A Travellerspoint blog

A mouth full of river water

San Gil and Villa de Leyva

semi-overcast
View Destination - south on ew5827's travel map.

We finally said goodbye to the Carribean coast for the last time and headed 15/16 hours south to the town of San Gil in the region of Santander. We took the night bus from Santa Marta to Bucaramanga then changed buses for the final 4/5 hours to San Gil. The final leg was slow as we came to a standstill twice, firstly due to an accident and then because they were resurfacing the road. The scenery more than made up for it though as the road meandered along the Chicamocha canyon. Lining the road were cacti and cliff faces of jagged rocks and down below the great valley offered some spectacular views. Someone had managed to scale one of the cliffs and carve a family into the rock about 20 feet up. I have no idea how they got up there.

San Gil church and the hills beyond the town

San Gil church and the hills beyond the town

A rainbow above the town

A rainbow above the town

Walkway in San Gil

Walkway in San Gil

San Gil is a pretty town in the hills by the Rio Fonce with lots of activities on offer. Chris and I decided to go white water rafting in a dingy-kayak. Our instructor, Nestor, and others from his company form the Colombian rafting team so we knew we were in safe hands. We nearly turned over on the first set of rapids but managed to stay upright, just. Although some later ones got the better of us and we were all thrown out. Nestor got back to the boat first, got in and helped me back in but Chris was way ahead of us riding the rapids solo. We were paddling hard to catch him up when I heard Nestor shouting, glimpsed round and saw I was the only one in the raft! By the time Nestor had got back in and we finally caught Chris up, all we could do was watch from a distance as the last huge wave swallowed him up and spat him out the other side, then the water calmed down!

Chris and I had swapped places during the fall out so for the rest of the rapids I was at the front. I realised why Nestor had put us the other way around to begin with as with every wave the weight of the other two at the back sent me flying up in the air, so much so that sometimes I couldn't even reach the water with my paddle! You also get smacked in the face by the waves a lot more at the front.

Nestor pointed out a few trees and the odd iguana here and there on the calmer sections. I was thinking yeah yeah, iguana, we've seen so many of those by now. Then one came speedily swimming in front of the kayak! I've never seen them swim before, at least not up close, so that was new. I didn't realise how fast they were.

We finished up on the river by the town, happy that we'd only fallen out the once. Chris and I packed up and had a drink in town then got a bus to Tunja that afternoon. Not before realising we'd left our wet clothes on the hostel roof terrace though and had to go back in a mad rush before the bus left without us! If we'd missed that bus we wouldn't have made it on to Villa de Leyva otherwise.

Rio Fonce, San Gil

Rio Fonce, San Gil

Arriving in Villa de Leyva in the dark added to the atmosphere I think. It's a colonial town that's been really well-preserved, protected since the 1950s. We've been to a lot of colonial towns up to this point and to be honest I wasn't expecting to be that wowed but I was actually shocked at how well-preserved and how pretty it was. Every house is painted white with a tiled roof, and dark wood and green accents. The streets are cobbled and lit up with lamps at night - the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe style. OK so there are a handful of tourist shops and bars with modern music blaring at night but they try to keep cars out of the main plaza (the largest in Colombia) and the surrounding blocks, and everyone has to drive at 10mph max. in that area. It's quaint.

The main plaza

The main plaza

The church in the main plaza

The church in the main plaza

Another church in the centre

Another church in the centre

A typical street

A typical street

We stayed with a lovely lady who owns a house a couple of blocks from the main plaza. It was interesting to see inside one of the buildings. The house was centred around a courtyard with a garden at the back. Our room was an outhouse off the garden. The kitchen was interesting with tiles everywhere and an old fashioned range (along with a new(er) cooker). Her garden was full of fruit trees and vegetable plants and we had home-made smoothies for breakfast from some freshly picked small green fruits.

The central courtyard

The central courtyard

The following day we walked up a hill from the town to get a birds eye view. The elevation wasn't great but it gave an idea of the surrounding area. We were surprised that is wasn't just the centre but the whole town is in keeping with the colonial era. When we came to leave, even the bus station which is obviously a new build (relatively) has been done in good taste.

Pretty, sympathetically-designed, newer house

Pretty, sympathetically-designed, newer house

Posted by ew5827 15:50 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

The Lost City

Ciudad Perdida and Santa Marta


View Destination - south on ew5827's travel map.

The first overnight trek we did up Volcán Tajumulco didn’t start off so swimmingly (hyperventilating, I felt like I was dying!) so I was a bit apprehensive about trying the 5 day trek to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. I didn’t have much time to think about it though as within an hour of arriving in Santa Marta, the jumping off point, we’d signed ourselves up to leave the following morning at 8am. Well, I say 8am but having got up early and rushed to be ready for 8am at the tour office we didn’t actually leave until gone 11am and finally started the trek at about 2.30pm. That’s Colombian timing for you.

Day 1 - There’s a long way to go

Day 1 - There’s a long way to go

Starting not far from sea level, the trek entered the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park following the river up into the mountains. The first hour was a nice stroll through the trees but then a steep climb for the hour that followed hit home the trials of the trek ahead. It began raining, not heavily but enough to churn up the red, clay mud on the descent to our first camp. Chris and a couple of others persevered through the mud, knee high in places, whilst a few others and I followed a guide along a narrow, higher path, less trodden and less muddy.

Our home for the first night

Our home for the first night

Our camps were pretty nice. We stayed in hammocks mostly with toilets and showers and the river close by for a swim. The food was excellent, especially considering we were in the middle of the jungle, and the porters who carried our provisions from camp to camp and cooked for us worked incredibly hard. We had snacks along the way and every day one of them would race ahead of us (they literally ran up the hills with sacks on their backs) to the halfway point where we’d be greeted with fresh fruit. It wasn't luxury living but we weren't really roughing it either.

Day 2 – It’s still somewhere off in the distance

Day 2 – It’s still somewhere off in the distance

King of the Castle

King of the Castle

Day 3 – The big push to get to the final camp

Day 3 – The big push to get to the final camp

After three days of up and down hills and crossing the river time after time (on the third day I counted 14 streams and 3 river crossings before lunch!) we finally made it to our third camp, where beds awaited us! However, it was only lunchtime and after some food the weather was fine so the decision was made to go for it and visit the city that afternoon rather than wait until the next morning. With weary legs we scrambled up the rocks by the river, dabbling in a bit of amateur rock climbing until we reached the final leg – 1200 steps up to the Lost City. Why did this mysterious civilization decide to build their city in the middle of the jungle? Moreover, why did they decide to build it 1200 steps up a steep hill from the river? We only had to walk up; they had to carry every single rock that made each and every one of those buildings! 1010 steps (for me) later - yes I counted :) it helped pass the time quicker – I was peeking over the top at the first of the circular foundations.

We made it to the top!...

We made it to the top!...


…and there’s yet more steps!

…and there’s yet more steps!

The city itself comprises of around 200 terraces at varying elevations that look out onto the most stunning views of the national park. All that remains of most of the vast number of buildings are round foundations. A few other things have survived like a couple of maps of the city etched into large stone tablets, the occasional giant pestle and mortar and, nearing the top, a throne our guide said would have belonged to the king/chief. More precious artefacts were looted in the 70s when they discovered the city or have since been removed.

Beyond the 1200 steps we originally climbed there are many more, including the Queen’s staircase that leads up to the more impressive views. Birds laughed at us from the trees as we groaned at the sight of more steps but it was absolutely worth it.

A stone map, made by the inhabitants of the city

A stone map, made by the inhabitants of the city

Even more steps!! The Queen’s Staircase

Even more steps!! The Queen’s Staircase

Ruins of the city

Ruins of the city

A streamer-like waterfall in the distance

A streamer-like waterfall in the distance

It was here of all places we encountered a small army base and a group of soldiers satellite-radioing in their shopping list. Slightly odd thing to hear in the background of our tranquil scene of birdsong and the whispers of the trees.

The soldiers based at the City

The soldiers based at the City

A spectacular view at the top

A spectacular view at the top

Looking down from the top of the Lost City

Looking down from the top of the Lost City

We’d met quite a few groups of soldiers along the trail. The area used to be full of guerrillas and many kidnappings occurred. After much work and with a heavy army presence the trail is now safe. It must be a beautiful but a bit of a boring and lonely posting out in the jungle for months on end. I’ve heard as a tourist if you have anything like cigarettes to swap with them on the trail it’s possible to get something in return as a souvenir like a couple of bullets; one guy even got a soldiers dog tags.

Along the path we also passed many of the local indigenous people, dressed in white (tent like) dresses and black rubber boots with long dark hair. I didn’t want to bother or offend taking photos of them but here’s one of their settlements.

One of the indigenous settlements

One of the indigenous settlements

They still live a very traditional life as our guide explained one evening. He told us about when boys come of age and the ritual that takes place. This is what I got from what he said one evening. (He spoke in Spanish though and I didn’t write anything down at the time so I apologise for any mistakes). When boys come of age they must carve a wooden pot called a poporo which is then painted white. The pot must be perfect. If it gets damaged the soul is also harmed (in which case the pot must be mended by the local healer I think or destroyed and a new one made). Inside, snails’ shells are ground up to make a powder. The boy must fast for a period of time and complete a trek surviving only on this powder (which gives you energy) and chewing on coco leaves to numb his mouth against the effect of the powder. Completing this he then becomes a man and the poporo stays with him for the rest of his life. He will continue using his method of energy boosting to help him to endure the hard work and long treks of his life.

At one river crossing there was the option of using this cage high over the water

At one river crossing there was the option of using this cage high over the water

The view from the cage downstream

The view from the cage downstream

There were lots of dogs and a couple of cats at the camps and all of the dogs seemed to be scared of the indigenous people. We befriended one dog in particular - Chris calls him Dog-with-sadness-in-his-eyes, I call him Scarface, in the sweetest way possible. He was a cute looking dog (with a scar on his face and sadness in his eyes obviously) who walked with us all of one day from camp to camp, even stopping when I took my shoes off for the river crossings. I insisted on not getting my boots wet. It paid off though – the only person without blisters. :) I wasn’t relishing others’ pain but I was feeling a little smug after they had mocked me on day one. KEEP YOUR FEET AND BOOTS DRY! It's the best piece of advice I have.

Our K9 friend

Our K9 friend

Looking back at the river

Looking back at the river

Chris nearly got away with me forgetting his other animal friend… Day two we came across some cows in the path, maybe 8 of them. It was Chris, another man and me at this point. I started to walk straight through them and then I heard an “Ahhh,” from behind me, a manly “Ahhh” of course, “he just head-butted me!!” I turned round and Chris is hiding, I mean standing very boldly, behind a tree with a bull the other side! I couldn’t help but laugh. I contemplated rescuing him but decided to leave the male egos to sort themselves out and carried on walking through the rest of them. They weren’t interested in me. Maybe Chris looked like a threat so he thought he’d show Chris who was boss. It did happen to be the biggest one of the lot. After a little game of peek-a-boo Chris finally got away from him and caught up with me on the other side. The other man had no problems getting through either so it was just Chris he had a problem with. On the way back we kept teasing Chris every time we saw another bull that it was his old friend coming to get him.

The herd of bulls behind a fence this time

The herd of bulls behind a fence this time

Day 4 - The road home

Day 4 - The road home

The 89 butterfly

The 89 butterfly

The return trip was a bit harder, at least the first morning. I think because we’d arrived and seen the city my body thought it was over and decided to relax and start aching. It was a looong day too, passing though day two’s camp back to the camp of day one. This way we finished in 5 days rather than 6. It was better this way though. The red, clay mud was drier thank goodness for the uphill on the last day but that climb up was a killer for weary legs. I was so glad when we reached the top safe in the knowledge that it was downhill or flat nearly all the way from there with beautiful views as company. Despite repeating the same path just in reverse on the way back I still saw so many things I didn’t notice on the way there, probably because so much of the time you’re looking at your feet.

Day 5 – The final stretch

Day 5 – The final stretch

The top of the last climb

The top of the last climb

It was an outstanding trek all round – terrain, scenery, food, camps, and of course the Lost City. Given the way you can spread out and walk in a small group or even on your own (a guide is always somewhere behind and in front of you and the path is clear so you’ll never be lost, just stop at big rivers!) it’s a very relaxed trek. Yes it is strenuous but it’s not a route march; what I mean is you can take it at your own pace. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested even if you’re not the fittest person in the world. I’m certainly not and I loved it!

Posted by ew5827 10:04 Archived in Colombia Tagged landscapes waterfalls bridges trees rivers Comments (0)

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