Santa Marta and the Lost City

Santa Marta

8 May

Today turned into quite a marathon and not what I expected. The bus station in Cartagena is quite a long way out of the city so I had to get a taxi at some expense. On arrival at the Terminal de Transportes, I was immediately accosted by one of the bus company hustlers and guided to the ticket man, who sold me a ticket. I thought it was leaving at 10.15am (it being then 10am) but, in fact, it only left at 10.45am. We drove around the corner to a petrol station and waited and waited for the bus to fill up. I can only assume that this particular company has a quota of people, before which it will not leave!

We eventually got going and it was a very slow trip to Baranquilla, which is just over half way to Santa Marta, my destination of the day. I had been told the journey would take 3 1/2 hours. Not so! We didn’t go to the terminal at Baranquilla but ejected people for that destination, by a roadside rubbish dump. We then continued on and stopped and started with the conductor desperately accosting people along the roadside, to see if they wanted to go to Santa Marta. We eventually came to a complete halt whilst he rushed around  trying to commandeer people. As he was unsuccessful we were told to move onto another bus. It was now 2pm.

Island off Santa Marta
Island off Santa Marta
The waterfront in Santa Marta
The waterfront in Santa Marta

The other bus was almost full and I managed to get a broken seat, so had something sticking into my back for the rest of the journey. The conductor wanted more money from me, which I complained about bitterly and eventually, the Peruvian man sitting next to me, realised that I had already paid to Santa Marta and shouted to the conductor to give me the additional money back, which he did. Obviously, a gross misunderstanding all round due to the language barrier. I was fairly disgruntled and extremely hot by this stage, having moved from a semi-comfortable bus to one that most definitely wasn’t and just wanted to get under way. The very nice Peruvian man insisted on chatting, even though I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was very jolly and very persistent. Eventually, as we approached Santa Marta, a young English speaking Spaniard took pity on me, and things became a little easier.

Plaza in Santa Marta
Plaza in Santa Marta

We arrived about 4pm at the bus terminal and I shared a taxi to the hostel with the Spaniard, who was very nice. The hostel wasn’t particularly welcoming, but was in the centre of town, unlike the last one. It was extremely hot and sticky, but I settled in and went for a walk down to the waterfront, where there were a number of people in the water, even given the proximity of the container ships. (I was thinking more of pollution than danger to life and limb!)

Back at the hostel, I waited for a message from Nick and Maddie, which didn’t arrive and chatted to the Irish owner, before going to bed. For some reason I felt very tired but think the heat is really draining me at the moment.

Santa Marta

9 May

Today, for the first time, I woke up with the feeling that I wanted to go home, a mood that persisted throughout the day, even though I took myself to the beach, which is normally my cure all for everything.

One of the most well known attractions near Santa Marta is the Tayrona National Park, an area of outstanding beauty where the rainforest meets the sea, according to the tourist blurb. This, then, was my destination for the day and getting there turned out to be another mission in itself.

Walking in the forest
Walking in the forest
Ocean view in Tayrona Park
Ocean view in Tayrona Park

The hostel directed me to the bus stop, which was on the edge of the market place. Apparently, it was very easy to find and there were ‘big’ buses going there. I walked around in several circles in the market, not finding the street because, as is common, there were few street signs. Also, the market stalls had virtually obliterated the street, so that it was hard to determine whether it actually was a street or just an alleyway in the market. I eventually arrived at the crossroads, where there were no ‘big’ buses. However, I was pointed to a somewhat broken down Collectivo type bus and was encouraged to see a back pack or two being loaded amongst the assortment of boxes that the locals were piling on, so thought it must be right.

The bus was very full as we set off for the hour long trip to the entrance to the park. Needless to say, it was a stop, start journey and would have been interesting if I had been in the mood to enjoy it, which I wasn’t. We eventually arrived at the Park, where the ticket collector wanted my passport, with which I never travel. However, normally, I have a copy in my bag but, as luck would have it, today I had left it in my other bag. The solution to the problem was to accost a Chilean backpacker and use his I.D. as mine! All they seem to have wanted was a number, so I could probably have made it up. The Chilean didn’t seem too impressed and was quite keen to escape from me, once we got going.

Tayrona Park Sign
Tayrona Park Sign
A prickly tree trunk in Tayrona Park
A prickly tree trunk in Tayrona Park
Termite nest in Tayrona
Termite nest in Tayrona

The next stage of the journey was a small van. The Chilean and a bunch of teenagers, mostly girls, who were obviously on a school trip accompanied me. The latter spent a lot of time giggling and I’m not sure if they were laughing at me or with me. (Major language barrier again!) However, one of them thought my eyes were beautiful and wanted a photo of me and her, so, of course, I obliged. There was certainly much snapping of cameras (phones, of course) in the van and a lot of excitement.

I then had a nearly two hour walk through the forest to get to the beach, by which time, I was extremely hot and tired, so plonked myself down on the sand, with all the other tourists, and went for a swim. I was surprised at how quickly the bottom dropped off and certainly wouldn’t have wanted a child swimming there but the water was a wonderful temperature.

View from the hammock tower in Tayrona
View from the hammock tower in Tayrona
View from the hammock tower
View from the hammock tower
Who would take an ipad into the sea? (And, yes, there were waves!)
Taking an ipad into the sea was a risky business! (And, yes, there were waves!)
Hammock tower on top of the rocks
Hammock tower on top of the rocks
Hammocks for rent in the tower at Tayrona
Hammocks for rent in the tower at Tayrona

I stayed on the beach for a couple of hours, topping up the sun tan, and watching the people, which is always entertaining. After a wander over to the adjacent beach, I then started my walk back, knowing that it was going to take at least 3 1/2 hours to get back to Santa Marta.

I spent much of the walk talking to a young German girl, which made the time pass very quickly. We had to wait for a while for the mini van to fill before heading back to the park entrance but we were then lucky, in that a bus to town came along very quickly. Even so, it was getting dark by the time we arrived back at the market place.

Horse transport for those who don't want to walk
Horse transport for those who don’t want to walk

I walked with the German girl for a while before we parted company, with her going to one hostel and me to mine. I was too tired to go out to dinner with Nick and Maddie, so spent quite a while wandering around the supermarket, picking up some supplies, and then coming back to the room.

Santa Marta

10 May

As I had had a fairly full day yesterday and was intending to go jungle trekking tomorrow, I decided that today could be a rest day, as I really didn’t feel like doing very much.

Main Street in Santa Marta
Main Street in Santa Marta
Clock tower of the Cathedral in Santa Marta
Clock tower of the Cathedral in Santa Marta
Cathedral in Santa Marta
Cathedral in Santa Marta

After breakfast, I strolled into town, which was extremely busy with a large number of stalls lining one of the main streets, so that there was little space for pedestrians to walk through. It was also extremely noisy with music blasting from the various stands selling CDs and DVDs, as well as vehicle horns honking constantly.

I visited the Magic Tours office, chatted to the lovely young French man who was the office staff for the day and booked my trek starting tomorrow. Let’s hope I can cope with 4 or 5 days worth of heat and mosquitos! At the time I booked, there were only two of us going so hopefully more will book during the day, as it would probably be better with a few more people.

The marina in Santa Marta
The marina in Santa Marta
Santa Marta waterfront
Santa Marta waterfront

After this, I wandered down to the waterfront, which stretches from the port at one end, past the marina and along to some high rise buildings, which presumably are hotels, at the other. There were a number of people already at the beach, some children swimming and, of course, the inevitable food sellers. However, it wasn’t appealing enough for me to want to swim.

Chairs ready and waiting on the waterfront in Santa Marta
Chairs ready and waiting on the waterfront in Santa Marta
Park in Santa Marta
Park in Santa Marta
Inside the Cathedral in Santa Marta
Inside the Cathedral in Santa Marta
Bouquet of flowers on a bike
Bouquet of flowers on a bike

I found my way back to the Cathedral and sat inside for a few minutes, admiring the flowers that must have been arranged for a wedding, until a service began. The priest’s intonations were accompanied by the loud music emanating from the skateboarders speakers in the plaza outside, which was drifting through the open doors.

I sat in the window of a cafe (the only one in the plaza) and watched the aforementioned skateboarders, whilst I drank my coffee. There seemed to be some sort of demonstration or competition happening but it was hard to tell which.

After this, I fought my way through the people and stalls back to the hostel, where I spent the rest of the day idling. And very relaxing it was too!

Swimmers at the port in Santa Marta
Swimmers at the port in Santa Marta

Lost City

11 May

Today began with a mixture of trepidation and excitement, as I was going to begin the trek to the Lost City (or Ciudad Perdita), which I knew was going to be hard in the heat and humidity. The Lost City is in the Sierra Nevada, the highest maritime sierra in the world, in the Park Tayrona.

I had been told to be at the Magic Tours office by 9.15am in order to leave at 9.30am so, after breakfast, I packed up and walked the two or three blocks, arriving in plenty of time. There was a German couple and an English chap on the tour with me. We were introduced to our guide, Jesus (!), and then we ended up waiting in the office until nearly 10.30am, during which time, I decided to transfer the belongings I was taking on the track to my big back pack and using that instead of my day pack which had no waist strap and which I had intended to use. This was a decision that I was to be grateful for many times over, in the days to come!

Filling up with petrol
Filling up with petrol

The reason for the delay in departure from Santa Marta was that none of the ATMs in town were working (not uncommon) and Jesus needed cash to pay the horsemen, the cooks, the camp fees and food. They eventually obtained cash somehow and we were underway in a 4WD along with the French man from the office and a couple of other people, children and teenage girls (whoever they were!)

Petrol and laundry - an interesting combination!
Petrol and laundry – an interesting combination!

We headed towards Tayrona Park, stopping along the way to check the tyre pressure, drop the French man and the girls in the middle of nowhere, and then Jesus in a small village. The latter was a little disconcerting, as he didn’t reappear when we stopped for petrol a little way down the road. It seemed a little early in the tour for the guide to abandon us! The petrol was tipped into the truck using a can and funnel, a method that I had also seen used on a public bus between Popayan and Cali. As there are plenty of proper petrol stations around, there must be some obscure reason, that is not obvious to me, as to why they should stop at wayside shops to do this.

We turned off the road and drove up a very rutted track with the driver making no concessions for the road or his passengers, so it was quite a bumpy ride. After an hour or so, we arrived at the village of Machete Pelao, which is where we were to start walking and where we were relieved to find Jesus, who had obviously arrived independently and ahead of us somehow.

Butcher's shop in Machete Pelao
Butcher’s shop in Machete Pelao

There were a number of other people at the cafe where we had lunch before we started walking. These were travelling with other tour companies and other guides and were either just starting or just finishing the trek. The village itself, seemed to be quite busy as it was a Sunday and people were obviously relaxing. It is a very small place, and we ate our lunch to the accompaniment of bursts of exploding gunpowder, which was emanating from the local game of pehoe. This involved throwing disks at a board, in which pockets of gunpowder are placed. If they are hit with the disks, not surprisingly, the gunpowder goes bang. It caught me by surprise and made me jump each time. The place where the game was being played, also housed pool tables and a butcher’s stall and there were two other places on opposite corners of the street where pool was being played. It is a popular pastime in Colombia.

Horses loaded with our food for the trek
Horses loaded with our food for the trek
The first of several swimming holes
The first of several swimming holes

We eventually started walking at about 1.15pm so it was quite hot. It was a gentle stroll at first and after half an hour or so we stopped at a swimming hole in the river Buritaca, whose course we were to follow for the next few days. The water was very refreshing!

After this, however, the hard work really started. We climbed and climbed and climbed, very steeply up the mountain until we eventually reached a small stall where there was some very welcome water melon waiting for us. Then we continued on. Simon, the English man, had steamed ahead, but Jesus stayed with the German couple and I as we progressed slowly along at our own pace.

A pastoral scene
A pastoral scene
View across the Sierra
View across the Sierra
Beautiful red flower (but I don't know what it is!)
Beautiful red flower (but I don’t know what it is!)

As the afternoon progressed, the weather became more overcast until it started spotting with rain. The track became muddier and more slippery as we descended steeply and I fell just before we arrived in to the camp for the night. Lots of lovely red mud stuck to my shorts and back pack but as we were near camp, it didn’t really matter. The group coming behind us, however, arrived when the rain was pelting down and were absolutely drenched. As we found out, it is impossible to dry anything as the humidity is so high, so they had to wait for a break in the middle of the next day before they had the opportunity to dry their clothes. Luckily, we had no more rain for the rest of the trek.

Swing bridge into Cabana 1
Swing bridge into Cabana 1
Steep descent in the slippery red mud
Steep descent in the slippery red mud

The camp, or Cabana 1, was located right next to the river, in the valley, which made it quite dark and gloomy with the rain. We all had bunk beds enclosed by mosquito nets, so it was very cosy! After having showers (cold, but that is not unusual in Colombia), we sat around chatting whilst waiting for dinner. This was very welcome and afterwards someone produced a pack of cards and about 13 people (including me), ended up playing something that various people seemed to know, although the rules varied amongst countries, which meant quite a lot of light hearted argument!

Bunk beds covered in mosquito nets
Bunk beds covered in mosquito nets
Dining area in Cabana 1
Dining area in Cabana 1

I went to bed earlier than everyone else and lay in my bunk, listening to the quiet chatter of the people playing cards, the crickets and the frogs, which seemed to be prolific. It was very relaxing.

Lost City

May 12

Today was the hardest day and I am reassured that it wasn’t just me that found it so but all the young people as well.

Last night I had to make the decision as to whether to do the trek in 4 or 5 days. I opted for 4 as I didn’t particularly want to spend a lot of time hanging around in the camps. The guides, working for 3 different companies, then sorted out who was going to be in which group and I ended up with 12 others from Belgium, Switzerland, America, Ireland and England, all of whom, with the exception of me, were in their mid twenties. By the end of the trek we had all bonded very well! We had 3 guides, Jesus, Mila, who spoke English, luckily, and Wilmer.

Marker for the track
Marker for the track

Doing the walk in 4 days meant that we had two 3 – 4 hour walks today, one before and one after lunch. We were woken at 5am with the intention of leaving at 6am. However, for some reason, this did not happen and, by the time we had all had breakfast, it was about 6.45 before we left.

Very dry area of the Sierra
Very dry area of the Sierra
In the jungle
In the jungle

It was a most beautiful morning after all the rain of yesterday, for which we were very glad. The local people, however, I think would have liked a little more, as it was the first time it had rained in 7 months.

The day followed a pattern of very steep uphills, followed by steep downhills. A number of local Kogui tribes people passed us as we were walking but none of them seemed to want to engage in any interaction. We stopped at one small village in which there was one lady and a couple of children, the rest, apparently, out working in the fields. The children were given some lovely teeth rotting lollipops by the guides, who knew them well, and we were able to take some photographs, which normally they would not allow.

Mother and children of the Kogui tribe
Mother and children of the Kogui tribe
Kogui huts
Kogui huts
Mud construction of the Kogui huts
Mud construction of the Kogui huts
Kogui boy with a very large machete!
Kogui boy with a very large machete!

In another small settlement, there were more children and a mother who had a 2 day old baby. We were told that they have many children and start from the age of 18. I would not like to have given birth in the conditions in which they are living. It is difficult to tell which are boys and which are girls, as they all wear the same, somewhat sad looking dresses and have long hair.

In the second village, a house was in the process of construction for a volunteer doctor, who is going to come and live there. Otherwise, the tribes people rely on the shamans and local medicine people. Having said that, during the course of the 4 days, the guides stopped to give painkillers to two people with headaches.

We stopped at Cabana 2 for lunch and went for a lovely refreshing swim in the river. There was a small, very young looking family, who were doing their washing in the same place and they seemed to be as much amused by us as we were by them and I noticed the small boy/girl copying the Irish couple, who were rubbing sun screen into each other’s backs.

Kogui man doing the washing
Kogui man doing the washing
Kogui family found us as entertaining as we found them!
Kogui family found us as entertaining as we found them!
Food prep and washing up area in Cabana 2
Food prep and washing up area in Cabana 2
The stove in Cabana 2
The stove in Cabana 2
River Buritaca
River Buritaca

We had a delicious soup for lunch, which stoked us up for the second part of the day, a 3 hour walk to Cabana 3. I found that I was walking by myself for much of the afternoon as most of the group were walking much too fast for me. However, I always knew that there were a couple of people behind as well as the guide.

A conglomeration of leaf cutting ants
A conglomeration of leaf cutting ants
Banana tree
Banana tree

We arrived there at about 4pm to find it had been invaded by 30 Ukranians, who were in the river taking, what appeared to be, fashion photographs. They had very large backpacks, transported to the camp by horses, and spoilt the evening by their loud, brash behaviour.

As the camp was full that night, we ended up sleeping in hammocks, which was quite a novelty. The guides and their helpers slung them on hooks under cover (like an open sided shed) and I felt that I was so tired that I would be able to sleep anywhere.

Farm land on the Sierra
Farm land on the Sierra

Mila had told me that there was another Kiwi on the track, about my age. This is a first as I haven’t met any other New Zealanders the entire time I have been away. He was very easy to spot amongst the crowd, although I think I must have aged about 10 years if Mila thought that I was about the same age. Admittedly, there is quite a lot of white hair around the edges at the moment! I spoke to him briefly before dinner and then had a longer conversation afterwards. He was an extremely fit tramper from Nelson and was regretting taking 5 days to the trek as he was always first in camp by a long way.

The bedroom in Cabana 3!
The bedroom in Cabana 3!

At dinner, I was seated by two American girls, one of whom had already informed me that she was in the top 10% with regard to I.Q. of Americans and the rest were basically idiots, a Venezuelan turned American and an older Belgian man. This all tested my patience as I found the Americans extremely arrogant and the Belgian was extremely angry. Unfortunately,the latter had decided that I was a good audience so I had to listen to him making his points by banging on the table and tightening his lips for quite some time before I was unwittingly rescued by John, the Kiwi.

I ended up retiring to my hammock quite early and listening to the Ukranians, as they drank beer and talked very loudly.

Lost City

May 13

Some of the 1200 steps leading up to the Lost City
Some of the 1200 steps leading up to the Lost City

Whilst sleeping in the hammock was more comfortable than I anticipated, I did not sleep well. I was cold, even though I had asked for an extra blanket, and I also needed to go to the toilet. However, I could not face unravelling myself from the hammock cocoon and finding my way through all the other hammocks to the toilet area in the dark and on an uneven path. Consequently, it was a very disturbed night and I couldn’t blame it all on the Ukranians!

Today was the day we climbed to the Lost City. We started early, although, unfortunately, later than the aforementioned foreign group and the other smaller group that John was with. We had a slightly strenuous walk, along a track beside the river, before wading across and ascending 1,200 steps to the outer area of the ruins. The steps were extremely narrow and I had difficulty with my small feet climbing them, so it must have been extra hard for the boys and their big feet. Luckily, though, they were not as moss covered as the images I had seen and this was probably due to the lack of rain.

Old storage shed in the Lost City
Old storage shed in the Lost City
Staircase leading to the Chief's house
Staircase leading to the Chief’s house

We arrived at the top in what was once the commercial area, where it was probable that grain and other food products were stored. Wilmer gave us some information, which Mila, and one or two of the other Spanish speakers in the group, translated for the non Spanish speakers. The city was built in 700 AD and lasted until the Spaniards arrived in the 1500’s. The cause of its demise is not known, as the invaders never actually reached the city (not surprisingly, given its location). It is likely that the Teyuna (from whom the Kogui descend) were either killed in battles or died from diseases, such as TB, which were unknown until the Europeans arrived and for which the indigenous had no resistance.

Chief's throne in the middle and Jesus walking up the steps
Chief’s throne in the middle and Jesus walking up the steps
Looking up from to the Chief's house
Looking up from to the Chief’s house

We continued up the main staircase until we reached the Chief’s old house. (This, incredibly, is where the Government lands the helicopters to bring supplies to the military that are stationed there.) From here, the view was magnificent across the mountains, especially if you could ignore the yellow shirts that were being sported today by the party of Ukranians. I came to really dislike this group! They appeared in all our photos as they lingered around the top of the City and one of them even had the cheek to ask me to move out of her picture!

View of the mountains from the Chief's house
View of the mountains from the Chief’s house
Birds nest hanging from the tree
Birds nest hanging from the tree
The Lost City
The Lost City
Sitting on the Chief's throne
Sitting on the Chief’s throne

However, they eventually left and we were able to enjoy the peace. It was well worth the effort of walking there. The stones that the tribe used to construct the buildings were either from the site or brought up from the river, which must have been a feat of some magnitude. We had quite some time to wander around and just sit and enjoy the location before our guides called us over for the two soldiers to talk to us. They are stationed there to deter any guerrilla trouble although, now, it is probably unnecessary as there has been no guerrilla activity for ten years.

The group at the Lost City
The group at the Lost City
View from the Chief's house
View from the Chief’s house
Descending from the Lost City
Descending from the Lost City

After an hour or so, we started, somewhat reluctantly on my part, to walk back down the mountainside. The local Kogui were having a spiritual meeting in the houses that are used each September when the shamans from the surrounding countryside congregate to eliminate the negative energy that is left by the visitors throughout the rest of the year. We had to leave the area quickly, as we were not supposed to disturb them.

The outer area of the Lost City
The outer area of the Lost City

Unfortunately, we encountered one of the rude Ukranians a little further on. A shaman that Wilmer knew, was sitting on a wall, obviously sick, and the Ukranian was intent on taking photographs even though our guides asked her not to. (Almost all of the group seemed to have the latest camera, many of them with very large lenses. This particular one, had even got the guide to carry her camera bag.) Our guides were not at all pleased and blamed their guide, who seemed to have little control over the group.

Bedroom cleared of hammocks in Cabana 3
Bedroom cleared of hammocks in Cabana 3

We continued back down to Cabana 3 where we had lunch and a rest before making our way to Cabana 2, another three hour walk. The Ukranians left whilst we were eating and, as there are two cabins at Cabana 2, our guides had made sure they were not in the same one as us, so we saw little of them after that, thank goodness. They really made the place feel as though it was just another mass tourism place to go and not something very special, which it is.

Bags of the Kogui hanging outside the cabana
Bags of the Kogui hanging outside the cabana
On the dusty track
On the dusty track

I found myself walking alone again for much of the afternoon. This was something I didn’t mind as I could go at my own pace. It was extremely hot, once again, and it was not a question of perspiring gracefully. The sweat was pouring off in bucket loads and if my t shirt had not been strapped down by my back pack, I would have done what all good Colombian men do, and lifted my t shirt to wipe the sweat from my eyes and face, exposing an undesirable stomach! As it was, I did the best I could with the top of my t shirt, which will certainly find itself in the rubbish bin before too long.

On the track - spot the rear end of a pig!
On the track – spot the rear end of a pig!
Swimming hole in the Buritaca river
Swimming hole in the Buritaca river

I was almost the last to arrive in camp 2, with the Irish couple a little way behind. Unfortunately, she had fallen and her hand was very sore and swollen. The track is very uneven and in some parts, quite dangerous, so you have to watch your feet, rather than the view, the whole time. Any momentary lack of concentration, could result in a twisted ankle or a fall.

Kogui herdsman driving horse laden with Ukranians packs
Kogui herdsman driving horse laden with Ukranians packs
Arriving back in Camp 2
Arriving back in Camp 2

We had dinner again at about 6pm, and, once again, by candlelight. There was a very good atmosphere in the camp tonight, with many of the young people playing cards, whilst I spent a long time chatting to John. It was very nice to have someone to talk to with a bit of a common background. He is a ‘classic Kiwi’! Unlike the rest of the nights when I have been one of the first to bed, I actually lasted longer than the young ones. Tonight we had bunks again so it was little more comfortable than last night.

Lost City

May 14

Each time I woke up in the night, which was frequently, I was very conscious of aching muscles all over my body. The morning proved no better, as I eased myself out of bed and resorted to ibuprofen to get myself in a mode fit to walk for 6 hours.

Kogui village in the early morning
Kogui village in the early morning

We started early, being woken (as if I had been asleep!) at 5am and, after a quick breakfast, we were underway at 6am. John had already zoomed off, and I spent the morning at the back of the group, usually on my own. There was no way I was going to be able to keep up with the others today!

Kogui hut in the morning light
Kogui hut in the morning light
Kogui girl with bird in her bag
Kogui girl with bird in her bag

It took 3 hours to retrace our steps to Cabana 1 where we were to stop for refreshments and a swim if we wanted one. It was another beautiful morning, following the pattern of the last couple of days, with blue sky and sun, followed by slightly overcast, humid weather in the afternoon. 6am was definitely the best time to be up and about.

Herding cows
Herding cows
Early morning light
Early morning light

Whilst I was last, it seemed I wasn’t so far behind the others. At the camp, we all had tamarillo or tree tomato, as it is called here, juice and a slice of chocolate covered something or other, which was an excellent energy booster, and then some people went to the swimming hole in the river. I went but just watched, as I couldn’t be bothered to change into my swim suit.

I then made a head start on everyone else as the first part of the walk was straight up a muddy hill and I knew they would catch up with me very quickly. As it happened, they didn’t and it was only when I stopped for a rest to admire the view that the group appeared. Mila seemed a bit concerned that he had lost me as they hadn’t seen me earlier!

Sierra Nevada vista
Sierra Nevada vista

We arrived back at the village for lunch at about 12.30pm. It was definitely a welcome sight. We all had cold drinks and then lunch and there was a definite feeling of camaraderie, which was lovely. I was also somewhat gratified that several of the young people felt it necessary to comment to me that they respected/admired my endurance, as they were all tired and they were supposedly young and fit! John, of course, put me to shame, as he had arrived at the village about 2 hours earlier, had had lunch and was wandering around. As I said, not all Kiwis are created fit! (He had also had two artificial hips and a triple bypass, so maybe that is the secret.) I think I need replacement knees now though.

Walking along the dusty track
Walking along the dusty track
Swimming hole at camp 1
Swimming hole at camp 1

We were all divided between the trucks to go back down to Santa Marta and various places. I was in the truck with the Swiss girls, as we were all going to the same hostel on the beach south of the city. I hadn’t got a reservation but was hoping for the best.

We arrived back and I had to pick up my belongings from the Magic Tour office and we all wanted to go to the supermarket, as there are no shops at the beach. After this, the office lady hailed us a taxi and negotiated the price and we all piled in. And there began another adventure!

Bridge over the lagoon
Bridge over the lagoon

The taxi driver had obviously not realised where the hostel was and under quoted the price. Also, judging by the state of his driving, I really wondered whether he had a driving licence at all. After asking a couple of other taxi drivers in completely the wrong area, the Swiss girls told him which way to go. Unfortunately, he missed the turning and we were on a dual carriageway with not many turn around places. We weaved and wobbled our way along, almost hitting the median barrier at one point, whilst he rummaged around his seat, and eventually arrived, luckily in one piece. Then came the argument about the price. The Swiss were remarkably steadfast in their refusal to pay more, but as I only had a 10,000 peso note he got an extra 1,000 more than he had quoted.

Playa del Ritma hostel
Playa del Ritma hostel

The hostel had a room, which I immediately changed for a slightly more expensive one downstairs with a patio and a hammock. I had a swim, a wonderful shower and feeling like a normal human being once again, lay in the hammock with a rum and coke and watched the sunset through the barbed wire fence.

A little later, the (half) bottle of rum and coke and I joined the Swiss girls and one or two others and a convivial evening was spent chatting around the table. There might be just enough rum left for me for the next night or two!

Santa Marta

15 May

Mural on the hostel wall
Mural on the hostel wall

I woke up today to find a young man sleeping in ‘my’ hammock, which temporarily put paid to any idea I had of reclining myself. However, I had plenty to do catching up with 4 days worth of blog and sorting out a large number of photographs. I spent the morning doing this in my nice air conditioned room. The room itself is basic, to say the least, with bare concrete walls and floors. However, it is large and ten metres from the beach, so I can’t ask for more.

The weather was overcast and hazy today so I didn’t feel too bad about not being outside. It took hours to upload my photos as the internet connection was so bad and I got bored with diary writing after doing the first couple of days, so adjourned to the beach for a little while.

Along the beach
Along the beach
One of the many ships waiting to come into port
One of the many ships waiting to come into port
Beach in front of the hostel
Beach in front of the hostel

When I was walking back to my room, the hostel owner called to me and said there had been a problem with the bookings and I would have to move to the original room I had booked, which was upstairs and with a fan. The fan I didn’t mind but the lack of hammock was more of a problem! However, I didn’t have a choice, so reluctantly packed up my scattered possessions and shifted upstairs.

The rest of the day was spent pottering between the beach and the room, chatting to some of the other residents and doing some washing. People seem to arrive and are reluctant to leave, something I can well understand as it is a very relaxing place.

I had dinner at the cafe and retired early to my room to read after an extremely lazy day.

Santa Marta

16 May

View from my position on the beach
View from my position on the beach

I was still tired and achy today and was beginning to wonder if I really might need replacement knees, as they were extremely reluctant to bend still!

I did a bit more diary writing, spent some time on Skype, had a coffee at the convenient cafe attached to the hostel and then retired to the beach, where I read an entire book that I found on the bookshelves here. (This was not a great feat, as it was a fairly short Ruth Rendall detective book.)

The hostel owner called to me again as I was walking back to my room, to say their booking system was messed up and the room wasn’t available for me tonight. There were lots of apologies and I was given one of the staff member’s rooms, at no cost, for the night. (Not quite sure where they slept!) At this rate, I will have sampled almost all the rooms in the place.

View on the beach
View on the beach
Hostel from the beach
Hostel from the beach

I packed up my possessions, once again, and moved to a very nice small room, complete with all the staff member’s clothes etc, wrote a bit more diary and then went back to the beach for a while, where it was a perfect temperature although a little windy.

The day was certainly not very strenuous but just what I needed at the moment. It was the first time for a while that I could relax and not have to worry about where to go, where to stay and how to get there. And I was on the beach. Bliss!

Hostel cafe/bar
Hostel cafe/bar

I had a shower and took my rum and coke to the beach to watch the sunset, then came back and sat at the tables outside and chatted to an Israeli girl for a while before having dinner, once again, in the cafe. I have now managed to do no cooking for 6 months, which I think is quite impressive!

Sunset
Sunset

A lot of the other inmates were chatting outside, which is something that seems to happen every night here and which sometimes generates into a spontaneous party, apparently. I am usually asleep by this time and, quite amazingly, have not, so far, been disturbed by any noise. Everyone is very friendly and will take the time to chat to me, which I, for some reason, always find quite surprising, given that they are all much, much younger than me.

I was in bed relatively early, with the intention of reading for a while, but the ‘while’ was very short before I was ready to put the light out, as I was falling asleep.

Santa Marta

17 May

View to the beach from the bridge
View to the beach from the bridge

When I got up this morning, after a very comfortable night in the staff member’s bed, the aches and pains, thankfully, seemed to have abated and my knees were just about back to normal, so maybe I won’t need replacements after all!

It was a beautiful day and I decided to go for a walk along the beach before it got too hot to do anything. There was nobody else up in the hostel, as they all seem to have very late nights and then sleep late in the morning.

Early morning at the lagoon behind the hostel
Early morning at the lagoon behind the hostel
Fishing boats on the beach
Fishing boats on the beach

I walked along in both directions on, what is meant to be, one of the more exclusive beach areas in Santa Marta. There are certainly a large number of condominiums along the waterfront, as well as a few more being built but there did not appear to be too many hotels though.

Early morning at the beach
Early morning at the beach
Pushing the boat out!
Pushing the boat out!

Back at the hostel, I put my possessions in my backpack in preparation for the move to another room, and then went down to the beach, taking an Elmore Leonard book from the bookshelf with me, so that I had something to read.

It was another very leisurely day and so hot that I had to retreat into the shade on occasions. However, it wasn’t too hard, lying on the beach, reading and going for a dip in the (very warm) sea when the heat became unbearable.

I retreated to my latest room for a little while but had a last couple of hours back on the beach in the late afternoon, when it was marginally (but only marginally) cooler.

Chairs ready and waiting!
Chairs ready and waiting!
Large fish models suspended outside a cafe
Large fish models suspended outside a cafe

After a shower, and a sorting of the possessions to see what I could dump, I just about caught the sunset. The evening then took a very unexpected turn. Whilst sitting on the beach, with my rum and coke, a couple of Colombian ladies approached and introduced themselves because, they said, I looked so happy!! (Must have been the rum.) Anyway, one of them owned an apartment in the condo next door and there were five ladies, who all played tennis together in Bogota, staying there. They said they were having a barbecue on the beach and asked if I would like to join them. Who was I to say ‘no’?!

The barbecue was actually held in a very smart barbecue area, next to the very fancy swimming pool area in the grounds of the condominium. Ice was produced by one of the staff members, who would also clean up the barbecue grill when we had finished.

My new Colombian lady friends
My new Colombian lady friends

I would say, that at least one or two (or all) of the ladies had had more than a little to drink on the beach already as the owner, particularly, seemed to be swaying a little as we walked to the barbecue area. Anyway, there was ample food and drink for us all and I was encouraged to eat, drink and be merry. Luckily for me, most of them spoke some English, but they were fascinating to watch as they had some very heated discussion, particularly about Gabriel Garcia Marquez of whom Colombians are very proud, even though he lived in Mexico for most of his adult life.

I eventually staggered back across the beach to the hostel at about 11pm having had a totally unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Bogota

18 May

It was another beautiful morning but, unfortunately, I was heading to Bogota today, so had to say farewell to the beach. There was nobody around when I got up this morning, apart from the lady cleaning the cafe. She had to find the staff member, who was supposed to be on duty at 7am (at least, according to their sign), but was not in evidence at 7.45am. The place is very relaxed! With the bill paid, I was soon on my way in a taxi to the airport, which was only about 10 minutes away.

Playa del Ritmol sign
Playa del Ritmol sign

I checked in and read in the departure lounge whilst waiting for the flight, which was very full. Everything went smoothly and we landed on time in Bogota at 11am. In no time at all, I had my bag and was in a taxi, once again, on my way to the hotel.

Sun shining on a suburb of Bogota
Sun shining on a suburb of Bogota

The rest of the day was spent in my room, apart from a quick trip to the shop round the corner for supplies and a wander up to the top floor to see the view. I felt cold for most of the day as the temperature in Bogota is considerably lower than Santa Marta.

Bogota City Centre
Bogota City Centre
Bogota
Bogota

I had no desire to wander the streets or go into the city and I managed to fritter away the afternoon quite successfully. As I had a large TV in the room, I also caught up with a bit of world news, something with which I am sadly out of touch at the moment.

Ola Colombia!

Bogota

16 April

The day did not start well. I was going to catch a bus from the nearby bus terminal to Tocumen airport, which seemed perfectly straight forward. However, I needed the transport card that I had left with Thomas just to get on to the platform and, after I had trekked back to the hotel to get it, found it didn’t have any money left on it. A helpful, lady with a walking stick, took me very, very slowly down and up the stairs to the recharge office and then, once back on the platform, I waited and I waited and I waited for a bus. Checkin for my flight was at 9.30am and I decided at 9am that the bus wasn’t going to make it, so got a taxi instead. I could have had an extra hour or two in bed!

A street near the hostel
A street near the hostel in Bogota

Once at the airport, everything went smoothly and I had an hour and a half to wander around. The flight to Bogota was only an hour and a half, so I was there just after 1pm. There being, apparently, no other means of transport into the city other than taxi, I got a taxi to my hostel in Candalaria, which is the Bohemian and historic centre.

My hostel on the right
My hostel on the right
Graffiti in Bogota
Graffiti in Bogota
View from my room in Bogota
View from my room in Bogota

As we drove into the city, I was struck by how stark it looked with many concrete apartment blocks and few trees. To me, it seemed like an Eastern European city (or at least, how imagine one would look like) and not at all as I expected. Unbelievably, though, there was no rubbish in the streets. It was extremely clean, although there was graffiti (much of it artistic) everywhere.

The hostel was very basic and was set right on the Plaza de Churro de Quevado, a meeting place for entertainers, jugglers etc. It was in an area that was far more how I imagined Bogota to be and everything that I would want to see was in walking distance.

After checking in, I went for a wander. The weather was much colder than I have been used to and it was very grey. I walked down (it is all hilly) to the main Avenida where all the shops are but before long, the heavens opened and I was getting rather wet.

A wet street in Bogota
A wet street in Bogota
Wet and grey in Bogota
Wet and grey in Bogota

Stupidly, I hadn’t taken a jacket, so after sheltering in some shops for a while, I walked back up the hill and stopped at a small pizzeria, which looked very warm and inviting. I had a delicious lasagne and enjoyed their music before returning to my unwelcoming room where I spent the entire evening researching where I should go in Colombia and how to get there. (Nothing like a bit of forward planning!)

A spot of sunshine amongst the clouds
A spot of sunshine amongst the clouds

Bogota

17 April

This morning, I woke with a slight headache, which I thought would improve with drugs. I had breakfast, (cold coffee, scrambled eggs and a bread bun of some sort) in the hostel and then walked down towards the main Avenida again, but turned the opposite way today and headed towards the Plaza de Simon Bolivar.

Churro del Quevado
Plaza de Churro del Quevado
Buildings off Churro Del Quevado
Buildings off Churro del Quevado
Avenida Centrale in Bogota
Avenida Centrale in Bogota

All along the street, there were stalls selling goods of every variety and the whole area was full of people. It was also blocked off from traffic and, when I reached the Plaza there were a number of policemen, mounted on horses or Stegways. The Plaza is huge and was already filling up with sellers of junk food, fruit, and alpaca rides.

Plaza de Simon Bolivar
Plaza de Simon Bolivar
Fruit seller
Fruit seller
Lady selling junk food from a shopping trolley
Lady selling junk food from a shopping trolley

When I could go no further because the road was completely blocked off (don’t know why), I turned up a cobbled street and squeezing past many more stalls, I walked part way up, past the oldest theatre and then came down again. I chanced upon a small museum, Museo de Trajes Regionales de Colombia, that was only open on Sundays and holidays, from which I deduced that today was a holiday for some reason! The museum is located in the house where Manuelita Saenz lived. She was a Peruvian, who came to Colombia in the early 19th century and devoted her life to the revolutionary, Simon Bolivar, and who became a very active fighter for women’s rights.

Molas in exhibition in Bogota
Molas in an exhibition in Bogota
Part of exhibition in Bogota
Part of an exhibition in Bogota

The museum had displays of costumes, worn by the tribes of the various areas, as well as hats, bags and lace and an explanation of what fibres were used and how they were woven. Luckily, there were a number of information boards in English for this part. Upstairs, there was, also, what I took to be a temporary exhibition that seemed quite bizarre to me, not being able to understand the Spanish signage (no explanation in English). However, having since Googled it, I gather it was an exhibition of clothes, particularly in the media, and how they influence and affect social attitudes. There were a number of exhibits with Cindy type dolls, dressed up, in boxes that looked like television sets, as well as models of a miniature kitchen, living room and bedroom.

Fruit and nuts for sale
Fruit and nuts for sale

Alpaca in Simon Bolivar plaza
Alpaca in Simon Bolivar plaza
Alpaca ride, anyone?
Alpaca ride, anyone?

By this time, my headache was getting worse and I realised it was probably altitude sickness. Going from sea level to 2,600m in an hour and a half was probably not one of my better ideas! I bought a lot of water and went and sat in the Plaza to drink it and people watch. As I was feeling worse rather than better, I retreated to my room, where I stayed for the rest of the day.

Children's activities in Simon Bolivar Plaza
Children’s activities in Simon Bolivar Plaza

However, the noise outside, and even inside, the hostel was indescribable. Every cafe and bar (and there were a lot) must have had music playing at full volume. There were entertainers in the square and, periodically, roars of encouragement and clapping would emanate from the crowds. There were dogs barking, horns tooting and motor bikes roaring. In the night, there was a man crying loudly under my window and another banging on the door of the bar opposite and shouting at someone. Inside the hostel, the occupants talked loudly to each other at whatever time of day or night they came in. It was not a good place for a headache!!

Bogota

18 April

Today was a total write off. The music eventually stopped at 5am by which time I was also feeling nauseous and vomiting. There was no way I could get out of my uncomfortable bed that was complete with heavy plastic undersheet and pillow. I resorted to altitude drugs but they seemed to have little effect.

After lunch (if I had had any), I thought I felt a bit better and ventured out for some fresh air but very quickly realised it was a bad idea and returned to my room. By late afternoon, I was feeling very sorry for myself, especially as the music had started up again. Luckily, it only went on until midnight today! I spent the whole day, dozing off and on and decided that if I felt strong enough, I would leave the city tomorrow.

Neiva

19 April

I woke up early this morning and, whilst still having a headache, I wasn’t feeling nauseous, so decided I would try and get the bus to Neiva, which was about 5 hours away, as the best way to overcome altitude sickness is to go lower. The manager very kindly refunded most of my money for the 2 more nights that I had booked and called a taxi for me to take me to the vast Terminales de Transporte, which was some distance away. Consequently, I arrived well in time to catch a 9am bus. I was very thankful to be leaving Bogota as, apart from being sick, it was not a city that I had taken to.

I was very happy then just to sit on the bus and watch the scenery go by. As is usual, the bus driver raced along with total disregard of speed limits, or safety, when overtaking. The bus was more like a large mini van and wasn’t full, although we stopped and picked up and dropped off a number of people along the way. We travelled downhill from Bogota (thankfully and, not surprisingly, as we couldn’t really go up), firstly through very green, hilly countryside, which changed into grassland and then very dry plains with high rocky mountains, as we travelled further south. My headache finally went about half way to Neiva and I started to feel like a normal person again.

View from the balcony at the end of the hallway in Neive
View from the balcony at the end of the hallway in Neive
View from the balcony in Neive towards the park
View from the balcony in Neive towards the park
Some sort of bizarre viewing point in Neive
Some sort of bizarre viewing point in Neiva

We arrived in Neiva at about 3pm and I got a taxi to the hotel, which was the cheapest I could find in Neiva. It was therefore, with a bit of trepidation that I went through the narrow door between the many street stalls and up the stairs. However, I had hit the jackpot. The man in reception was very helpful, except that he couldn’t speak any English and I couldn’t speak any Spanish. (Why is it that the few words I know, fly out of my head when I need them or the wrong words come out of my mouth?!) The room was small but clean, with its own bathroom (unlike my last residence), cotton sheets and even more importantly no noise! What bliss!

I set out to find a supermarket, following my friend in reception’s instructions, but ended up not finding it and walking along the river instead where there were a number of cafes and a lot of people out walking. I eventually chanced upon a very large supermarket just around the corner from the hotel, so the man obviously doesn’t do much shopping. I still felt quite tired and put this down to not having eaten for a couple of days so, hopefully, by tomorrow I will feel revitalised.

The riverbank walk in Neive
The riverbank walk in Neiva

Neiva

20 April

The main church in Neiva
The main church in Neiva

Today was an exceptionally lazy day. I spent almost the whole morning updating the blog, on which I had got somewhat behind, and Skyping.

I ventured out for a short walk at lunch time and had a wander around the central area of Neiva. However, the streets near the hotel were crowded with stalls, mainly selling clothing, and I still felt very tired, so after visiting the money machine and the supermarket, I returned to the room.

Street in Neiva
Street in Neiva
Central Plaza in Neiva
Central Plaza in Neiva (don’t know what the statue is of)
A park in Neiva
A park in Neiva

I spent the rest of the day catching up on emails, planning and booking the next part of my trip, trying to learn some Spanish and reading. It was all very relaxing!

A random pile of shoes in the street!
A random pile of shoes in the street!

San Agustin

21 April

Today was a wonderful day. It started with finding a tax refund in my bank account and it just got better from there. I left the hotel at about 8am and found someone getting out of a taxi right at the front door. This meant I arrived at the bus station (having been charged much less by this taxi driver than the one on Saturday, whom I thought was conning me, but wasn’t sure) in time for an 8.30am bus to Pitilito. At the bus station, I was immediately greeted by a hustler for one of the bus companies and taken to the right window to buy a ticket and then shepherded by someone else onto the bus. How easy!

Interior of the bus
Interior of the bus

The bus itself had definitely seen better days, had an interesting decoration of furry fringe above the windscreen and driving mirror and the driver was obviously trying to break the time record for getting to Pitilito. As I was one of the last people to board, there were only a couple of seats left and I ended up right at the back, where the leg room was zero.

View from the bus going to Pitilito
View from the bus going to Pitilito

I was immediately engaged in conversation by a very amenable young man, with an interesting set of blue orthodontics, but the language barrier proved too great to overcome, although we made a little progress later on when I remembered the dictionary on my phone and asked him to type in what he was saying, thinking it would just be a word or two. How stupid of me! He typed an entire sentence, which luckily I could get the gist of.

River valley on the way to Pitilito
River valley on the way to Pitilito

I spent an uncomfortable hour and a half crouched in my seat, trying to look at the scenery, the bus having been carefully designed so that only midgets could see out of the window, and hoping that the person in front of me didn’t recline his seat, as most people do. However, thankfully, someone got off and I was able to move to a single seat with much more leg room, so I didn’t end up getting off the bus with an aching back and legs (but I still had to crouch to admire the view!)

We hurtled through some very varied scenery, from verdant hills to dramatic gorges and valleys, and through a number of small towns. There were all very similar, with rows of one storey, terraced concrete or stucco houses, painted in various colours, and with a central plaza and church. A cemetery outside Neiva had umbrellas shading the flowers, which I thought was quite a novelty.

The Collectivo to San Agustin
The Collectivo to San Agustin

We arrived in Pitilito about 3 1/2 hours after leaving Neiva and, whilst I was dithering about where to catch the ‘Collectivo’ to San Agustin, one of the drivers appeared, seeking passengers, so I was off again almost immediately. This vehicle was like a twin cab ute (that is an NZ description – don’t know what it would be in English!) with a covered tray/deck at the back, where most of the passengers crowded. It was obviously my lucky day as I got a seat in the back of the cab with 3 other ladies and a baby. Once we had enough passengers, the driver drove very slowly through the town, picking up more people along the way. I wouldn’t like to think how many were in the back, but we had four in the back seat plus the baby (breast feeding) and two ladies in the front.

San Agustin is set in the hills, so we drove slowly upwards past very lush, tropical vegetation and cultivation, even on the steepest hillside. It had started to spit with rain and the temperature was a lot more manageable. I thought I would have to get a taxi to Casa de Nelly but the Collectivo driver took me all the way (it’s about 3km out of town).

Horse transport at the market in San Agustin
Horse transport at the market in San Agustin

As soon as we arrived in San Agustin, I wanted to explore. It was crowded with people, horses and traps, motor cycles and lots of little shops. I later learned that it was busy because it was Easter and a market day and during the week it is much quieter.

My room at Casa de Nelly
My room at Casa de Nelly

I was greeted at Casa de Nelly by Harry, one of the managers, who could actually speak  English. I had quite a chat with him after leaving my back pack in my lovely room and then headed into town for a wander.

Market area in San Agustin
Market area in San Agustin
Fruit in the market place
Fruit in the market place
The market in San Agustin
The market in San Agustin
Looking down on San Agustin
Looking down on San Agustin
Sugar cane juicer
Sugar cane juicer

It had a wonderful atmosphere and I spent a very happy couple of hours soaking it up, going into the very large indoor market and climbing some steps up to get a view of the town and surrounding countryside. (Looks were exchanged between Harry and Gustavo, the cook, when I told them where I had been, as it was apparently the poor area of town and not considered to be ‘safe’. However, I never felt threatened anywhere, in fact, to the contrary, and had felt much more uncomfortable in Neiva.) Colombians, I have found so far, are very friendly and welcoming people.

Whilst in town, I booked a jeep tour of the main archaeological sites and a couple of waterfalls, for tomorrow, all negotiations conducted in Spanish, so it was a bit hit and miss! I also treated myself to a bottle of Colombian wine, not having had a drink or cup of coffee for several days.

Men at work in San Agustin
Men at work in San Agustin
Street in San Agustin
Street in San Agustin

Back at the Casa, I chatted to an Englishman and his Norwegian girlfriend, spent some time in my room, having a glass of Colombian wine, and then had dinner, where I was joined by an Irishman, who, naturally, was full of stories, an American, a self proclaimed entrepreneur and a German, who seemed to have been travelling for a while and who disappeared part way through the evening for a “smoke”. This was more like the travel experience I was hoping for and I felt very naive as I listened to their stories. The Irishman had been on a ‘special’ tour that day, which involved making cocaine in a chicken coop in someone’s back yard (wouldn’t like to think how the chicken felt) and the American had just been on an ayahuasca retreat to cleanse himself of all his suppressed emotional issues and which involved drinking a cup of something highly hallucinogenic, which supposed to send him into a trance (although it didn’t work for him!). Maybe my spiritual energy healing isn’t quite as alternative as I thought!

House on the hillside in San Agustin
House on the hillside in San Agustin

The evening passed very quickly and it was only when I went to bed that I realised it was approaching midnight, the latest I had been to bed in a long while!

San Agustin

22 April

It was another wonderful day today. I was picked up after breakfast by Marino, who was driving the jeep for the tour. We drove into town where an Englishman/Dane, Thorr, and a Colombian couple, Orlando and Italia, joined me.

We drove out of San Agustin into some beautiful mountainous landscape, past sugar cane and coffee plantations, and towards L’Estreccho, which is where a stretch of the Magdalena river, the most important one in Colombia, channels into a very narrow passage.

View over the hills near San Agustin
View over the hills near San Agustin
L'Estreccho - River Magdalena
L’Estreccho – River Magdalena
River Magdalena
River Magdalena

Continuing along the way towards Obando archaeological park, we stopped at a farm that was producing panela from sugar cane and watched the whole process. I had seen these blocks for sale in the market place yesterday and thought they must be sugar. It is actually the juice of the sugar cane that has been reduced and carmelised. Once it is cool, it is moulded in blocks that look like bricks and it is used in cooking, baking and putting in coffee in place of processed sugar. Apparently, each family would have a ‘trapiche’, as the processing place is called.

Sugar cane processing
Sugar cane processing
Reducing and caramalising sugar cane juice
Reducing and caramalising sugar cane juice
Blocks of Panela
Blocks of Panela

We were lucky to have Orlando with us on the tour as he was able to translate the information that Marino, who didn’t speak English, was giving us as well as giving us a bit more of an insight into Colombia.

Tomb at Obando
Tomb at Obando

Obando is one of the three main archaeological sites, for which San Agustin in well known. The park is actually various funeral grounds, which have been partially excavated and where you can see the statues of many designs and sizes that guarded the tombs, as well as tombs themselves and the occasional sarcophagus. However, many of the tombs had been plundered of their gold and valuables before the archaeologists arrived. Obando had a few underground tombs but there was very little to see in them apart from a few flat stones.

Tomb at Alto de Los Idolos
Tomb at Alto de Los Idolos

Our next stop was Alto de Los Idoles, the second largest site. We ordered lunch for an hour’s time and set off to wander amongst the tombs for the intervening hour. Unfortunately, all the information was in Spanish, which left a few questions unanswered as far as I was concerned! I strolled around with Thorr, who had a particular interest in history, and we ended up discussing English social and economic history, amongst a lot of other things. On exiting the park, we had a quick look at the museum (we were running out of time) and I realised that it probably would have been beneficial to start there as all the information was translated into English.

Reptile guardian of the tomb at Alto de Los Idolos
Reptile guardian of the tomb at Alto de Los Idolos
Tomb with some of the paint still visible
Tomb with some of the ochre paint still visible

We had lunch at the one and only cafe, where my sandwich was not nearly as appetising as the sizzling meat that was on Thorr’s plate, and then we were on the move again. The roads were extremely rutted and really required a 4W drive vehicle, so it was very slow travelling from A to B. However, the scenery was so magnificent and we took the opportunity to quiz Orlando that it didn’t really matter how much time it took.

View at Salto de Bordones
View at Salto de Bordones
View down the valley at Salto de Bordones
View down the valley at Salto de Bordones

The last stops of the day were at waterfalls, one of which, Salto de Bordones, was the second highest (I think) in South America. This particular spot afforded us a wonderful view down the valley and across the mountains.

We made a short stop at the nearby village of Bordones, where a bus was waiting full of school children, whom I tried to photograph and whom, I am sure, were having a laugh at my expense. (Having looked at the photograph afterwards, I realised one of the boys was making a rude gesture with his finger.)

School boys on the bus
School boys on the bus
Thorr, Italia , Orlanda and me at Salto de Bordones
Thorr, Italia , Orlanda and me at Salto de Bordones

We arrived back in San Agustin at 5.30pm and I walked back to the hostel, glad to stretch my legs a little after sitting in a very bumpy jeep all day, (although I did have the front seat so was probably in the most comfortable position!). Dinner was a social event once again, as I shared the table with a young English couple, Maddie and Nick, who were travelling through South America after spending two years in Korea, and Till, the German from the previous evening. We were later joined by Jacob, another American. It was very enjoyable chatting and a good end to a good day.

San Agustin

23 April

Today was a very mixed day. The morning was lovely and sunny and, after breakfast, I strolled around the garden and took some photographs. There are a number of different seating areas around the house and the flowers are beautiful.

I decided to sit on the patio and write the blog, but was soon joined by Jacob and we ended up discussing the universe until about 2pm. He was diagnosed with Bipolar about 5 years ago, so I not only learned quite a bit about that disorder but also, ways of dealing with it other than clinical drugs. (Marijuana and meditation being his preferred options.) All the people in the hostel have been in their twenties, so it has been very interesting talking to them all, most of them having travelled far more than I and being far more street wise.

I had intended to go to the main archaeological site today and could do this on foot so, once we had finished talking, I set off. Unfortunately, this resulted in an incident that meant I had my bag stolen, complete with camera (and the last 6 weeks of photos), my purse (credit card and bank card) and phone. The rest of the day was spent making a report to the police and recovering. However, everyone in the hostel was very kind and helped me through it all. Needless to say, there won’t be any more photos on the blog for a while!

San Agustin

24 April

It had been pouring with rain overnight and continued to do so this morning, so I sat in the common area with Nick and Maddie and we chatted in front of the fire, accompanied by a cat or two and Sid, one of the dogs, who has a naughty disposition, particularly regarding one of the cats. Very belatedly, we asked Gustavo for breakfast, who obligingly provided it, even though it was 11.30am by this time! Jacob joined us as we were finishing and so the morning passed….

It eventually stopped raining and the four of us walked into town to the bank, had a coffee and topped up supplies at the supermarket. People around town are very friendly and I left feeling comfortable and not as wary and suspicious, as I had felt after my bag incident.

Back at the Casa, I spent an hour or so in my room, from where I could hear the parrots being teased by Nick. These birds are very funny and seem to love the attention. Later, we all congregated in front of the fire once again, and drank wine before dinner, which got Nick, especially, very chatty. He is a ‘bad’ boy from Essex and some of his past exploits are very amusing. He is very likeable and Maddie seems to keep him within reasonable boundaries now!

At dinner, we were also joined by an Australian couple from Perth and a Colombian, who had been their Spanish teacher when he had lived there. It was a very convivial dinner and Nick, Maddie and I sat back around the fire afterwards, finishing the wine. As usual, the food was excellently cooked by Gustavo. This hostel has been excellent in every way and Harry, Gustavo and all the other staff are extremely welcoming and helpful.