Colombia and the Caribbean? Does that sound a bit oxymoronic? If so, it’s time you look at a map of South America. If not, I’m here to tell you about some of the wonders of the north of Colombia. To get you going, here’s one right off the bat: the Caribbean region of Colombia has the tallest coastal mountain range in the world. Yes, the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta reaches an altitude of 5775 meters (almost 19,000 feet) at Pico Cristobal Colon, Colombia’s highest point. And, it’s only 26 miles from the ocean. Figure out the average slope if you’re mathematically inclined, but if you’re like me, those numbers are enough to tell me that I wouldn’t want to attempt the summit from the beach. In fact, precious few people have climbed the mountain at all, in part because it’s sacred to the indigenous peoples living in indigenous forest reserves nearby. More on the Sierra Nevada later…
On my recent trip, I flew from Bogota to the coastal city of Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest settlement, founded by the Spanish in 1525. It’s where Simón Bolívar (the Latin American liberator) died; you can visit his hacienda and gardens just outside of town to learn more about his conquests. While Santa Marta is a sizeable commercial cargo port, its downtown has several blocks of colonial architecture, much of which has been renovated for tourism – with small hotels, a variety of restaurants and bars. It’s very laid-back, with weather that’s always tropical. And while the beach isn’t great for swimming, the town serves as a gateway to Caribbean beaches and national parks to the east.
When I arrived on the Saturday night of Carnival weekend, the downtown was packed with families. Locals sported bright pink or green wigs, huge polka dot bows, or plastic Mohawk hairdos, and the kids ran around spraying foam – shaving cream – on their friends and strangers alike. Meanwhile, a couple of hours away in Baranquilla, the streets were jammed with costumed revelers at the second largest Carnival celebration in Latin America (after Rio). I heard it was quite a party, but I was glad to be on the quieter side.
The next day I checked out Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most popular parks. It’s right on the beach, so I had to check out the water – as respite from temperatures that were consistently in the mid-80s (unlike Bogota which was in the 60s and 70s during the day and cooler at night). I took a bus from Santa Marta and should have arrived within an hour. But as luck – and Latin American custom – would have it, the bus broke down half way there. After waiting around on the highway in the hot sun for nearly an hour, several of us decided to hitch the rest of the way to the park, where we stood on line for half an hour to pay our 35,000 peso (ca. $16) entrance fee. After that, however, I became master (mistress?) of my own time, hiking through tall, verdant rainforest and along bright sandy beaches, and then lolling in the gentle Caribbean Sea.
While the park’s natural features are gorgeous, and it sounds like paradise, it’s not all that pacific (I know, it’s the Caribbean, not the Pacific J!) in terms of swim-ability or management. The first beach that you get to – as you have to walk to the shore (about 45 minutes) or hire a horse to take you through forest – has dangerous currents. There are signs all over saying that over 200 people have drowned there; (obviously) swimming is prohibited. I knew this already. When I was in Santa Marta for a protected areas conference in 1997, the park director sent his apologies for not appearing to give his presentation. The day before, his wife and young child had been swept into the ocean and drowned, on that same beach.
I heeded the signs and walked another 20 minutes through coastal forest, up and over granite boulders, to friendlier beaches with classic white Caribbean sands and lapping waves. My favorite was Cabo San Juan, about 40 minutes along the coast, with its two sandy coves bisected by a rounded cape and thatched bungalow atop. I chose to ignore the wasteland just back from the beach: a vast field of cheap tents, hammocks, grungy restrooms and high-priced restaurant serving backpackers who spend weeks at a time hanging out there, sometimes not too salubriously. As I said earlier, not all is well in paradise. In fact, a large portion (some say 70%) of the park was taken over by private interests during Colombia’s drug wars, and the government is now struggling to get it back.
Next stop was the small town of Minca, 12 miles southeast of Santa Marta at 2100 feet above sea level. It’s becoming a tourist destination because the climate is nice and there’s good birding, trained bird guides, trails through the forest, waterfalls, a rocky river to swim in, mountain biking, coffee farms, restaurants (where diners eat their lunches at tables in the river!), hostels and hotels, and – in case you’re bored by all this – plenty of loud music blaring out of loudspeakers at the pool hall and at the restaurant four doors away (!). An American friend of mine is working at a hotel in town – it was once a monastery, until rumor spread that the Mother Superior was spending too many late nights with the local priest. I was better behaved, sleeping soundly and getting up early to observe the many birds flying around the property. Including 18 species of hummingbirds sipping sugar water at feeders hanging next to the dining room deck.
Minca is on the way to the El Dorado, the destination of most interest to me on this trip. No, I wasn’t prospecting, expecting to come home with sacks of gold. Rather, I wanted to see one of Colombia’s most renowned birding sites – a 1600-acre nature reserve of subtropical and montane forest bordering the Sierra Nevada. It has over 360 species of birds, including numerous endemics, and high concentrations of endemic and threatened amphibians. And, it’s one of the sites that I’d like to bring my next group of ecotravelers. I was favorably impressed – with the comfortable lodge (at 6000 feet altitude), views of mountains and the distant Caribbean coastline, well-maintained trails, and the ability to observe wildlife (birds, frogs, monkeys, moths and small mammals). Again, I was entranced by the hummingbirds. At all hours of the day feeders and flowering shrubs lure dozens of iridescent birds to within easy viewing reach. Flickers of blue, green and purple buzz by to sip sweet liquid and show off their talents for standing in mid-air.
I spent three days at El Dorado, part of a constantly rotating international assemblage of birders and nature-lovers. We hiked up the traffic-less (so unlike Bogota) dirt road towards the Sierra Nevada national park (and a military camp), looking for rare birds (the two-winged variety – I told you that I behaved myself!). With good guides, it’s not too difficult to see many of the 635 species of birds in the Sierra Nevada, nor some of the 36 endemics. Even if you’re not a birder, I’ll quote two more statistics so you can comprehend the incredible diversity in this mountain range: 35% of Colombia’s bird species are found here – in an area that’s less than 2% of the size of the country’s area. Wow!
If that doesn’t convince you that the forest is worthy of conserving, you should know that it is also home to approximately 40,000 indigenous people (belonging to four different groups), as well as the archeological site, La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City). Backpackers hike there on 5-day treks – through the forest and past indigenous communities – to see the remains of terraces, circular plazas, tiled roads, and stone steps up the mountainside. As much as I’d have liked to partake in a long forest hike, I’ll have to save that adventure for another trip. But, I got some spectacular views of my own. See the adjacent photo to see the snow-capped mountains of Pico Colon and Pico Bolivar). And, now we’re back where we started from: the tallest coastal mountain range in the world.
Stay tuned for my final blog on Colombia – entitled “Colombia Rocks!”