Monday, 30 June 2014

Medellin (don't mention Pablo...)

A 16 hour bus journey to take us halfway down Colombia sounds horrific, considering that Colombia is about the same size as France, Spain, and Portugal combined, and not exactly lacking in mountainous terrain. But even though it became an 18 hour journey for no obvious reason, it was really rather pleasant.

The buses that will take you halfway across the country and beyond are generally very comfortable, some have wifi on board, most will show a (badly dubbed) film, usually violent and at full volume, and all will stop occasionally to allow random guys on selling ice creams, biscuits, crisps, and an assortment of tasteless local food.

In fact, probably the only issue with these buses is the average Colombians disregard for personal space. Watching the guy in front of us spill outwards from his seat in every possible direction and into other passengers kept us briefly entertained, moving CP to comment that the poor lady sat next to him ”doesn't know him from a bar of soap", while he is thrusting an arm across her face in a bid to find the most comfortable position.

We arrive, and negotiate our way through the city's metro system. We'd read that Medellinians (for some reason known as pasias?) are very proud of their shiny new (-ish) metro, and we quickly fall foul of the rules - no food or drink is to be consumed in the station, despite the entrepreneur outside selling bags of fruit. Luckily CP just inhaled all the grapes shed just brought from a man outside the metro station... sharing is caring?

Paying $1 for our metro journey, we make it to our hostel without too much trouble. Medellin (pronounced med-e-jin for those Spanish speakers amongst us) is a popular place and almost everyone we've met in and around Colombia has given us recommendations of places to stay before we got here - somehow we've ignored all of these tips, and when we launch ourselves through the security doors at the Palm Tree Hostel and claim beds in the dorm, CP is immediately making the suggestion that we stay one night only and then GTFO.

This doesn't stop her abusing the receptionists knowledge, or her English skills - apparently one of the concerns about our current lodging was that as our checkin process had been handled entirely in Spanish (go me!), the receptionist had mistakenly assumed that we were both proficient. This is clearly not the case, I can understand enough in context and form a reasonable if basic response, and CP... well I think CP is close to hanging up her Spanish shoes for good!

Once the receptionist realises this, and instantly switches in to more precisely pronounced English than us, CP is a lot happier - returning to the dorm with a glass of lemon infused water and a variety of maps and information. Most importantly the news that for $5 they will wash our now large bag of very dirty washing and return it to us folded and possibly ironed that afternoon.

With map in hand and a few key spots noted down from the Lonely Planet, it's all aboard for another famous RD walking tour, taking in all that downtown has to offer, as well as the occasional unscheduled stroll right through the centre of Dodge Town.

I'm on task to buy a new watch, of the dodgy fake variety, now that we've established that my unbreakable travel watch (that CP got me as a Christmas present) hasn't been seen since Leon, Nicaragua....oops....

The difficulty is that for some reason the guys selling these seem to think that the bigger and shitter looking the better, and also that just allowing me to browse in peace for 3 seconds might result in them missing a sale, so instead rush out to insist that they are all genuine, and best price, and try this massive blue monstrosity. Yes, you're right, it is my experience that genuine Tissot watches are sold from a dodgy wooden stall and come packaged in a little ziplock bag that previously held their sandwiches and/or a quantity of hardcore narcotics.

Despite CPs excitement that it's me that is being forced to peruse these stalls, she doesn't understand that it's very different to her bag buying exploits in Guatemala, where every item needed to be touched to discern that it was either too big, too small, too bright, too dull, too expensive, too cheap... I can instantly survey what is on offer and recognise that all of the options available to me are just "too shit" - and so our search will continue in the next city we visit.

Anyone that's been paying attention to the photos will have seen that my beard has been getting slightly out of hand - last trimmed to grade 2 a full month ago, it's been getting harder to keep clean, especially when a daily shower isn't guaranteed. Luckily we find a selection of barbers, and settle in for a £1 trim - the lady could do with charging a little more and investing in some new tools, but I now look less like a hobo so we can't complain.

As afternoon turns into evening, we board the metro in search of El Poblado, or as we can never remember it's name "the Pube-place". This is a lively area of the city with a cluster of bars, restaurants, where most backpackers will stay and blow their budgets on occasionally overpriced watered down "2 for 1" cocktails. We've read about this amazing mojito bar but can't remember the name or address, and as don't have the LP with us we're mostly looking for some cheap drinks and wifi to track it down.

So we buy some of those overpriced watered down margaritas and the barman gives us the wifi password for the bar next door... still no luck tracking down this mojito bar though so we concede defeat - there's a mass gathering of people in the park for a free music festival and a little shop selling beers for about £1 so we set up there and watch the world go by, before getting a taxi back to the hostel as CP has suffered an unknown foot injury which resulted in an inability to walk and even some held back tears when she thought I wasn't looking.

There's a birthday party at the hostel, and CP is loving the free rum and attention that limping through the middle of it generates. As the revellers head out to the nearby Latin party zone, we retire to our bunks - not before I've had chance to check the LP and discover that the awesome mojito bar we'd been out looking for is in an entirely different city. Oh how we laughed...

Breakfast is supplied by the hostel in the form of eggs that you cook yourself or cereal that you provide your own milk for. CP is still limping ("it's ok but it's not right...") so I'm dispatched to the supermarket to buy bacon to go with our eggs. As days of the week are mostly meaningless to us at the moment, I'm not aware that it's a Sunday and everything is closed. I see a few people heading up the stairs next to the supermarket and assume this must be an alternative route in. It's not, and I walk straight into a room packed with 200 people listening to a church service, and quickly exit... we'll just have to so without bacon today, although I do manage to find a bakery so we have croissants! Apparently CP is less excited than me...

We did a couple of good deeds today for the less fortunate of Medellin, the first one being me offering to purchase a homeless guy whatever pastry or pastries he wanted from the bakery as I got us our breakfast. He had a massive smile on his face when he realised that he could pick whatever he wanted! Over the course of our time in Medellin, we make sure that we buy fruit, ice cream and drinks from the poorest looking vendors (always refusing our change), we buy way more packets of little chewing gum from the poorest of people selling sweets from a wooden plank tied around their neck (often to much appreciation as our refusal of change and smile results in "god bless you", and even on occasion, CP getting her hands held and kissed...), RD brought a bracelet from a very skinny looking guy who looked like he'd not eaten for a week, and we brought some pastries and gave them to a homeless guy close to our hostel who was sorting his newspaper out for his bed as we passed.  We cannot do much to help alleviate all the poverty here, but we can do the little things, so we try in the little ways which ensures that we are not promotion begging, but helping the little micro economies that each individual creates in order to survive.

Today's plan is "the best aqua park in Medellin" (should that be the "only" aqua park in Medellin?), a cable car over the poorest barrios in the city, and a trip to the botanical gardens.

The old man getting out to physically push his bubble-car taxi forwards in the queue doesn't exactly scream "come jump in my cab, together we can see the world!", but we're on our way to Aquaparque Juan Pablo II, with it's flumes, zipline, wave pool, and everything else. Everything else could mean planes as it's next door to the airport, with the runway running parallel to the park.

Everything else could also mean insane rules, as we're quickly being shouted at by a street vendor that we can't go in without a strange cloth swimming cap. This is confirmed by the security guard at the front gate and we stump up a whole £1 each for our choice of coloured rags which some loon thinks are more hygienic than the horror of an exposed head of hair.

There's job creation everywhere - the security guard that taps the outside of your backpack to confirm that it's ok, 2 people to issue your ticket to get in, another to put your wristband on for you, there's no lockers - just a collection of people who will put your stuff in a numbered bag and then guard it for you, meaning that every time you want access to your towel, or wallet, or anything, you need to queue up while 2 people track down your stuff, then repeat the process to put it back again.

There's a lot of queuing involved, which considering Colombians don't know how to queue is a problem. You'll be waiting patiently in line, when a fat, sweaty, and hairy man wearing his hygienic rag cap and Lycra shorts will push through you to the front, which sets in motion a chain reaction of everyone trying to do the same.

Things get worse, as on the way to the lockers we discover that the watersplash zipline is closed for maintenance, no sunscreen is allowed, you can't take a towel poolside, and most importantly, board shorts are not acceptable. I'm told this as I'm about to launch down the waterslide and I'm not amused. There's a guy walking along gobbing into the walkway, you have to cover your head with a piece of cloth bought from a homeless guy outside, kids are definitely peeing in the wave pool,  and used toilet paper still goes in a little bin next to the toilet - but board shorts are unhygienic? Really? The same homeless guy was selling some equally skody swimwear outside but luckily there's a "souvenir shop" in the park selling hot pants for men so I'm saved that ordeal. Nevertheless, it's not a good look.

Finally we're fully equipped and the supervised fun can begin, and despite everything mentioned above, it really is a lot of fun, and our time is divided between the water slides and the chill out area above the wave pool.

When we're ready to leave, we study our tourist map and decide that we can walk to the nearest metro station. We should have learnt yesterday that the scale on the map is slightly unusual, but we eventually get there and jump on the train to the Botanical Gardens. LP describes this as "fabulous gardens covering 14 hectares and showcasing 600 species of trees and plants, a lake, auditorium, and a butterfly enclosure". Maybe we've been spoilt with our wildlife spotting up to now, but after an hour of walking round we'd seen a tortoise, the sloth that lives there remained hidden, and as hunger was setting in we decided to hit up the food stalls near the entrance and head to our final tourist spot of the day.

LP recommends taking the San Javier line cable car, "which offers spectacular views, but complete a full loop and don't get out en route as it passes over some of Medellin's roughest barrios". This is basically free to do, as for the price of one metro ticket ($1) we're able to get the metro from the gardens to San Javier, connect up to the cable car, ride a full loop, and the metro back home again. 3 million people live in Medellin, and riding the cable car it looks like most of them live in the shanty towns on the hill. Tiny houses, mostly packs so close together, with a few bricks or discarded householditems to hold the corrugated iron roofs in place.

Most of the people in the cable cars are tourists of one kind or another, at least during the day, so you have this great piece of transport infrastructure basically being used for voyeurs like us to get a view over the other side of the city. It seems tailor made for an enterprising local to ride the cable car and give guided tours of the barrios, but this isn't happening yet...

Tonight CPs foot has made a full recovery, so we head out from our hostel to the nearby Latin street. It's still early as we walk along, but it's clear that later on this will become a hive of activity, and we set about choosing one of the many street vendors on offer for our dinner. These are bigger structures than we've seen in other cities but still essentially giant trolleys that can be moved to/from the street in no time at all.

We choose one that seems to be most popular with the locals and it's a great pick - the restauranteur is a full of life Brazilian who does a huge double take when he realises there's a couple of gringos at his stall, and in the absence of a menu we choose our food based on "what that guy just got!" - an enormous plate of meats that have been freshly cooked up right in front of us. While we wait we're each given a plastic glove - apparently this can get pretty messy - then it arrives... and wow!

Meanwhile another stall has set up nearby as a little bar, so we're sat with the locals eating his feast and listening to some funky Latin music while sipping on a juice. After this we walk a little further, then head for home as CP has big plans for tomorrow...

This morning begins with epic bacon and egg sandwiches - essential as this will be a big day. We're going paragliding, CPs excited, I'm nonplussed, but we're doing it! It costs $50 here vs apparently anything up to $300 in "developed" countries, and I'm hoping this isn't reflected in the safety of this activity - as a 12 year old kid fits my safety harness.

Medellin sits at 1600m, and we essentially run off a hillside at 2,300m, and within a couple of minutes CP is cruising around in the clouds at 2,950m. My guy takes a slightly less drastic approach to this as we float up through the thermals listening to a bit of Coldplay from his iPod.

We're above the birds, and as I look into the distance there's a plane taking off from way below us and we give a little wave... down below us now, CPs pilot is performing "manoeuvres", tight spirals downwards executed by deliberately collapsing the canopy a little. And it looks mental. "Ah your chica!" says my pilot, "and you?" errrrrrrm... "suave" (gentle) - yeah I'm happy with that! And we drop like a stone towards the ground while spinning. That was heart in mouth stuff for me, so CPs efforts must have been pretty severe!

We pick up the thermals again and cruise back up to sensible levels before coming in for an ultra smooth landing where the kids quickly unclip us and ready the kit for the next people.

There's time for a quick photo to prove that we've both survived, before CP needs to excuse herself for a couple of minutes.

She returns with the line "I enjoyed it... but I need to chew my food more".

A post about Medellin cannot be complete without a mention of arguably Colombia's most famous (former) citizen, Pablo Escobar. In the 1990s, the city was the centre of the worldwide cocaine trade with motorbike riding sicarios (hitmen) carrying out gangland hits for the city's most notorious son, the drug lord who was once so rich and "successful" that he offered to pay off all of Colombia's foreign debt, paid his hitmen $1,000 for every policeman that they killed, and got himself elected to congress. The city was a no go area for foreigners until he was gunned down by a joint US and Colombian security force in 1993 with his bodyguard while attempting to escape over rooftops. He was (and apparently still is) very popular with some because of his generosity to the poor.

We'd heard that there are two Escobar tours that you can do, one of which used to end with a talk by his brother - but that had to stop as he began to describe Pablo as a hero which is at odds with the rest of the modern view of him. Neither tour is advertised as the residents are not proud of his exploits, and our hostel told us that the guy that runs the other tour is in Brazil watching some football tournament... very inconsiderate, but after a couple of days here we've done enough, and don't have much desire to look at an old roof where someone was shot over 20 years ago.

And with that, we finished our short stay in Medellin - next up, onto the bus terminus to get ourselves to Salento, a little town in the heart of Colombia's coffee region... with Colombia so famous for its coffee, could we be on the verge of the first decent cup of joe since we got here??

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Tayrona National Park

We're awake early (of course!) so with a 6am bumper breakfast to fuel us up, we pack a few things into day packs and stuff the rest into a locker at Drop Bear (we'll be back for that tomorrow) and head out at 6:30am to begin our journey to Tayrona National Park. The bus turns out to be easier than expected to find, and somehow we've made it to the park entrance before it opens at 8am.

Everything you read about Tayrona says that food options in the park are limited and expensive, so take in your own food and water if you can. The night before we prep'd our sandwiches, and my bag is mostly filled with the food and snacks to last the duration of our stay here. We'd also heard that the bag checks are beyond thorough, you can't take alcohol into the park, and any plastic bags would be confiscated. Maybe we were just too early for the checks, but we strolled through without so much as a glance from any park personnel with our plastic bag carrying our water supply.

To say that we "strolled" might be a bit generous - my legs are paying for the exertions of the last few days, and my ankles are reluctant to flex in any direction so walking is a little tricky at first and CPs blisters and calves are making themselves known, and as we begin the 4km walk to the first village, I'm wondering if we shouldn't have had a day of recuperation back at the hostel first...

We make our way along the paths, stopping to take in the scenery and millipedes (CP) and rest (RD), and soon enough we arrive at Arricefes, the first village of note and home to a few different campgrounds, bars and restaurants - although that might be overstating them a little, they sell cooked meals at least. We pause to eat one of our soggy sandwiches, with breakfast already a distant memory.

As we stumble along the little pathways looking for La Piscina, one of the few beaches here that you can safely swim in without fear of riptides and vicious currents that have apparently claimed over 100 swimmers in recent years, we instead find ourselves at another big draw for Tayrona - the Lonely Planet favourite, Panaderia Vere.

Here a little old lady produces freshly baked bread rolls every morning, stuffed with chocolate, dulce de leche, or cheese - they are huge, delicious, and only COP 3,000 (£1). We're too late for the chocolate loaves (calling them pan au chocolat wouldn't do them justice) so opt for the dulce de leche. As soon as they are brought out to our table, it's clear ordering one each was a mistake, and sharing one would have been more than enough. They're still warm from the oven and the hot caramel oozes all the way through - amazeballs!

Next we planned to head back to the first village, Arricefes, as we'd been told there was a bar there that would be showing the Colombia game at 11am. We take a fortuitous wrong turn on the way there and find ourselves at Don Pedros, which is also showing the game but on a big projector screen, and we take front row seats with the growing crowd of locals. Pedro turns out to be a miserable bastard, even more so when I trouble him for two overpriced cervezas (although at $2 a can, it's cheap by normal standards, just double Colombian standards) but he does at least manage a little jig when Colombia score, twice, and then win to secure their place in the next round. Less than 24 hours later, both Australia and England will secure their places on an early flight home.

If you're not there to hike to the sacred sites (and we are most definitely not!) then the best thing to do in Tayrona is to be a beach bum. Perfect! We make our way round the coast stopping for swims and relaxing in the sun along the way.

On the way we hone our animal spotting skills, and find a baby capuchin high up in a tree, many ant highways (CP had to start referring to some of them as ant autobahns they were so big), hundreds of lizards, and very occasionally some weird cat-pig-anteater combos, yet to be correctly identified. We mostly saw their butts disappearing through the trees as they are flighty little critters, scampering off as soon as they hear or see you approaching.

This time we really do find La Piscina, and although it's busier than our little isolated beach round the corner, it's a little piece of paradise with more than enough room for the few people that are there.

The last beach you can easily walk to is Cabo de San Juan, and this is by far the busiest area of Tayrona. The camping ground here is massive with a cool campsite party vibe, but almost twice as expensive as the less busy places. The main draw for us here though is the possibility of camping in the little lookout point on top of the rock, and with sunset approaching we head up there and claim our hammocks. The reception isn't open when we head up there but with half the hammocks available we're happy that we've claimed them and sit back to watch the sunset.

By 6pm, it's filling up, and we discover that the reception has been opened, and someone has been allocated "our" hammocks - I run down to claim 2 of the remaining ones but it's too late, they've been reserved. Bollocks. We now have to run back up to grab our bags, and hightail it back to one of the other campsites we had clocked during the day that had mosquito nets over the hammocks, as this one was only worth it if we could be up on the rock. It's a solid half hour very fast walk back, and that includes me having to occasionally jog to keep pace with CP setting the pace (making her laugh each time she hears me start up my catch up jog), but at least darkness falling has brought out a lot more of the cat-pig animals and instead of just spotting a butt running away, we now get to see them playing everywhere.

We make it to our (new) chosen campground and there's time for a very brief dip in the ocean to cool down after half running to get there before dark. This does mean braving one of the "no swimming" beaches though, and a local observes with interest as we go out to waist deep, dunk ourselves and then walk back out. Drying off, the same local approaches and after opening with a friendly "amigo..." warns us again of the danger of the currents, explaining that even knee deep can be enough to see you washed away... the views around the nearby natural lagoon are awesome:

Dinner is the remaining soggy sandwiches, which having been made 24 hours ago and bounced around in my backpack for the day, are now best served by dumping them into a bowl and eating them with a spoon. We treat ourselves to a plate of hot chips to supplement our soggy sandwiches...oh yeah!

Our new campsite has three major selling points - it's half the price, the hammocks come with mosquito nets, but most importantly it's right next door to the Panaderia, so after packing our kit up in the morning we head there for breakfast at 7am and get to try the chocolate loaves... oh... my... god! Marginally smaller than the dulce de leche we had yesterday, but it doesn't matter, they are a taste sensation.

We have a few hours until we have to make our way back to Drop Bear, and we spend the rest of the morning alternating between sunning ourselves on the beach and splashing about in the water (the safe sections) to cool down. It's a tough life but someone has to do it.

As we're on our way out of the park, we bump into Roberto (Ciudad Perdida trek) coming the other way - proof once more that we're all on the same basic route, just with different timetables. This is evident again later when we arrive at the bus station to find Alex and Ross (also from Ciudad Perdida) queuing to board the same bus as us.

We manage to share a taxi with two girls (who we had met the night before at the lookout point hammocks and who had stayed at the hut on the point (they said they got a bit of sleep but it was freezing cold... which made us feel slightly better after not being able to secure our hammocks there), all the way back to the hostel instead of catching two buses, and for the princely sum of $5.25 each. Our driver had a slight death wish and after almost hitting two pedestrians and a massive truck, we were safely deposited back to Drop Bear.

There's chance for us to finally try out the COP 6,000 executive lunch at the locals favourite next door to our hostel - for $3 you get a big bowl of soup, a decent main of steak, rice, beans, and fried banana, and a much needed ice cold juice. We can see why Colombians get a bit of a belly on them if they eat this size of meal for lunch every day. It's not unhealthy but a shitload of carbs and a distinct lack of vegetables. It served its purpose though and we feel human again.

One last swim in the pool at Drop Bear, thank Gabe again for his hospitality, and we're off into a taxi to the bus station - ahead of us a 16 hour overnight trip to Medellin...

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Ciudad Perdida / The Lost City - found it!

One of the big things that people come here in Santa Marta to do is The Lost City trek. It´s done as a 4-6 day round trip, and in theory all the tour companies do the same trip for the same price, but not all tours are created equal. Wiwa Tours is the only one that employs indigenous guides, so we hope that by doing the trip with them, we´ll get a better insight into what this place means, and also the money that we pay for the tour is going to the "right" people, in theory at least.

The tour costs 600,000 pesos ($315) each depending on the exchange rate... but if you pay by card there´s an additional charge of anywhere between 4-6%. There´s a whole lot of faff that goes along with trying to withdraw that much cash to avoid the charges, and we give up - the hostel arrange that we´ll be picked up early at 8am so that we can go to the Wiwa offices, pay, and then get on with the trek.

In the morning, we´re ready and waiting, then told that we´re being picked up later as those paying by cash will be picked up first... this doesn´t make much sense, but whatever. Finally the pickup arrives at 9:30, and by now everyone is confused about whats happening - it´s too late to go to their offices to pay, the tour starts now! After some debate, where for a while it looks like we won´t be going at all, they agree that we can do the tour, and pay after. Phew!

We bundle into the pickup truck, where the other trekkers are excitedly waiting, unaware that we´ve spent the last 90 minutes pissing about trying to figure out how we can pay, will we pay, will we trek, omg... met by 6 grinning faces, we´re too frazzled to take in anyones names. CP asks again later but immediately forgets most of them, and I leave it too late to politely ask (it´s a bit awkward to spend 2 full days with someone and then say "sorry, what was your name again?"). It will be day 3 that we get everyones identity sorted, but hello Fabian & Adina (young German couple, with Adina spending a gap year working in Colombia, and Fabian on holiday to visit her), Miriam (Spanish girl living in Cartagena), and Jacintha (Aussie living in... Singapore?).

Aside from that, we are joined by Sergio, a Colombian from Medellin who is joining the tour as a translator, officially for Jacithna but roundly used and abused but the entire group, and doubles up as guide #2, our cook Mario who will usually walk on ahead of us to have refreshments ready as soon as we arrive at each camp, and finally our Wiwa guide Selso, or as he will variously be called by the group over the course of 4 days; Say-so, So-say, So-sol, Sensai, my personal favourite of Samsung (nice one CP!), and any number of other soundalike equivalents. He did however, and in credit to him, respond to all variants of his name.

It´s 2 hours by 4x4 to get to the start of the trek, with some off-roading when our driver veers off the main road through a farm for 200meters to avoid paying the $4 toll and then back on to the main road again. The last hour properly off road and up hill, and we´re all being launched around the wagon (with cp having to switch me with me in the front so she can avoid being sick), so pretty relieved when we reach the start of the trek... and immediately stop for lunch.

So what is Ciudad Perdida? Have some wikipedia blurb:

Summary: Ciudad Perdida (Spanish for "Lost City") is the archaeological site of an ancient city in Colombia's Sierra NevadaIt is believed to have been founded about 800 AD, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu. This location is also known as Buritaca and the Native Americans call it Teyuna. Ciudad Perdida consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. The entrance can only be accessed by a climb up some 1,200 stone steps through dense jungle.

In it's pomp, it is thought to have been the Tayronas biggest urban centre. During the Spanish conquest, the Tayronas were all but wiped out, and their settlements disappeared under lush tropical vegetation. Ciudad Perdida was accidentally "found" 4 centuries later in the 1970s by guaqueros, (looters of pre-Columbian tombs), who set about digging up and looting a huge amount of gold and pottery, both of which the Tayronas were highly skilled in crafting. We're later told that the son of one of these looters now sometimes works as a guide for one of the other companies, which seems a little... morally questionable?

And so the trek begins, with a very brief jaunt to the map to see where we´ll be going (the red walking trail):

The itinerary looks like this:

Day 1 - trek to Adan where we will spend the night, 7.6km.
Day 2 - trek to Mumake, lunch, then continue to Paraiso, 14.7km.
Day 3 - 1km to the base of the climb, then 1,200 steps up to the entrance, tour of the area, back to Paraiso for lunch, before returning to Mumake that afternoon, 9.4km.
Day 4 - trek to Adan for juice and a snack, then continue back to the start at El Mamey / Machete Paelo for lunch before travel by pickup truck back to Santa Marta, 14.9km.

We´re quickly aware that we´re lucky to have a small group, as at our first scheduled stop of the day, near the top of a massive hill at a small shack that will provide us with huge chunks of water melon, the next group catches us up, all 15 of them...

Powering on, there's a stop at a natural pool, just deep enough to jump into and refresh, then more rolling hills.

View from the top...shortly after we stopped to collect mangos from the ground and had a feast...we love these free mangos..well, CP does in particular! 

Quick drink break on route via the never ending winding hill...

When we arrive at Adan camp, our group is far enough ahead of the other 15 that we get first dibs on the sleeping area (awesome hammocks!) 

Due to our rapid pace and early arrival, we're at the natural pools first. Just as well, as a couple of these guys are more than a little hyperactive, and Sergio likens them to mime artists because they are constantly moving and jumping around. CP does her fair share of hyperactivity, jumping off a big rock into the pool and exploring each crevice of the pool, but I'm used to that sort of hyperactivity from CP...!

Another (bigger) jump into to the pool, and a dip into a waterfall:

This is the last camp with electricity, and so we're huddled round a small TV watching Argentina play Bosnia - until one the cooks has to use a blender and that's enough to temporarily kill the power.

The cooks do a great job though, serving up a heartly meal of fish, rice, beans, some fresh juice, and chocolate bars for dessert. These chocolate bars are to become highly sought after during our trek...

Over dinner Selso explains about the "pretty white flowers" - these might look nice but they are poisonous, and unsavoury types will mix the poison in to their unsuspecting victims food or drink, which renders them unconscious with no memory, at which point they are then robbed - or worse. The fun doesn't end there - too strong a dose can cause permanent brain damage.

Tomorrow is a biiiig day apparently, and after a prolonged question and answer session with Selso, he suggests that it's time for bed (8pm?) as we'll be getting up at 5am, breakfast at 5:30, ready to set off at 6am. 

The next day is long - we end up in some unspoken competitions with Alex, Ross, and Roberto, the only 3 of the other 15 person group that are doing the trek in 4 days, which keeps things interesting as we clock up the kms. There's a stop for juice and fruit which feels like it must be lunchtime as we've been up for hours, but it's not even 9am. Selso does a demonstration of how the Wiwa tribe makes their woven bags, although without Sergios translation we'd be slightly lost!

CP looking sexy as a blonde...

The lunch stop allows for another dip for the team to to cool off and both CP and I jump off a 13m rock into the river...epic. On day 4 when we pass back through our sleepy little watering hole and see our rock that we jumped off and section we swam in...and are faced with a muddy torrent of water about 3m higher than it was the day we swam in it, into which there is no way in hell we'd be jumping let alone swimming without dying, but that's for, it was stunning to swim in.

Straight after lunch there's a pretty epic uphill section - Sergio explains that it's about an hours solid hike to the top - where we will stop for fruit. He then mentions some "crazy German guy" that did it in around 30 minutes... although neither of us said anything, it seems we both thought the same thing - challenge on!

After about 20 minutes of hard slog up hill, passing other groups stopping and resting, including the boys, with a little smirk from CP, We reach a couple of cabanas and this looks like it must be the fruit stop - we've left everyone else way behind except for Sergio, and he's swearing behind us but refusing to be left behind. But this isn't the top or our fruit stop, there's only another "5 minutes" to go according to Sergio, so we can wait here for the others... "F-that, we're getting to the top!", and we push on, Sergio still swearing at us in Spanish. 34 minutes of climbing with no stops and we're there - oranges, fresh pineapple, and a little shop selling chocolate caramel wafers for COP 1,000 (about 30p). Awesome reward, although part of me wants to go back and try the climb again and really go for it this time!  We're quietly very smug and proud of ourselves...challenge accepted and met...thank you very much! 

From this point it's a comparatively easy stroll to Paraiso, but includes 2 river crossings and more than a few sections of path where I think "if this was wet it would be officially sketchy!" - it's drizzling as we arrive at our camp, and I ask Sergio what that last bit is like when it rains. "Not very nice" is his brief reply, but we've arrived, and while we faff about taking photos, our cook and guide get to work creating another masterpiece. Before he finished his master piece, we were served up with piping not popcorn and chocolate...oh yeah, this is heaven, popcorn in the middle of the least CP thought it we heaven!

Day 3 - this is it, and we're up early to max out our time up at the Lost City site. Just 1km to the bottom of the steps, all 1,200 of them, uneven, made from stone quarried from Tayrona, and as original as can be, the only restoration work has been to repair any steps that had become dangerously unsafe.

Our group climbs together, and although Fabian disputes the official count, we make it to the top without too much fuss. It's barely 7am as we stride into the first terrace, and as there's only the 3 guys that have climbed ahead of us, it's virtually deserted and with the mist still clearing the initial view is pretty special.

As we walk around and up & over the various terraces, we get lots of explanations from Selso, via Sergio, of what the different areas mean, and the traditions that were involved with the tribes that last lived here 500 years ago. Although some is definitely lost in translation, it's clear that this is an incredible place both visually and spiritually, and a definite "must do" if you're in Colombia.

We got acquainted with the ever present military and they posed with George...

CP found a weights bench, right In the middle of the jungle, what a surprise...

Our little crew with an epic view of the world behind us...

With relatively few people making the trip, you're guaranteed an opportunity to sit and reflect while looking out over the stunning landscape.

We were lucky enough to get to sit in the Mamo's (shaman) seat, once reserved only for the most important man of the tribe, now it is reserved for us...

This is cps favourite shot...

The climb down begins with many warnings, it's slippery, the steps are uneven, go slowly, etc. CP takes all this on board and then sets a record 6 minutes for the descent, with the rest of us arriving about 20 minutes later. 

We arrive back to have lunch back at Paraiso just as it starts to rain. How's that dodgy section looking Sergio?! Selso tells us we are aiming to leave in 45 minutes. 10 minutes later, it's raining a lot more, and he wants us moving ASAP - he doesn't say it, but it's clear from his expression that he is concerned. We'll be wading across the river (twice) and flash floods happen in this area, so if we don't get across before it looks too dangerous, we'll just be sat next to the river waiting for the water to go down.

The river is flowing much faster than yesterday but we're all across it safely. CP (still buzzing from her epic descent of the steps) is a little too excitable in the pouring rain and I have to tell her to calm it down a bit... not everyone is enjoying getting drenched! The first half of the afternoon trek is frankly grim, we're walking up and down the paths but they may as well be rivers, and our shoes are squidging with ever step. There's brief respite at the chocolate stop before the big hill (downhill this time!) and we take the opportunity to stock up!

The rain eases as we approach Mumake, yesterday's lunch stop doubles up as tonight's camp, although the dangers of the river are clear as we see the spot that we jumped from and the water is roaring through, dragging rocks and half a tree down river as it flows - no swim today!

When we jumped the day before, the rock on he right hand side of the screen was 12m above the water and the pool beneath was calm.... 

That's ok though, because we're greeted on the way in by a friendly cat and a little piglet who loves us very much!

We're all soaked through and very quickly the camp turns into a giant washing line with wet clothes hanging off everything. I'd like to say we had a hot shower, but as that wasn't an option we made do with washing the worst of the mud off and sniffing each item of clothing in turn to determine which was cleanest or at least least dirty. Or was that just me??

Not for the first time we've arrived into camp ahead of schedule, and with tiredness setting in it becomes a battle to stay awake for dinner - another feast created by our hardworking cook. There's anticipation about the final days trek, there's a lot of distance to cover before we arrive back at lunchtime, and our group of six will split with Fabian, Adina, and Jacintha opting for the 5-day tour. The only difference is that they will split our final day over two days.

It's not a good nights sleep for anyone, as all 6 bunk beds are joined together, which means that when one person rolls over the entire thing shakes like an earthquake... and there was a lot of rolling over! I got a visit from the friendly cat early in the morning, until CP stole him:

(CP are such a douchebag for putting this pic in...)

Day 4 turned into a training session - waking up early, and discovering that the clothes we had hung out to dry last night had somehow got even wetter (hello humidity), we set off around 6am, but after 1km easy walking, we have a "WHERE'S GEORGE?!" moment. After being caught in yesterday's rainstorms, George had been put in a safe place to dry off... Selso radios back to camp, and they've found him - but no one else will be coming back this way today. We can't leave a man behind, so we send the rest of the group on ahead, and I run back, reclaim George, then run back with him safely attached. What an effort (CP here), George is safe and RD has had a nice little warm up run through the countryside...!

CP meanwhile has passed the time waiting by getting acquainted with the local wildlife:

By now, we're well behind the rest of the group, with a long way to go to get back in time for lunch - including "about an hours climb" according to our guides. We set about the chase, and dominate the morning trek to the juice stop at Adan Camp, catching and passing the rest of the group on the climb. Each time we pass someone, there's time to half explain about George, before powering on.

We reach the juice stop only a couple of minutes after the 3 boys, who had left camp long before us - collectively our group of 6 has missed every planned morning start time of the trek, and I'm certain that Selso has learnt to say 6am, knowing that we won't actually leave until half an hour later. What should have been a 3-hour hike has taken us only 2 hours, including doubling back to rescue George... pretty pleased with our efforts! We had a wonderfully sweet lulo juice, fresh pineapple and more chocolate whilst we rest our getting rather weary feet. We both have lots of blisters so the shoes stay on, but that's probably a good thing given we've been wearing the same socks for four days now...

Miriam and Selso are next to arrive - Selso has done most of this trek in rolled down willies or crocs, and sometimes takes alternatives routes which would be too dangerous for us, so it's not uncommon for him to seemingly appear out of a bush, check that we are ok, and then disappear again! The rest of our group arrives 45 minutes after us (...pretty sure they stopped for a sit down somewhere!), and this is where they will stay for the night - it's 9:30am, so who knows what they'll have done to entertain themselves for the rest of the day.

CP, Miriam, and I set off for the last part of our journey, still powering on but not quite as much as the first part of our day! Uphill means that I pull ahead, downhill means CP edges in front, then we stop at the bridge to wait for Miriam and Selso, and there we can see the old way of getting across - the shell of a metal cage that has rusted away. People used to have to get in this 2-3 at a time, then be pulled across above the river on a pulley system. The bridge was built a few years ago after a tourist had not used the cage (whether his choice or the guides decision) and had been swept down the river and drowned...

Only one person at a time on the bridges....

CP opts to run down the final hill that took us well over an hour to hike up on the first day and swim at pool at bottom whilst she waited for us to catch up, but not for RD whose blistered toes have reached a point where removing the shoes would mean not putting them on again... urgh!  

Finally we're in our pickup truck heading back to the main road (after cp almost managed to twist her ankle, falling over On nothing...I mean seriously, with all the trekking we've done and she falls over in the dry flat road!?h, when we stop outside a cafe so our driver can have a chat - and we spot Ted (Ometepe, La Fortuna) who is just about to start his trek! Time for a quick catch up on who's been where, and then we're on our way back to Drop Bear for a much needed shower...

This is easily one of the best things we have done on this trip so far and as a group we wondered if this will ever become as visited as Machu Pichu - currently less than 30 people per day will visit the Lost City, so there's a real feeling that you're doing something special rather than walking in a procession of people to tick something off the list. Trekking through beautiful countryside, the trip is as much about the journey there (and back!) as it is about the ruins, with the added bonus of learning about the true local indigenous culture along the way, and discovering something so special with such a sad past.