Outdoor Adventures in Colombia

We have just spent more than ten weeks travelling through Colombia, and as we both love our outdoor adventurous activities, and therefore opted for several activity day trips, we’ve put together a few photos of our adventures white water rafting and downhill mountain biking, as well as from Sam’s three-day white water kayaking course.

Downhill Mountain Biking in Manizales

A pick-up truck drove us out of the city of Manizales, central Colombia, and high into Los Nevados mountain range. We were dropped off at an altitude of 4000m, on the mountainside of Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano.

For the next few hours, we zoomed, rattled, and skidded our way along the rubble-strewn route down the mountain, descending nearly 2000m through the mist and cloud forest, which make up an ecosystem called ‘paramo’, comprised of high altitude, tropical, mountainous vegetation. I managed to come off my bike about 10kms into the 40km route, with no serious injuries, though a decided disbelief as to quite how I’d managed it (when we watched the GoPro footage later, it appears that I selected, from the pathway strewn with large, loose stones, the tiniest pebble possible). After a few hours, the landscape changed to farmland, and then we were suddenly in the heat and traffic of the city. We awkwardly managed to get our bikes into the gondola of the cablecar system and glide above the city, back to our starting point.

The day was great fun, and offered a decidedly different way of travelling through the landscape, especially given its scope and terrain, made all the more interesting by the fact that our guide was a Manizales born-and-bred local.

(The pictures make the road look a little tame here, we promise it did get more intense! The problem being, the rougher terrain diminished Sam’s ability to take photos while cycling.)

White Water Rafting in San Gil

The city of San Gil, in northern Colombia, is known as the adventure capital of Colombia, and particularly famed for its extreme white-water rafting. We opted for a journey along the Rio Suarez with level 5 white-water rapids (the most extreme possible that is safe to regularly navigate). Though the river was quite low, and therefore so was the volume of water, this only increased the need for careful manoeuvring and hazards in the forms of large rocks. It was definitely an exciting experience, particularly the higher graded rapids, which we had to paddle madly through, following the instructions our guide yelled out from the back of the raft to manoeuvre around rocks and over drops. As we were both sat in the front, we often received the worst from the walls of water we crashed into on a fairly regular basis, which only added to the fun for me (until I got too cold towards the end and withdrew into myself in order to hibernate and conserve heat).

Three-Day White Water Kayaking Course in San Gil

The day after our rafting experience, I decided to fulfil an ambition I’ve had since I first went rafting six years ago: white water kayaking. I enlisted in a three day course, designed to introduce me to the basics. I started off getting comfortable in the kayak and learning how to do the very important Eskimo roll (used to right the kayak if you capsize). Once I got the knack of that, even if I did find it hard to replicate under the pressure of actual rapids, we moved on to descending the river whilst practising skills and going down ever more difficult sections of the river. It was really great fun and I often caught myself smiling as I navigated my way through the rapids. Although I am far from being an expert, I definitely got the kayak bug and will be looking for any more opportunities that come my way.

Costa Rica: An Inside Job

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the (travel) book: if you want more than a guidebook checklist experience of a place, make friends with a local. Or in Sam’s case, play an online multiplayer roleplaying computer game in your teens through which you make friends with a Costa Rican guy of the same age, and bham! Ten years later you have a local friend to visit when you wind up travelling through Central America.

We felt welcomed before we had even arrived in Costa Rica. Gwyne, Sam’s friend, took the trouble to go to downtown San José, Costa Rica’s capital city, to scout out various potential hostels for us, WhatsApping through photos of several places as well as a voice message with a breakdown of what he had found. Having expected nothing more than the name of a place he recommended, and considering Sam had never met the guy, this was a thoughtful gesture. It also meant that I had to stop joking that Gwyne might really be a forty-five year old woman: the voice message confirmed as far as his sex, if not his age.

Crossing the border was a less welcoming experience. At an unknown time, I managed to misplace my Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate, and didn’t realised as I hadn’t needed it for the thirteen months of travelling up to that point. This meant that in Panama City’s bus terminal, I had to sweet-talk the woman in the ticket office into selling me a ticket to cross from Panama into Costa Rica, using a scan-in of my previous vaccinations as proof. When we arrived at the border, I handed over my passport to the Costa Rican border official, trying to be hopeful. But as I watched, she began to flick pages back and forth, and counted the days since I had been stamped out of Colombia, a high-risk country, on her fingers. Then, she asked for my certificate. Unable to present it, she sent me along to the Ministry of Health in a building a short way down the road, where I presented the scanned list of all my vaccinations, and pessimistically began to think of alternative options now that they weren’t going to let me into the country. To make matters more strained, the bus driver sent in a friend we were travelling with to let us know that he was fed up of waiting and was about to leave. Just at that moment, a doctor entered and handed me a stamped and signed letter to confirm that I was safe to enter the country. In a movie-finale climax, I raced back to immigration where the border guard stamped me into Costa Rica, grinning broadly at my very evident happiness, then I leapt onto the bus, just as it pulled out.

That evening, once we were ensconced in a beautifully painted, large, private room in San José, we met Gwyne. It was a surreal experience to watch: a first meeting after several of infrequent contact following a few years of virtual friendship. Very quickly, Sam and him were chatting away easily, and it was evident that they knew a lot about each other’s lives. I found Gwyne affable and easy to talk to, and quickly realised that though we only had a few days in Costa Rica, because we were meeting my parents in Nicaragua, our experience was going to be moulded by the fact of this unusually formed friendship.

Gwyne drove us out of the city centre and into the suburbs. Zooming through the city in a private car driven by someone who had lived there all his life was a different perspective from the local buses and occasional taxis we take. Our first impressions, when we had arrived in San José by bus, were of a city more developed than most places we have travelled so far, as we drove past shiny skyscrapers, huge billboards and along beautifully constructed roads. This apparent wealth was put into context by the low-down Gwyne gave us concerning his country’s politics, healthcare and education. As with most Latin American countries, corruption is a real issue and limiting factor in its development. Gwyne drove us up a small hill on the edge of the city where we had a fantastic view of San José spread out beneath us, glittering in the dark. We continued chatting about all manner of things, then he drove us back to our hostel. We ate a pizza together at the attached restaurant, and during the meal, the waiter asked how we all knew each other. It seemed to him like more than a recent traveller friendship, he said. Both Sam and Gwyne burst out laughing. It was an odd one to explain.

 

Over the next few days, Sam and I would do our own thing in the mornings, and once university and work were over for Gwyne we would all hang out. Gwyne drove us to Irazú Volcano, one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanoes only a short way outside the city. We walked along the ‘beach’, or large plain, next to two craters, one with a depth of three hundred metres, as the strong cold wind buffeted us about.

The volcano outing was our only real touristy activity in Costa Rica. Using Gwyne insider’s knowledge, we stuck to more local stuff. It was ‘University Week’ at the University of Costa Rica, which meant a week of art-related activities, including free outdoor concerts every night. When we went along on Tuesday, there wasn’t a huge crowd, it being early in the week, but we got the chance to watch Son de Tikizia, a nine-member, Costa Rican, Salsa band. As they worked their way through fast-paced salsa and cumbia songs, we watched the students all around us partner off and dance. It was an amazing and odd sight, a scene which would never happen back at home. We stood there, the stiff English folk that we are in comparison, gazing at the scene around us and pointing out people who were making a particular impression, as couples split and reformed, people ‘walk-danced’ on and on towards each other, spun, jigged, moved to the Latin beat. When we left, we felt that we had been privy to something completely normal in the life of a student in Costa Rica and yet so unusual for us.

On Thursday, Gwyne took us to another concert. This time, as Thursday to Saturday are big student nights out in San José and because the band performing was very popular, the area in front of the outdoor stage was absolutely packed. Cocofunka, the group performing, was an extremely popular Costa Rican band which mixed Latin, funk and reggae. From the moment that the first song started, and the students around us began dancing and singing along, we knew that it was going to be a great performance. The lead vocalist leapt around, as though electrified, as though he didn’t care that hundreds of people were watching him, whilst multicoloured visualisations spinning and shifting on a screen behind added to the hypnotic, vibrant effect of the music. It was an awesome live performance, and once again, it felt like the kind of experience that came from knowing someone on the inside track. Once the concert was over, we headed to a local student bar for a few drinks, it being our last night hanging out with Gwyne. He led us into what looked like an unremarkable place from the outside, and through several rooms, until we found ourselves in a small, dark bar, with plenty of exuberant dancing and a propensity for rock music. We had a few (Costa Rican) beers and chatted.

Once we were back outside our hostel, we said a heartfelt goodbye to Gwyne. Though we may have seen very few of Costa Rica’s top sights, and though what we did experience may just have been a couple of concerts and a few conversations, I somehow felt that we had been able to access something which is rare and often difficult as an outsider. Rather than the keen focus of a telescope looking in, it felt like Gwyne had given us his San José born-and-bred glasses for a few glimpses from the inside. It was a bit difficult to eloquently explain all this, to explain that he had significantly changed our experience of his country. So I just went in for a hug instead.

 

Down the Rabbit Hole in Bogotá

The True Story of a Sober Trip Through Wonderland

In front of the restaurant, the blades of a windmill spin circles of fairy light through the sky. The air holds the light, so that the darkness glows reddish, dense with colour. The trees growing out of the pavements seem stripped of nature and wrapped in multi-coloured bulbous lights (like the string of large bulbs dad hangs around the slender green-brown tree in the drive, so that those floating pinpricks of colour are my first greeting when I arrive home at Christmas time). A zebra stands on her hind legs, a fore leg cocked on her hip, rocking a blue cap which matches the waistcoat she is wearing open to her black-and-white hips, displaying the mounds of large, striped breasts (definite plastic surgery). She grins at me, a grin thrown out like a frisbee, carelessly into the air, a floating arc. We shuffle into the vague semblance of a queue. I am not quite sure what is going on. A crucial bit of information is missing, perhaps, a link in the chain to explain the presence of the cow on the roof, overlooking us as she stands there with small golden wings and a neon-blue halo. Sam pays our entrance fee, and I watch the cow stare straight, over our heads and far into the night. (What is the point of a cover, to a restaurant? Perhaps they charge entrance to make it exclusive, or maybe to ensure no-one comes along just for the show. Whatever the reason, we are caught in the web, the spider’s web spun of curiosity and hype — ‘indescribable’ the Lonely Planet declared, ‘if it’s not the most insane night you have ever had, you’ve done too many drugs’ — and we made sure to be free on the maddest night of them all). Now, here we are, each clutching a yellow ticket decorated with a picture of a baby saint bordered by swirls of black, ‘Yo rumbiaré’ inscribed on its plinth. An attendant tears off the stub and we push forwards, through a turnstile and down the rabbit hole.

A cavern of junkhouse kitsch. A genie’s cave of forgotten treasure and psychedelic wishes. The scene crowds in instantly, without mercy, like a swarm of neon wasps bearing down on me. Glowing signs, dangling objects, swirling lights. The full moon of a bright clock face. Look HERE and HERE, point point point, arrows pricking their way through the chaos, up down diagonal thin fat red green white. Stars, hearts, spinning wheels of lights. 2for1, You Are Here, Salida, Children, Amor. People shifting, moving, dancing as the sky twirls and sways uncertainly. I am a whirlpool of sound waves, a reverse epicentre for the earthquake of clashing songs. A blaze, ablaze with stimuli, until:

a gentle push from behind, Go on, ask the attendant, ‘Tenemos una reservacion’, then we follow. Past wooden tables and a long cluttered bar as a band of gypsies wanders through the caverns, past customers dancing between the tables as they wait for their food, past the microcosm of a kitchen: a blaze of stove fire, and another: the scurry of people clad in white, and another: the clang of pots and pans. Then, a brick tunnel with shallow steps leading into it. I shuffle in and round a bend, and here we are, standing beside an empty table for two, with a raised view through several caverns of salvaged treasure.

Mario introduces himself. Mario the plumber, at our service, and here to present us with a magazine. So, I sit down facing Sam, the mist of the rumba beats heavy in the air and settling on our skin. With difficulty I tear myself away from the present world and dive into the reading material (sixty-two pages for a menu!), into a world where the pop artwork crowds out the words, pushing them behind printed leaves, swirling flowers, off the page and onto the table. I can’t concentrate with my lap full of jumbled letters, never mind deciphering the dizzyingly colourful labyrinth of a menu.

I watch as the staff gypsies spot us and encircle our small table. We are extranjeros, new to Colombia, new to rumba, new to this mad mad night so: WELCOME, have a yellow-blue-red sash and you, here, I want to DANCE with you, up up and roooound, move like the lights, move like the flashes, push away the night and forget that you are a stiff English reed, move and remember Bienvenido a la tierrita! A gypsy spins me, the golden coins of her headdress twinkling through the red mist, I am a spinning top beneath her finger, as the red mist of the rumba swirls around me, over me. Sam, at the table, grins, grins that pull me in close, mooring lines for each spin, his face, his smile, glowing brighter than all the dangling treasures and flickering candles, my one fixed point in the chaos, this hallucinogenic trip through Wonderland.

The mist recedes, flowing over the balcony and into a lower cavern and the gypsies glide away with it. Time for a drink, fresh mandarin snow and vodka to help us through the blizzard of confetti and hedonism. I pick up the menu again (shit, London prices!), and point and choose. Then, back to the sensory storm.

Four women sit around the table next to us, dressed and made up for a night out, their laughter bubbling like champagne from a bottle. Suddenly, one of them is up, her hips swaying, her kohl-darkened eyes reflecting the lights dangling above us as a man appears. Nothing like a pre-dinner dance, so with tiny movements they fluctuate, shift, sway, walk, that endless Latin walk-dance, on and on towards each other. The other girls join in and then another man arrives, and once again the space next to our table is a dancefloor.

Held aloft on a wooden board (here it comes!), the renouncement of Sam’s newly rediscovered vegetarianism; relapse in the form of a funhouse steakhouse. Delivered to our very table, an array of food and drinks.

I tuck in. Good but nothing particularly special. But no matter: they’re not the reason we came.

One by one our plates disappear.

With the bill on our table, a woman hovers close to us, a large ‘$’ on the back of her navy jacket. So, the collector has come by. Another cog in the clockwork of this surreal system. As soon as Sam puts down our money, we take off to explore, through the brick tunnel and into cavern after cavern.

I find a dancefloor and pull Sam in after me, slowly moving into the crowd of swaying bodies, into the haze of the thick rumba mist. I feel the crowd moving like fireworks are fizzing through the bloodstream of each person, bursting out through fingertips, bouncing feet, swaying hips, mi aventura, mi brebaje. Several couples shift and I spot a doorway, a doorway I didn’t know existed. My eyes meet his, then we dive through it together.

We are outside. The street has been closed off and wooden walkways with metal handrails span the tarmac. On the other side of the bridges: more lights, music, people, chaos. We take a deep breath and walk across.

All the trees and pillars are wrapped in blue lights. Glowing red hearts hover in the air; a golden sun floats above us beside a witch on her broomstick; triangular splashes of bunting zigzag through the scene, but this is no English street party. No finger food, or children playing in the street, or raucous cheery singing (those lobster-red noses!). THIS is a Latina world, any signposts lead us right back into the madness, into the sensual darkness and the chaos. Neon lights hover over a vast warren of crowded dancefloors, so I shuffle through with Sam, tourists in this experience, overwhelmed and hypnotised.

It is time to leave. To escape the gimmicks and surrealism and work out a way back into the night.

 

I look back as our taxi stutters, then pulls away. I’m not sure what just happened — a dream? a drug-induced trip? a loose wire in the sensory threads of my brain? As Wonderland recedes, I flop down and close my eyes. Pinpricks of light dance across the screen of my eyelids. Andrés Carne de Res, the craziest cat of them all.

Between Continents

A Bit of a Character

The captain of the Victory was a bit of a character, we were warned when we booked our passage from Colombia to Panama. Crossing the Darién gap, a hundred mile stretch of land spanning the Panama-Colombia border, is incredibly unsafe, and with a preference for a more adventurous option than flying, we opted for a sea crossing. This route, from the port city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast to Panama’s mainland, had the added bonus of going via the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of more than 365 white sand islands off the eastern coast of Panama.

And so we turned up at the yacht club the evening before departure, feeling a touch apprehensive after our warning about the captain and stories from other travellers describing forty-eight hours of seasickness. We asked around and after a short while found the Victory sailing boat, nestled amid other yachts, bobbing gently on the water. She was smaller than I had imagined, considering I knew that we would be eight people in total, with a white deck and blue hull embellished with an upper and lower yellow stripe.

Capitan Hernando Higuera came out on deck to greet us. He had the look about him of a captain straight from adverts, the most stereotypical image of a captain I could have conjured up. He was dressed in a light shirt, loose trousers, and his brown, lined face was framed by a greying mass of curly hair and a thick white beard. We greeted him heartily in Spanish and introduced ourselves, and once I had edged along the gangplank and stepped into the boat, he hugged me by way of greeting. So far so good. Emma, his deck hand and a traveller from Germany with sailing experience, helped us to lug our large backpacks down into the cabin and stow them away in a cupboard under one of the beds. As we were the first to arrive, we got first pick and chose a triangular double bed area at the back of the cabin, hoping the movement of the boat would be less pronounced than at the front and therefore reduce the chances of seasickness.

Over the next hour, the other passengers turned up: there was Alejandra from Chile, olive skinned with long dark hair, willowy Vera from Switzerland, and Marianne and Stian, a Norwegian couple wearing matching tops which exclaimed ‘¡No somos Gringos!’ on the front and ‘¡Vikingos!’ on the back (‘We’re not gringos!’ ‘Vikings!’). Quite incredibly, six out of the eight total people on the boat were vegetarian, much to the consternation of the captain, who informed us that in his fifteen years sailing between Panama and Colombia, this had never happened.

While Emma cooked us our first meal in the small kitchen downstairs, we got to know the basics about each other. Whether due to a Spanish ex-boyfriend or a university semester in Mexico, everyone spoke a good level of Spanish, so it was our go-to language (Sam being the exception: as he put it, he just about managed to understand what was going on). Very quickly I felt a great vibe going around the group. True, the captain did indeed seem like a character; he liked things done a certain way and didn’t polish his phrases when it came to telling us so, but he was also an excellent storyteller, a real laugh, and absolutely loved what he did. By the end of the first evening we were all singing together as Marianne strummed chords on her guitar (yep, some travelling stereotypes are true). When we settled in to our bed below deck later that evening, I could feel that my apprehension had turned to excitement, for the most part.

 

Riding the Waves

After breakfast the next morning, the anchor was hoisted and we slowly motored our way out of the harbour. Once we were out at sea, there was very little wind. This trend continued for the whole crossing to the San Blas Islands, so for the entire journey the motor was on and the autopilot directed us, which required one person to sit with the electronic device in their hands and keep the bearing at the correct number, as it had a tendency to veer somewhat off course.

The sea was pleasantly calm to begin with. We all stayed above deck, with orders from the capitan not to descend into the cabin unless strictly necessary, to minimise the likelihood of seasickness. Someone managed to put music on through a set of speakers, so we lay about in the increasing heat, somewhat like a group of beached whales, trying to find as comfortable a position as possible with the swaying of the boat.

Suddenly Marianne began exclaiming and pointing out to sea. A pod of dolphins swam up to the boat and began bow riding. They swam incredibly close, grey shapes flickering just below the sunlit surface and leapt out of the water again and again. They eventually left us to chase a shoal of fish, which we saw jumping out of the water a short way off, evidently to escape their new predators.

For the duration of the crossing, the stove could not, understandably, be used. Preparation for each meal became a group activity, with a number of chopping boards handed out and various vegetables cut to the motion of the boat, all overseen by the capitan. For our first dinner, Sam rushed around preparing as much as he could, as everyone else, capitan aside, felt nauseous and seasickness coping strategies ranged from curling into a ball to trying to drift off to sleep. Considering the limited supplies and cooking methods, the meals were delicious; sandwiches tastefully embellished with a range of ten sauces and condiments for lunch and Mexican salad in wraps for dinner.

The waves slowly increased throughout the day, so that by the time darkness descended we were pitching about a lot. Phytoplankton shimmered in the wake breaking on either side of the bow, like fireflies trapped just below the surface or stars twinkling in the water. Perhaps due to the fact that I have synaesthesia, so that different senses can sometimes cross over, I realised that with every movement of the ship I was seeing a shape, and after more than twelve hours this was starting to get a bit much.

The night was one of broken sleep, but at least the moving yacht meant that we had a breeze going through the cabin, unlike the thick oppressive heat of the first night when we were moored in the harbour. The next morning the waves were calm once again. The day passed much the same as the one before, though without the entertainment of the dolphin pod but with the bonus that I was more settled in to the constant movement and the slight claustrophobia of being stuck on a tiny moving island.

That evening, having dozed off below deck, I was woken by a kiss from Sam to find that, after forty-two hours of travelling, we had reached the San Blas Islands. When I climbed up onto the deck to check out what I could see in the darkness, I found we were anchored between the dark outlines of several islands and the sea was so calm that the boat hardly moved. As we were experienced seafaring people by now, we celebrated with a hearty drink of rum.

 

It’s a Hard Life

The next three days were paradisiacal, so picture-perfect that it was hard to believe we were living the experience. We woke the morning after arriving just in time to watch the sun rise over the crescent island nearest us, the glowing orange rays revealing a white sand beach, curving palm trees and dappled turquoise and deep blue water. Before breakfast we all jumped into the sea. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet and the water was already 28°C, according to Sam’s dive watch. We swam to the nearby island and wandered along the beach, gazing out at the several islands around us and the incredible colours of the sea.

During the morning, while everyone went their separate ways for an explore, Sam and I stayed on the Victory with our capitan, smoking a celebratory natural tobacco cigar together, and listening to the story of how the yacht had won the Admiral’s Cup, an international yachting regatta, in 1981 for the United Kingdom. I felt thankful for the fact that it was a racing yacht when another boat that had left Colombia just after us sailed into the key after lunch, twelve hours after we had arrived.

In the afternoon, Sam and I grabbed a couple of snorkels and swam across to another island. Wearing a pair of fins I had borrowed from someone on board, I swam along easily, passing over green brain corals as large as wine barrels on the way, while fin-less Sam opted for a different route and ended up getting slightly caught in a current, which was, he informs me, very tiring and not quite as fun as coral sightseeing. When we emerged out of the sea and began wandering along the beach of the new island, we found it littered with seashells, sometimes as big as my forearm, sometimes a rich shiny pink, like delicate porcelain. There were a few wooden shacks on the island made of driftwood and with thatched roofs of palm leaves. These belonged to the Kuna, the indigenous people who live on the San Blas Islands, who move from island to island every three months, fishing and farming yuca, coconuts and other fruit. When we returned to the Victory, Sam practised freediving using the anchor chain and managed more than twelve metres.

That evening, the Turkish couple who captained the other boat anchored in the key and a few of their passengers came over, and we all drank red wine and rum and coke, whilst listening to increasingly old rock songs. I chatted to the other captain and found out that he had great respect for our own capitan, proclaiming that he was the best captain who sailed between Colombia and Panama, and revealing that he had once been an instructor for the Colombian Navy.

The next morning, we sailed between the dark patches of multiple reefs and out of the key. Sam took the helm, turning the wheel to follow a strict route that capitan barked at him, so as to avoid the numerous reefs. The waters around the San Blas are such a maze to navigate that it is very common for boats to shipwreck; the captain told us about two that had run aground in the last week, as we sailed passed an island with four wrecks visible in its shallows. We passed many islands, some covered in palms trees, some simply mounds of white sand rising out of the vividly blue sea, and one just big enough to provide the foundation for a single small Kuna hut.

After a couple of hours, we arrived at the shores of Chichime, a large island covered thickly with palm trees. There were maybe twenty yachts anchored there, and when we swam to shore we found a hotel of several thatched and concrete buildings as well as a camping site. After several days of minimal human contact outside of the group on our boat, the increase in activity was strange.

San Blas panorama (Large)

Before lunch, Sam and I snorkelled in a quiet bay away from the bustle, and though we were mostly swimming over swaying sea grass, we did see one small ray lying on the sea bed amid the grass and huge seashells, unfazed by our presence.

In the afternoon, we took the blue sea kayak which had been tied to the Victory’s deck during the crossing from Colombia, and rowed ourselves and Sam’s camera ashore, for a photography wander around the island. When we had walked about halfway round, we saw our capitan sat beside a couple of Kuna huts, chatting away with a large family. He called us over, and I was quickly presented with a tiny black and white puppy, which nestled into my arms, and shown the pet kitten, birds, chickens, dog and snuffling piglet, by a couple of shy little girls. Several of the woman of the family were dressed traditionally and looked stunning, with mola blouses wrapped around their chests sewn with colourful patterns, beaded leg bands which almost reached up to their knees, and their faces decorated with a thin dark line down their nose and pink on their cheeks. Our capitan was clearly very fond of the Kuna, demonstrated by that fact that when he isn’t sailing, he lives on this island with the Kuna. As we walked away from the family, he sighed with contentment and described them as ‘my people’.

Sam and I got back into the kayak and rowed around the rest of the island, just as the sun was setting. I could feel Paradise starting to settle over me, starting to relax my mind.

The next morning, we left Chichime and sailed to El Porvenir, the most built up of all the islands we had seen, based on that fact that it had a small airfield and actual buildings. This included the immigration office, where we were stamped into Panama. While we were waiting for our passports to be sorted, Sam and I swam around close to the boat and saw an eagle ray flying gently through the water below us, bright white spots dotted all over its dark brown back.

Once bureaucratic matters were settled, we sailed away for our final afternoon in the islands. After an hour or so, we anchored a short way from a hilly, forested island. Most yacht trips only last five days, but our capitan, being a legend, had decided we might as well have an extra day just for fun. As this spot was off the usual course, there were absolutely no other boats around, so we spent the afternoon blissfully alone, enjoying the sea, the solitude, and the final hours of each other’s company. Capitan cooked us a dish from his home city of Bogotá, which we accompanied with the last of the rum and wine, and we had a last guitar sing along.

The next morning, a Kuna man picked us up in a small launch. We hugged farewell to the capitan, Emma, and Vera who had decided to take the return voyage, and waved for as long as we could as the launch sped away. When we disembarked at the coast, we found a curious thing had occurred: in our several days absence, solid land had started to precariously sway.

Goodbye to the Victory (Large)

A Lost City and Forgotten Values

A small bonfire flickers a few metres away from us. Our hiking group is sat in a line facing Alejandrino, our guide. He is standing in front of us, dressed in a loose white tunic and white trousers. His long dark hair is covered by a white sombrero and he wears a woven bag, made of plant fibre dyed with natural colours, across his body.

Alejandrino is Wiwa, one of four indigenous peoples who live in the Sierra Nevada, a coastal mountain range in northern Colombia. It is the final evening of our four-day trek through the mountains and we are staying in a Wiwa camp. Behind us, a row of small wooden huts stand perched on a bank of sandy soil. One of these is Alejandrino’s home, which he shares with his wife and two young children.

We are held together in a small circle of light created by the glow of the bonfire. It is a hushed, conspiratorial, atmosphere in which Alejandrino shares with us some of the traditions and beliefs of the Wiwa, beginning with marriage and sex. A Wiwa child is meant to arrive at the age of sixteen without any knowledge of sex, he tells us; if a child is curious about where children come from, they are told ‘You were found by the river’. At the age of sixteen, Wiwa children are encouraged to begin searching for a friend of the opposite sex. If a boy likes a girl he will propose to her. If she agrees, and the shaman of their community blesses the union, they will live together to get to know each other and make sure that they are suited. Once they are eighteen they can marry. On their wedding night, they leave their village and go into the forest with a shaman. The shaman will then ask them what they each know about sex. If one knows more than the other, they will explain to their partner, and if neither know much, the shaman will enlighten them. The shaman then leaves and they make love for the first time. If after that first night they don’t get on, they are free to go their separate ways and search for another partner. If all goes well, they stay together.

Whilst Alejandrino talks, he holds in his hands a gourd with a thick yellow neck. This is his poporo, an object of great importance to all the indigenous groups which live in the Sierra Nevada. It is presented to a Wiwa man on his wedding night, as part of his initiation into manhood (incidentally, this presentation is the part children are told about if they ask why the newly-wed couple has gone off with a shaman into the bush). It contains powdered lime from crushed seashells, which is added to the coca leaves the men chew.

The chewing of coca leaves is a practice I have come across throughout South America; South American Indians have chewed coca leaves for centuries, and in many countries it is considered a sacred act of great importance to their cultural heritage. I have, on previous treks, chewed coca leaves myself, to try out their hunger and tiredness reducing qualities, as well as the energy boost they give. Amongst the people of the Sierra Nevada, the chewing of coca leaves is believed to bring them closer to their ancestors.

But I have never seen a poporo before this trek. We have watched Alejandrino use it many times over the last three days; after putting a wad of coca leaves into one cheek, he pulls a stick out of the neck of the gourd, and uses it to transfer the lime powder to his mouth, wiping it onto the wad of coca in his cheek. The lime activates the properties of the coca leaves more strongly. Then he begins gliding the stick along the neck of the poporo.

This act, the rubbing of the stick onto the neck of the poporo gourd, is one of the most significant in the life of a Wiwa man. None of the indigenous groups have a written language, and so it is a way of committing thoughts to memory, an act of contemplation. The thick yellow neck of the poporo is actually a ring of calcium created by the saliva and lime mix left on the stick, built up over years. The wider the neck of a man’s poporo, therefore, the more mature he is, irrespective of his age. Just this morning, we passed another group and I noticed that the neck of the poporo belonging to their Wiwa guide, who was several years Alejandrino’s senior, was far narrower than that of Alejandrino’s poporo. When I asked about it, Alejandrino explained that he spent a lot of time with shamans, learning from them about the world, his ancestors, farming, and therefore spent more time using the movement to turn over and contemplate all these thoughts.

As we all get into our hammocks that evening, discussing what Alejandrino has told us about the Wiwa, a guy from our group asks, ‘Would you choose to live that way, knowing what you do?’ It is a difficult question. We all grew up in capitalist societies with technology, film, and a completely different attitude to sex; our cognition and understanding of the world were formed in that environment.

The next day, the last of the trek, I spend time in my own contemplation, considering the last few days.

 

On day one, we began the trek with a steep uphill climb. After a couple of hours we emerged from the undergrowth growing thickly on either side of the path to find we were on a ridge, looking out across the mountains at the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. From this point onwards, all the land we walked through and looked across belonged to the Wiwa and Kogi people, bought for them by the Colombian government to ensure it didn’t become encroached upon by ‘colonisers’, as Alejandrino put it. The path we would walk along over the next few days was created and maintained by the indigenous people, a tiny section of a vast network of routes throughout the mountains of their home.

We only trekked for three hours that first day, but the last section was downhill and after a short amount of time my right knee became excruciating, the reawakening of an injury from a previous trek several months ago which I hadn’t realised was still so bad. The next few days were therefore a great struggle for me. It took a lot of resolve and the pain made me pretty miserable at times, but there was one great silver lining to the situation. Whenever we came to a downhill section, I had to descend incredibly slowly and ended up at the back of the group. Sam often hung back with me for moral support, so the two of us had many extra conversations with Alejandrino, who always brought up the rear. Each day was characterised by up to seven hours of arduous hiking (for me at least), intercut with fruit breaks, so there was plenty of time for chatting. Over the first three days, Alejandrino told us of the role of the shamans in their communities, what a Wiwa man looks for in a Wiwa woman (and conjectured what she might be looking for in return), and the differences and similarities between the Wiwa and Kogi (as two peoples with a very similar cultural background, a major difference is their language, but there are many other fascinating smaller details).

These conversations with Alejandrino wove into our experience of hiking through Wiwa and Kogi land. Each evening, when we reached our camp for the night, we had a dip in a natural swimming pool in the river, which accompanied us for most of our route. These spots were incredibly beautiful: the crystal clear water, the vines, the fading sunlight, the jungle tumbling down to the banks of the river. The camps were always relatively basic: we slept in hammocks and ate food cooked on a fire stove. Slowly, the more we hiked, swam and slept in the mountains, I felt the charm and beauty of the landscape settle over me.

On day three, we were up bright and early. We followed the path down to the river, then climbed along its rocky bank for a while, until Alejandrino indicated the stepping stones to cross. Once on the opposite bank, we found ourselves at the bottom of a steep flight of stone steps, leading up the mountainside and disappearing into the forest.

Twelve hundreds steps later, and now drenched in sweat despite it being early morning, we emerged into a grassy, circular plaza. We had reached la Ciudad Perdida: the Lost City.

The city was ‘lost’ for centuries, between the Spanish Conquest and its rediscovery by looters, and then archaeologists, in the 1970s. As direct descendants of the founders of the city, the Wiwa and Kogi knew both its location and its sacred significance throughout this time, using it as a ceremonial centre. Alejandrino began showing us around. He led us through the stone-edged terraces of the plaza and up a flight of stone steps to another set of terraces. To one side there was a large rock, its surface carved with indistinct lines and shapes. This was a map, Alejandrino explained. It depicted the Sierra Madre, the mother mountain, as well as the other mountains surrounding her, the river that runs through the valley, several lakes in the mountains and, of course, a tiny dot on the side of one mountain that represented the Lost City. Alejandrino then zoomed us back to between 650-800 AD, when the city was founded by the Tairona people, and began explaining various aspects of their way of life. A stone pit close to the rock map was a transport pit, for example. People could enter, sit down and close their eyes, and the shaman would transport them to wherever they needed to go. Close by, Alejandrino showed us another rock map, this one a representation of the universe, with the sun, moon and stars. It was angled to catch the light as the sun rose, so every morning a shaman would walk along the stone pathway leading to it, with his apprentices, and read the message that the sunlight told him: what the harvest would be like, if an illness was coming, what weather they could expect.

Though much smaller and less impressive than Machu Picchu, a comparison often made, the whole complex was nonetheless incredible. Terrace after terrace, made circles up the mountainside, connected by small pathways and flights of stone steps. After taking it in turns to sit on what is believed to have been a shaman’s throne, we ascended to the largest plaza, next to the terraces where the shaman’s house and that of his two wives would have been, and suddenly the vast mountain range unfurled to one side, the dense jungle covering the slopes dotted with palm trees and the further peaks fading into a blue haze. We climbed up to a higher terrace and sat overlooking the incredible view.

After a while, Alejandrino led us away along a small path to a few thatched huts belonging to the Kogi, used by shamans when they perform sacred ceremonies. Each hut was topped with multiple thatched peaks between which three stars dangled; the centre one represented the shaman, and the outer two symbolised his two wives. Recalling details from his vast memory, Alejandrino took the opportunity here to tell us a brief history of the Tairona people. A particularly fascinating detail passed down by word of mouth explained the split of the Wiwa and Kogi: after the Tairona people were destroyed by war and disease following the Spanish conquest, their population dwindled to a mere thirty people. In order to avoid complete extinction, they spilt, and for sixty years had no contact, allowing their different languages to develop as well as other differences in their customs, social organisation and beliefs.

As per usual, Alejandrino stuck with me during the very slow descent down the twelve hundred steps through the jungle, kindly amending my statement that I was climbing down like a child climbs down stairs, suggesting that I was more like a baby who had recently learnt to walk. At the bottom, we rejoined the river and from that moment onwards we began our journey back.

 

And so my reflection of the last few days brings me full circle, back to the present as I bump along on the back of a mule I have been convinced by Sam to take for the final two hours of the last day (even if it slightly hurts my pride) because the pathway becomes a particularly steep descent. I am thinking about the multiple PhD and postdoc students who have spent years visiting these mountains to learn from the Kogi people because their spiritual beliefs and cosmological knowledge of the world is so advanced and so different from our own, that it takes years to comprehend or gain any kind of access to it. I am thinking about the beauty of the landscape and the difficulty of the terrain we have hiked through over the last four days, now assimilated into my memory along with glimpses into the life of the Wiwa people we shared it with and the Kogi villages we passed. And I am thinking about Alejandrino rubbing the stick along the neck of his poporo again and again, countless times throughout his adult life, as he threads his thoughts and experiences in and out of his mind. With our readier access to more scientifically advanced medicine, innovative technology, and general living appliances our daily lives are less of a struggle to survive, but I cannot honestly answer the question of whether I would choose to live like the Wiwa, knowing what I do, with an outright no. As Sam succinctly put it, in our industrialised, capitalist, democratic societies, the highest status is gained through money. In their societies, which are often viewed as far simpler or even primitive compared to ours, value is placed on thought, reflection and knowledge. I can’t help thinking that, in some ways, they have got it far more worked out.

Alejandrino our wiwa guide