Stubborn optimism

Santa Marta – Colombia

I hadn’t really considered the dangers of travelling to Colombia until Argentine family members questioned our sanity and provoked me to do some research the day before flying. Obviously Colombia had been torn apart over previous decades and kidnappings were common place but I assumed that was all in the past, and I was largely right with only around 1/4 of the country amber listed by the FCDO and common street crime and robbery the only things to worry about these days. This is the problem when you dive into the world of travel blogs, it can skew your thoughts! Any country that is sold as dangerous is almost always the best place to visit with incredible people that live in a shadow of a reputation undeserved thanks to that of a few. Landing in Colombia was astonishing for two reasons. The first being when the plane touched down and pulled up to the stand everyone remained in their seats and awaited their turn to disembark as instructed by the cabin crew, in blocks, moving from right to left and front to back. I have never seen such patience and discipline on a plane, and the very same happened on our second connecting flight. We then had to clear immigration in Bogota before catching our flight north to Santa Marta. This took no more than five minutes (including queuing) for both us, with a wonderfully nice border official doing her job but also in the most welcoming atmosphere possible at a port of entry. It didn’t stop there with the waiters at the airport restaurant being equally nice. Heading north, attitudes hardened a little – as it seems most countries on the planet – but there is no doubting that the Colombians are pleasant and hardworking. I saw something similar in Sierra Leone where people had emerged from a crappy past and were completely focused on making the most of peace and relative stability.

Arriving in Santa Marta was like walking into a sauna and the beaches were rammed on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in fact, everywhere was rammed. Interestingly the sea front was heaving with locals and after a bit of walking down some suspect side streets we fell upon the main street full of both locals and tourists. This was ‘Pub Street’, that one street in every tourist hotspot full of bars and restaurants, and as terrible as it sounds, finally we didn’t feel like the odd ones out. The next day, my head still fresh with stories of bag snatching and robberies at knife point, we took the ludicrous decision to take a taxi 400m down some backstreets to our new hotel with the excuse that we couldn’t be arsed to lug our bags through the sweltering streets. It’s almost embarrassing to admit but then again we didn’t see anyone hauling backpacks around our entire time there. As it happens, backpacks was my next major challenge. We had booked onto a five-day Lost City trek, Colombia’s flagship attraction, which required us to carry all our own kit, not that we needed much as bedding and food were all provided. 35 L backpacks were recommended and we had a 65 L, 26 L and 10 L to choose from! After spending several hours unpacking and repacking various combos I naturally went big which was obviously the wrong decision even if I was only half loaded. There was no need for a clean t-shirt every day because it was drenched in sweat within 10 minutes of the day’s trekking commencing. One or two at best would have sufficed and why on earth I packed standard t-shirts instead of a couple of lightweight running ones, I have no idea. But never mind, we made our way to meet the guide who eyed us both with suspicion and appeared overly eager to wrap us in cotton wool on the understanding that we were never going to complete the trek. With that, we were the underdogs and there is no greater motivation.

The way the trek operated was interesting. After a two hour drive we rocked up to the start point, a restaurant, and conveniently it was lunch time. Out came a huge plate of food featuring your choice of fish, beef, chicken or vegetarian. Once fattened up, laces were tied and we began an uphill hike in early the afternoon heat before the trail levelled out after a few hours and some rain brought cooling relief. By 5pm we were at a permanent camp surrounded by jungle peaks but with a steady supply of cold beer, cold showers, and flushing toilets. Knowing the next day was going to be a killer I was in bed for 8pm and slept fitfully until 3am when someone’s alarm went off and refused to give up until lights-on at 5am. Departing just after 6am, the morning was relatively easy going although we knew the downhill would become a pig of an uphill on the return journey. We pulled up at a camp around 11am for lunch and a swim in the river, although we already knew this was to deceive us from the realities that lay further down stream. Once again, filled to brim with lunch, we hit the trail and immediately headed upwards towards the stars. No relief came in the form of clouds or rain, even when the trail was covered with trees there was little relief from the rapids of sweat pouring from every orifice. My skin was on fire and I had to remove my cap in order to literally blow off some steam. Finally, after several hours of crawling uphill, the sound of joy and laughter penetrated the humid air and with that I knew I had finally made it to either heaven or the halfway point. I assume it was the halfway point due to the fact they were only serving up pineapple pieces and not strawberries offered up by a bikini clad Dua Lipa. Never mind, the pineapple was juicy, the views spectacular, and the next 100m of trail at least looked to be downhill.

After a wonderfully deep sleep to a backing track of the river racing below, day 3 began with the usual routine before commencing a 1,200 step climb up to the Lost City. With steps straight out of Mordor, some barely big enough to support my clown-sized feet, I was more worried about the return journey down than the one up. Finally we entered the ruins of the Lost City where one would be forgiven for believing it’s still lost. Never have I been to such a significant site to be treated to so few tourists and zero curio sellers, it was magnificent. There is no other way to the Lost City, no trains, cars, motorbikes, cable cars; only by foot. I have always claimed that this is the way things should be and I applaud Colombia for keeping tourism here under control. Maybe it has something to do with the pandemic, but I see no reason why the Lost City hasn’t always managed to hold onto some authentic atmosphere without the hustle and bustle of mass tourism. The ruins themselves are vast. I wasn’t expecting much and was led to believe that the hike is the best part but I disagree. Both the hike and the ruins were epic, largely because of how peaceful everything was. The Lost City sits on top of a mountain, surrounded by jungle covered peaks and little remains of the city apart from the stone terraces that it was built upon. There’s not even any information signs to describe the various parts that do remain or to give any indication what it used to look like, but that’s fine by me. I was just happy to have made it and to have been able to keep up with my younger companions! No cotton wool required here!

The reported length of the hike is around 46 km from start to finish but for some bizarre reason no-one appears to know for sure. The trek may have been tough with plenty of uphill sections that had to be repeated going downhill which can be equally hard on the feet, but the scenery, the ruins, the showers, the flushing toilets, and the ample food made for an incredible experience. Not having any porters also made for a better experience. The likes of Kilimanjaro and the Inca Trail see an army of porters running up and down the trails hauling camping gear and everything else that could possibly be needed. Whereas this supports local jobs, there is no doubt it adds pressure to the local natural environment and begs the question whether permanent camps with limited tourist numbers are more sustainable. There is no doubt the Lost City trek offered an experience that felt more unique to me and made me feel less like I was on a conveyer belt out to maximise every last peso. In fact, that’s what sets Colombia above many others, they don’t treat tourists like cash cows, with zero pressure on having to buy anything, yet even so, the service remains.

It’s been great to get back out travelling and as I get older and more frail I try to pack more wisely! On this occasion I traveled with a filtered water bottle for the first time which was an absolute God send. To arrive at an airport or hotel and just fill up from the tap without having to buy bottled water makes life so much easier. On the trek, when I was running low, I just filled up from a stream much to the horror of people around me. There is no doubt this made me jittery, but the bottle held true to its word, filtering out any crap that may have otherwise blown my bowels apart. To travel and not be ill is wonderful. I have also finally found a travel card that does everything a travel card should do with true exchange rates across all currencies and no need to preload it with cash. All transactions are displayed in the app with full details unlike some travel cards that don’t show exchange rates and have various ways of screwing you over. Currensea is the name. Travel with that and a credit card and the dream is set! Finally, As I sweated my way through the Colombian jungle my mind drifted to a close family member slagging me off the week before for not living in the ‘real world’. But when I travel, and I travel well like these past few weeks, it provides me with the energy and confidence I need to get through the ‘real world’. Whatever the F*** ‘real world’ means anyway!

2 thoughts on “Stubborn optimism

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