24 Nov 09:39

Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira, Colombia

La Guajira is the most northern province of Colombia, and indeed South America. Situated about an hour’s drive from the continent’s most northern point lies Cabo de la Vela; a wild and barren settlement, largely cut off from Colombia and thus trapped in a time warp, with many indigenous communities still living as their forefathers did, without most modern amenities. Its name, “Cape of Sails”, derives from the pale colours and curves of the headland that emerges from the flat desert, appearing to drift into the sea. Perhaps the Spanish thought they saw this when they discovered it in 1499, however they may have been delirious from heat exhaustion. Temperatures never drop below 37 degrees and rainfall is as scarce as vegetation. Occasional fish skeletons wash up on the baking beach amongst beautiful, dramatic rock formations, symbolic of the harsh environment surrounding it. On the shores of the azul Caribbean Sea and this expanse of desert, communities of the Wayuu people have existed for centuries, largely untouched by colonialisation. The modern state has left them largely ignored, with derelict electricity pylons and pot-holed roads the only signs of their intermittent presence. This is the Wild West of Colombia; lawless in terms of lack of central government, but with its own set of traditional laws and way of life.

In recent years, locals have opened their doors to provide hammocks for intrepid travellers, although don’t expect silver service and breakfast in bed. This is travelling as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, for the more intrepid explorers. Having said that, once you get over the lack of 5-star comfort, the food is excellent and the experience is fascinating. The seafood is always fresh and delicious; eating al-fresco facing out to sea, without the crowd of tourists usually providing an unwanted audience to such an experience, can be a really special experience.

Cabo de la Vela forms part of a large bay, with exceptional and very uncommon conditions for the thrill-seekers. Powerful, hot winds crossing the desert and across this placid body of water make it the place of dreams for kite-surfers. The only non-Wayuu permanent residents are two young entrepreneurs from Santa Marta, who have seen the potential for combining their passion for kitesurfing with ecotourism. They have taught the locals the thrills of the sport, with some of the local youth competing professionally.

After watching a number of Latin American Peter Pans soaring through the air and across the waves, I was tempted to give it a go myself. How hard could it be? I endured an hour of being battered by the elements from all quarters before resigning myself to defeat, with my hopes and dreams of international acclaim in the sport comfortably shattered. However, after the second hour out on the water, you start to get the hang of it and it’s a thrilling experience for those willing to have a go. 

To sum up the whole experience in one word: intrepid. Water, sun cream and mosquito repellent will be needed in industrial quantities. In fact, if you are going to take the 3 hour off-road journey from Riohacha (during which you stop off to watch flamingos at various scenic spots), you’d better be prepared for a slightly bumpy journey! Eco-tours, which Zeta can arrange, take you as far as Punta Gallinas, the northern and windswept tip of the continent. This trip was extremely worthwhile and authentic as a real adventure and authentic travel experience, and, in our opinion, a great way of starting off your Colombian travels.

16 Oct 13:59

Colonial Cartagena, The Caribbean Coast of Colombia

Firstly, apologies for the profuse alliteration in the title.


Secondly, here is a bit of info on my time in Cartagena. The city is, rightly so, referred to as the jewel in the crown of Colombia's Caribbean Coast. This lovely colonial city has been admirably preserved by the city council, with only traditional building materials permitted in the old city itself, lending a charming, relaxed feel to it. The centre is dotted with lovely squares and historic cathedrals, with the city exuding a laid-back Caribbean feel. Fresh fruit stalls on street corners and snack vendors touting their wares add to the ambience. Outside of the centre itself, the main attractions are the beaches, complete with bleached white sand and turquoise water. There are also a number of historic fortresses scattered along the coast (which the British almost-successfully took from the Spanish).


For those looking for a real taste of Caribbean relaxation, the islands of Baru are outstanding, without the throngs of visitors that visit the city's nearest beach, Playa Blanca (don't let the photos of azul water and empty, white-sand beaches fool you. You will most certainly be sunbathing shoulder to shoulder with your Colombian neighbours on either side, surrounded by hordes of day-trippers and overweight latino kids). A short boat trip from the old docks will drop you at a couple of beaches and drive to some of the islands, complete with excellent views of the city and coastline along the way. 


I would very strongly recommend this option, unless you are looking for the exhilaration of a near-death experience. Our route to Playa Blanca consisted of an excruciatingly hot and slow local bus that passed through the town market, complete with (not so) fresh fish stalls baking in the sun and what, from the smell, must have been the city's sewage system. To top that off, as we were herded off the bus by the conductor and passed into the care of a gang of helmet-wielding moto-taxi drivers, we realised that we were only halfway there. The second part of the journey could have been part of a Grand Theft Auto mission, as we were sent hurtling down dirt roads and motorways clinging on to the back of what could only have been 15-year olds as they bombed towards the beach. As the five of us arrived, clearly shaken by the whole experience, with mine actually speeding up when we reached the loose gravel road at the end, they had both the cheek to charge us what was probably double (always agree the price beforehand...) and then justified this rapid price inflation due to the fact that they 'got us here really quickly'. Needless to say that stiff drinks were bought upon arrival and dramatic tales of our respective survival experiences were regaled as the collective heart-rate went back to normal. This was all well and good until you then realise that there are a lot of people all along the beach (the population density of a New York apartment building with only one floor). Screaming children, generally loud and slightly drunk Colombians and the oppressive humidity will entail a day spent almost entirely languishing in the sea, avoiding the beach itself apart from when necessity calls. It is a shame, as the beach would have been idyllic without the tourists, but let us just say that the boat back was a much more enjoyable experience than the day out. Go to Baru, if, like myself, you don't really want to see vast swathes of people milling around along the beach. Turquoise water, pristine beaches, some verdant jungle, no people, etc., should persuade you.


A few days here was perfect, with a nice balance between beach and culture. Because of the long-standing safety of the area, the city has actually been a popular tourist destination for a while, meaning that those looking for comfort and luxury will find a number of exceptional restaurants and lovely boutique hotels scattered around the old town. Museums and lovely architecture make the old town a nice place to just have a wander, with no specific destination. Just don’t touch the moto-taxis with a ten-foot barge pool.

04 Oct 11:35

La Ciudad Perdida - The Lost City Trek

Hidden away in the Sierra Nevada exists one of Colombia’s National treasures, La Ciudad Perdida. It may be less well known than its Peruvian equivelant, Machu Picchu, but it can certainly rival it from a historical and anthropological perspective. It is believed to have been founded in 800 AD, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu, however it was only discovered in 1972 when a group of looters chanced upon its prolific stone steps, a path that would lead to their initial wealth and eventual demise due to greed and in-fighting.


La Ciudad Perdida translates as ‘The Lost City’, and upon arrival it is easy to see why. It lies amongst hectares of jungle, barely accessible through rugged mountain and forest, locked away from the populated Caribbean Coast. Unlike the throngs of tourists that flock to many of Latin America’s archaeological wonders, there is virtually no one to be seen here. You cannot get there by train, car or motorbike; the only way is on foot. If hiking is not your cup of tea than this tour is not for you… The trek consists of a tricky 4/5-day journey, hiking up to 8 hours daily through rivers, mud paths and punishing heat. In the first hour of day 1, we had already seen 3 signs casually warning us of poisonous snakes, scorpions and spiders and an armadillo casually crossing the path ahead of us. Sleeping arrangements consist of hammocks and al fresco bunk beds and washing is done in pristine rivers. It is very much a case of ‘back to basics’; however the food is plentiful and delicious and sleeping is surprisingly not an issue after a tiring day. 


Having been complaining for hours about a small blister on my left foot, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment on the third day when I reached the 1200th stone step that led to the entrance of the main site. This satisfaction promptly disappeared when the next trekker contently hobbled up on crutches, having broken her leg 2 days before starting the tour, slightly putting my milder injury and complaints to shame. I also came across an 80 year old Dutchman who was doing the trip for ‘a bit of a laugh’… My sense of achievement, although still there, definitely paled in comparison. The site comprised of 15 circular terraces that ascend up the side of a mountain. These terraces were once a hierarchical series of temples, sacrificial areas and homes for holy men, however today they occasionally double up as helicopter landing pads for the Colombian military (the surrounding area was operated in by FARC guerrillas until 2000 and is now, luckily, entirely safe to visit). 


It is estimated that there are over 200 undiscovered sites in the area, kept secret by the ancient Wiwa tribe who blame their ‘reckless younger brother’ for the loot and plunder of La Ciudad Perdida and the rest of Colombia. The robbers’ greed eventually got the best of them – one killed the other in a drunken bar fight in Santa Marta shortly after discovering the site. Despite its history of violence, La Ciudad Perdida today is a national jewel of Colombia, well regulated and kept safe by the government, and respected by tourists and guides alike. For all those who love nature and like to push themselves, this is a unique experience not to missed. Go as soon as possible, in my opinion, before the hordes of tourists ruin the tranquility and sequestered nature of the site.  


24 Jul 13:22

Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona: A Unique, Idyllic Beach Getaway

After a couple of nights in Santa Marta relaxing and catching the start of the World Cup, with at this stage a firm and confident belief that England were heading towards sporting glory, I thought it was time to head towards somewhere slightly more adventurous. 

'The national park is five times the size of Switzerland', quoted one renegade tour operator, as he gave us an impromptu sales pitch from the pavement as we tucked into dinner. It's not. He was lying. However, it does cover a healthy 180km squared and, within hours, shot up my personal Latin American Chart Toppers to the coveted top five, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Machu Picchu, the Riviera Maya & Iguaçu Falls. 

 The charm of Tayrona is the isolated nature of its beaches and the abundance of visible nature. Picturesque, boulder-strewn beaches are backed onto by vast swathes of rainforest, surprisingly full of a lot of visible fauna, including monkeys, large guinea pig-type things and a number of brightly-coloured bird and reptiles species. The park consists of a number of beaches all only accessible by walking (which is not too arduous, despite the heat), meaning that you will always be able to find a few pristine beaches to have to yourselves for a few hours. Bring a penknife along and you can even pick up fresh mangoes and coconuts along the way to keep you going on the walk. There are a number of lodges dotted around the area, the majority of which are conveniently located by the beaches. 

There are two ways to get into the park: an enjoyable (if not slightly bumpy) boat ride from the fishing village of Taganga, round the bay from Santa Marta, or a transfer to the main gate and a hike to the beaches. My travelling companions and I (friends from university) took the boat into the park. After a reunion the night before, the 9am boat became quite a daunting prospect as we dragged ourselves out of bed and towards the boat. The idyllic experience we had in mind turned into a battle with both intense seasickness and an intense hangover, resulting in Dan being found bent over in the brace position with a t-shirt covering his entire head, accompanied by bemused looks from the spectators. However, for me, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, both for the view of the coastline and the flying fish passing the boat, but even more so for the wretched state of my friends. My comeuppance did, however, come sooner than could have been expected. Karma, only being true to its character, sent a large, seemingly innocuous wave towards our boat, which was slowly dispensing passengers onto the shore. I, unsuspecting, crouched poised on the edge of the boat, ready to leap onto shore with the elegance and athleticism of a gymnast. The fateful wave lifted the front of the boat just as I put all my weight on my front foot to jump, causing my front foot to slip in a comical fashion from under me (worthy of any Looney Tunes episode), sending me scrambling in the air from a few metres above the boat (with what I have been told was a dramatic look of shock on my face). This resulted in a wrestling-esque body slam, me vs. the sea, sending all of my belongings (luckily nothing valuable) all over the place. Insult to injury was added as I sat up (still, apparently, with this recently acquired look of shock on my face) to be hit from behind by another, larger wave, ensuring that the entire inventory of my belongings was well and truly scattered. Hysterics from my friends, with still a bemused silence from the spectators on the boat watching this hour-long series of unfortunate events unfold, seemed to cure their hangovers and we headed off to find a good spot for the hammock. It wasn't lived down for a while, with a smirk or reminiscence generally accompanied by such phrases as 'that was hilarious' or 'haha, your face'.

After an invigorating hour's hike to our chosen beach in the midday heat, we found a campsite by a picturesque lagoon and rented some hammocks for the night. After a stroll to the beach and a relaxed afternoon by the beach, we headed back to catch the football and to enjoy some fresh fish. The only slight bump in the road was the 4-metre caiman relaxing by the lagoon enjoying the sunset. All very exciting until you realise that the lagoon is about 10m from your open-air hammock for the night..

The group spent the vast majority of the next few days partaking in a spot of hammock lounging and visiting the various beaches the park has to offer. If you want relaxation and seclusion (with some initial drama in our case), then Tayrona should be very much on your radar. Good fresh fish and a few cold beers in the evening whilst watching the sunset will probably be the most arduous part of your day.

Check out photos here: www.zetatours.com/gallery

Have a look at our Colombia itinerary as well, which is only an example, as each trip is tailored to your requests:

http://www.zetatours.com/tours/98

Next blog: Colonial Cartagena

24 Jul 13:13

Colombia: An Introduction

Touching down at Santa Marta’s quaint, seaside airport, with the backdrop of the sun setting over the bay was an excellent way to remind me that I’d finally reached Colombia. The inceasant Reggaeton, of which my taxi driver seemed particularly proud (and was presumably what he seemed to think a key cultural symbol of the country), provided the musical accompaniment to the hair-raising journey to my hotel in Santa Marta. For what I've realized is essentially a country full of boy-racers, the irony of the profligate use of  ‘How’s my driving?’ stickers plastered on the back of buses and taxis continues to bring out a shrewd smile, even after a few weeks here.
 
However, driving aside, the world-renowned warmth of the Colombian people was the over-riding impression I took from my first day there. There is an energy and charisma that is brought out in almost all Colombians I’ve come across when you bring up the subject of the country itself. A clear pride and optimism exudes from its people, which is what in a way distinguishes it from other countries I’ve visited. With last week’s election narrowly reinstating the incumbent Santos, who’s victory has generally been credited to his continued promise to reach a final peace agreement, there is an optimism surrounding the country, both within and outside the country. A now booming tourist industry well-established throughout the majority of the country, the forced retreat of guerrilla groups into the vast, isolated wilderness and a steadily growing economy have all contributed to this success. Colombia has now been firmly cemented in the vocabulary of over-dinner holiday travel plans and in the mid-afternoon day-dreams of your tired-of-work, looking-through-the-office-window-at-the-impending-gloom-and-rain London office worker.
 
The country’s bountiful, diverse and immense natural and sociocultural attractions are, clearly, a huge draw for potential visitors. Colonial architecture is in abundance, whether you are looking for quiet, sequestered, traditional mountain towns or the vibrant, Afro-Caribbean city of Cartagena, steeped in history and individuality. In terms of nature, Colombia rates as one of the best in the world. With a portion of the amazon the size of Germany, towering Andean peaks and volcanoes, Caribbean and Pacific coasts renowned for whales, turtles, dolphins (not to mention all manner of wildlife as you head inland from palm-fringed beaches to jungle), it is not a country to be missed. The culturally-independent Medellin, famed for its culinary prowess and pumping nightlife, rivals the capital Bogotá itself.
 
But sales pitch aside, as my Colombian namesake Enrique and I delved into the historic centre of Santa Marta, quickly getting over the baffling lack of traffic lights in a small city centre of regimented blocks, a fascinating insight into daily life on this relaxed coastal city was laid-out before me. Locals passing the time by sitting and enjoying this daily drama, a bottle of aguardiente and a few beers on the table, kids playing football (with, I should add, a far higher level of skill than their British counterparts) and others just going about their business. 

Santa Marta provides the ideal base from which to start any Colombian adventure, with it's laid-back feel and it's proximity to a number of the Caribbean Coast's top sites. The city is large enough to keep you busy, with a nice cathedral, plaza and a handful of interesting museums, but small enough to ease you into holiday-mode. Exquisite, fresh seafood at one of the ocean-facing restaurants, fresh fruit from a street vendor and a number of nice Caribbean beaches outside the city should help anyone de-stress. Just watch out for the (seemingly) obligatory 20% tourist surcharge on almost everything you want to buy... I suppose it's part of the experience.

Next blog: Parque Nacional Tayrona 

Zeta Tours, with knowledge and experience working in each destination, specialises in tailor-made travel, highly personalised to your preferences and designed to provide activities and locations to suit the entire group. Check out our exemplary Colombian tour here:

http://www.zetatours.com/tours/98

Check out some of the photos of my trip so far here:

http://www.zetatours.com/gallery




13 Dec 12:29

The Need for Local Knowledge: The Case of the Modern "Eco-Lodge"

When organising a holiday yourself, the idea of sifting through the information travel agents or hotels pass on always seems daunting, with there existing only so many superlatives to promote a package or destination’s credentials without having actually visited the place in question itself. The terms “eco-friendly” and “community-based” nowadays seem so loosely and haphazardly self-applied to hotels, resorts or lodges that it has become more of a byword of legitimisation. Owners are able to subjectively apply these terms to essentially tick boxes to pass through the metaphorical customs queue of the modern holiday destination market. Some eco-resorts clearly do prioritise and encourage minimal impact on the environment and strive to support the local community as much as they possibly can; on the other hand, others seem to suggest that by providing their local employees with a poorly paid job and encouraging guests to re-use their towels, they are single-handedly saving the planet.


However, regardless of one’s inclination or disinclination to travel in an ethically and environmentally friendly manner, the most fulfilling and successful holidays tend to be those where great consideration has been taken to successfully integrate accommodation within its natural surroundings, both aesthetically and figuratively. Kilima Camp, for example, accommodates 12 permanent safari tents in the very heart of the Maasai-Mara. The camp is self-sufficient on water, uses solar power to protect the Mara plains from pollutants and has minimised deforestation due to the isolated nature of its tents. Clearly the lodge has eco-credentials in abundance. However, the real attraction to lodges such as Kilima Camp goes beyond merely just the environmental benefits.


The lodge, coexisting harmoniously with its natural surroundings, only exists due to the consent and support of the local Maasai, who lease the land to the lodge’s owners. This is a necessary consideration that can be easily overlooked when browsing potential accommodation options. By having the genuine support and enthusiasm for a tourism project by the local community, this type of lodge offers certain intangible and priceless experiences that make for a unique and unforgettable trip. There is certainly no value that can be placed on having the opportunity to walk through the Maasai plains with a Maasai warrior as your guide, imparting invaluable knowledge of the local flora and fauna, which has been passed down through countless generations of Maasai. Nor can an authentic visit to the local Maasai village, the home of the lodge's guides and staff, who, because of directly benefiting from the lodge and genuinely living in a traditional manner, provide a fascinating and in-exploitative insight into their way of life.


Furthermore, exciting experiences such as lion tracking allow guests to actively participate in the conservation of Africa’s iconic big cat, providing a real sense of personal involvement in the area’s preservation.


Although pragmatism and financial necessity clearly make it slightly idealistic to expect every guest to pay more for what, at first, appears to be a similar standard of accommodation, these key differences are essential to consider when planning the trip of a lifetime. Our in-depth knowledge of the destination is crucial to any trip, giving you an accurate picture of both the accommodation and destination so that we can work with you to plan a truly unique experience, meaning you won’t miss the memorable experience that lodges such as these are just waiting to offer.


Here are a few of our most memorable safari destinations to check out:


The Complete Kenya Tour


Tanzania: The Original Safari Destination


The Okavango Delta, The Kalahari Desert & Victoria Falls

12 Dec 12:23

Nelson Mandela's Memorial Service

Monday 9th December

Arrive in Johannesburg on a full flight from London. Waited behind an ABC TV camera crew from Washington DC in Immigration queue, they did not know exactly where they were going to be sent! Immigration even more relaxed than usual but I have never seen the arrivals hall busier, and it was only 8am. Rock music was being played and there was no obvious mourning of Nelson Mandela, which is probably what he wanted.

After boarding a morning flight to Cape Town, we were greeted by a thunderstorm, but surprisingly there was an air of celebration rather than sadness in town. Contrary to some expectations, South Africa show no signs of collapse. Indeed their great stateman's death seems to have pulled them together.


Tuesday 10th December

Today was the memorial day in the Soweto World Cup stadium. The day is sunny in Cape Town, but cold and wet in Johannesburg, where it is all happening. Not a bad thing in Xhosa culture, if not the reverse, as rain means that God is smiling on Mandela.

SA News service eNCA introduces its excellent coverage: we are greeted with shots of world leaders, royalty and celebrities arriving, including 4 UK Prime Ministers and one deputy PM. eNCA interviewed David Cameron, the only world leader to so present himself. Minnie Mandela arrives late to the service, with Americans arriving even later! Worst of all, SA president Zuma is booed on arrival, much to the embarrassment of many South Africans. His predecessors are all cheered- even de Klerk! Best speech by far? No surprise: Barack Obama. No other speech came close. Not since Churchill, or maybe never before, have there been so many world leaders present for the death of one man.


Weds 11 December

Today is the first of the three days where Mandela lies in state at the Union Buildings, Pretoria, with sunshine greeting the morning parade of Mandela's coffin, with crowds lining the street. The general public had to wait until midday whilst a queue of African presidents, led by Robert Magabe, took the red carpet route and went first. Everyone is much more somber today. The return parade back to 1 Military Hospital was even more sombre, with a darkening and thunderstorm-threatening sky providing the perfect backdrop. The parade included guards of honour from the armed forces, police motorcycle outriders, and the singing of the national anthem.

Meanwhile, in the Cape Town Green Point stadium, in an evening of perfect weather, a memorial concert got under way with some fantastic music and a speech by Francois Pienaar recounting Mandela's recognition of sport. Pienaar was, of course, the Springbok Captain in the classic 1995 Rugby World Cup final, where, partly inspired by Mandela himself, the Springboks narrowly and famously defeated a top New Zealand team, featuring Jonah Lomu, now immortalised in the film Invictus.


Friday 13th December

Today was the last of the three days where Mandela lay In State at the Union Buildings in Pretoria

For the last three days now each morning I have watched the parade taking his body along the route from Military Hospital One. Full of pomp and ceremony with the South African national anthem ringing in my ears. Crowds lining the streets

Each day it has got more sombre, and today thousands turned up, and many could not get in, much to their disappointment 

So why have so many people turned by to say farewell to their Tata, their Madiba?

Tata means father and Mandela was truly the father of modern South Africa. Although the country of course existed before it had a history it would rather forget and has really felt "born again" since the demise of apartheid. Mandela is credited with this by all South Africans, regardless of background or race. He brought them all together Through forgiveness he relieved the conscience of White South Africans. To the others he gave them freedom which they had never had before. He brought South Africa back into the world, a country with no enemies. Above all he brought peace and united his previously fractured country. His people are not surprisingly grateful and have come to say farewell, and thank you.

Tomorrow we take a breather as the Great Man is transported down to his home in the Eastern Cape where the funeral will be Sunday