “well-worn” look that people pay money for). My turbo-blasting fan is real handy in situations like these: it just blows the stink away ;-). But hand washing has given me some muscles I never knew I had…
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Living in a hostel is also cool because I always have people around me and sometimes talk to. And this hostel seems to attract the weird and wonderful: from Argentineans working in cafes; an old Norwegian guy who had apparently spent some time in jail; a crazy American dude who plays loud music and then raps along with them. He wants to write a “bestselling” book called “Why I love and hate the Jews”. He told me he was apparently robbed several times by the Israelis in the hostel he was staying at in Taganga (the fishing village 15 minutes from Santa Marta). There is a small Israeli mafia operating in Taganga, and it involves a lot of drugs, so I am not surprised… He has been electrocuted 12 times as well. He adds a bit a strange fanaticism to the place…

I met a really interesting Dutch guy last week. Ben is from a small town in the north of Netherlands and has been hitchhiking around the world. He has gone from Europe to China, as well as Europe to Kenya. The stories of kindness, hospitality and safety in countries where the media has made us afraid of going to is overwhelming- especially in the Middle East!! 3 months ago he sailed from the Canary Islands to Trinidad with a Dutch guy he found on the Canary Islands. He then took a short flight to Venezuela and continued on his hitchhiking journey, which brought him to Santa Marta. We have had several conversations in Afrikaans/Dutch- and the more languages I speak, the easier it is to speak them!

Last week 2 people came into the hostel; 2 people I had been waiting for to come alone: SOUTH AFRICANS!!!!!!! Leana and Ernest are two very inspirational people who have been riding their bicycles around the world! I cannot tell you how amazing it is to be in a foreign country and be able to talk with people from home! They had many, many stories and I had a lovely time hanging out with them.

I had a job (as a waitress), which lasted for a week. Diego (the owner of the restaurant) decided to find someone more permanent, so I was booted. So now I am unemployed- but working so hard to find a job. I have given my CV to several language institutions and schools, but right now is not a good time to be looking for a job. So I will stay here for a couple of more weeks, and then I will have to go Bogota. But to keep myself busy I have been doing language exchange with 2 friends of Diego. So I am practicing my Spanish every day and I can already feel I have made progress. People on the Caribbean talk as if they are on speed, so understanding the locals takes some intense concentration, but I am able to catch a word here and there. When I was working in Marisol (the restaurant), I was able to make jokes with Alexis (the chef), which I have never been able to do in a foreign language, so this I am proud of :-).

As a city, Santa Marta is great! I live 100m from the sea (although I wouldn’t swim in the water- too close to the harbor) and I can walk pretty much everywhere. The historic centre has a European feel- small streets, wooden balconies and a huge cathedral. It is hot! And these days quite humid; so often I actually wet the seats of chairs I sit in. I buy my fruit and vegetables (I add the “s”, but it’s basically just carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers) from the market that is a 10 minute walk from “home” (?). I am currently surviving on potatoes, brown bread, peanut butter, oats, eggs and crackers. I am too lethargic to cook anything beyond boiled eggs or potatoes. Every now and again I’ll have “the menu of the day” which consists of soup and then a huge plate of salad (the lettuce has seen better days), rice, platacons (fried plantain- a variety of banana) and either chicken, meat or fish. It’s really cheap- as low as $3 for everything! But you will pay for the new clothes you will need to purchase, unless you have elasticized trousers.
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Some people have told me “you are living the life”, “I am so jealous” etc etc. But as “cool” as my life seems, I have had some really kak days. Days when all I want to do is go home. When the only people I want to see is my family and friends. I was on the beach last weekend, with some friends I had met, and feelings of homesickness cropped up. It’s strange how, even at times when “what more can you want?” (I am on a beach, in Colombia with great people) is happening, one can still want something else. And that something else is what you already have… reference to The Alchemist… But a wise friend told me today that I need to take all my experiences and lessons and put them into a bag of wisdom, and never regret anything. I will know more about myself and the world than most people ever get the chance to see in their lives. And it’s thoughts like these that help me to understand that where I am right now, is where I am meant to be :-)

Posted by piratejax 12:01 Archived in Colombia Comments (4)

The Lost City (Ciudad Perdida)

Journey to the heart of the world

There is an immense amount of information about La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and all that has happened in this area. It was difficult for me to sift through the information overload; so what I present to you is a summarized, just-skimming-the-surface kind of entry. Forgive me if topics jump around or if it seems a bit scattered. It took my hours to sort everything out. I hope you enjoy it :-).

In 1976 a boy and his father discovered a lost city, hidden away for hundreds of years and tucked deep in the jungle of La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. They found gold and soon after many people came digging. The Colombian government stepped in and turned the area into a protected area. But then the rebel group, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) took control of the area and, and no one could enter or else they would be kidnapped/killed. The FARC according to Wikipedia is: a Marxist–Leninist revolutionary guerrilla organization based in Colombia, involved in the ongoing Colombian armed conflict. It is a peasant army with a proclaimed agrarian, anti-imperialist platform of Bolivarian inspiration. It claims to represent the rural poor in a struggle against Colombia's wealthier classes, and opposes United States influence in Colombia (e.g. Plan Colombia), neo-imperialism, monopolization of natural resources by multinational corporations paramilitary and government violence. It is funded principally through ransom kidnappings, gold mining and the production and distribution of illegal drugs.

In 2003 a group of tourists were trekking to the Lost City when they were attacked by the FARC. They only took the tourists from reputable countries (Germany, USA, Spain, UK) and left the Colombians and Belgians. The hostages were released about 102 days later. But this incident placed an even further stigma on Colombia and its tourism. Today is it totally and completely safe to trek in La Sierra Nevada. The FARC have been pushed further south in Colombia and the Colombian army has a base just above the Lost City. The paramilitary do operate in this area as well, but they aren’t a risk to tourists- so far, so good! ;-) (The paramilitary started out as an organization to fight against leftist political activists and guerilla groups. Later they were formed to protect rich politicians and businessmen. It has kind of gotten out of control…).

The Lost City was built around 800 AD (650 earlier than Machu Picchu) by the Tairona people. The Lost City, which was 11,700 square meters in size, was home to around 2400 people. All that remains are grassy terraces, neatly tiled roads and several circular plazas. The Tairona’s lived in La Sierra Nevada from at least 1st century AD. When the Spanish arrived in the 1600’s, some Tairona tribes stayed where they were and as a result got involved with the Spanish’s colonization. But a small population of Tairona’s fled to even higher altitudes, completely abandoning their homes. The Kogi’s, who still exist, are believed to be direct descendents of the tribe that moved to deeper and higher areas when the Spanish arrived.

I find the Kogi tribe very interesting and I will share a few things I found during my research. There are four indigenous tribes living La Sierra Nevada- the Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo. They believe that La Sierra Nevada is the heart of the world: whatever happens here happens everywhere. Maintaining and sustaining the balance of the ecological and spiritual world is their sacred task. Through daily rituals, meditations and mental discipline they try to preserve their mission, despite the modern intrusion of logging, mining and drug cultivation.

They call themselves the Elder brothers (the guardians of the planet) and rest of us, the Younger brothers. They believe in “The Great Mother”, who provides guidance and is the force behind everything. When She created the world, she spun a spindle and 4 threads unreeled to form the four Tairona people and La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. They live by the “Law of Origin”, which is an ecological philosophy that governs their relationship to animals, nature, water, weather and astronomy. Their values and spiritual practices are based on “aluna”, which is the belief that reality is created by thought and that everything (objects, people) have both a physical reality and spiritual core- all deriving from thought. The mamas (the highest priests) communicate through meditation and rituals with the aluna world, and try to uphold the equilibrium of the mountain. (ref: http://www.sacredland.org/sierra-nevada-de-santa-marta/)

They have survived because they have kept to themselves, but in 1990 they sent a message to the world, the Younger brothers. They could see that something was wrong with their mountain (there was less snow and the rivers’ volume had decreased).
"Up to now we have ignored the Younger Brother. We have not deigned even to give him a slap. But now we can no longer look after the world alone. The Younger Brother is doing too much damage. He must see, and understand, and assume responsibility. Now we will have to work together. Otherwise, the world will die." - Kogi Mama

There is an interesting documentary on youtube called “From the heart of the world, the elder brother's warning” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq0kWs1q3hI
I actually watched it 2 years ago, and life is wonderful and now I am here and I have been to the Lost City…

Ok, so the history lesson is now over.

I was having major doubts about doing the “The Lost City” trek. First on my list was the price of the trek- $300, secondly was the actual trek- 6 days in a wet and humid jungle doing extreme exercise didn’t really sound like fun to me and third related to my dislike for organized tours. I asked Jorge what I should do, and all he said was “relax Jax, you’ll be fine”. And fine I was!

Booking the trek was really simple, since there are many agencies providing this service. There is actually only one company (Turcol) who has the authority to bring people up to the Lost City, so all the smaller agencies get commission.
Of the $300, a percentage goes to the Kogi tribe since we are walking on their land, and another percentage goes to the paramilitary (which is kinda saying “here’s some money, please don’t hurt us). All meals, transport and any extras is included in the price. It is quite expensive, but the trek is providing jobs for the locals who used to work in the cocaine factories. Hmm, I think I need to provide some background information about La Sierra Nevada and cocaine…

Ok, very briefly: Coca leaves grow naturally in La Sierra Nevada and in the 90’s FARC got involved with cocaine production. The cocaine factories provided jobs and income for the people in the area. A few years ago the Colombian army, together with the USA, carried out a secret operation to fumigate all coca plantations. They flew planes over the fields releasing chemicals to destroy any plant life. Yes, it wiped out the coca plants, but it also killed any future possibility of growing anything! So these people were left with no jobs, no money and no food. Hence the fact of why tourism is such an essential part of income here. And why I don’t mind paying $300 for 6 days. (You can do it in 4 or 5 days, but the price the same).

Let me introduce the lovely group of people that I had the pleasure of walking with. There is the friendly and jolly Cam from Canada, who had so much camera equipment I’m surprised he didn’t fall off the mountain. Also from North America is the blunt, loud “where’s my coffee?” Paula from New York City. She is a writer for Playboy and was on the trek for a story she was writing about the cocaine factories in this area. From Belgium we had an adventurous couple, Veerle and Thijs. They had been traveling in South America for 6 months and had some great and interesting stories to tell. Then there’s Andries, who is living and breathing a real German life (no offence). From complaining about how the long the breaks were; to rushing ahead so he could get the best bed. On the first night, I kid you not, he went around “feeling” all the hammocks to find the “best” one. Seriously dude!? He even told Thijs that he was not an experienced hiker, since he didn’t pace himself properly! Thijs has actually hiked and climbed numerous mountains in South America, so I think he knows what he’s doing.
Also joining us were Patricio and Francisca, a recently married couple from Chile, who were on their honeymoon. Finally we have chain-smoking-alcoholic-Dave and his wife Fran, an elderly couple from England. Having Dave around felt like I was on the set of a British comedy-the way he spoke and what he said had us all in stitches anytime he opened his mouth. “Bloody hell, do I really have to fokkin’ walk up ther’ ?”… So delightful I tell you! :-)

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After leaving Santa Marta we arrive 3 hours later at the start of the trek. The road to the start includes some serious 4X4-ing, but the skilled driver knows every bump, hole and ditch. Before we set off we have a rather nice lunch of cheese and salad sandwiches and coke. The first day is absolute hell! Up, up and when you can’t up anymore, we go down! Dammit!! Then up once more, just for fun. We have some fruit stops along the way and enjoy the beautiful scenery around us.
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The great thing about the trek is that there is no rush and people that speed walk up it are completely missing the point. There is enough time to stop, take a rest, take a photo or just take in the fresh mountain air. I am a slow hiker, so it was great to have people to walk and chat with.

The first camp sat on a hill overlooking green hills of jungle and some coffee farms. We choose a hammock (Andries obviously had the best one) and then just chillaxed until suppertime. When I booked my trip the guy in the office asked me something I am rarely asked in a country like Colombia- “are you vegetarian?”. I replied “thank you so much for caring!” Instead of chicken/meat I got cheese, eggs or beans. So I didn’t starve or get kwashiorkor :)). That night we played some dice games (Veerle and Thijs looove games) and then fell asleep to the hum of the jungle at night.
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The trek over the next days was beautiful! We walked past huge banana trees, butterflies, a red ant’s parade and flowers of all colours. Nature is one place where all my problems, negative thoughts and worries simply get pushed back into my mind. And I almost forget that I have anything else to do, to go back for. Nature is my amnesia! I had some real “Oprah-a-ha-moments” while trekking through the jungle.
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A bit more about the Kogi’s. When a boy enters manhood he is allowed to chew coca leaves (this is strictly only for men). The coca leaves are used in conjunction with powdered lime, which turns the coca into a mild narcotic. The lime is made from burnt seashells and is kept in a vegetable calabash (called a “poporo”). The lime is extracted from the poporo with a wooden stick which is used to spread the lime onto the coca leaves in his mouth. He then rubs the stick on the surface of the poporo, which eventually, after many repetitions forms a layer. This action represents the spiritual union (of mind and body) between a man and a woman. It also keeps him in balance with The Mother Earth. A man is never seen without his poporo. They chew coca leaves to numb the lining of the stomach and to suppress hunger. They say they need to be in this state in order to communicate with the ancestors…

The women collect coca leaves for her husband and bear as many children as possible (by the time a girl is 26 she could have about 12 kids! I have some catching up to do!!). The Kogi that we saw aren’t as pure compared to the Kogi higher up in the mountains. A saw one shaman talking on a walkie-talkie and his wife eating chips and drinking a coke! The supreme leader of the Kogi has never met with a non-Kogi; the lower level leaders deal with the outside world. This tribe knows about the world, but wants nothing to do with it.

On the third day we arrive at the third and final camp, which is located just below the Lost City. Getting here was quite tough! I left earlier with the slow people, and struggled a bit in the slippery, wet, muddy and steep terrain. It started to rain, but knowing that I didn’t need to put up a tent or cook food made it all that much easier! We crossed 2 rivers and again were spoilt with magnificent misty, lush landscapes and sounds! After 6 hours we arrived, had lunch and coffee and then just played games until bedtime.
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There are 1200 (yes, Andries counted them to make sure) steps from camp 3 to Ciudad Perdida (which sits at about 1300m). I don’t know what’s worse: going up slippery steps or going down slippery steps…
The day wasn’t so great, but the mist added so much magic and mystery that I almost felt like a fairy would pop out! It is a small city, but impressive nonetheless. Only the rock foundations remain, but you can try to imagine how it was back then… After making our way slowly back down to camp 3, we had a quick lunch, then proceeded to trek back to camp 2. The next day those that were doing 5 days, had to leave super early, whereas the rest of us, who only had to walk to camp 1, could sleep in.
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Our guide, Luis, lives really close to camp 1, so we (Cam, the Belgians, the British and me) had the rare opportunity to be taken to a waterfall from his childhood days. Luis had spent all his childhood playing here, so he knows the area well. The way down to the top of the waterfall is super steep- there a rope to help you. A French tourist a few years ago thought he was too good for the rope, and ended up fatally falling!
To get to the bottom of the falls, you scramble down and across huge rocks. Luis, being born and bred here, raced up and climbed up some rocks and stood slap bang in the waterfall! With a bit of help, we all managed to get ourselves in it as well. I have never been right inside a waterfall, and I enjoyed all rushing and gushing and gulping of water. A real face-water-whipping!
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The last day of hiking was not varied at all: first up, up and up. And then down, down and down. By the end we were all running down the mountain- the momentum too strong to resist! We stopped to cool off at a beautiful little rock pool, and then ended the hike with lunch back at the small village. I was tired beyond tired! The shower that night was fantastic- having clean hair is a beautiful thing! :-)

I recommend this trek to anyone who wants a challenge, who wants to learn about another way of life and who wants to just be in a place where technology and the fast-paced-living of modern life is strange.

Posted by piratejax 19:13 Archived in Colombia Comments (2)

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