Last two weeks on the road…

May 9th, 2010 by David

It felt a little strange to sit and write of rainforest treks and sunny beaches while the last snow was melting outside the window in Sweden, which is why this post is over a month late. But here it is anyway – our last two weeks on the road…

Kuna indian molas in Casco Viejo, Panama City.

Kuna indian molas in Casco Viejo, Panama City.

Back to being backpackers again after disembarking from Tahina and ending two great weeks spent in the San Blas archipelago. After setting foot on mainland Panama we caught a bus from Colon across the whole country over to the Pacific side and Panama City – actually only a couple short hours away. Our first day in Panama City we went to the historical part of town, Casco Viejo. It has lots of colonial buildings, some were being renovated at the moment but many parts of the area feel quite rundown. We found a museum about the Panama Canal – it was mostly in Spanish but I picked up some things…for example over 22,000 workers died in the first attempt to build it, from yellow fever and malaria, before the French gave up and the US took over! Later in the afternoon when we were leaving a restaurant the waiter told us there was going to be a big protest outside and we better get out of the area – we had actually seen some police in riot gear walking around earlier… Unfortunately no taxi drivers knew our hostel or street though, and we had to walk around for another half an hour, asking five different cars, before we finally found one that would take us.

View towards Panama City from Parque Metropolitano.

View towards Panama City from Parque Metropolitano.

The next day we went to the Metropolitan national park – it is an area of forest enclosed on three sides by the capital city, but connecting to a series of protected areas all the way to the Caribbean on the north side creating a long wildlife corridor. Panama has been clever enough to protect the forest in the catchment area for their freshwater supply and canal (in Malaysian Borneo for example, once a new mega-dam is built they usually use the all new access-roads to log and destroy the forest in the catchment area, so the (taxpayer funded..) dam gets stilted up and useless in just a decade..). The first trail we walked was short – we could still hear the traffic – a second trail took us a little deeper into the forest. It looks like a mostly dry forest – open canopy and not too many epiphytes but an amazing tangle of lianas everywhere. We had fun watching the leaf-cutter ant super-highways on the ground – they have a dedicated class of bigger ants that clear the ant-trails, removing stones and twigs, so that the smaller ones can work on chopping up and carry the leafs around and down into their underground fungus plantations. Amazing non-stop workaholics. We saw another funny animal as well, Coati’s – the same long-nosed cuddly-looking raccoons we spotted all the way down in Argentina a couple months back. A viewpoint on a hill in the park had nice views over the forest, with the skyscrapers of the downtown city and the ocean visible further away.

Geoffroy's Tamarin in Boquete.

Geoffroy's Tamarin in Boquete.

We left Panama City for Boquete, figuring this would be our last chance to fit a couple of long uncomfortable bus rides in before we finish the trip! This one didn’t disappoint – the bus was probably about twice the age of the driver, a boy who looked only around 15. His driving was better than anticipated though, and the gear-box actually lasted most of the 7-8 hour trip, finally collapsing an hour outside the town of David around nightfall. It was dark by the time we got to David, after waiting by the roadside and switching to another bus, but luckily in David the buses to Boquete had still not stopped running for the day. Boquete is quite popular it seems – we walked around for quite a while with the big backpacks finding all hostels full (or closed for the night) – got stuck with an expensive hotel room for the first night in the end and hopped over to a nicer hostel in the morning. And of course by the time we had finally secured a place to sleep there were no places open to eat…we were lucky to find a small ice-cream parlor that still hadn’t closed. Any day that ends with strawberries and ice-cream for dinner is Ok in my book!

Margay cat in Paradise Gardens.

Margay cat in Paradise Gardens.

Boquete is a cute little mountain village, famous for coffee growing (and strawberries actually!) – it has become popular as a retirement location for Europeans and Americans during the last decade or so, and all the nice little German bakeries and cafe’s gave me a great chance to try to get my coffee drinking up to speed before visiting friends and family in Sweden… The first thing we did though was visit an animal rescue center a few kilometers walk outside town – they had adorable little Tamarind monkeys with babies and lots of colourful macaws and other birds but my favourite was a Margay cat. An amazingly beautiful jungle cat, quite similar to an Ocelot but more adopted to a life in the trees – jaguar pattern fur and about twice the size of a house cat. Most of the animals had previously been kept as pets, ending up here when owners couldn’t take care of them properly – many had stories of the horrific conditions they were found in on signs outside the cages, but occasionally they get rehabilitated enough to be released. Another amazing animal there was a Kinkajuo – a “cat-monkey”-like raccoon-family creature, sleepy-looking (nocturnal) and with a tail as long as the body and a tongue three times as long as the head!

Cloud forest in Volcan Baru national park.

Cloud forest in Volcan Baru national park.

The next morning in Boquete we started early to walk the Quetzal trail, a famous bird-watching trail in the cloud-forests of the Volcan Baru national park. We took a taxi from the hostel to be at the trail-head at 7am, at 1700 meters altitude. The cloud-forest was dense and dripping, covered in epiphytes – more and more the higher we got. The first few kilometers followed a 4×4 track, then the trail took off as a narrow path climbing higher up the slopes of the volcano – some parts were destroyed by landslides but it was quite easy to follow. The bird song in the early morning was amazing – we probably only saw 5-10 species (and we didn’t spot the famous Quetzal) but we must have heard a hundred different species sing during the first couple hours after sunrise. And the forest was stunning, mist drifting in and out as we reached the higher slopes at 2500 meters, trees covered in long beards of lichens and branches so heavy with bromeliads that they sometimes break off and fall to the ground. It started to rain a bit during the last couple of hours while we climbed down the hills on the other side of the mountain, and at the opposite trail-head we were lucky to find a bus waiting for a group of Americans we had met on the trail. We hitched a lift with them back to Boquete via the town of David, rounding the volcano on the south side to return (there are no roads on the north side, although an unpopular Panamanian politician once wanted to pave the famous trek through the cloud-forest national park, unintentionally giving birth to the country’s environmental movement!).

Coffee plantation in Boquete.

Coffee plantation in Boquete.

The day after the trek we took a tour to a coffee plantation, run by Casa Ruiz. The guide, who belonged to one of Panama’s indigenous groups, was very good and toured us by the plantation and processing plant and explained all the different steps the beans have to pass through before we finished with a tasting session (chocolatey, vinagery, or fishy…? – the experts can pick out some 150 different subtle flavours apparently). I was amazed how well the plantations are thought out – coffea arabica bushes need a bit of shade so there are lots of trees above, a mixed forest with lots of fruit trees to harvest from and places for birds to make nests – more birds means less insects so less need to spray. Some of the shading-plants had been chosen because they can absorb nitrogen from the air, meaning less need to fertilize. For roasting they burn the husks from the beans and some firewood from the trees (which are trimmed every year so they don’t shade the coffee too much) – the ash in turn is spread back on the farm as fertilizer. Very clever – nearly a closed system, and some of their farms were fully organic. At the moment they were planting a lot of a low-yield variety called Guessha (Geisha) which has won Panama a lot of best-coffee-in-the-world prices – it’s the second most expensive after Asian palm-civet coffee (where the beans have passed through the digestive tract of a civet – I was slightly tempted to try a 25 euro cup of it back in Hong Kong…). The guide also talked a little about how Boquete has changed since becoming a westerner retirement spot – few locals can afford land any more and some coffee plantations are actually disappearing as they get turned into gated housing estates… At the same time people are happy for the income of course, and several of his friends who had sold houses or land for hundreds of thousands of dollars had retired themselves afterwards (..although somewhere else in Panama where it is much cheaper!).

Back to Panama City again – no mishaps on the bus this time. We went out for a nice dinner in Casco Viejo with Frank and Karen from Tahina, and their new crew Lara and Jason. We had hoped to make it back to join the two-day Panama Canal transit originally, but in the end we didn’t have enough days (though if the the canal authorities had given them more than a one-minute notice of delaying them for a day extra we probably could have – we spotted them going through on the canal webcams at least though).

Hummingbird in Soberania national park.

Hummingbird in Soberania national park.

Our final excursion in Panama before catching a 2am flight to Miami was Pipeline Road in Soberania national park. It is another famous bird-watching location, only an hour from the city, and we set out to be there before 7am (making for a very long day with the flight out the same night). This location has the world record for maximum-bird-species-spotted-in-24-hours – an amazing 350! For a comparison in all of Europe there’s less than 1000. I can’t help to think though that if someone is still able to tell bird 347 from bird 348 after looking through a pair of binoculars for 24 hours straight it probably says nearly as much for the quality of Panamanian coffee as it does for the country’s astonishing biodiversity!

Forest in Soberania national park.

Forest in Soberania national park.

We first spent a while by the park headquarters, trying to take photos of all the different hummingbird species making rapid dashes back and forth to the sugar-water feeders hanging outside. Very fast – sometimes they take off from the shutter-release sound from the camera before it has even taken the photo! When I felt I had enough blurry tail-feathers on my memory card a guide from the park took us to a canopy tower nearby. This was the place to be to see birds – they had a powerful telescope mounted on a tripod up there and we saw several species of toucans, doves, birds of prey – and howler monkeys. After another short walk by a water hole, kingfishers and jacanas, we spotted several sloth and more howler monkeys before the guide sent us off to walk the pipeline road alone. It was past 10am now and it was starting to get very hot – fewer birds out and we spotted mostly leaf-cutter ants, and more howler monkeys. The forest was nice though, but not as pretty as the Soberania cloud-forests. Lowland forest is always a little less exiting to walk in, as most life is invisible high up in the canopy. The taxi back to Panama City picked us up at 2pm, and we spent our last Panama hours in a shopping center, starting to work on replacing those of the clothes in our backpacks that had to be thrown out after a year on the road (…nearly every item I own according to Edel, and especially the hat! – ..but I managed to hold on to a few! At the end of our last year-trip in Bangkok I gave a big bundle to a homeless guy on the street, but there is probably noone in Panama City who would wear my leave-behinds from this trip..).

Miami beach.

Miami beach.

We landed in Miami in the morning of March 28th. Our final flight home was in the evening of the 30th, and Edel had planned another big round of shopping. Coming from Panama City I actually found it pretty cold in Miami, which didn’t look good for heading back home to Sweden (which still had snow on the ground) two days later! We took a stroll on Miami beach in the morning since the hotel didn’t have our room ready until noon – the city reminded me a lot of the Grand Theft Auto Vice City computer game I played years ago – I recognized lots of things from the game and felt a slight urge to steal a golf cart to try and run over joggers on the beach with…and see if I could find a rocket launcher hidden by someone’s swimming pool! I should try to sleep more on flights… More insanity: Miami is quite possibly the trendiest place on earth – during our days there I saw several people actually bump into and falling over things because they refuse to stop wearing sunglasses after dark!

Then it was over – 356 days on the road. On the way back we nearly didn’t have a flight home from Miami as BA had chosen exactly this day as the culmination of their striking efforts…and a couple of weeks later I nearly didn’t have a flight from Sweden to Ireland due to eruptions of the unpredictable (and unpronounceable) Eyjafjallajökull. A sailboat is sounding better and better…

Gone sailing

March 26th, 2010 by David
The catamaran Tahina.

The catamaran Tahina.

Google Earth has been a big obsession of mine since we got home from our first round-the-world trip, and I’m not the only traveller smitten with the tool. Frank Taylor writes the Google Earth blog, and we’ve been in touch every now and then for the last couple of years – Frank and his wife Karen have now set off on their own five year circumnavigation by sailboat on a trip they named the Tahina Expedition. It looked like our routes might intersect in Colombia so we decided to try and meet up, and after me and Edel decided to call off our Venezuela plans Frank and Karen kindly invited us to join them onboard Tahina for the passage to Panama, spending some ten days on the paradise islands of San Blas on the way! :-D (Now maybe we should be thankful to Hugo Chavez and his power-cutting riot-inducing ways…)

Sunset over Cartagena.

Sunset over Cartagena.

Frank and Karen had an eventful passage from Aruba, with 20 feet waves and gale-force winds, but made it safely to Cartagena where we set off to to meet them, leaving Taganga once I finally felt better. Tahina is a beautiful 50 feet catamaran with lots of space, and me and Edel settled in to our own room in the left, sorry port-side, hull. Frank had to wait for a replacement water pump to arrive so we had a couple days in Cartagena before setting sail – used them to see some of the sights we had missed on our last visit before Taganga. The San Felipe fort overlooking town and the gold and history museums, pre-Columbian artefacts and post-Columbian torture instruments from the slavery and inquisition days.

BBQ island, San Blas.

BBQ island, San Blas.

In the morning of the 3rd of March we set off from the Cartagena harbour on the 24-hour passage to the San Blas islands off Panama, making a short stop to scrub some barnacles off the hull which added nearly a knot to the speed. Still amazing to me how you can sail against the wind – it was only some 30 degrees off head-on when we started, adding a few more degrees during the day. Apparently it can even be faster sailing like this than when the wind is on your back! It was fun to learn a bit about sailing while watching our progress on the screen at the helm – and learning a bit about how to use all the nautical terms properly instead of the way I like to shout them when I’m in a paddle-boat or kayak with Edel (note to self: it seems you don’t “keel-haul the square-rigged spinnaker on the starboard side to make westing!”).

Edel-foot and David-foot.

Edel-foot and David-foot.

We set a couple fishing rods once we were on the open sea – and an hour or two later they both hooked a small tuna within seconds of eachother. One of the fish was big enough to keep and Frank set the other one free. Karen is a great cook luckily, and during our days on Tahina I quickly put back the kilos I had lost while sick in Taganga. In the evening we spotted a huge cruise-ship on the AIS – heading straight for us at twice our speed. Sailing ships always have right of way on the open sea, and it wasn’t without some delight that Frank radioed them to politely get them to take their three hundred passengers and get out of our way! Me and Edel took the first night-watch, until mid-night, but the only thing moving on the radar during our hours was a few squalls. Great feeling to be sailing – amazing to move from one country to another without using a drop of fuel. As a catamaran Tahina doesn’t roll much, and we slept well even though the wind picked up during the night and we gained speed.

West Holandes Cays.

West Holandes Cays.

In the morning we arrived at the San Blas – beautiful tropical islands with post-card beaches; white sand and coconut palms overhanging the turquoise water. We stayed five nights at our first anchorage near BBQ island – a small uninhabited island where sailors by tradition meet every monday. We spent the days doing little expeditions to various islands with the dinghy and going snorkelling (though there was mostly sea-grass in this area), and watch pelicans dive for fish. Most of the San Blas islands are only sandy beaches or mangrove, but a few of the bigger ones have little banana plantations owned by the indigenous Kuna indians. The Kuna come around by the boats occasionally, selling lobster, crab or molas – colourful decorated textiles.

One of a hundred sandals on the beach.

One of a hundred sandals on the beach.

Most of the islands we visited had lots of plastic trash lying around all over the beaches, bottles and sandals…more than I probably would have guessed – ten bottles for every coconut in places. This is more of less how all “pristine” islands look today though, sadly, unless there is someone actively cleaning them. This was actually the case with BBQ island, where we had seen hardly any trash at all – one of the sailors anchored in the area had “adopted” the island and did a cleaning round every morning, picking up the pieces brought in by the waves – really lovely thing to do.

Frank working the kite photography unit.

Frank working the kite photography unit.



Since BBQ island stood out (and was of a handy size) Frank picked it for trying out his kite areal photography unit. Him and I set off in the dinghy on the one day we had at this anchorage with good sun and wind, and put the kit together on the beach, slowly sending the DSLR high up in the air before making our way around the island. Some of the coconut palms on the beach were quite high, making it difficult to work the line – we were wading waist-deep in water on one side of the island and went out in the dinghy on the other side with the kite still in the air. Kite-boating actually, the kite was pulling the boat along at about one knot speed without the engine on! Frank gets these kite-photos stitched together, corrected for topography, and then included into the base satellite imagery for Google Earth (the current resolution around San Blas is very bad, but hopefully at least this island should soon be sparkling!).

Edel with Frank and Karen.

Edel with Frank and Karen.

We had a couple of days with bad weather while at the first anchorage (it does rain in paradise..) so we didn’t get as much time in the water as I’d liked – me and Edel started every morning with a pre-breakfast swim from the boat though, rain or no rain. The BBQ on the island on the monday was fun, meeting some of the other sailors and cruising couples. When chatting with other travellers me and Edel are normally used to being the ones out on the road the longest, but our 11 months is nothing among cruisers – most people we met had been sailing around for years or even decades!

Inviting turquoise waters.

Inviting turquoise waters.



The morning after the BBQ we sailed to a new anchorage by the West Holandes Cays group of islands in San Blas. This spot was excellent – sheltered on two sides by islands and with great coral reefs to snorkel just a short swim from the boat. We spent four days here, and I think I probably spent more time in the water than out, nearly knowing all the reef dwellers by name before we left. There was a big sandy area close to the anchor where lots of sting rays would be buried in the morning, and nearby over the sea grass I’d usually find a school of reef squid – great fun to watch as they swim in formation and change colour. Also saw big trigger fish, file fish and trumpet fish and so many parrot fish they were swimming in schools which is rare. There were two big reefs going all the way to the surface, a lion-fish hiding in a cave in one of them, fields of brain-coral and sea-fans in between. Swimming back to the boat there would be a huge school of tiny fish, tens of thousands, hiding in the shade under the hull, amazing to watch as the school morph in shape when you swim closer or swim up from below to be completely surrounded by the fish. One day we did another barnacle scrub – I’d spent so much time snorkelling by now that it was no problem to stay down below the keel to scrub – walking around upside down underwater below on the hull to joke with Edel. A big spotted eagle ray came cruising below the boat while we were doing this so I took off to follow it for a while – beautiful to watch, slow gentle movements of the nearly two meter wind-span as it was flying around over the bottom.

Check out some of Frank’s underwater photographs from San Blas in this National Geographic article or this Picasa Album.

VideoRay waiting to explore.

VideoRay waiting to explore.

We also used this spot to play with another of Frank’s cool techie toys – a VideoRay underwater robot/camera! It is attached by a long cable to a control unit on the boat, where you can watch the video output and steer the little submarine around. Great fun, and at least as much fun to be out snorkelling next to the robot – watching it chase around and try to keep up with the reef squid or pretend to be one of them swimming along in the same formation!

One evening Frank set the lights under the boat and we used a strong flashlight to see what strange animals we could attract from the dark – first just lots of plankton, then jellyfish started showing up and some fish – the squid came by as well for a quick dash in and out of the light. Some animal was shooting off neon-green bioluminescence as well here and there in the waves, glowing for 5-10 seconds each time (…maybe a prawn fishing or scaring off predators? – didn’t look like the usual shiny blue dots of bioluminescent plankton). There were lots of stars out as well, the sky clear and no cities anywhere near us – never short of cool techie toys Frank had an image-stabilized pair of binoculars with enough magnification to pick out the nebula in Orion’s sword.

Chichime Cays anchorage.

Chichime Cays anchorage.


When it was time to leave for the next anchorage me and Edel did a final snorkel in the morning, saying goodbye to the two meter barracuda that had taken up residence under the catamaran, and then we set off. In addition to the flying fish we also got to see dolphins this time, jumping and swimming next to the boat. After one tack to be able to get as close as possible without engine we motored in the final short bit. Chichime Cays anchorage was more busy – a couple dozen boats instead of the one or two neighbours we’d had at our last stop, and there was a small Kuna indian village on one of the islands. Me and Frank went out with the dinghy outside the fringing reef to try the snorkelling – there was a good bit of current so hard to swim but we did get to see a huge elkhorn coral, 7-10 meters. The second spot we picked was nicer, several big coral heads rising up from a deeper sandy bottom, and enormous boulders of brain coral with caves underneath where squirrel fish and bigeye were hiding.

Flying the spinnaker.

Flying the spinnaker.

From San Blas it is roughly one day of sailing to get to Colon by the Caribbean side of the Panama canal. There is a spot halfway called Isla Grande which we sailed on to after it was recommended by the captain from another boat (who visited us wearing a pair of speedos that even Borat would have found shocking). After seven hours of sailing we reached the island just around sunset – continuing to Colon the next morning. Now we had the wind in our back so Frank took the opportunity to show us the most magnificent sail on Tahina. The spinnaker is a bit of work to get set (and even more to try to put back down in its sack while the wind is catching it), but it looks great when it is full of wind and it pulled us along splendidly. We saw more dolphins on the way also!

Karen's artwork on deck.

Karen's artwork on deck.

Arriving in busy Colon was a little strange after nearly two weeks of solitude on the islands – hundreds of massive cargo vessels were waiting outside the harbour for their turn to go through the canal. The AIS on the screen at the helm showed so many ships the marina entrance looked completely impenetrable! After arriving in Shelter Bay marina we spent two more nights on Tahina, getting the passports stamped and everything organized before it was time to say goodbye. We had a really great time with Frank and Karen, and it was a little strange to be back to being backpackers again now for the final ten days of our trip. It was very nice to get an introduction to sailing, another mode of long-term travelling which was new for us, but certainly very interesting. Round three perhaps…

Sea shell on the beach, San Blas.

Sea shell on the beach, San Blas.

Hugo Chávez ruined my holiday! …

March 25th, 2010 by David
Taganga bay.

Taganga bay.

After finishing the Ciudad Perdida trek we settled in again for a few days in Taganga. The first day we went out to try the diving – the dive center was a little bit sloppy (or just Caribbean laid-back?) and didn’t check our certs or do briefings pre-dive etc. The first dive from the boat was in the Tayrona national park and the visibility was quite bad, just 5-7 meters, and we lost the group for a while. Nice fish though – we’ve done most of our dives in the Pacific so it was nice to see the difference when hopping in on the Caribbean side – lots of trumpet-fish, box-fish, black-and-white moray eels and a few lion fish what aren’t supposed to be here (they are a recently introduced species – munching their way through everything on the coast during the last couple years…escapees from a hurricane-damaged Florida aquarium possibly). I saw an octopus on the second dive which was in a spot with a bit better visibility, with lots of nice huge boulders of brain coral.

View over Taganga.

View over Taganga.

Next I got sick – turned out I had picked up some stomach bug on the trek probably…not something quite as vicious as the amoebas that visited me a few times in India, each time sending me to bed with a fever for several days, but not something that seemed to be in a hurry to leave me either. I still felt ok and had appetite, but the belly was completely broken, day after day. There was a small hospital across the road from the hostel we were staying in Taganga – conveniently located but that was about the only thing it had going for it. They spent two days telling me they’d have a result in an hour, then on the third day told me it didn’t seem to be amoebas or parasites, so it must be something else – “maybe a virus or something”. Great. I was starting to feel skinny at this stage. I had already started a course of Flagyl antibiotics when I got tired of waiting for them, and went on the medicine they prescribed as well – now I really felt sick. It seemed to work though finally – I felt better again some eight days after we had returned from the trek, but I had lost a full 5-6 kilos. My tiny rounded belly that Edel had been joking about (…built up on gorgeous Sichuan cooking a few months earlier) was all gone. At least I was back in the land of the eating again – went in to the Santa Marta shopping center and wolfed down a big greasy burger!

Recovering in Taganga.

Recovering in Taganga.

After Taganga and the Caribbean coast of Colombia we had originally planned to continue overland in to Venezuela, but that plan now seemed roughly as difficult as trying to stop my pants from falling down. The country is always a bit turbulent of course, but it has gotten more and more so over the last few years while Colombia has gotten safer and safer. The situation had particularly deteriorated over the last couple months while we had kept an eye at it – a once-in-a-hundred-years drought had worsened to crippled the country’s water and electricity supply, and Hugo Chavez has taken a break from nationalizing everything that moves to spend some time randomly cutting power in various parts of the country resulting in lots of protests. Riots in Merida, which would have been our first stop, left several dead. The UK government travel advisory page was saying to not go anywhere near the border with Colombia – but then again the language on these pages can be a bit overly alarming…their Sweden one warns about swine flu and terrorism and the Colombia one says not to do the Sierra Nevada trek we had just done even though it’s been perfectly safe for half a decade. I found some blogs on the internet from people who had been in towns in Venezuela during the riots, but what we never found was anyone who had been there recently and had anything positive to say about the country. The currency situation sounded very messy also – there’s one official rate and one unofficial black-market rate, the first is over three times higher but if you want to use the second you pretty much need to bring all the money you plan to spend in the country throughout your whole stay with you in dollars, stashed somewhere in your backpack (which wouldn’t have been fun even in a country that wasn’t known for muggings). And finally the unusual drought that is crippling the Venezuelan economy is also crippling several of the natural wonders that we had wanted to come to the country to see in the first place. Angel falls, the worlds tallest waterfall, is only a thin ribbon of water even during a normal dry season and so is almost completely gone during this one, the river to get there unnavigable. An amazingly strange phenomena called Catatumbo lightning, near-constant electrical storms, lightning without thunder, that for centuries has lit up the skies above lake Maracaibo stopped completely in January this year. There’s something tragically ironic about a petrol state crippled by a climate change related El Niño event…

This just doesn’t seem to be the time to visit, and while we were a bit disappointed about missing the table mountains of the Gran Sabana something even better did come up…

Walking in the mountains of the Elder Brothers

March 18th, 2010 by David

Trekking to the lost city of the Tayrona

The Ciudad Perdida ruins.

The Ciudad Perdida ruins.

The Machu Picchu of Colombia, Ciudad Perdida is a series of ruins three days worth of trekking into the jungles of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Discovered only in the 1970’s by illegal grave-robbers (extremely organized, grave-robbers here even have their own union) the ruins are centuries older than the more famous lost city in Peru. After a few years of grave robbers duelling each other on the mountain (an open area among the ruins is named Plaza Muerte after one such event…) word finally got out and proper archeologists could analyze what was left, and eventually the area would also be opened to tourists. Though not without risk…one group of tourists were kidnapped by left-wing guerrillas back in 2003 but nothing has happened since then (…one unconfirmed rumour has it there’s some sort of “protection money” included in the fee we paid to trek there) and the hostages that time were treated fairly well – some Israeli tourists in the group apparently said afterwards that they were happy to get a several month long jungle-trip even though they only paid for six days! Anyhow, for this reason it is not a particularly good idea to trek there independently – everyone has to be part of a group with a guide.

Kogi village in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Kogi village in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

My other interest in trekking this region is to catch a glimpse of the Kogi, the indigenous people of the area. Probably the most fascinating indigenous group I’ve ever read about, the Kogi has been called the only civilization in South America to survive conquest, maintaining most of their traditions and way of life throughout the past centuries. They, together with the Arhuaco or Ika and Wiwa, are direct descendants of the Tayrona who built the lost city, and who retreated higher and higher into the mountains to escape Spanish greed for gold and slaves. To them the Sierra Nevada mountains are the Heart of the World, a place to be guarded and a place essential for keeping the entire world in balance. In the dawn of days all humans lived here, but today only them, the Elder Brothers, have stayed behind to act as guardians of the world while the Younger Brothers (the name for all outsiders) threaten this balance with mining, deforestation and the general wanton destruction we like to get up to in order to further civilization. There is a great documentary called “From The Heart Of The World: The Elder Brothers Warning” about the Kogi (they invited a filming crew in the 90’s after the snow cover on the peaks of their mountain started rapidly disappearing), and a short National Geographic article here (there is a beautifully written book called One River by the same author, about indigenous people in the Amazon).

To the secretive Kogi the lost city, known to them as Teyuna, was never lost, but kept in secret for generations and visited regularly by shamans for ceremonies.

Edel after a night in hammocks.

Edel after a night in hammocks.

The start of the trip wasn’t very comfortable – a couple hours on a bumpy road in a big truck/jeep leaking exhaust fumes until we reached the trailhead. We were in a group of 13 plus guides, and the walk the first day was quite short – starting near sea level and climbing some 500 meters to the first camp. The coastal hills of the Sierra Nevada are fairly dry and open, some of the area farmed – we will get deeper into the forest as we climb higher. The day was hot, but there was a a nice swimming hole in the river along the way and lots of stops for fresh fruit. Mules were carrying the bulk of our supplies so we had only daypacks with camera and some extra clothes to carry ourselves. The first night we slept in hammocks, open air with corrugated iron roof above and mosquito net over the hammocks. By the river right next to the camp was a lovely swimming hole, under a big waterfall with tall trees full of lianas and epiphytes towering above.

Horses at our first camp.

Horses at our first camp.

Something else we were a bit less enthusiastic about was that in the morning we were offered the chance to visit a clandestine cocaine-factory a few kilometers deeper into the jungle! It wasn’t an official part of the trek, but for 15$ extra per person some campesinos at the camp could bring us there… I admit I was a bit curious to see this shady operation, but after all the horrible misery brought down on this country by foreign demand for the drug it didn’t feel like something we wanted to contribute to, even just to take photos. Everyone else in the group went though. In addition we were close to the national park now, and national parks are the one place the US war-on-drugs programme aren’t allowed to air-spray extremely toxic leaf defoliants….with the obvious consequence that the coca plantations are now moving in to deforest some of Colombia’s most biodiverse and protected areas.

Kogi man in the Mutanyi village.

Kogi man in the Mutanyi village.

The second day we met the Kogi. From the first camp we climbed a 700m hill then down again into another valley to enter Kogi territory. The first village we came across was just a couple houses – some made of wood and some clay, all of them round, roofs made of dried palm-fronds. One man, an older woman and a number of children were home, and the guide introduced us and gave the children some sweets. All dressed in pure white, this is the first time we’ve met an indigenous people who still wear their traditional clothes. Beautiful kids with long black hair (both men and women keep it long) – quite reserved and neither shy nor particularly curious, I didn’t get the same mad giggling response that we were used to from remote villages in Asia on showing children their picture in the camera…did find a moment to play peek-a-boo with one of the youngest though which is fun across all cultures! The men all carry a gourd with crushed lime inside (from sea-shells traded from other tribes) and a stick to fish out the lime – it is used when chewing coca to activate the chemicals inside the leaf. The tribes here and all across the Andes have used the properties of the plant for thousands of years, as a mild stimulant, appetite-suppressant or for dealing with altitude, before getting caught up in the guerilla-wars in the last few decades after it got turned into a mindless drug. Kogi men can start to carry the gourd at 16 the guide was telling us, when they are old enough to take a wife. The Kogi villages around here are the ones with the most contact with outsiders – ones higher up in the mountains are still very isolated.

Kogi children by the river.

Kogi children by the river.

We passed a bigger village not long after the first, some twenty huts including a bigger ceremonial house, though in this village no Kogi were home. The guide still showed us around a little, before we made our way to camp 2. This camp was actually run by some of the Kogi – nice that some of the tourism money reach them also. There was another fantastic swimming spot in the river close-by, a bigger stream with a series of waterfalls a little higher. Kogi children showed up every now and then – on the opposite riverbank washing clothes or running across the river behind us, never taking much notice of the strangers. Usually moving without a sound and fading in and out of the forest so quickly, they were almost like forest spirits from some Japanese animated movie. I might just be getting nostalgic since we’re getting close to the end of our trip, but I think it’s one of my favourite moments from the year, sitting there on the riverside after a swim watching them, the youngest members of an ancient culture, dressed in their traditional white and going about life by the riverside like they always have. Precious and fragile…if you watch for too long they might be gone forever.

Kogi children in the Mutanyi village.

Kogi children in the Mutanyi village.

As Colombia has gotten safer and safer and there are fewer and fewer left-wing guerilla or right-wing para-militaries on the mountain the biggest threat to the Kogi today is probably from different types of well-meaning idiots… One of the first hits if you google the tribe is from a group of people trying to bring them homeopathy … useless quack medicine which the WHO recently issued a warning against as it contains no active ingredients whatsoever and cost thousands of lives globally every year when used in place of real medicine. Missionaries would be another group…always there to help save another soul by converting them to the one true religion, but in indigenous cultures spiritual beliefs and mythology are usually intertwined with their medicinal knowledge and their history so robbing them of the first takes away much more. A third type of well-meaning idiots could be the one I belong to…tourists. I’m hoping that the Ciudad Perdida trek, bound to increase in numbers as tourism grows in Colombia, will help keep the mountain safe as the government won’t want to loose the income, and it looks promising that the Kogi has some say in how things are run, but you never know how things play out. Independent and self-sufficient they are quite rich since they’re not operating within our economy, but entering the cash economy they might likely end up poor. Their elders are apparently discussing some sort of rotation between the villages as the ones close to the touristed areas are changing faster than the ones higher up in the mountains – a rotation might help the Kogi keep their identity homogeneous.

Kogi child by the river.

Kogi child by the river.

Steps to Ciudad Perdida.

Steps to Ciudad Perdida.

Day three we started the climb up towards the lost city, first balancing on a narrow path above the river then crossing it before climbing another ridge to enter a new valley. The forest was deeper here, though in a few places we passed small Kogi banana plantations and in one spot, on top of a hill overlooking the valley, a small Kogi hut containing a wooden sugar-cane mill. The guide cut down a cane and gave us a piece each – dripping in sugar as you chew it before spitting out the raw fibers. The forest here is real cloud-forest, trees so heavy in bromeliads and other epiphytes that branches break off and fall to the ground. Some bromeliads were growing mid-air even – attached to thin areal roots certain types of trees send down. We followed the river for an hour, crossing it eight times, before reaching the old Tayrona stone steps leading up from the river to the lost city. Roughly 1200 narrow steps, a 300 meter climb, hidden well behind the jungle and hardly visible from the river if you didn’t know where to look.

Steps to Ciudad Perdida.

Steps to Ciudad Perdida.

The first area we came to contained a number of round stone terraces, still overgrown with moss, trees and roots – very atmospheric. There would have been a house in the center of each terrace; round houses, round plazas, everything round in Tayrona cities, everything square in ours. The entrance area had functioned as a purification place to be visited before going to the temples of the higher ceremonial city. Small paths and narrow stone steps led off in all directions – we followed the one leading higher. After passing a few more terraces still shaded by jungle trees towering above we came to the main stairway – wide and straight unlike the rest – which lead to a long series of terraces culminating in the biggest one in a fully cleared area at the top at roughly 1300 meters altitude (this terrace is now also occasionally used as helipad by those who don’t want to trek for three days to get up here). The group had split up along the climb so we were exploring almost on our own – everyone met up again at the top. There were also a handful of Colombian soldiers stationed there, standing guard at the main terrace with their tents a little further up the hill. The views from the top terrace were terrific – layer after layer of forest-covered mountains in shades of blue towards the horizon, clouds obscuring the peaks.

Ciudad Perdida ruins.

Ciudad Perdida ruins.


Our camp was slightly higher, on an opposite hill looking down over the ruins. Apparently we were the last group to spend the night there – the new camp will be down by the river below all the ruins, per Kogi wishes in order to respect their ancestry. This is still early days of tourism to this site, which could in time perhaps rival Machu Picchu, and it is nice to see that the Kogi get to have a hand in shaping the future of tourism at the site already from an early stage.



Ciudad Perdida ruins.

Ciudad Perdida ruins.

In the morning we did a three hour walk around the ruins before starting the climb down. The guide pointed out two map-stones, the carvings thought to represent the streets and roads in the old Tayrona city (interesting to have maps but no written language). We visited the lower “residential” areas below the ceremonial city, walking many of the narrow paths and steps through the jungle, and passing two Kogi shaman huts before starting to climb down. It had rained during the night and the steep steps were very slippy, me and Edel fell once each. After all the river crossings on the way back we spent another night at camp 2, the next day walking past the Kogi villages again before the final night in hammocks in camp 1, the next morning arriving back to our home in Taganga.

Kogi child in the Mutanyi village.

Kogi child in the Mutanyi village.

View over the Sierra Nevada.

View over the Sierra Nevada.