Caribbean dream

ANDREW BAIN
Last updated 05:00 29/04/2014
Colombia Std
Andrew Bain
Kogi man reading a hiker's bird guide.

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Not all lost cities in the South American mountains are at Machu Picchu.

High in the northern reaches of Colombia, in the coastal Sierra Nevada range, a pair of lost cities lies hidden in dark jungle. Around them, monkeys scamper through the canopy, hummingbirds hover beside flowers, and poison frogs hop about the undergrowth.

It's one of the most evocative mountain wildernesses in South America.

The Sierra Nevada is the world's highest coastal mountain range, rising to more than 5700 metres above sea level. A great portion of it is protected by Tayrona National Park, considered by many to be Colombia's finest national park.

People come mostly for its beaches - locals proudly and regularly tell you that these Caribbean beaches were once rated the second most beautiful in the world - but it's in the mountains behind the beaches that the haunting remains of two lost cities, Ciudad Perdida and Pueblito, furnish the jungle.

Hardy travellers come to trek to Ciudad Perdida, an ancient city rediscovered by a treasure hunter in 1875. The trek is a journey of around five days on foot, wading across the Buritaca River seven times and sleeping and eating in basic conditions in indigenous villages.

Pueblito yields more easily and can be reached on a day hike that also takes in a number of the beaches. From Santa Marta, which is claimed as South America's oldest city, it's a short drive to the roadside village of Cabalazo, where I begin walking. Jungle teems down the mountain slopes, and inside this snarl of growth it feels almost as though you could lose a city in a week.

I start walking at 7am and already it's 35 degrees and I can just about drink the humidity in the air. There's not a puff of breeze and, as the trail begins steeply, I'm soon a human cascade of sweat. It's almost impossible to believe there are snowy peaks nearby.

Tayrona National Park is, by any measure, a remarkable piece of geography. Though covering just 30 square kilometres, it stretches from ocean to high mountain tops, rising through four ecosystems.

Stand at one point near Canaveral on its sweltering Caribbean coast and you can see the snowcap on Pico Cristobal Colon, Colombia's highest mountain, less than 70 kilometres inland.

About 300 species of bird have been recorded in the park, along with more than 100 mammals and 1000 plants. As I climb towards Pueblito, butterflies dance about the trail, and a tiny frog hops away.

An entire playlist of birdsong rings out from the canopy.

It's little more than a five-kilometre walk to Pueblito and, midway, the trail passes beside a "village" inhabited by Kogi tribespeople. The Kogi are one of four tribes descended from the Tayrona people, who inhabited the region in Pre-Columbian times.

It was the Tayrona who built and lived at Ciudad Perdida and Pueblito, and even today Kogi shamans still come to Pueblito to perform religious ceremonies.

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In the village, eight people inhabit a single hut and customs remain traditional (except for the drinks and handmade souvenirs they sell to hikers). A cooking fire burns in the dirt, the most basic of traditional dress is worn, and a young girl hacks with cough.

"You should get her to a doctor or hospital," my guide, Diva, tells the villagers.

"We don't know what they'd do to her," one of the men replies, suspicious of the outside world.

Beyond the Kogi village, we come to a fork in the trail, turning right for Pueblito as the jungle somehow thickens. Tree roots grope like fingers in the ground, and vines drape dozens of metres to the ground. The calls of howler monkeys - an eerie noise like a storm wind - roll across the mountains and, in the distance, the canopy of a tall tree shakes and the silhouette of a capuchin monkey rises up a branch.

Along this track, the jungle briefly opens and there is Pueblito, first a burial site for Tayrona ancestors, and then the scant remnants of the city itself.

The settlement dates back to around AD450 and was inhabited until about 1600. At its peak, it was home to around 2000 people and 250 houses. Today, no houses remain except for one reconstructed hut.

What does remain are a series of rock-ringed terraces - one terrace for each house - stepped into the jungle, which continues to steam and howl. Visually, it's no Machu Picchu, but the setting is as evocative as an Indiana Jones movie.

From Pueblito, the way down to the coast - I'm dreaming of the unseen beaches already - is over large boulders almost the entire way. As I scramble down, a yellow-striped poison frog scampers to safety up a boulder, though what it has to fear from us is uncertain - it's the one packing the poison.

Slowly the coast draws near, first in sight then in sound, until finally we're walking through a grove of coconut palms and out onto sand at Cabo San Juan Guia, a glimmering, wishbone-shaped beach. Suddenly all this talk of world's best beaches doesn't seem so far-fetched.

Cabo San Juan Guia is place of deep tans and deep water. Bodies sprawl on the sand, and the sea is the Caribbean colour of legend.

Palm trees arch over the beach and black vultures look down from their tops, perhaps sensing that someone here might expire in the heat. From Cabo San Juan Guia, the walk is a beach hop north to the road end at Canaveral.

Crossing boulder-stacked headlands to a run of perfectly shaped beaches, it's like hiking from one postcard to another.

The further north the trail goes, the more brutal the coast becomes.

By the time it reaches Arrecifes, about an hour's walk from Cabo San Juan Guia, the sea is inevitably storming ashore. Signs warn that swimming on this beach is forbidden because of an undertow that's drowned more than 100 people.

At the back of the beach, other signs warn visitors not to approach the edge of a lagoon because of the presence of caimans (crocodiles). Strolling the narrow strip of beach in between is like a tightrope walk between dangers.

But there are no such issues back in the protected cove at Cabo San Juan Guia, the most beautiful of Tayrona's beaches. I float on my back, looking up into the mountains. Jungle stretches as far as I can see.

Somewhere inside it is Pueblito, but already, in this bathtub-warm sea, it feels lost again.

The writer travelled courtesy of the South America Travel Centre.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE LAN Airlines operates six flights a week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Bogota, Colombia, and beyond to Santa Marta, the gateway to Tayrona National Park; see lan.com.

STAYING THERE Inside the park, there is high-end accommodation at Ecohabs, where the cabins are styled like indigenous Tayrona huts. There are also campgrounds strung behind the beaches. In Santa Marta, boutique hotel Don Pepe, a few steps in from the foreshore, is highly recommended, with its stylish colonial rooms wrapped around a small swimming pool. See ecohabsantamarta.com.

TOURING THERE South America Travel Centre organises tailormade trips to Colombia. Accommodation can be arranged in Santa Marta or inside the national park; see southamericatravelcentre.com.

- FFX Aus

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