|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: https://hpdsinc.blogspot.com/2019/02/colombia-youve-come-long-way-baby.html
|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|
|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
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.
|Cascadas de Marinka|
|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.
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.
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|
|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:
|The things One Can Do with a Satellite Dish|
|Finally! A Culture which Recognizes Humans Come In All Sizes|
|Cartagena, Old and New|
Minca and Tayrona National Park:
|Leaf Cutter Ants|
|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|
|Mother Earth at Casita del Mar, Tanganga|
|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 email@example.com 1-(403) 990-1777
Luana Johnsgaard, CTC firstname.lastname@example.org 1-(403) 990-1777
Rafael (Rafa) Granados, Guide; email@example.com 1-57-301-640-0468