Sunday, 31 May 2020

Northern Colombia: Natural Wonders & Ancient Civilizations

Wiwa Village of Gotshezhy

It’s been over two months since arriving safely home from our significantly reduced vacation to Northern Colombia, courtesy of Covid-19.  I struggle not to allow this World pandemic to overshadow an adventure where vast diversity and striking beauty is bested only by the hearts of its inhabitants. This is our second visit to Colombia, so that should tell you how well our first visit went.  Check it out:
one of many species of native orchid
Roughly the size of Alberta and Saskatchewan combined, Colombia is second highest in the world when in comes to biodiversity, encompassing Amazonian rainforest, highlands, grasslands, deserts, islands and coastlines of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ethnically and linguistically diverse, 99% of Colombians are Spanish speaking and English is not widely spoken.  What comes to mind for many is its 30-year drug war.  It has taken decades to rebuild the stability of the country and many remain unconvinced that Colombia is a secure choice for travel.  Our experiences say otherwise; in fact, there has been a marked increase in tourism since the signing of the 2016 Peace Agreement.
GAdventures Caribbean Colombian Express
For the second time in more than 20 years of travel, we opted for a small group tour with GAdventures, a Canadian company utilizing local guides and small, locally owned businesses, ensuring the most benefit to the host country. Much to our surprise, we found this group completely different from our 2019 experience, which ranged in age from 28 to a young 70-something and was dominated by singles, most of whom were women.  Our 2020 group’s baby was 52 years old, a new experience for our guide as well.  While each day begins with a group activity, there is also plenty of free time. Accustomed to travelling as a couple alone, this is a critical element.
Cartagena's Getsemani District

Getsemani District
We began in what is undoubtedly the most expensive city in the country, Cartagena, spending a couple of days exploring the historic Walled City, constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries.  Hosting myriad hotels and restaurants, the Getsemani district is a favourite.  Not only is it less expensive, it is teeming with character.  Structures are colorful, architecturally interesting, and festooned with street art.  Reggaeton music can be heard on every street corner.  And did I mention the street food? Not to be missed!  We visited Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, located on the Hill of San Lazaro, It constructed in 1536 and expanded in 1657 and 1763. A UNESCO Heritage site now serves as a location for social and cultural events.
Graffiti depiction of much loved native son, Gabirel Garcia Marquez
There’s no better place to people watch than the Plaza San Pedro Claver but our favourite remains the less touristy Parque Centenario (Centennial Park), home to capuchin monkeys, sloths and giant iguanas;  where vendors hawk their wares and you can always find the works of native son and novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I consider One Hundred Years of Solitude one the best books I’ve ever read and would have gladly picked up a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera or The Autumn of the Patriarch had I been successful in finding a copy in English. 

Our next stop was Minca, about a 4-hour drive from
Cascadas de Marinka
Cartagena. Due its close proximity to the Venezuelan border, a steady influx of refugees gave witness to the devastating poverty evident along the road between Minca and Cartagena. Colombia, once itself in turmoil brought on by the war on drugs, recently announced the creation of Special Stay Permits to allow the more than 1.6 million Venezuelans to stay and work. With a population of about 800, one might think Minca has little to offer.  One would be wrong. A backpacker’s haven, Minca is a major gateway to La Cuidad Perdida (the Lost City). Activities include day hikes; cliff jumping; coffee and chocolate farms; birding, tubing and, of course, the Lost City, a 4-day hike deep into the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Here, we dipped our toes into the cooling waters of Cascadas de Marinka before being ushered to Posada Villa Margarita, where we would spend the next two nights. 

Posada Villa Margarita, our favourite accommodation
We took a bumpy jeep ride to Casa Elemento, to watch the sunset. Hosting a large pool, full-service restaurant and bar and amazing views, we could lay out over the jungle canopy on super-sized hammocks to watch a glorious sunset. If the size of the hammock doesn’t surprise you, some of the rules might!  Sex in public areas was taboo! We bumped back down the mountain to fill growling tummies at the Lazy Cat before retiring for the evening back at our villa for the evening. 
Magdalena River Tegu

It was early to bed when we discovered that we were hitting the trail at 6:30am the following morning to Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona.  Located about 35 km from Santa Marta, the Park was established to protect and promote its ecology and archaeology. Consisting of some 12,000 hectares of land and 3,000 hectares of ocean, this diverse corner of Colombia boasts more than 770 plant species and 100 animals. The Park closes annually during the month of February, in respect for the four indigenous tribes which believes it needs time to rest and rejuvenate. Trails are well marked and heavily trafficked. Our guide provided information on indigenous lifestyle, pointed out flora and fauna, generally having a pretty good handle on where wildlife liked to hang out.  
Playa Arrecifes
We hiked from Cañaveral to Cabo San Juan del Guía, stopping at Arrecifes, the furthest point inside the park which can still be accessed by vehicle, for a snack at a local bakery. Playa Arrecifes is one of the bigger beaches within the parks but with many rocks, reefs and strong waves.  La Piscina offers a long expanse of beach to swim, as well as food and other services.  Many stopped here while a few of us went on to El Cabo.  With a campground and restaurant facing a pair of spectacular beaches, if I were a 20-something this would be my destination.
El Cabo
A hiker with an average fitness level can accomplish this journey in about 2.5 hours. Leave time for swimming, eating and admiring some spectacular viewsheds.

Koguis youth offering coconut water to tourists
There are about 30,000 indigenous peoples (Arhuacos, also called Ika; Wiwa; Koguis; and Kankuamo) living in Northern Colombia, all direct descendants of the Tairona , a great civilization whose impressive architectural skills and gold work attracted the attention of Spanish colonists in the 16th Century.  Mother Earth provides everything they need:  food, water, medicinal herbs. The coca leaf plays a central role in daily life and each man carries a bag of leaves to be chewed for its stimulating effect. Each tribe has found ways to adapt to the invasion of their lands.  The Kogui shun outsiders by retreating to higher elevations. The Kankuamo have also adopted strategies to isolate themselves from the 'civilized world. The Arhuacos have almost entirely integrated into mainstream society. 
Harvesting the fibres of the yucca plant to make twine for weaving
Calling themselves ‘older brothers’ and referring to outsiders as ‘younger brothers’, the Wiwa (meaning 'warm') community, of about 7,000, is the smallest ethnic group living in the Sierra Nevada mountains today.  Specializing in agriculture, Mamos, the spiritual leaders, are charged with protecting Mother Nature. They dedicate themselves to safeguarding the natural order of both the physical and spiritual world through meditation, song and centuries-old rituals.  
 men harvest the string, women dry, card and weave the fibre
Gotshezhy is a Wiwa community that cautiously walks between its traditional way of life while accepting some of the Western World’s technological advances and accommodating some tourism. Our visit included a walk through the village, where children play while adults get on with their daily lives.  We shared a traditional meal before demonstrations on the harvesting and dying of natural plant fibres used by the women in the making of traditional mochila bag. 
This little fellow would make a nice snack for someone
Traditionally made for personal and family use only, now that there is a greater dependency on money, bags have become a part of the Wiwa’s economy and are also made for sale.  
A Wiwa Mamo
A local Mamo gave permission to ask anything we wished about the way of life, culture and history of the Wiwa. Our visit ended with a refreshing swim under falls near the Village.
Everywhere in Taganga is close to the beach
Tangaga is a small seaside town about a half hour from the City of Santa Marta.  Although this community suffers from reports of crime and dirty streets, we were met by neither.  Offering unpaved streets but plenty of hostels, guesthouses, bars and diving centres, Tanganga is a respite for the young-at-heart looking for an escape busy Santa Marta.  

Playa Grande from the malacon
Long hailed as a noisy, raucous community, with the exception of the exceedingly loud music emanating from a liquor outlet next door to our hotel, we experienced none of this.  By this time, the new realities of CoVid 19 were setting in.  We walked to Playa Grande to stroll the malacon and watch the setting sun.  We found shops, restaurants and bars to be mostly empty and, by 9pm. all but the die-hard were safely indoors.
local musicians fill the streets with the rhythm of the night
Our travels ended in Santa Marta, the capital of Magdalena Department.  Founded in 1525, it is the oldest surviving city in Colombia and the second oldest in South America.  We weren’t really sure what to expect of Santa Marta.  We have heard it described as a ‘Cartagena without the charm’ but we embraced the fact that Santa Marta is a true working city, with an economy based on tourism, trade, port activities, fishing and agriculture in that order.  The City centre comes alive at night with music, great restaurants and a funky atmosphere. Most often used as a base for exploring this part of Colombia, tourists have ample opportunity to spend time by the sea on one of the many nearby beaches.
Our plan was to spend an additional week, first returning to the Tayrona National Park area, to soak up more of its lush jungle scenery, white sandy beaches and the turquioise waters, then returning to Santa Marta to kick back at a nice hotel with a good book and some great food. That didn't happen
Orange chinned parakeets from the balcony of our Santa Marta hotel
In a matter of hours, we received a mandate from our government to return home and notification from our medical insurer that coverage for CoVid 19-related illness would expire in 10 days.  If that wasn’t enough to get us worried, the cancellation of our return flights by our carrier certainly was! Within a few short days businesses were closing, streets were emptying and many Colombians went into quarantine. With the assistance of our guide, we were able to change our accommodations so that we could remain near the Santa Marta airport. 
Houston to Calgary flight
Within days, our travel agent had us winging our way home. Airports were congested with people garbed in everything from homemade masks and scarves wrapped firmly around mouth and nose, to hazmat suits but, oddly, planes were near empty.  It was eerily reminiscent of the odd movie we’ve seen but never imagined could be based on anything real.

We wonder, not only what tourism will look like in future, but where and when it might resume.  We have been so very fortunate and blessed to have had almost the entire world within our grasp.  As it currently stands, we are encouraged to remain within our provincial boundaries. Borders are closed between most countries.  CoVid has indeed changed the World.
Not for the first time, or even the second, we owe a debt of gratitude to our travel agent.  By way of family illness, hurricanes and now Government travel advisories, she has proven her value time and again.  The additional expense is, in our opinion, money well spent. 

We have also come to understand the value of a good guide.  We try to connect on a personal level with guides, hosts, travel companions and others we meet along our journeys.  In particular, local citizens open doors to opportunities you can’t imagine.  We have heeded their advice on how to remain safe from both natural and manmade elements.  They are a wealth of knowledge, not only about the history and natural surroundings but about the culture.  We have had guides take us far outside the realm of traditional tours, wrangling us onto private property to explore areas off limits to the general public; negotiate purchases outside the scope of most travellers’ interests; even impromptu invitations into private homes where we shared food, stories and experiences.  This last time was no different. Not only did we have our guide to help us rearrange our accommodation, he shared tidbits of his own life and knowledge. In this way, we learn more about the culture of the country.   He shared intimate details about the coming of age traditions of the Wiwa that we would otherwise never have been privy about.  He also shared his dreams and aspirations but, more importantly, we made a friend. If you happen to find yourself in need of a good travel agent, or a guide while visiting Northern Colombia, contact information can be found in the Resource section, below. 

In the meanwhile, here are a few more of our favourite memories:

Black Vulture
The things One Can Do with a Satellite Dish

Street Art


King Iquana

Finally! A Culture which Recognizes Humans Come In All Sizes
Cartagena, Old and New

Cartagena Old
Minca and Tayrona National Park:

Leaf Cutter Ants
White-fronted Capuchin

Green Iguana

Veined Tree Frog, also called Milk Frog

Bananaquit (left) and Palm tanager(right)
A Pool with a View - Posada Villa Margarita

Posada Villa Margarita Pet, love his  Jimmy Durante Nose
Posada Villa Margareta

No Explanation Needed

Taganga Sunset

Mother Earth at Casita del Mar, Tanganga
 Santa Marta:
Tribute to Musicians who Passed at the Aged of 27, La Muzzeria
Cats on a Hot Roof
A Room with This View

Luana Johnsgaard, CTC 1-(403) 990-1777

Saturday, 28 December 2019

My Trail to Die on: The Crypt Lake Hike

This tale started so very many years ago, when a young friend popped out for a visit.  I have always admired Mils. She is not only a huge outdoor enthusiast and looks like a million bucks, she and her husband are an outstanding example of those who actually live their dream.  Who even knew there was such a thing as a professional fly fisherman? Spinning a hobby into a lucrative career is nothing I recall showcased at any career fair I attended but these two have not only done it but are very successful, to boot.  The more I learn, the more I understand the hard work and commitment it has taken, not only to get where they are today, but to stay on top.

I do digress.  While lounging in my livingroom, I vocalized a thought that hiking sounded like fun.  Mils suggested that she and another mutual friend, Em, could make that dream into a reality. Em is an athlete in her own right, starting with rowing in university.  Both women, about 15 years my junior, have always maintained a very respectable level of fitness through distance running, biking, hiking, etc.  That conversation took place about 8 years ago.

Fast forward to 2018, when I decided I wasn't completely satisfied with where I was in my life.  I had just retired and I decided now was my time to do some of those things I've been wanting to do but never quite got around to it. I made a bucket list and that hike was one of many items waiting to be crossed off. This past Spring, the topic came up in conversation with Em, who was immediately on board, and a decision was made that this was the year to make that hike happen.  We soon found a weekend and it wasn't long before we had a destination.  Mils, now living in Southern Alberta, wanted to hike Crypt Lake.

Having no idea what that might entail, I began googling. The Crypt Lake Loop is about 19 kilometers (12 miles) in length, with over 800 metres (2,600 feet) in elevation gain. It is reputed to have been voted 'Canada's Best Hike' in 1981 and rated one of the world's most thrilling by National Geographic, crediting the four waterfalls, the narrow ledge of rock to be traversed and the 18 metre (60 foot) crawl through a cave which must be accessed via a ladder.  Let's not leave out the bears, as the area is home to both black and grizzlies alike.

I can so clearly remember my initial reaction: “What is she thinking?  I’m 60 years old!  I’ve never hiked in my life!  Has she totally lost it???”  Fortunately, we were communicating by email.  What Mils read was, “Crypt Lake concerns me a bit.  While I walk the dogs daily, I’m only going 2 or 3 miles. . . I don’t understand the terminology. What is an open hike? What does difficult look like? I fear it may be a bit too ambitious unless you two are prepared to carry the old lady out. “   Mils had a friend who has done this hike; she would ask about the level of difficulty. No matter what her friend's thoughts might be, I had my two-word (Hell No!) response carved in stone.

I continued to dig. I must have watched twenty videos, all taken by young, nubile bodies that looked nothing like mine.  I read detailed reviews, looking specifically for someone of my experience, or lack thereof.  There were indeed some folks in their 60s who had undertaken the journey, most of whom were seasoned hikers.  There were even a few reviews from first-timers who made statements like, ‘If I can do it, anyone can,” which gave me faint hope. Let’s not forget the ones who didn’t make it, accomplished hikers around my age who turned back because it was simply too much for them. And need I even bother mentioning my old colleague who hikes regularly and his words of encouragement: "I'll read your obituary"? Did I really want to be one of those? 

I began to search other trails in the vicinity that might be more to my level of non-existent expertise but there just didn’t seem to be a happy medium; they were all either beyond my capability or easy enough that I wasn’t confident even I would be challenged, let alone my super physically fit, athletic, hiker-biker companions. Slowly but surely, I began to wrap my mind around the concept of actually attempting the Crypt Lake Trail.  By the end of May, I came to the conclusion that a worse case scenario was that I couldn’t complete it.  As most of it is a straight in hike (rather than looped) if I couldn’t finish it, I could always return to the trail head and wait while my companions carried on sans Brenda.  I’m quite comfortable with my own company and I’m not afraid to be in the woods alone.  In the event I couldn’t finish this seemed to me to be a reasonable ending.  I would indeed have a much wounded pride to contend with but I decided I would rather try and fail than fail to try. This became my mantra. 

Once I made the commitment to myself and my companions, I set myself up on a training schedule. My partner, Eric, encouraged me every step of the way.  I sent my siblings a video and told them this was my challenge for myself.  I admitted to a fear of failure but that I was more afraid of setting non-existent boundaries for myself by not making the attempt.  When I asked, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?” my brother’s reply was simply, ‘You could die”.  He had a point.

I had just over two months to whip myself into shape.  I needed gear, education, clothes, and lots and lots of exercise.  I found excellent information on the general do’s and don’ts of hiking through the Red Deer Ramblers guidelines.  I even contemplated joining but the criteria for membership was that one had to be able to hike at least 10 kilometers in the mountains.  I had never hiked anywhere.

Our two large breed dogs were ecstatic when I began walking four, five and even six miles daily, up 

every steep hill, down every ravine, on every type of terrain I could find.  I even talked a friend into a 12-mile Treaty Six hike from Bowden to Olds (misery loves company). Granted, it was flat but it gave me some confidence that at least I could make the distance.  I rarely missed an opportunity, even when travelling, to get out and walk.  A trip to town meant I made an hour head start and Eric picked me up on the road.

Em was a little slow on the uptake in regard to what the Crypt Lake Trail held in store.  We were literally a couple of weeks out from our hike when I received her email. She had watched a video.  She didn't do ladders,caves and cliffs. By this time, I was fully committed, heart and soul; if I was doing it, so was she.  She said nothing more.

I received a note from Mils asking if I minded if she invited a neighbour, a paramedic and, perhaps, her husband. I figured a paramedic and a handsome, able bodied outdoorsman would be excellent additions to our little party; more capable bodies to carry me out!

The day for us to make the trek to Southern Alberta was upon us.  I had proper clothing and footwear, rain gear, quick-dry clothes which could be layered.  That was going to be key as the weather forecast was absolutely gruesome. I well remember Eric seeing me off, kissing me goodbye and wishing me luck.  My last words to him were, "I'm afraid." Fear of failure has always been my biggest hurdle. On the drive down Em and I had determined that we were more akin to fair-weather hikers, that we had no desire to find ourselves on a mountain with wind and rain.  We were adamant that we would find something else to do.  But it wasn’t to be that easy.  As much as Mils tried to prepare us for the nasty weather, it was clear that she saw no reason to turn tail and run and, while I’m pretty sure both Em and I were thinking otherwise, neither of us had the hutzpah to bring it up.

We were on the road bright and early the next dreary morning, headed to Waterton Lake, in agreement that we would make the call whether to cancel when we arrived to where we would catch the ferry across the lake to the trail head. Onto the boat we went.

On the ferry, we were given a little bit of advice about wildlife, in particular, bears.  Yes, there was a very good chance that we would see one.  What to do?  If we were one of those individuals that brought a whistle (and I was one of those) don’t use it.  In Waterton, a whistle is exactly the sound made by a pica, a small rodent found at the bottom of a bear's food chain.  Clearly, a whistle was a poor choice as my lifesaving measure.  Fortunately two companions knew what they were about and came armed with horns and spray.  I just had to remember to stay in between them. 

Stepping off the ferry, my confidence began to waiver.  This was real.  In my heart of hearts, I hadn't completely sold myself; I wasn't 100% convinced that I could really do this. The paramedic, whom I dubbed 'our little gazelle', took the lead and off we went.  Just over 3 kilometres into the hike we hit a series of switchbacks over steep, rocky terrain. I began to struggle.  Then I began to panic.  My old friend, Fear, was squeezing the oxygen right out of my chest.  Everything I had read told me the challenging part of this hike would be faced once we hit an abandoned campground where nothing but an old outhouse remained. If I was struggling now, what would I be doing further on?  We needed a new strategy; as the weakest member, I needed to be the one who set the pace.  Ever the turtle, one foot in front of the other, lots of rests, and gratitude that it wasn’t a scorching 30C day and we made it to the campground. And while I'm somewhat glad I am not blessed with eyes in the back of my head to witness the looks that likely shot between three sets of eyes, not a single word of complaint was uttered by my companions. If I didn’t know it before, I definitely knew then; these women were not forging on without me; either all of us were going to see that lake or none of us were. Talk about the pressure!

I was soon to discover that what is daunting to one is not necessarily daunting to another. For me, it was the severity of the grade that was the most challenging.  For others, it is the psychological aspect of a rock face with a path no more than 0.5 metres (20 inches), at time as little as 0.2 metres (8 inches), in width. Or perhaps it is the 300 metre (1,000 foot) drop.  Or the 3-metre (10 foot) ladder to the mouth of the cave which is offset by a long arm's length. For me, this was the glory hole; for Em, it was her nemesis.  The Little Gazelle took the lead, always offering an encouraging word or suggestion as to where to place a hand or foot. Ever the faithful photographer, working diligently to capture the essence of monumental moments in perpetuity, at one point along the cliff wall Mils asked Em to turn around for a photo op, to which she received a sharp 'No!'.  No one argued.

Each one of us got a little high from that hike but I’m pretty sure I got the biggest one. For me, Crypt Lake became the most beautiful little lake in all of Alberta.  Only a few short months ago I didn’t even know there was a Crypt Lake.  Without the encouragement and support of my companions, I would never have experienced it.  Today, I can hardly wait to return.  This time, I would like it to be on a sunny but moderately temperate day.  While mist and fog bring with it an ethereal quality, it would be really nice to see those spectacular views that everyone who has gone before me speaks of. I guess that awaits us on another hike.

Yes, we had some memorable moments along the way.  On that steep switchback, we came across a mother/daughter duo.  Mom was struggling and Daughter was patiently waiting. The perfect excuse to stop and catch my breath, I suggested that perhaps Mom and I team up and send the youngsters on ahead.  Of course, that didn't happen but, when Mom and Daughter made the lake, there were four women ready to congratulate them. 

And let’s not forget that pair of panties on the trail at the end of the trek across the ledge, up the ladder and through the tunnel.  Someone had the bejeezuz scared out of them and the good news is, it wasn’t me!  Whoo Hoo!

Coming back down, a couple of young men in front of us did an about face and were headed back in our direction at warp speed.  They rounded a corner only to find a bear sitting in the middle of the path feasting on berries.  We decided the best defense would be to make a lot of noise. At which point, I broke into song and everyone followed suit.  We just missed the first boat back to Waterton which meant we spent the next hour hunkered down under the trees trying to keep dry.  That part wasn’t fun but it was still not enough to dampen my spirits.  I came off that mountain literally flying high on my own adrenalin!

And now the challenge is to keep moving and maintain that level of fitness I worked so hard to acquire.  Admittedly, I’ve slowed down a bit. I’m back to only a few miles a day but it’s still every day, and I’m still doing my yoga a few times a week.  I’ll pick it back up when the weather improves and I can get out for a good long hike.  Honestly, I have to.  We’ve declared this to become an annual event and I have to do everything I can to ensure these women will want to take this old girl out for a new run.